All Saints Day (Psalm 149)

All Saints Day I, Wassily Kandinsky, 1911

Praise the Lord!

Sing a new song to the Lord;
    sing his praise in the meeting of his people.

Let the Israelites be happy because of God, their Maker.
    Let the people of Jerusalem rejoice because of their King.
They should praise him with dancing.
    They should sing praises to him with tambourines and harps.
The Lord is pleased with his people;
    he saves the humble.
Let those who worship him rejoice in his glory.
    Let them sing for joy even in bed!

Let them shout his praise
    with their two-edged swords in their hands.
They will punish the nations
    and defeat the people.
They will put those kings in chains
    and those important men in iron bands.
They will punish them as God has written.
    God is honored by all who worship him.

Praise the Lord! (New Century Version)

Most of us are aware and in touch with how imperfect we are. Sometimes we view our imperfections as failure, weakness, or sin. But how does God see us? In what way does the eternally perfect, infinitely strong, and sovereign Lord feel about us?

The Lord is happy with his people, he is pleased with us. And because God is delighted with people, the Lord saves the humble in heart, beautifies the unlovely, and turns the sinner into a saint.

Throughout the ages, the faithful have experienced the love of God. Even now, they are rejoicing, singing for joy, and celebrating the ways God changed them to make the world a better place.

On the Christian Calendar, November 1 is the day each year to remember the saints who have gone before us, to acknowledge that God has always taken pleasure in using imperfect broken people to impact the world.  

Today is meant to be a day of remembrance – a way of not forgetting the people, friends, and family, as well as the long-dead historical saints, who have made a significant difference in our spiritual lives.

All Saints Day is more than simply acknowledging extraordinary persons; today also highlights the work of ordinary Christians who faithfully lived their lives and persevered to the end. We give thanks for the gift of how they daily lived their faith.

We remember today that:

  • Christians everywhere and throughout time are united and connected to one another.
  • God’s good pleasure saves and redeems all sorts of people.
  • Underprivileged and underserved people are noticed by God and God’s saints.
  • Influential people in our lives, now in the presence of the Lord, can be honored through emulating their faith and perseverance.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7, NIV)

The saints of the past are an inspiration to us in the present. They serve us as a model of faithfulness in persevering in our Christian lives. Through biblical stories of very human persons being used of God, as well as reading biographies of godly people who were dedicated to God in service, we gain motivation and patience until Jesus returns.

All Saints Day II, by Kandinsky, 1911

Who went out of their way to communicate God’s love to you with both words and actions? 

Who wrestled in prayer for you so that you and others might know God? 

If any of those persons are still around, and you know where they are, remember them. Drop them a note. Express to them a simple thank you for their influence in your life. You will not only encourage that person – it will help you remember and re-engage with something in your life you may have forgotten or have just taken for granted for too long.

We truly stand on the shoulders of faithful and wise people those who have gone before us. We will continue to persevere and thrive in faith by remembering them; and also by allowing people now, presently with us, to join us in our journey along the road of faith.

It is sage to recall events of rescue and pull them forward into the present so that all God’s worshipers can taste and see that the Lord is good.

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:2-5, NIV)

God uses symbols as a means of revelation and remembrance. We need both special days and ordinary events;  shared meals and silent fasting, tangible signs and necessary endings, active rituals and passive observances, iconic images and iconoclastic nonconformity.

We need both words and sacraments – to have days set apart for gathering together and expressing our verbal gratitude and love for each other, as well as giving our nonverbal gifts of food, fun, and friendship.

Our shared spiritual history connects us to God, to one another, and to all of God’s people who have gone before us. We remember that history by energizing our time together with words and symbols of care and redemption.

