Isaiah 25 – An All Saints Day Primer

What we do (or don’t do) to celebrate known and unknown saints.

Lord, you are my God;
    I will exalt you and praise your name,
for in perfect faithfulness
    you have done wonderful things,
    things planned long ago.
You have made the city a heap of rubble,
    the fortified town a ruin,
the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more;
    it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will honor you;
    cities of ruthless nations will revere you.
You have been a refuge for the poor,
    a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
    and a shade from the heat.
For the breath of the ruthless
    is like a storm driving against a wall
    and like the heat of the desert.
You silence the uproar of foreigners;
    as heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud,
    so the song of the ruthless is stilled.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

10 The hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain;
    but Moab will be trampled in their land
    as straw is trampled down in the manure.
11 They will stretch out their hands in it,
    as swimmers stretch out their hands to swim.
God will bring down their pride
    despite the cleverness[a] of their hands.
12 He will bring down your high fortified walls
    and lay them low;
he will bring them down to the ground,
    to the very dust.

 

I’m probably not ready to start posting two entries (and definitely not three!) every week – I still have several more chicken processing days on the farm to go. But I didn’t want to let All Saint’s Day pass without recognition.

For those who don’t celebrate it – and that includes a lot of Protestant traditions – All Saints Day celebrates (you guessed it!) all the Saints, known or unknown, who are in heaven.  This includes more common household names, like Saint Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of animals whose statue you may have seen in gardens), and anyone else who has brought people to Jesus.  All Souls Day is November 2, and celebrates all who are in heaven, sainted or not.  Some places also celebrate the Day of the Innocents, which recognizes children who have passed. So, depending where you are and what church you go to, some, all, or none of these themes may be touched upon in a church service sometime between this Friday and Sunday.

All Saints Day has been well overshadowed by it’s secular neighbor, Halloween, but it is still observed.  It’s an interesting holiday because it is somewhere between solemn and festive.  In New Orleans, for example, there are often family picnics in cemeteries, where the living visit their departed loved ones, sometimes cleaning up the tombstones or crypts, sometimes pouring out a libation in the deceased’s honor.  The closely related Dia de los Muertos (an ongoing mash-up of Catholic and pre-Hispanic customs and beliefs), includes parades and special food and drink, with public and private celebrations galore.

Also, I think it is important to note that (almost no) Episcopalians pray to saints, and neither do Methodists or really any Protestant traditions that I can think of.  Instead, they see the saints as examples to be looked up to when we seek inspiration in our own religious lives.  Catholics and many Eastern traditions do pray to the saints for intercession, which essentially means asking the saint to speak to God on the behalf of the one doing the praying.

So, to get to the actual Bible verses above, why is this particular passage one that is read on All Saints Day?  The specific reading is actually just vv. 6-9, which describes a Holy Feast prepared by God and the destruction of death.  This feast marks a time when suffering is no more, and God’s Kingdom returns to earth – in other words, a time when all the faithful will be saints.

Taken in the context of All Saints Day, the rest of the chapter frames the day’s reading nicely. (Unlike my reading from Isaiah 09 last Advent, which starts out all warm and fuzzy and full of Christmas spirit and took a hard left into crazy cannibalism.)  “Strong peoples will honor you,” verse three says.  Reading that, the first person I think of is another saint, Joan of Arc.  Talk about a strong person.  “You have been a refuge for the poor,” follows in verse four.  I think of all the work Mother Theresa, another female saint (beatified in 2003, if you weren’t up on your recent saints), did on behalf of the poor.  These verses illustrate that God is for everyone, for all nations. Sure, verse ten talks about Moab being trampled into the ground, no stronger than straw in manure (there’s a visual I can relate to!), but that should be seen symbolically more than anything.  Moab is one of the prophet’s favorite “bad guys,” is you will, and came to represent everything that was un-Godly.  The destruction of Moab is a metaphor for the destruction of anything that might stand in our way of a full relationship with God.  And let me be clear, I do not think Moab is a metaphor for another country.  Turkey, China, Russia or any other country we may have current tensions with is not Moab.  What stands in the way of our full relationship with God is more abstract – greed, fear, anger, hate.  That, while harder to villianize, is what we need to combat in ourselves and in the world in order to join in the procession of All Saints.

I love holidays because they invite us to pause and reflect.  We have so few opportunities to do so in our ever-busy lives.  Maybe All Saints Day isn’t a church-going day for you, or one you’ve ever really recognized except as a day for candy-hangovers.  But I hope this year, this All Saints Day, you are able to take even just a moment to pause and reflect.  Thank God, if that feels right for you, or give thanks for someone saintly in your life, living or deceased.  Taking a moment out of your day to connect to something spiritual, to give thanks for something or someone good, helps us all re-center on what is important, and we could all use a little more of that.  Happy All Saints Day.

