ALL SAINTS DAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I have been reading a lot lately about young people from Europe and North America leaving everything and traveling to the Middle East to fight for ISIS, Al Qaeda and other such organizations. We can rant and rail all we want about how awful these terrorist groups are and wonder aloud why young people are drawn to them. But perhaps the more pertinent question for the church is why these young people are not drawn to leave everything and follow Jesus-as did the first disciples and generations of disciples after them. Say what you will about the terrorists, but it seems obvious to me that they are communicating a vision sufficiently compelling to inspire young people to to leave behind their comfortable middle class existences to live for it fight for it and even die for it. Mainline Protestantism typically does not offer anything of the kind. Worship in our culture is not worth sacrificing the Super Bowl, much less our lives. Our churches don’t demand sacrifice from our members. Instead, we woo them with programs, services and entertainment, then beg them for contributions and plead with them to volunteer their time to support us and our programs. Not surprisingly, the response we get is just as tepid as the bland consumer faith we are marketing. When you market to consumers, consumers are what we get. Consumers only consume. It’s what they do. They are savvy enough to know a good deal when they see it. If you can get assurance that the church will be there to baptize, marry and bury you for the price of showing up once in a blue moon and tossing a few dollars into the collection plate, that’s a fair enough exchange. Why would any informed consumer pay more?
Trouble is, the church is not called to market to consumers. The church is called to recruit saints. To borrow a motto from the United States Marines, Jesus is looking for a few good people. Make no mistake about it. Jesus loves all people. Jesus ministers to all people. Jesus never turns away anyone in need. But when it comes to choosing his disciples, Jesus is selective. Jesus does not want as disciples those who are not prepared to part with everything they own, even to the point of becoming homeless. Mark 10:17-22; Matthew 8:18-20; Luke 9:57-58. Jesus will not have disciples who put even family obligations over loyalty to him and the reign of God he proclaims. Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 8:21-22; Luke 9:59-62. Following Jesus means loving your enemy-even the ones that strike you on the cheek, take everything you have, blow up your buildings and behead you. Matthew 5:38-48. Discipleship requires that we go out to meat ISIS armed only with prayer. “But, pastor, with all due respect, those people would just kill us!” That’s typically the response I get to these observations and my standard reply is, “Yep, you got that right.” Jesus calls his disciples to take up the cross and stand with him in the line of fire. If you are squeamish about getting shot, beheaded or nailed to a cross, discipleship is not your line of work. Sainthood is not for whimps.
Now my Lutheran readers are squirming in their seats at this point. So let me assure you all that I am not preaching “works righteousness” here. Salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. Contrary to what our ELCA logo might be taken to imply, God doesn’t need our hands or anything else from us to get God’s work done. I side altogether with Martin Luther who tells us that the kingdom of God comes without our prayers-and without our programs, activities, witness, advocacy and all our preachy-screechy social statements. I repeat: the kingdom will come without you’re doing a damn thing. But is that what you want? Do you really want to spend your life on the sidelines as God’s new creation breaks into our old world? Would you be content to be a mere spectator at the World Series if you had a chance to play in the game? Do you want just to sit on the curb, eat your funnel cake and watch as the saints come marching in, or do you want to “be in that number”? No, God does not need us to bring to birth the new creation in which all things will be reconciled in Christ. But God has graciously invited us to participate in and be a part of that great work. God invites us to start living eternally now. That’s worth living for, sacrificing for and dying for. I don’t know about you, but I want in on this.
To sum up briefly: I believe many young people (people of all ages, for that matter) are hungry for a vision worthy of their life’s dedication. The reign of God Jesus proclaims in which all the walls of animosity dividing humanity and the ancient hatreds that keep us at each other’s throats are finally swallowed up in a love stronger than death is precisely that. A life that is shaped by God’s future lived in the present under the sign of the cross is a life well lived. It is what we call sainthood.
