OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 25: 6-9
To read the passage from Isaiah
This reading, which we also read on Easter Day, comes within the block of material (Isaiah 24-27) which many refer to as The Isaiah Apocalypse. The view of the future here is universal and speaks of God’s power in the cosmic realm as well as the earthly realm. It is probable that whoever wrote this material truly thought that the crucial event in world history was about to dawn. This material is probably dated about the last quarter of the 8th century BCE, probably late in the Babylonian exile or perhaps even after it was over.
All Saints’ Day is, of course, that Sunday that we set aside to remember those who have walked before us. But with that, it is also a time to look ahead, to realize that we are all connected in an eternal chain of witnesses. Our chapter in the story would not make sense without the chapters before us and the future is dependent on our chapter being well-written.
The text that we read envisions a significant role for Jerusalem, the city set on the mountain of the Lord. Here God will offer divine hospitality to all people. Both the food and the wine are described in superlative terms. Through this divine welcome, the shroud of destruction and horror will be lifted off all the peoples of the earth. Death itself will be swallowed up. The sadness of tears and the shame of disgrace of God’s people will be removed. These promises of restoration are the word of the Lord. The salvation of God and God’s hospitality can only lead to one thing: ‘let us rejoice and be glad’.
This Scripture is about waiting. It is looking forward to a different time. Keep in mind the context of this lesson. The people were in the wilderness. The Babylonians had swept in, had captured the Israelites, destroyed the temple of God, and scattered the people of God into the wilderness. In the wilderness, the people were asking that desperate question, “Where is God?” Many have lost their faith. There were desperate cries, desperate questions in the wilderness, and it was there in the despair and in the wilderness that God came to the people of Israel (but not in the way that they would have expected!). Never could they have predicted what they heard from Isaiah and would soon see. God was using Cyrus, king of Persia, to lay the groundwork for their return home. “I will give you the treasures of darkness,” says the Lord God. Cyrus, king of Persia, would capture the Babylonians. It was Cyrus that God was using, the king of Persia who didn’t even believe in God. Marduke was his god. Still, God was using this surprise to make it possible for the people of God scattered in the wilderness to return home, which they eventually did.
For us, too, it is a vision of home. All Saints’ Day is always full of some psychological and spiritual tensions as we walk between profound grief and joyful remembrance and between what is and what will be. But this passage tells us that death shall soon be no more, “swallowed up forever” as the text actually says, overtaken by life everlasting. It brings comfort but it also brings a bit of heartache. There is a part of us that wants that now, wants to be with those we love now. There’s a part of us that wishes that we had some means of understanding or overcoming what happens on this earth. We believe; we try hard; we try to patiently wait. And the storms continue to come. And yet, even waiting, is part of our faith journey. And in the waiting, we come to learn that life is there all along.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What stands in the way of our waiting for God?
- What would your reaction to this vision have been in the context in which it was written?
- What is your reaction to this vision now?
NEW TESTAMENT: Revelation 21: 1-6a
To read the passage from Revelation
In spite of its veiled images and difficulties presented in interpretation, the Book of Revelation presents some beautiful depictions of hope and promise. Here, using Old Testament imagery (some borrowed from the Isaiah passage that we just read), we are presented with a veritable tapestry of hope. We are not just looking to the past; we are also looking ahead. And it is not some far off place to which we are looking, but to a time when the here and the now will be renewed. Notice that it is not just heaven that is renewed but the very earth itself. All that we see and know and all in which we have our being will be and is being recreated before our very eyes.
And all this happens because of God. Finally, God will make the divine dwelling place among us. Do you remember that cloud that followed the Israelites around, the sign of God’s Presence? The Ark of the Covenant symbolized this sort of removed image of God actually dwelling with the people. Then in the Gospel of John, we are told in very similar language that God lived among us in Christ. And the story of the Festival of Pentecost is the sign of continued Divine Presence. But here…this passage takes it even further. God will be fully with us. God, the Creator, the Divine Presence, will now dwell with mortals. And God’s very Presence will be enough to wipe away tears and mourning, banish death for good, and make everything new.
