Classes begin tomorrow at Iowa State, and later this week for the Ames and Gilbert school districts. Around here, it has been joyful pandemonium as students have been moving in all week. This morning we are glad to see students who are back as well as new students. And other new faces. Welcome, everybody!
So you show up for worship at this church in Ames and discover that they are deep into Revelation. If I were attending a church for the first time, I have to be honest: that would probably scare me.
Just to be up front about it, we are not the kind of church that constantly goes on and on about end-time prophecy and when Jesus is going to return. We actually might go a few years without mentioning the book of Revelation around here. But John’s Apocalypse is a part of our Christian scriptures. It is part of the Bible, and strange as it is, it is worth knowing what is in the book and perhaps reclaiming it as a scripture written for the church. John wrote in a time of terror, a time of anxiety, a time of fear, a time of political uncertainty and social upheaval. Does any of this sound familiar?
One of the enduring images from Revelation is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They elicit fear and terror. They signal danger. There are many folks who are not particularly familiar with the Bible or who don’t make a habit of reading Revelation who nevertheless know about the Four Horsemen.
The famed sportswriter Grantland Rice penned the most famous lead in sportswriting history. It was published in the New York Tribune on October 18, 1924:
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.They don’t write like that anymore, do they? The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, the nickname Rice gave its starting backfield, inspired fear and foreboding – the Four Horsemen brought impending doom as they ran roughshod over opponents.
A couple of weeks ago, as we read in Revelation chapter 5, the Lamb – Jesus Christ - was found worthy to open the scroll. In our text today, as the first four seals of the scroll are opened, horses and riders are revealed.
First there is a White Horse. A conquering horse. The key is that the rider has a bow. On the front of the bulletin cover, you will see an image of a woodcut by Albrecht Durer, from the 15th century. The first horseman is farthest away, holding a bow. The fiercest fighters of the day were archers on horseback, and the Parthians were especially known for their mounted archers. The Parthians – an empire centered in what is now northeast Iran - repeatedly drove back and defeated the Roman army, putting an end to its eastward expansion. They were a reminder of the limits of the security Rome could provide. Those Christians who participated in emperor worship or in sacrifices offered to Roman gods were compromising their convictions for powers that were limited and could not be relied upon.
The second horseman is on a Red Horse. This horseman takes away peace and brings violence. If the conquering horseman represents danger from without, this horsemen represents danger from within. In Durer’s woodcut, he is closer to the reader, indicating that the danger from within may be greater than the danger from outside forces. He unleashes hostilities so that bloodshed comes to the populace. Rome tried to cultivate an appreciation for the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. This peace allowed for roads to be built and for food and commodities to be available. But it came with a price. Dissenting voices were silenced. Many Christians suffered. A lot of people accepted executions and widespread persecution as necessary to preserve the peace. But such peace was not really peace, and the second rider warns that this peace will be taken away.
The third rider is on a black horse. He carries scales and speaks of wheat and barley being sold for 10 or 20 times the usual amount. It is a message of economic uncertainty, of famine and scarcity and inflation that come with war. In Durer’s woodcut, this is the largest image, indicating that economic fears are perhaps the closest to us. For a lot of people, this is what keeps them up at night.
And then the fourth rider is on a sickly, pale green horse. This rider is Death. This is where Johnny Cash ends his song. Along with death is Hades. If you look at the woodcut on the cover, Death is the nearest but the smallest horseman, and beside it is Hades. You may not notice Hades at first. It is in the very corner, a bizarre figure with a huge mouth – it appears that a king is in Hades’ open mouth. Hades is pictured this way because the Old Testament personified Hades or Sheol – the place of the dead – as having a voracious appetite and opening its mouth wide to devour the powerful. Death does its work through war, violence, famine, disease, plagues, and wild beasts.
This is pretty brutal stuff. Now, we need to remember that these are symbolic images. The point is not that we are to be on the lookout for a rider on a White Horse with a bow galloping down Welch Avenue, and that when that happens we will know the end is near. That wasn’t the point for John’s readers, either. What these Four Horsemen represent is a kind of timeless truth. There are always forces at work in our world that are threatening. War, violence, crop failure, illness, economic distress – most people in most times and places have to at least deal with some of these. Human institutions and material things will fail us, and in the end, we all have to face death.
Now, it is hard to know what to do with a passage such as this. But given that what the Four Horsemen represent is a kind of timeless reality, we might redefine the Four Horsemen for today, perhaps for college students, like Grantland Rice did for college football way back when:
Outlined against a sun-filled August sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Organic Chemistry, Advanced Thermodynamics, Statistics, and Macroeconomics.John paints a terrifying picture for his readers. And as we continue reading, it only gets worse. Since we only have one more week in Revelation, I’ll try to briefly describe what happens up to the last chapter, which we will look at two weeks from today.
