Note: This homily was preached in a chapel service at the Harding School of Theology in October 2012.
Today, we begin with a question: What is our mission? Now, this is not some hokey, cotton candy, “best life now” kind of question. This question, as it is phrased, strikes at the very heart of why we are at this institution, of why we have accepted the call to ministry, of why we were willingly plunged beneath the waters of baptism. What is our mission? Our theme passage for the year offers a clear answer: “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples” (Psalm 96:3, NRSV). Quite simply, our theme passage calls us to proclaim the Gospel to the nations. Our own Dr. Bland elaborates on this call by saying,
The church is founded upon the revealed truth that Jesus Christ is the longed-for Messiah of Israel, through whom the covenants, promises and commissions given to Israel are now to reach their fulfillment (Luke 4:14-21; 24:25-27; Matthew 5:17-20; 16:13-20). Upon the community of the Messiah (the church) falls the privilege and responsibility of Yahweh’s commission to Israel. God calls the church to serve as a light to the nations (Matthew 5:14-16); it is “a royal priesthood” called to proclaim the mighty acts of God to the whole world (1 Peter 2:9).
Yes, our purpose is to proclaim the Gospel to the nations.
And, honestly, there are few greater joys than proclaiming the Gospel. Yet, for many of us, we ascend the pulpit steps each and every Sunday without even a second thought about the privilege that we have been given. We drink from wells that we did not dig and live in cities that we did not build. Yet, how can we accomplish our mission when all we receive for our work is criticism, ostracism, and the occasional execution?
Now that I have your attention, let us turn our minds away from the glory and grandeur of the bright lights and large pulpits and focus on reality. Our text for this morning comes from Revelation 6:9-11. Let us give ear to the words of John the Prophet:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth” (Revelation 6:9-10, NRSV)?
This is a haunting image, as it should be. John has just witnessed the opening of the first four seals, which brought forth the Four Horsemen and their divine carnage. Still reeling from this awesome display of holy power, John returns to the scroll.
This time, when it is opened, he sees a sight he was surely not expecting. When the seal is broken and the image emerges, he sees the souls of the martyred faithful “under the altar” (6:9). Naturally, our exegetically inquisitive minds rush to the thoughts of sacrifice, of “being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6). Yet let us remember that this is John, not Paul, speaking. Here sacrifice carries a different notion. Here the focus is not on the blood that flows mingled down. In fact, there is no blood to focus on. Here, we have only souls, souls that have been placed under the altar due to their proclamation of God’s “glory among the nations” and God’s “marvelous works among all the peoples” (Psalm 96:3).
However sacrifice is not the only thread of theology that is woven in this passage. There is also the thread of sanctuary and refuge. The image here is not of the souls being “under the altar” as if they had been crammed under it like my wife will cram presents under our Christmas tree. No, this is a matter of perspective. The souls are “under the altar” because they are clinging ever so tightly to the horns that ascend off of the four corners of the altar. They are “under the altar” claiming sanctuary from the persecution that they have suffered. As a result, their claim has been heard. These suffering saints “are safely in the presence of God.”
Yet, there is this cry that we must hear. We all know this cry. However, we are often too ashamed, too embarrassed, or too angry to acknowledge it. It is okay to lift our eyes to the sky while we stand helpless midst the chaos and carnage and cry out, “How long, O Lord, will you allow this to continue?” To be able to utter these words is not a sign of weak faith. Quite the contrary, it is the sign of mature faith. As we have, these suffering saints have put their hope and confidence in God. Yet, it seems that God has abandoned them. Their bludgeoned number grows larger and larger each day. Room is getting tighter and tighter “under the altar” as more and more departed souls crowd around the horns seeking sanctuary. “How long, O Lord, will you allow this to continue? Have we not sacrificed enough for you? Have I not sacrificed enough for you?” If we were honest with ourselves for a moment, these words are our words; we have just been too afraid to say them. We stand before glazed-over congregations that are full of lifeless souls that are more worried about flower funds and hymn selections than about the poor and hungry living in the grotesque ghettos across the street. We prepare the devotional for the ladies’ luncheon with tears in our eyes because we see in the news that a group of missionaries has been executed for proclaiming God’s “glory among the nations.” We scratch out a prophetic call to action, only to wad it up and toss it into the trashcan at the last minute because our annual review is the following evening. We scribble “Office” on a box with a black marker as the sixty-days notice sits on our desk. “How long, O Lord? How long?”
Yet, there is something about this cry that should bother us. While these are words of desperation, they are not words of vindication. They are a call to action, for God to act in the world. And their call to action is given a response. As I mentioned at the beginning, our text is Revelation 6:9-11. We now conclude our reading:
They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed (NRSV).
The martyrs know that persecution and injustice is not the end. Yet they do not understand why God is waiting. Thus they cry out to seek justice and honor the sacrifices that have been made. God’s response to the martyrs is to rest and wait for the completion of the plan. God has a plan, and God is firmly in control of that plan. Martyrdom is how God’s plan comes to fruition. In order to reveal this to the suffering saints, God gives each of them a “white robe.” Being given a white robe prior to the Resurrection reveals that God considers them to be faithful and true. He has heard their cry and has honored their sacrifice.
The message is to hold out a little longer. The original audience was encouraged that their sacrifice was used to further the Gospel and that it would be avenged someday. The hope we have is not that we will escape sacrifice. It is that through enduring sacrifice, we will “declare his glory among the nations” (Psalm 96:3).
Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge/Edinburgh: Eerdmans/Handsel Press, 1998), 318.
Dave L. Bland, “Lord of All Nations,” The Bridge 53 (Summer 2012): 1, 7.
Wilfrid J. Harrington, Revelation, Sacra Pagina 16 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier Books/Liturgical Press, 2008), 94.
G. R. Beasley-Murray, Revelation, rev. ed., New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI/London: Eerdmans/Marshall, Morgan and Scott Publishers, 1978), 136.
M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 125.
Robert W. Wall, Revelation, New International Biblical Commentary, New Testament Series 18 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson/Paternoster Press, 1991), 112.
Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez and Justo Gonzalez, Revelation, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), 50.