All Saints' Day, 1 November 2013

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
St. Luke 6:20-31

Background:  Daniel
In speaking about Daniel, some care needs to be exercised in distinguishing the character from the book.  The character of Daniel is much more ancient than the book.  Modeled on a judge that appears in the literature of Canaan, the Biblical character is active at a much later time than the character of legend.  Daniel makes a brief appearance along with Noah and Job in Ezekiel 14:14, 20, where he appears more as a hero of legend and archetype than an actual person. There is another reference to Daniel in Ezekiel, where he and the King of Tyre are compared for their acute wisdom. The book, however, is more recent, and is divided into two sections: a section of legendary tales, and a section of dreams and visions.  The first section’s content seems to be a product of the traditions of wisdom in the ancient near east.  As a child of Israel, Daniel and his friends seem to at least match if not best the wise men of Babylon, and remain faithful to the God of Israel.  In this manner, they serve as models of behavior, but to whom?  Is it to the exiles in Babylon, or is it later to those Jews surviving the forced Hellenization of the Seleucid Kings?  It’s probable date of composition, or redaction in the second century BCE would seem to answer the question.

The second section, a collection of dreams and visions purports to be a vision of the future.  It falls in the tradition of Amos and other prophets who saw The Great Day of the Lord bringing judgment and justice to Israel.  The downfall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the fall of Jerusalem were seen as God’s judgment on a people who had not been faithful.  In contrast to their behavior, we have the example of David and his friends who serve as models of faithfulness.  The visions look forward to a time of crisis, and the fall of kingdoms.  Although they are clothed in the events of the fall of the Babylonian empire, and the rise of the Persian empire, they are more rooted in the aftermath of Alexander and the succeeding Seleucids.  Times were changing, and institutions were either failing, or being renewed.  It is to this anxious time that Daniel delivers his visions.

Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: "As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever."

Here Daniel falls into the tradition of the great dream interpreters, such as Joseph, as he attempts to see the signs of the times.  This reading is chosen for this day primarily for its last line, “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom…” There is a mythological setting in which the supposedly historical vision is cast.  It is more informed by ancient near eastern cosmology than by the creation story of Genesis.  The great sea is that chaos that is conquered by the gods, and the monsters are Rahab and Leviathan (see Job 26:12-13, or Psalm 74:13-17).  These scenes are all precursors to a vision of God’s conquering might and judgment.  Christians, however, will see in the vision, the promise of eternal life, and the communion of Saints.

Breaking open Daniel:
  1. In what ways is our age redeeming itself in the sight of God?
  2. What agents of chaos is God fighting against in our time?
  3. How is the Communion of Saints involved in that struggle?

Psalm 149 Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.

Let Israel rejoice in his Maker; *
let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.

Let them praise his Name in the dance; *
let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp.

For the LORD takes pleasure in his people *
and adorns the poor with victory.

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; *
let them be joyful on their beds.

Let the praises of God be in their throat *
and a two-edged sword in their hand;

To wreak vengeance on the nations *
and punishment on the peoples;

To bind their kings in chains *
and their nobles with links of iron;

To inflict on them the judgment decreed; *
this is glory for all his faithful people.

This hymn of praise seems to have a military aspect to its “new song.”  It praises God for what God has done for Israel over against “the nations.”  The justice that results from this divine war is seen as glory for Israel.  The psalm is a good accompaniment to the reading from Daniel, where the Day of the Lord brings completeness to God’s creation and kingdom.  One wonders if the framers of the lectionary had notions of this kingdom that is won actually being the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaims, and this day celebrates?

Breaking open Psalm 149:
  1. What images do you have of justice?
  2. How do you feel about the martial aspects of this psalm?
  3. What is the kingdom of heaven like for you?

Ephesians 1:11-23

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

This reading begins with a summary of what Paul hopes to communicate to his gentile readers in Ephesus.  The themes, which will be more fully developed in the material that follows, are about the chosen nature of those who follow Christ, and their destiny in God.  What follows that adoption is the praise that then flows from our very lives. 

If there were an image that the reader might want to keep in mind as the remaining material is read, it would be that of the baptismal font, and its waters that flow and cleanse.  As in a classic berakah (a Jewish prayer of blessing and thanksgiving) Paul uses some liturgical language that would be familiar to those who were baptized.  Along with their belief, Paul wants them to recognize that they have been “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”  We might want to recall those words that are present in our own rites, “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.  It only begins there, however.  There is more to the promise – a promise of inheritance, namely redemption.

Paul then goes own to describe the entity, to which these gentiles have been joined, namely the Body of Christ.  It is a veritable Pauline list of benefits: wisdom, revelation, enlightenment, and call.  These are set in a prayer of thanksgiving that Paul makes for the readers who are now joined with him in Christ.  He then goes on to list what it is that the body believes, what it has faith in: Christ raised, Christ sitting at the right hand, Christ exalted, Christ ruler over all.  This is the primary text for this day, I think, in that it lays the foundation for the Communion of Saints, which this day honors. 

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. If you were baptized as an infant, was there a point in life when you thought through your decision to be a Christian?
  2. What were those thoughts like.
  3. How are you a part of the Body of Christ?

Luke 6:20-31

Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets..

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

I dread All Saints’ Day, especially the reading of the Beatitudes from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew.  It seems so saccharine to me, and Luke’s version is a refreshing blast.  Jesus is about the business of announcing the various aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In Nazareth he proclaimed that all the messianic hopes of Isaiah were “fulfilled in your hearing” (St. Luke 4:16-21).  Luke’s agenda is clearly visible her as he reports Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.  The pattern of the sayings follows the ancient template of the Blessings and Curses that accompanied any restatement of the covenant.  The blessings of the poor (not the poor in spirit, as in Matthew) are quickly followed by woes to the rich.  Matthew’s spiritualization of the blessings is absent here.  They are stark in the proclamation and they are pointedly directed to the disciples.  So what is the blessedness that Luke proclaims in the words of Jesus?  The poor, the hungry, and the sorrowful are the special beneficiaries of God’s goodness.  It is a blessing that is tied up with the Kingdom of Heaven – a future reward.  One wonders, however, what its impact was on the social awareness of Luke’s readers.  Was it only a future, heavenly blessings, or was the church aware of its duties to the downtrodden and lowly?

Then the theme changes, and the four pronouncements are particularly pointed by their use of the second person, “woe to you”.  A similar list is formed: the rich, the satisfied, and the joyful.  “You are filled now.”  There is no future reward or punishment.  It is in the now that the temporary nature of their satisfaction is perceived.  The question that comes to mind is whether both of these distinctions (those who are blessed, those who are deserving of woe) are evident in the church, in the Communion of the Saints?  Is it as Luther once describe, that we are simil Justus et peccator (at the same time justified and sinner)?  Jesus asks his disciples to be wary of a good reputation.  The prophets (who were killed and tortured) had as much!

The implicit question that flows from these observations on the part of Jesus is “What then, how shall we live?”  Answers are supplied with a series of sayings about what life in the Kingdom (now) ought to look like.  “Bless those who curse you”, is a delightful follow-on after the blessings and curses above.  But there is more: mores about strife, begging, common kindness, love of the opponent, gifts of being merciful.  What does this have to say to the saints today?  Might it be that our communities, our selves, and our corporate life should be about blessing and selflessness.  Isn’t that what we honor in the saints?

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.      In what ways do you identify with or own the statements of blessing?
2.      In what ways do you identify with or own the woes?
3.      How will you live life differently?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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