Job 14 – Truths vs. Greater Truths

Seeing the forest through the trees.

“Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
    like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Do you fix your eye on them?
    Will you bring them before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
    No one!
A person’s days are determined;
    you have decreed the number of his months
    and have set limits he cannot exceed.
So look away from him and let him alone,
    till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.

“At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
    he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
    or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
    till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
    or be roused from their sleep.

13 “If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
14 If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal to come.
15 You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
16 Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
17 My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.

18 “But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
    and as a rock is moved from its place,
19 as water wears away stones
    and torrents wash away the soil,
    so you destroy a person’s hope.
20 You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
    you change their countenance and send them away.
21 If their children are honored, they do not know it;
    if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
22 They feel but the pain of their own bodies
    and mourn only for themselves.”

There are some who think v. 12-14 are at the very least innocently mistranslated, but possibly even changed completely and intentionally, to more fully support the idea of resurrection.  Indeed, I got excited when I read that passage – “I will wait for my renewal to come.”  Isn’t that what we’re taught, as Christians, to wait for?  I mean, the return of Jesus is the renewal this whole Christian “thing” is all about, right?

So let’s say that this passage has been manipulated.  I can totally believe that: before they were codified into a collection we now call “the Bible,” these stories (especially a really old one like Job) were oral traditions that were retold and later written down in a centuries-long game of telephone, if you will, so things were bound to change, at least a little.  But does that mean we should totally scrap it?

In short, no.  But this is a good time to plug in a little reminder about reading the Bible in context, which can be easy to forget, especially in a project like this with a laser focus on one chapter at a time.  Is it true that the key passage of this chapter has been manipulated to fit an agenda?  Quite possibly yes.  But how does it, and this chapter at large, fit into the greater truths the Bible is trying to convey to us?

Taken as a whole, this chapter – and most of Job’s three-chapter speech here – aren’t really about renewal and allusions to resurrection, but about God’s infinite power and the insignificance of humans in the face of such an almighty force.  I think two verses from chapter 12 could serve as Job’s thesis in this three-chapter speech: “To God belong wisdom and power, counsel and understanding are his…to him belong strength and victory, both deceived and deceiver are his.” (13:13, 16)  So, even ignoring the potentially problematic passage, we have our first greater truth: God is great.

The second greater truth takes a little inference, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch.  The second greater truth is that even though we are “like a fleeting shadow” in our mortality, we are important to God, God sees us.  In this chapter alone Job mentions God watching man three times: in vv. 3, 6, and 16.  In all of Job’s the chapters making up Job’s speeches so far, God watching man is mentioned nine, possibly ten times (in v. 7:8 he could be referring to his friends or to God when he says “you will look for me but I will be no more”).  True, it is mostly in a negative sense, more like a kid with a magnifying glass over an anthill than a beneficent Lord, but we must remember the place of pain and lack of understanding from which Job is speaking.  In fact, because of his suffering Job is extra important to God.  Remember, the cause of all this suffering was a wager between God and Satan – so Job’s actions through his suffering are of keen interest to the celestial court of this story, even if Job’s days are just as fleeting as the rest of ours.

So if God is great (Greater Truth One), why are we important to God (Greater Truth Two)?  I honestly don’t know.  But perhaps the key to that mystery lies in the Greatest Truth: that God is love.  We may not understand all of God’s ways, but even with all the suffering we see in Job, all the suffering we see in the world, we can know that we, our insignificant, flawed, mortal, fleeting selves, are important to a power much greater than our own.  God is watching us, all the time.  Xe sees our successes, and rejoices with us, Xe sees our failures, and mourns with us.  One, or even hundreds, of controversial translations in the Bible cannot dissuade me from that fact, because I can see the forest through the trees, or in this case the truth through the words, and it bears repeating one more time: God loves us. God loves you.  Praise be to God.

***

I’m going to switch gears here because we’ve reached a good stopping point in the cycle of speeches between Job and his friends. I’m setting aside the Book of Job until next Lent and reading Psalm 6 and Psalm 32 in the remaining time before Holy Week, which starts a week from today.  During Holy Week I’ll read corresponding Gospel passages, specifically Matthew 21, 26, and 27.  Then for Easter I’ll read Matthew 28, if you want are reading along (or ahead) as we go.

Job 13 – God’s Awe-Inspiring Love

We are fallible and fleeting, but God loves us.

