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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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All Saints 11/03/2019

All Saints Sunday has become a pretty significant day on our church calendar. It’s a day that’s been around for a long time; there are references to it as far back as the 600’s or 700’s, well over 1000 years ago anyway, so I assume this is the 150th time it’s been on Bethany’s calendar. The officially appointed date is November 1st, a day that in the wider culture has been greatly overshadowed by the evening before that, October 31st, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween which actually does have religious origins that connect it to All Saints Day although those origins and those connections have little to do with how Halloween is celebrated these days.

Here at Bethany though, I feel like All Saints Sunday has grown in significance over the past 10 or 15 years and that increased significance has a lot to do with the ritual that has developed around the day. We’ve always read the names of those who have died since the last All Saints Day as the bell tolls and candles are lit which is moving in and of itself. But then, I’m not sure how many years ago it was but quite a few, the choir started singing “We Are Surrounded” while physically surrounding the congregation as the names are read, the bell is tolled and candles are lit.

Added to that in the past few years has been the lighting of additional candles in memory of our own personal saints, regardless of when they died, some of whom are remembered with pictures as well. That action though, becomes a reminder of the fullness of the communion of saints, the cloud of witnesses who in some fashion are connected to this church, some perhaps known to a lot of people, some maybe only to one or two. All in all, it is very moving, very meaningful; it is important that we take time to do what we do and… it underscores the power of ritual, in this case as the ritual creates a sense of being surrounded by the saints with God in the midst of them. Our ritual actions take on greater weight and meaning than what might first be apparent.

All of that is important, probably the most important part of All Saints Sunday; but there’s more. As always there are texts assigned for the day, texts that we assume have some connection to saints, and today we get what I think is one of the stranger selections, that being the reading from Daniel, Daniel as a whole being one of the stranger books of the Bible. I have to confess that I’ve become more and more interested in books like Daniel that speak more or less from the edges of the Bible, books that can sometimes make you wonder why they were included in the first place.

These books, these voices from the edge don’t get a lot of attention from the lectionary but I think that part of the genius and beauty and inspiration of the Bible is that rather than eliminating them it allows for these alternative voices that often approach the faith differently and perhaps encourage us to think differently. If you’re someone who wants everything in the Bible to fit neatly together and clearly say the same thing, these books that don’t fit might bother you. If you’re OK with a little imaginative playfulness and challenges to how you usually think, they can maybe move you out of your comfort zone.

If you know anything about the book of Daniel it’s most likely Daniel in the lions’ den or the three men in the fiery furnace, both of which are stories that encouraged the people of Israel to remain faithful in the face of threats and calls to worship other gods. Today’s reading though is not from either of those stories. Instead, it’s part of one of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions and my assumption is that it is assigned for today because of the last verse about the holy ones of the Most High receiving and possessing the kingdom forever and ever. Holy ones of the Most High could be understood as “saints” but still, one can’t help but wonder why those who formulated the lectionary thought this was a good choice for All Saints Day including as it does a vision of four great beasts rising from the sea, perhaps more appropriate for Halloween than All Saints Day.

The lectionary omits the description of the beasts but description is provided: one resembles a lion with eagles’ wings, one is a tusked bear, then there is four headed leopard and finally a ten horned, iron toothed monster. Keep in mind too that in the Bible, the sea is almost always symbolic of chaos and danger. It’s no wonder that Daniel says, “My spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me.”

What you could say is that books like Daniel and Ezekiel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament represent the graphic novel or fantasy section of the Bible where imagination is allowed free reign and you’re invited into a different realm. Kids who read Harry Potter and other such imaginative works probably have a better sense of this than do most adults whose imaginations have been stifled with the feeling that they’ve outgrown such things. There is definitely an entertainment component to this kind of writing, but especially in biblical apocalyptic, the deeper intent is to create strange, sometimes frightening images in order to get at truth in a different way.

For example, if the intent is to portray the truth of the world as a bleak and dangerous place, the author could just say, “The world is bleak and dangerous place.” Or, using imagination, the author could create a vision of four strange beasts rising up out of the chaos of the sea. Which approach is more likely to get and hold your attention? Which approach is likely to create a bit of fear concerning a dangerous world?

The ultimate intent of the vision however, is not to create fear. The image of a troubled and dangerous world is important, but the final point is that in the midst of a troubled and dangerous world, God is present and it’s a God more powerful than all the beasts regardless of how scary they are. It’s a God who loves and cares for people, a God who supports them as they face the dangers posed by the beasts, whoever they are and whatever form they take.

In the case of Daniel, the general consensus is that the four beasts represented four powerful kingdoms that had taken turns dominating and ruling Israel for about 500 years at the time the book was written. Those aren’t our beasts, but our beasts are out there. On one level, we might view ISIS or whatever form militant Islam is taking at the moment as one of the beasts. As we do that though, we also have to acknowledge that there are many around the world who might view this country as one of the beasts. You do have to be careful.

On a different level though, and probably even more of a threat are the beasts like consumerism, secularism, militant atheism, unbridled nationalism and dysfunctional government that threaten what we think we represent as a nation, not to mention plagues like drug abuse and addiction that infect pretty much every corner of this country and tear at the fabric of our society. Those beasts are out there. There are plenty of reasons to be afraid and there are those who want to make sure you are afraid and that you stay afraid.

But...there are always voices of hope and strangely enough, even Daniel becomes a voice of hope. Among the verses excluded from today’s reading are verses 13 and 14 that describe another vision, this time the vision of “one like a human being” coming with clouds of heaven. “One like a human being” can also be translated as a “Son of Man,” and to this one is given dominion and glory and kingship. “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”

Interpreters disagree about who Daniel might have been referring to as he identified the Son of Man, but for us, we know that one of the ways Jesus identified himself was as, the Son of Man; it’s in today’s gospel. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is described as “the Son of Man, coming in clouds,” clearly picking up on the imagery from Daniel.

Importantly though, in the midst of an image of beastly terrors rising from the sea comes an image of this one who will ensure that “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.” In other words, the kingdom and all that is, the kingdom of this world, the kingdom of the world to come, all of it belongs to God. It doesn’t belong to the beasts who threaten us and want to make us afraid and...belonging to God, the kingdom is then given to us, to the saints of the past, the present and the future, the holy ones of the Most High.

Daniel gives us this vision but his isn’t the only vision we get today; in today’s gospel Jesus gives us another vision, and it’s a vision of what the kingdom looks like. It’s Jesus’ blessings and woes that upset the expected order of things along with his call to love and care for those who don’t love and care for you. It’s not an advice column, it’s a vision; a vision of what’s possible. In the present, we only see glimpses but visions like that of Daniel and that of Jesus help us to know that as dangerous as they are, the beasts will not prevail; the vision of Jesus and his kingdom will unfold. As we sang last week in Luther’s great Mighty Fortress hymn, “The kingdom’s ours, forever.” It’s a powerful hymn and a powerful message so we’re going to sing it again at the end of today’s service because, as the saints, the kingdom, Jesus’ kingdom is ours, and it is ours…forever.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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