The writer of this Revelation passage finishes with the most amazing thing. “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” There will finally be established the truth which has been peeking out at us since the very dawn of human history—that God, indeed, stands before, in, and after all of Creation. It is a metaphorical glimpse at the end of the story as we know it and, yet, it is the very beginning of life to come. This reading gives us a glimpse of what the author thought that might look like.
What a great Scripture to read for All Saints’! At the same time that we are remembering and perhaps still grieving those who are gone, we are given this reminder of what’s to come. It is an affirmation that this story that began when God breathed life into Creation is not quite finished. And we are part of it, part of the ongoing conversation that began long before we got here and will continue long after we are gone.
The point is that the past and the future connect us all. I think that’s what the Scripture is reminding us—not that there is some promised land out there where we all come out OK, but, rather that we are part of it now. We, like those that came before us, are part of building that future city, building the Kingdom of God in its fullness. The story is not yet finished, but it’s definitely worth the read!
- How does this passage speak to you?
- How does this speak to you within the context of All Saints’ Day?
- What does the idea of our connection to the past and the future mean for you?
GOSPEL: John 11: 32-44
In this week’s Gospel lesson, a man dies and is restored to life, sisters complain and weep, and the crowd comments, weeps and complains. Front and center, however, is Jesus. He is really the focal point of the story, not Lazarus. He determines what will happen. He says, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” So it is with our own understanding of life and death. People weep and commiserate. They wonder what happens next, to them and to the one who has gone ahead. But Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, the way, the truth and the life, is the focal point at the moment of death. He says, “Peace be with you.” Jesus is the assurance that there is always something more. When we have Jesus, we are prepared for anything that follows.
For many, this is one of those odd, somewhat problematic texts. After all, people don’t usually get up and walk out of tombs into the land of the living. This story challenges norms and even reality, to some extent. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it sort of jolts us into the realization that God is capable of more, that God will go beyond what we plan, what we think, even what we imagine. And yet, “Jesus wept.” In the older translations, it is supposedly the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus’ tears remind us that grief is real and that God realizes that and truly cares what happens to us.
Ironically, this is the act that would ultimately cost Jesus his life. Bringing Lazarus to life would end his own. After this, the Sanhedrin’s step in and the journey to Jerusalem, mock trial and all, escalates. There is no turning back. Perhaps it should be our turn to weep. But we are given a new hope and a new promise. Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”…He will do the same for us. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
The truth is, on some level, we are all lifeless at times. We are all bound by things in this world that literally suck the life out of us. Think about it. This is also an account of the raising of Martha and Mary and all of those who loved Lazarus, raised out of grief to hope and life. And, for us, Christ is there breathing life into us yet again. We are always in the process of and actually becoming a new creation. The story of this raising is more than a miracle; it is the stuff that we are made of. Jesus probably weeps for us too—weeps that we hurt, weeps that we get so wrapped up in the minutia of life that makes us forget who we are, weeps that we are not who we are called to be. This is a story about the in-between. Some things don’t make sense. Some things don’t go like we plan. Some things we just miss. Creation groans towards its ultimate promise. And so we wait…But in the meantime, we can always get up, come out of our tomb, and let Jesus free us once again. Fred Craddock said that faith is first generation (From “A Twofold Death and Resurrection”, The Christian Century, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=710). In other words, we do not inherit it. Oh, maybe we inherit a knowledge of it or the culture to rely on it, but this belief thing has to be ours. For that is the way that we see the glory of God for ourselves.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does this say about faith?
- Where do you find yourself in this story?
- From what lifelessness do we need to be freed by Christ’s lifegiving breath?
- What do you think of the notion of faith being “first generation”?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Joy is the most infallible sense of the presence of God. (Teilhard de Chardin)
Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see…. Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope. (Rubem Alves quoted in There Is A Season by Joan Chittister).
The note we end on is and must be the note of inexhaustible possibility and hope. (Evelyn Underhill)
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war so that you may reach out my hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that, through your love, you can make a difference in this world so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen. (Franciscan Prayer, Author Unknown)