“My eyes have seen all this,
    my ears have heard and understood it.
What you know, I also know;
    I am not inferior to you.
But I desire to speak to the Almighty
    and to argue my case with God.
You, however, smear me with lies;
    you are worthless physicians, all of you!
If only you would be altogether silent!
    For you, that would be wisdom.
Hear now my argument;
    listen to the pleas of my lips.
Will you speak wickedly on God’s behalf?
    Will you speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show him partiality?
    Will you argue the case for God?
Would it turn out well if he examined you?
    Could you deceive him as you might deceive a mortal?
10 He would surely call you to account
    if you secretly showed partiality.
11 Would not his splendor terrify you?
    Would not the dread of him fall on you?
12 Your maxims are proverbs of ashes;
    your defenses are defenses of clay.

13 “Keep silent and let me speak;
    then let come to me what may.
14 Why do I put myself in jeopardy
    and take my life in my hands?
15 Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him;
    I will surely defend my ways to his face.
16 Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance,
    for no godless person would dare come before him!
17 Listen carefully to what I say;
    let my words ring in your ears.
18 Now that I have prepared my case,
    I know I will be vindicated.
19 Can anyone bring charges against me?
    If so, I will be silent and die.

20 “Only grant me these two things, God,
    and then I will not hide from you:
21 Withdraw your hand far from me,
    and stop frightening me with your terrors.
22 Then summon me and I will answer,
    or let me speak, and you reply to me.
23 How many wrongs and sins have I committed?
    Show me my offense and my sin.
24 Why do you hide your face
    and consider me your enemy?
25 Will you torment a windblown leaf?
    Will you chase after dry chaff?
26 For you write down bitter things against me
    and make me reap the sins of my youth.
27 You fasten my feet in shackles;
    you keep close watch on all my paths
    by putting marks on the soles of my feet.

28 “So man wastes away like something rotten,
    like a garment eaten by moths.

This blog is all about radical love, how we should radically love each other and how God radically loves us.  Believe it or not, God’s incredible love for us is exactly what this passage illustrates.

“I desire to speak to the Almighty, to argue my case with God,” Job declares in v. 3.  When you think about it, that’s rather impertinent.  Can you imagine being charged with a crime and demanding to go straight to the Supreme Court?  You’d be laughed at and denied.  But with God we can do this.  We can go straight to the highest court, if you will, and argue our case.  Job knows he is not perfect, even that he doesn’t know all the ways of God, but he still has faith: “Though he slay me, yet I have hope in him. I will surely defend my ways to his face. Indeed, this will surely be my deliverance, for no godless person would dare come before him!” (v. 15-16) Job wants to bypass his useless friends with their “proverbs of ashes” and go straight to the source to confess his faith, examine his shortcomings in God’s eyes, and make his case for salvation.  Which is what we should all do.  Now, not all of us are going to have a vision of  God come to Earth in a storm to answer our cries in person as Job does later on, but we can still do what Job does, in prayer, any day, any time.  No need to even make an appointment – God is always there, ready to listen to us.

And speaking of listening, Job really does some raging in this speech.  This is the first time Job speaks sarcastically and angrily to his friends (actually last chapter was the first time, but this chapter is a continuation of the same speech, so it still counts).  His tone towards God is less angry, but still plaintive, to be sure.  Job makes a demand of God in v. 20: “grant me these two things,” and accuses God of making Job Xyr enemy (v. 24).  It’s easy to forget, since Job is so eloquent, but not only is he in sorrow, he is in pain.  How many of us have lashed out in sorrow or pain?  Saying things we don’t really mean, or just being unable to see past our own misery?  Often, we lash out at those nearest to us.  And, just like a good friend, God doesn’t take it personally with Job.  Xe knows it is Job’s pain speaking.  Xe is not going to hold Job’s angry words against him in the end.

And there-in lies the wonder of it all.  For in the grand scheme of things, we are just windblown leaves or dry chaff, as Job points out.  I distinctly remember learning in 7th grade that if you took the whole history of Earth, from the time it was formed 4.5 billion years ago, and condensed that history into a year, then all of human history–and by that I mean the first homo-sapiens, not just recorded history–fits into the last half-hour of the last day of that year.  Now take the whole history of the galaxy, which scientists say is 14.51 billion years old, and we’re barely even a blip.  Yet for being almost nothing, God loves us.  Xe decided the world was not complete without us, and created us in Xyr image. We are fallible and fleeting, but God loves us, every single one of us.  It’s as unrealistic as us being able to love individual snowflakes as our own children, but for God, it is possible.  And that is truly awe-inspiring, and worthy of our love and thanksgiving in return.