Sermon for April 14th, 2013
1And again I looked up and saw four chariots coming out from between two mountains—mountains of bronze. 2The first chariot had red horses, the second chariot black horses, 3the third chariot white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled grey horses. 4Then I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ 5The angel answered me, ‘These are the four winds of heaven going out, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. 6The chariot with the black horses goes towards the north country, the white ones go towards the west country, and the dappled ones go towards the south country.’ 7When the steeds came out, they were impatient to get off and patrol the earth. And he said, ‘Go, patrol the earth.’ So they patrolled the earth. 8Then he cried out to me, ‘Lo, those who go towards the north country have set my spirit at rest in the north country.’
6Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ 2I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer. 3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ 4And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword. 5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, 6and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’ 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ 8I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
A man from the East Coast was on a business trip here in Texas. During the course of his trip, the Texans he encountered never failed to point out how things are "bigger here in Texas." The sky is bigger, houses are bigger, cars are bigger, businesses are bigger, and so on... Well, after a hard days work he went back to his hotel (which was bigger). Before going up to his room, he stopped at the hotel bar for a couple of drinks..they were "Texas sized" drinks, too, so after awhile he asked the bartender where the nearest restroom was. "All the way down that hall, the last door on your right." So he set off down the Texas-sized hall toward the restroom. But he'd had a couple of Texas-sized drinks already, so when he got to the end of the hall, he was confused and took a left instead of a right. That door led to the swimming pool. It was an ordinary-sized swimming pool, but he didn't realize his mistake, and when he stumbled through the door, he fell into the water with a loud splash. In that moment, in his panic and confusion, with all the Texas-sized this and that floating around his head, the businessman yelled out in desperate fear to anyone who could hear him: PLEASE DON'T FLUSH!
I think the Book of Revelation can be like that sometimes--there are some strange and scary things in there, and we tend to blow them out of all realistic proportion. Today we're going to talk about the famous (or infamous) four horsemen of the apocalypse. There have been volumes written about the four horsemen--biblical commentaries, works of fiction, poetry, and of course, attempts to "decode" just who they are and what they mean. If you do a Google search on the four horsemen of the apocalypse, you'll come up with one million, nine hundred sixty thousand results. And yet, for all that, they only occupy eight short verses in the Book of Revelation. Not even a whole chapter. Divide that by the number of horsemen, and each one only gets two verses. By contrast, Zechariah in the Old Testament gets an entire book and most people still don't know who he is! So what makes these four horsemen such "larger than life" figures? And should we be worried today (or tomorrow) about what they represent?
My own first encounter with the four horsemen, and for that matter with the Book of Revelation, was when I was fourteen years old, and I watched a movie called "A Thief in the Night" and then its sequel "A Distant Thunder." This was long before the "Left Behind" series of novels and films, but it was the same basic concept. In these movies (which were made in the 1970s) there was a rapture that made all the Christians disappear, followed by all sorts of frightening events--wars, plagues, famine, disease, and the one that really got to me: the execution of all those who refused to follow the antichrist...by way of a very menacing looking guillotine. And the film worked like magic: I became a Christian (all over again) and promised Jesus I would believe, go to church, be good and never ever disobey my parents again. And that lasted for "almost" an entire week.
In the years since then, I've heard a lot of people with similar stories. And similar endings. It seems that scaring people into the Kingdom of God isn't a very good long term strategy. And truthfully, I don't really think that was John's purpose when he wrote the Book of Revelation.