As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Isaiah 1-39 is attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied during the 8th Century B.C.E.. during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Isaiah 40-55 is attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Isaiah 55-65 contain the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah that probably belong to a prophet speaking to a much later time. It appears that the words from our lesson, which fall within the chapters attributed to the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E., are more likely from the time of disillusionment that developed in the post-exilic setting of the 6th Century. Some commentators date these verses or fragments of them as late as the first third of the 2nd Century B.C.E. e.g., Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, The Old Testament Library (c.1974 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 179. Others maintain that our reading, or at least parts of it, can be attributed to the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. See Mauchline, John, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 24.
The lesson is a small portion of a larger section beginning at Chapter 24 where the prophet announces that the Lord will lay waste the earth and that all people will be caught up in its desolation. Isaiah 24:1-13, Isaiah 24:17-23. This woeful dirge is punctuated by a psalm of praise calling for the earth to acknowledge and glorify the majesty of God. Isaiah 24:14-16. This desolation is of cosmic proportions. Chapter 25 begins with a psalm of thanksgiving to the Lord for God’s just judgment upon the world rulers and his protection for the poor and the needy. Isaiah 25:1-5. It is for this remnant, the poor and the needy who have been ruthlessly oppressed by the kings of the earth, that “the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things….” Vs. 6. This judgment for the poor and oppressed includes all nations and peoples, but it is a particularly joyful event for Israel because it demonstrates that God is indeed the very God she has been faithfully serving and in whom she has been placing her hope. No wonder, then, that the people of Israel cry out: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.” Vs. 9. This passage is a bold declaration that Israel’s hope in the justice and salvation of God is not misplaced. The smart money is on the God of Israel!
Notice that Israel has played no active part in this saving work of God. She has only waited patiently for it. I have to say that this grates on me a bit. Having come of age in a generation that thought it would change the world for the better and which placed a high value on social activism, the notion of sitting and waiting for salvation feels grossly irresponsible. Yet when it comes to God’s kingdom, there is nothing else that we can do. God will establish peace and justice in God’s own time. The temptation we face is impatience. We want the kingdom now and we are prone to take all the military, legislative and revolutionary short cuts necessary to get there. We don’t have time to wait for love to persuade. We don’t have enough patience for the long and difficult work of reconciliation. Prayer seems so weak and ineffectual compared to action. So we push ahead with our own notions of peace and justice, employing our tactics of “shock and awe” to get the job done quickly and efficiently. But that is not the way of our patient God who has all eternity to work with. Changing hearts and minds takes time-a lot of time. God is willing to take all the time in the world to prepare every heart for the coming of his kingdom. Jesus promised that it was his Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. He never said it would be done within the first hundred days of his administration.
There has been much scholarly speculation about this ancient hymn of praise. It has often been thought that this psalm is a liturgy for the annual procession with the Ark of the Covenant commemorating David’s movement of the Ark to Jerusalem. (II Samuel 6). Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 108. This is possible, but there is no direct evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures that such a ceremony existed in Israel. Other commentators suggest that this song might have been sung at the climax of the autumn festival. See Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 232. It is probably safe to say at least that this psalm is a worship liturgy of some sort and that it dates back to the Judean monarchy and perhaps even to the time of David and Solomon. If the psalm does go back to the time of David, then the “holy place” (vs.3) is obviously not the Temple (which was built after David’s death by his son, Solomon), but a tent-like shrine or tabernacle. The “hill of the Lord” is Mt. Zion. Vs. 3. The psalm reflects both dimensions of Israelite worship-the coming of God to the sanctuary and the coming of the worshiper into God’s presence there. Because “all the earth” belongs to the Lord (vs. 1), God is not confined to the sanctuary or bound to any holy place. The doors must “lift up” their heads that “the King of Glory may come in.” vs. 7. It is absurd to imagine that any humanly constructed sanctuary could contain the God who laid the foundations of the world. Yet God in his mercy and compassion for Israel voluntarily comes into the sanctuary to meet those who come to worship.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” vs. 3. The answer to this question in many of the ancient Near Eastern religious traditions would be strict measures of cultic purity such as ritual washing, fasting from certain foods, abstinence from sexual relations, freedom from disease or physical defect, etc. Indeed, these kinds of cultic purity requirements for worship are found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But here the proper preparations for worship are ethical. Honesty and integrity trump external cultic preparations.