Christ told the disciples about his upcoming death and provided symbols which reinforced the words: 

“Take and eat – this is my body…. Take this cup – drink from it, all of you.” (Luke 22:7-20)

The taste of real bread reminds us of the physical incarnation of Christ, and Christ’s humiliation and death. Drinking from the tangible cup reminds us of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, the drops of blood which Jesus sweat in Gethsemane, and the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that caused the bleeding. Tasting the bread and cup when celebrating communion reminds us that our sins are forgiven, we are united to Christ, and we are united together. 

There are past historical events which are now presently forgotten. Yet, there are also past actions that ripple and linger with continuing results into the present. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the Lord Jesus are past redemptive events which continually exert powerful force into the here and now.

The saints throughout church history moved the message of Christ along and demonstrated for us that the past is alive in the person of Jesus Christ. Along with them, we proclaim:

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again.

And God has something planned for those who have gone before us, along with us, so that together we will experience the perfect righteousness of Christ forever. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Remember and celebrate, eat and drink, taste and see, that the Lord is good.

May we remember the Lord’s people and never forget their example of godly living.

Our spiritual ancestors in faith continue to praise the Lord, to proclaim that God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help. Let us follow in their footsteps.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of your Son: Give us grace to emulate your saints by living virtuous and godly lives so that we may share the joy you have prepared for those who truly love you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns as one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Psalm 149 – Praise and Punishment

Church stained glass windows sword dividing

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with victory.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord! (NRSV)

The initial question that arises with me is this: Is this a psalm of praise to the Lord, or an imprecatory psalm encouraging the punishment of the wicked? Well, perhaps the obvious answer is “yes.” I suppose what I am really struggling with is that out of all the one-hundred fifty psalms in the psalter, only this one has this unique combination of vocal praise and punishing action.

The psalm begins much like many psalms of praise but takes the unexpected turn of a call to a war-like operation to execute vengeance on enemies. I freely admit that I do not know quite what to make of this strange amalgam. I wonder along with the venerable Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann who said, “One cannot tell whether this is a responsibility to fend off oppressors or a temptation to gather imperial power.”

Perhaps my wrestling with this psalm is really the struggle with history itself. The Holy Scriptures do not shy away from the realism of its times and often offers historical events and human attitudes with unvarnished narratives. The Bible, and especially the psalmist, will not let us sanitize the past as some idyllic bygone era of divine drama to be envied. Instead, we receive the liberation of God’s people with all its harsh truth.

So, it could be that is why I also loathe seeing some mass market crosses which look ornately beautiful, as if Christ’s death was some pleasant affair. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell came at an awful price. Jesus absorbed all the foulness and degradation of a tortuous ignoble death. In other words, he was a bloody mess, publicly displayed for all to jeer at and be repulsed by.

What is more, for the Christian, perhaps the sagest approach to today’s psalm is unabashedly choosing to view it through Christocentric lenses. Christ is the strong man who has bound the ruler of this dark world with iron chains and secured our liberation from a hellish existence. And the Lord will return, the nations of the earth will be judged, and the faithful will reign with Christ forever.

Even if I read a bit too much into the psalm by interpreting it Christologically, it still leaves the intention of the imprecation open as to its true nature. In other words, the psalm simply does not tell us the trajectory of the curse which comes out of the praise. We are left to wonder in what kind of direction it goes. The Christian tradition of reading psalms and seeing Jesus in them might be our best guide.

Whichever way we choose to examine this unique psalm, the thing which we do know is that it unequivocally stands as a defiance of the nations and peoples of the earth who oppose the living God. Resistance to injustice, unrighteousness, and evil is encouraged by this psalm. The only ruler of this earth who has absolute power is God; and, anyone or any group which attempts to gain and grab such power for themselves is to be resisted. For the harsh reality of living on this created yet fallen earth is that violent and insolent people still desire total control and will do just about anything to get it and keep it.

Almighty and sovereign God, we, your people, ask in the Name of your most precious Son, Jesus Christ, our risen and ascended Lord, to look upon the good desires of your humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of your power to be our defense against evil in all its insidious forms. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.