I read through the whole book of Revelation in one sitting. I I would encourage you to give it a shot and then share your impression. To me, chapters 6 through 20 read an extended hallucination, a bad acid trip - I have to be honest. The images just keep getting weirder and more violent and more disconcerting.
In this book we have the Seven Seals. The Four Horsemen are revealed with the first Four Seals. Then there are Seven Trumpets. More devastation is unleashed. There is a Woman with a Child and a Dragon who threatens the Child. There is a first Beast, with 7 heads and ten horns, and a second Beast, in cahoots with the first, who forces everyone to worship the first beast and marks everyone with the mark of the beast, the number 666. The number 7 is perfect, so 666 represents imperfection. Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger notes that in a system where Hebrew letters have numeric value, the letters of the name Nero Caesar adds up to 666. Throughout history people have tried to identify a political opponent or the pope or some dangerous new idea as the Beast, but it is much more likely that the Beast is the Roman Emperor.
There are Seven Plagues and there are Seven Bowls of Wrath. There is a Whore of Babylon, with Babylon again representing Rome. There is wave after wave of judgment and bloodshed and terror.
In the end, the army of the Beast assembles at a place called Armageddon and is defeated in a great battle by an army led by a rider on a White Horse. The rider’s name is Faithful and True. This is followed in chapter 20 by a thousand years in which Satan is bound and the martyrs of this time of terror will reign with Christ.
The part about the thousand years is not really a prominent part of the book of Revelation, but lots of people have taken those verses, added a few verses from 1 Thessalonians and from the book of Daniel and from Ezekiel and elsewhere and constructed an elaborate theology about when Christ will return and how it is all going to work. There are those who argue that things will get progressively worse until Jesus returns and ushers in the thousand years – that is pre-millenialism. You will sometimes find people who are gleeful at how terrible the world is – they can almost be giddy about it because it means Jesus is coming soon. This is where all of that comes from.
Others believe that the world will get better and better, and there will be a thousand year golden age before Jesus returns. Jesus returns after the millennium, so that is called post-millenialism.
My take on it is that like the other numbers in this book, the thousand years are not meant as a literal number. They represent a large amount – a long time. And then as I have said before, John was not writing so that people 2000 years later could come up with detailed schemes for Jesus’ return. There is no mention in Revelation of an antichrist or a rapture or a tribulation or really even a well-defined return of Christ. All of these ideas come from other places.
If you don’t believe the thousand years are literal, that is amillenialism. Or John Anderson offered another choice: he said he was pan-millenial. That means it will all pan out in the end - or it will all come out in the wash.
Well, after looking at the Four Horsemen, I have just skimmed the highlights of chapters 8-20, setting up the conclusion to Revelation in a couple of weeks.
Most of the stuff we read in the Bible – most of the stuff we read, period – is linear. Chronological. And not just chronological, but just plain old logical. This is not necessarily the case with Revelation. The seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven bowls of wrath, all of the trials and tribulations outlined in the book – this is not a coherent, linear, step 1-2-3 description. It is more of a spiraling vision. In a sense, John says the same things several times using various images. To try to treat this as a logical, step-by-step narrative is to miss the point.
Now, I know there is a question hanging over all of this – it is a question that maybe everybody is asking, me included. The question is, “What is the point?” Where is God in all this, and what in the world does this have to do with us today?”
Well, I’m glad you asked. John was writing to a fairly beleaguered group of believers. They were facing hostility and oppression, and in some cases had to make a difficult choice of going along to get along in the culture, or living counter-culturally as followers of Jesus Christ. To say Yes to Christ could mean saying No to Caesar, and to do that, the stakes could be high. John himself had paid the price; he was living in exile on the island of Patmos. Back in chapter 2, John was told to write to the church in Smyrna, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” There is no difficult symbolism there; John is flat-out saying that some to whom he is writing will give their lives for their faith.
Believe it or not, this wild, crazy, weird, violent, sometimes bizarre letter written to seven churches in what is now western Turkey was intended to give hope in a very difficult time. It told them that the powers that oppressed them were limited powers. True power belonged to God, and God would have the ultimate victory. It gave them hope of life beyond the difficult future many of them faced.
Sprinkled throughout this book, we again and again have that assurance. And one of the best examples comes shortly after the Four Horsemen, in Chapter 7:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…
Then one of the Elders said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’We all face trials in life – perhaps nothing approaching what John’s first readers faced, but then again, life can be hard – for all of us. And I mean even harder than Advanced Thermodynamics. We can all face painful situations. The promise for us is that even through the most desperate of times, God is there, and that in the end God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Amen.