What, then, does this psalm tell us about worship? First, worship begins with acknowledging that “the earth is the Lord’s.” This has profound geopolitical, ecological and ethical implications, challenging our accepted notions of land ownership and national sovereignty.
“Get off my land!”
“Who says it’s your land?”
“I have the deed to it”
“Where did you get the deed?”
“From my father.”
“Where did he get it?”
“From his father.”
Where did he get it?”
“He fought for it!”
“Well, then, I’ll fight you for it!”
This little interchange goes to illustrate the obvious: If we go back far enough, we invariable discover that we are living on land our ancestors took away from somebody else. So even if you assume that whatever land is not occupied is up for grabs, it has been several millennia since there has been any such land available for the taking. Claims of land ownership are therefore intrinsically morally suspect. Moreover, the psalmist makes clear that the earth, every inch of it, belongs to the Lord. Even the promised land was not given to Israel in any absolute sense. Life in the land of Canaan was to be lived in compliance with Israel’s covenant with God. When Israel began treating the land as her own, living contrary to the covenant and exploiting the land and her own people, God expelled her from the land.
Second, the earth is God’s living creation. It is not an inert ball of resources we are free to exploit at our convenience to serve the national interests of whatever nation state we happen to belong to. If you go back to the second chapter of Genesis, the earth was created first. Only then did God create the human being to tend and care for the Garden God planted in Eden. Genesis 2:15. The message is clear: It’s not all about us. The earth is God’s garden and we are here not as owners, but as gardeners. One objective of worship, then, is to re-orient our hearts and minds to accept God’s ownership of all creation and our privileged position, not as one of domination, but of careful stewardship and responsible care.
Revelation is by far the most abused, misunderstood and misquoted book in the entire Bible. It has been an inexhaustible source of speculation for people who understand it as the key to figuring out how and when the world will come to an end. This is not the place to embark on a lengthy discussion of the origin, purpose and meaning of Revelation. Nevertheless, I would urge you to read Revelation 2-3 in addition to the lesson for this Sunday. There you will find seven letters dictated by Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor in a vision to the author, John of Patmos. The letters reflect the struggles of a church under varying degrees of persecution. Some of them face prosecution and death. Others face more subtle social pressures to compromise with cultural ethical norms and pagan religious practices. This is a church struggling for survival in a hostile society. The Roman Empire’s oppressive cruelty is given expression in the lurid images of beasts, demons and prostitutes employed by John. The imagery used in describing the Lamb of God, the heavenly court and the angelic forces of God all stretch the imagination to the breaking point, but affirm the ultimate victory of the Lamb who was chose to be slain rather than prevail through violence over against the violent demonic forces at work in the Empire. Thus, Revelation is not so much a key to the future as it is a word of encouragement and hope for disciples of Jesus who face suffering and persecution in every age. For those of you wishing to understand more about this strange and wonderful book and its proper overall interpretation, I refer you to an excellent article produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. You might also want to check out the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. on enterthebible.org.
Our lesson for Sunday constitutes the climax of Revelation. John witnesses the descent of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem from God to earth. This is highly significant. Note well that John does not describe Christians “going to heaven” to be with God, but God coming to dwell with God’s people. The words “Behold, the dwelling of God is with people,” reflects the heartfelt desire expressed by the Lord throughout the Law and the Prophets. It has never been God’s intent to destroy this world and replace it with a better one. Indeed, God specifically rejected that course of action in the story of Noah’s Flood. (See Genesis 8:20-22). Instead, God makes all things new.
