Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 13, 2022
Revelation 6:9-11 Hope in Tomorrow
I want to first admit something. I picked this scripture specifically because I thought it would be an interesting challenge. The Womanist Lectionary, like nearly every lectionary, has four scriptures for each Sunday: Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel, New Testament (not Gospel). While some preachers like to have all four read and used for their sermon, I prefer to just focus on one. And 98% of the time I choose the Gospel. Sometimes I pick a scripture simply because I think – on Mondays when I decide what scripture to preach on – that it will be a fun challenge to pick something difficult. Something without an easily reached interpretation that is relevant for the church today. I think it will be a fun challenge until I have to figure out what to say. That is what happened this week. But, instead of just changing my mind, we are going to dig into one of the prophetic visions of John in Revelation.
The reason Revelation is so often dismissed by most mainline churches today is because it is so steeped in symbolism it is incredibly difficult to figure out what is going on. Further, it is an incredibly violent text – death, destruction, and vengeance characterize the bulk of the book. However, I believe that once we can get through the symbolism and understand the arc of the narrative of Revelation, we will find an incredibly hopeful message. That is the claim I made to our Bible study group a few months ago when we slogged our way through Revelation – that this is ultimately a scripture about hope. And I should be perfectly honest, the Bible study group disagreed with my claim. I kept saying to them, week after week, ‘don’t worry, it gets better! It is a message of hope, I promise!’ And I think they would say I didn’t prove my point. But I continue to maintain that claim and we will see if I do better making my case today.
But first, we have to deal with the symbolism in the text. That is why you have the scripture typed out with notes in your bulletin (for those online, the same text notes are found in the Worship at Home tab). So, for just a minute, let me explain what is going on here. These verses are the opening of the fifth of seven seals that are on a scroll containing God’s final plan for humanity. Each seal is a vision of what the apocalypse will be like or what will usher in the apocalypse. Apocalypse is the end of the world as we know it which leads to the beginning of something new. That is key. So often the term apocalypse is used to describe destruction and then stops there. But that is not correct. This destruction creates space for something new. In the Biblical use of the word, apocalypse means the ultimate/final victory of good over evil resulting from the end of the present age and the ushering in of God’s Kingdom. These seven seals represent the way the present age will end in order for good to be victorious over evil.
The only one worthy to open the seven seals is Christ, who is the Lamb in this passage. In this fifth seal the prophet John sees under the altar all those who had been martyred for their faith, those who had spoken the words of God and were killed for it. Under the altar means these people were close to God because the altar in ancient Judaism was as close to God as humanity could get. The martyrs cry out to God asking how long it will be before God avenges their deaths at the hands of God’s enemies – in this text the enemies of God are referred to as those who dwell on the earth – meaning those who care nothing for the holy and are only concerned with earthly things – wealth, property, power. So, those who were speaking the words of God, giving testimony about God and had been killed by people more concerned with earthly things, wanted to know when they would be avenged – they wanted to know when the power would be turned upside down, that those who spoke of God and enacted the will of God would no longer be in danger from those who didn’t care about God.
Those martyrs were placed in white robes, a blessing and symbol of sanctification, of making them holy, and told to rest a while longer under the altar, or close to God, because there are still prophets who will be punished by this world for their words and actions. So this fifth seal, this fifth vision about how God will usher in God’s Kingdom, shows us that those prophets throughout history who were killed for trying to speak and preach and teach the ways of God are not only remembered by God but remain close to God. They are offered a blessing and told to rest just a while longer because, while people will still be punished by this world for a bit, something is about to happen that will shift the power dynamic.
That is the scripture lesson we have today. And I continue to maintain it is a hopeful one, though I fully concede that it is not sunshine and roses. The hope here does not exist in a denial of evil in this world, but rather in the full-throated admission that evil is very much present and that for good to ultimately win, evil must be destroyed. This text, indeed the entire book of Revelation, creates a very clear and unforgiving distinction between those of God, the good, and those who are only concerned with earthly things, the evil. This distinction sits uncomfortably with us. The judgment not just implied but bluntly promised is difficult for those in traditions like ours that is far more comfortable in the gray areas. There is a reason this text, in fact the vast majority of Revelation cannot be found in the Revised Common Lectionary, the scriptural schedule most churches use. In the entire three-year cycle, Revelation only comes up 8 times. And three of those eight times are the very lovely end of the book – a new heaven and new earth – the time after all the destruction when evil no longer exists. Most churches are perfectly comfortable with the sunshine and roses of God’s Kingdom fully realized on earth. But when it comes to dealing with how we get there, then they just want to turn their heads and not pay attention.
So, again, where is the hope? The hope exists in the reminder that those of yesterday and those of today and those of tomorrow who speak and teach and enact the will of God do not do so in vain. Most are dismissed as out of touch or hopelessly naïve. Some, too many, are killed by forces in this world who cannot bear the idea that the power structures of this world – wealth, fame, control – are not sustainable. That they are not of God and this world as they understand it will eventually collapse around them leading to tremendous and deadly destruction. Because of that, the temptation can be to not bother to go against the tide, that the effort to swim upstream to the source, to God, is not worth the effort. But the book of Revelation, the teachings of Jesus, the words of prophets ancient and modern all promise that the effort is worth it. God is with those whom others forget and ignore. God rests God’s blessing upon those this world hates. They are not forgotten. And, more importantly, God’s promise is that eventually the tides will turn, that this world will one day be one that flows towards God and God alone.
The book of Revelation ends with all the earthly forces of the world as we understand it today being destroyed and the New Jerusalem, God’s Kingdom, being established. Revelation ends with God answering the prayer we pray each work – God’s Kingdom come, God’s will done on earth just as it is in heaven. To me, there is no greater hope than that. But true hope does not deny the realities of this world. Last week I talked about what it means to listen for God’s words and will in the prophets of today. I believe that if we can listen past the noise, we can hear the familiar melody of God in the words of prophets – the melody of justice, loving neighbor, and serving God. But those words are not spoken in isolation. They are spoken in defiance of the world as we understand it today. Because to deny the evils of this world as unimportant or not relevant to the words of God negates the power of God’s will and hope for this world. The possibilities of God’s Kingdom. The promises of being Easter people. The book of Revelation does not shy away from it, and while it is a complex and dense scripture, it is one that is a vital reminder that God’s Kingdom will endure, that evil will cease, and the work that is done today to usher in that promised future is not done in vain. So, I say, thanks be to God for that great and sustaining hope. Amen.
God of power and hope, you have cast a vision of what this world can be if we turn away from the powers of greed and control and turn instead to you. It is a vision where justice flows, peace reigns, and hope proves possible. For this vision and this promise, we are grateful. And it is in this gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
God, we know that this world is not what you would wish it to be. At times it is too much, and we need to hide away. In those times let us rest in your presence, giving us the comfort we need and offering us the strength to go on. And when we do take those steps towards you, give us the perseverance to do so no matter how difficult it may be.
One of the ways, God, we remind ourselves of your promise as Easter people is to offer prayers for our neighbors and our strangers, and for ourselves. In these moments of silence, we turn over to you those prayers of our hearts that are just too deep for words…
Good and loving God, you have promised us so much and given us all we need to make those promises a reality. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our guide towards that future you hope for us, and the hope we rest on. And we pray in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…