There is both continuity and discontinuity in the new creation-just as there was continuity and discontinuity between the man Jesus the disciples had come to know throughout his ministry with them and the resurrected Christ who appeared to them on Easter Sunday. The Resurrected one was Jesus, to be sure. Yet he was not merely a resuscitated corpse. This resurrected Jesus was alive in a new and powerful sense that placed him beyond the reach of death. His ascension to the right hand of the Father as witnessed by the gospel of Luke does not make Jesus more distant, but renders him even more intimately present than ever before. In the same way, the New Jerusalem is not a spiritual shadow of the dying physical city. Rather, it is a resurrected city that is more intensely alive precisely because it is now animated by the very presence of God in its midst.
I think that the hope contained in this lesson is very well expressed by Professor Brian Peterson of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary:
“We do not create this new heaven and earth; the New Jerusalem comes down from God, and thus comes only as a gift. We can discern its outline already in the gospel of Jesus, crucified, and risen. Because God is with us already — in the proclamation of the Gospel, at the table of our Lord, and in the Spirit filling the church — we are witnesses to that coming new city, with our words and with our lives. We carry gracious hints of its coming when we live out costly love for one another (John 13), and when we practice startling welcome to those otherwise left outside (Acts 11).”
Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John’s gospel is not divided into bite size readings that contain numerous nuggets of insight. John takes his sweet time spinning a yarn. He gives you numerous clues and hints to where he is going that only become clear a chapter or two later when he springs the punch line. I guess that is why John does not get his own year in the lectionary as do his fellow gospel writers. But perhaps the problem is more with us than with John. We are the ones with the short attention spans. We are the ones who begin to glance at our watches when we perceive that worship is not proceeding on schedule. We are a generation in a hurry. As a result, we miss a lot of living as we dart from one point to another with a third point on our mind.
If we begin at the start of Chapter 11, we hear first that Jesus was told of Lazarus’ illness while in Galilee, but chose to remain there another two days before beginning his trip to Judah were Lazarus was. Consequently, Lazarus was dead long before Jesus arrived. Why would Jesus do such a thing? Granted, raising a man from death is a lot more spectacular than simply healing a sick one. But is that any way to treat someone you love? Whatever the reason for his remaining, it is clear that Jesus moves on his own time. He will not let himself be governed by emergencies. He simply refuses to be busy. That must have been the Jesus quality that impressed John most. His gospel is anything but rushed. We proceed leisurely from Galilee to the outskirts of Bethany and more leisurely still from there to the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus is in no hurry to his work and makes clear that what he is about to do will be for the benefit of those around him who are to witness this great miracle.
Jesus wept. Vs. 35. Again, I am at a loss to understand why. I expect that Jesus knew that he was about to raise Lazarus. So why weep? I am not convinced that Jesus was weeping for Lazarus. His concern appears to be for the people around him. He is grieved that Martha, while she mouths faith in a future resurrection in the sweet by and by, does not see in him the very presence of resurrection and life. Jesus is grieved at Mary’s sorrow and her seeming lack of even Martha’s level of hope. Jesus is grieved at the mourners who have nothing to offer Mary and Martha but sympathy. He is grieved that death is roaming about the neighborhood, making its presence felt like a bully no one dares even to mention, much less challenge. Jesus needs to demonstrate in a concrete way that he is the resurrection and the life, that death has no power over him and that he is able to offer life to those enslaved by the fear of death. Hence, the raising of Lazarus.
This story is pivotal for John’s gospel. The raising of Lazarus provokes the meeting of the Sanhedrin at which the decision is made to kill Jesus. John 11:45-53. The irony here is that Jesus is to be put to death for giving the gift of life. The Sanhedrin will also plot to take the life of Lazarus as his presence constitutes ongoing testimony to Jesus. This episode expands on and amplifies the prologue to John’s gospel in which it is said of Jesus that “In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:4-5 Neither by killing Jesus nor by murdering Lazarus will the darkness be able to overcome the light of life.
Among other things, saintliness is a life that is not driven. It is not driven by every occurrence claiming to be urgent. It is not driven by fear of what others might think or how they may judge what we do or say. It is not driven by the fear of death. The life of a saint consists of following Jesus at his own leisurely pace focusing on what is significant rather than on everything that seems urgent. This is a wonderful text on which to preach. I only wonder if I have the patience for it!