First, a little context. I said last week that the book of Revelation offers a timeless message that speaks to everyone in every age. But if you have to place Revelation in a specific time period, rather than the future, it should be placed in the past--in the first century when it was written. And we'll talk about that first century context some more in a few minutes, but first we're going to go even further back in the past...because when John of Patmos wrote Revelation in the first century, he was looking back into his distant past as well: John wrote in the tradition of the Old Testament prophet, and he looked back to their writings as a model for his own. In particular, he looked to the Old Testament prophet Zechariah. In your bibles, or on the sermon outline, noticed the remarkable similarities between Zechariah 6:1-8 and Revelation 6:1-8. They both describe a vision horses, in four different colors, who ride out from heaven to different parts of the earth. The fact that their chapter and verse numbers are identical is mostly a coincidence--these numbers weren't added until the modern era. But I don't think it's a coincidence that John's horses show up right around the same time and place in his vision as those in the vision of Zechariah.
But there are other things that Zechariah and John--although separated from one another by 600 years--have in common. Zechariah wrote his book in the 6th century B.C., after the Israelites had finally returned to Jerusalem from a long captivity and exile in Babylon. In other words, God had finally answered the prayer of Zechariah's people, the longing of their heart to return to their home. Their dream had finally come true; they could rebuild the temple and worship in the land of their ancestors.
John wrote his book in the first century A.D. after the long-awaited Messiah--Jesus Christ--had finally come to Israel, after the hopes and dreams of those who followed him came true in his resurrection and ascension to heaven. John and Zechariah both lived to see what happens after "happily ever after." And what they found, is that it's a lot of work. And sometimes it's not so happy. In Zechariah's time, the Israelites were "allowed" to return to their home and rebuild the temple, but not as an independent nation. They were still under the control and authority of the Persian Empire. In John's time, his people were under the control and authority of the Roman Empire. Zechariah and his people were constantly frustrated and thwarted in their efforts to rebuild the temple, and while they were ultimately successful in rebuilding it, John witnessed its final destruction by the Romans just 20 years before he wrote the Book of Revelation.
Zechariah and John both saw their dreams come true...and then they watched their dreams turn into nightmares. It should come as no surprise, then, that both books, both visions, include a healthy dose of the "wrath of God" directed at the earthly powers who oppressed them.
So with that historical context in mind, both from the 5th century BC and the 1st Century AD, let's take a closer look at the horsemen and what they represent. Verse 1-2: "Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, 'Come!' I looked, and there was a white horse! It's rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer." So the first horse is a white horse...and that's kind of surprising, since we associate white with purity and goodness. Jesus is described earlier in Revelation as having white robes and white hair. And that instinct may actually be a good one: While some interpreters call this horseman "conquest" and lump him together with the others as a killing machine, I'm not so sure. There's another theory that this horseman represents Christ himself, riding out to lead the horsemen. He wears a crown and carries a bow, but we are told nothing about arrows. A bow is also a classic sign of a covenant, an agreement...like a rain-bow. As for the language about conquest and conquer, its the same language John uses at the end of each of his letters to the churches: To Ephesus he says, "To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God." To Smyrna he says "Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death." To Sardis he says, "If you conquer, you will be clothed...in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life." And so on for every church. So conquering, in the Book of Revelation, can be a good thing, having the sense of "overcoming." Biblical scholars who follow this interpretation name the first horseman "Victory" rather than "Conquest."
The next horseman, however, does not seem so friendly. Verses 3-4: "When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, 'Come!' And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword." So this horse is usually named "Warfare" or "Violence." It's interesting to note this passage implies that peace is something taken (and therefore given) by God, and without it, the default behavior of humankind is to be violent. God, then, does not cause violence. God offers or withdraws peace as the solution to our primal, violent nature.
Verses 5-6: "When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, 'Come!' I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, 'A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!'" The third horseman is usually identified as famine, or poverty. Wheat and Barley are staples--necessary food for the poor and the masses, and they are offered here at unaffordable prices. But olive oil and wine--luxury foods for the rich--are safe. This could be seen as an attempt to highlight the gap between the rich and the poor.
And now the final horseman. Verses 7-8: "When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, 'Come!' I looked and there was a pale green horse! It's rider's name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth." This horseman is the only one given a name: Death. Incidentally, in case you're tempted to take any of this too literally, notice that Death is followed by Hades, who, as a Greek god seems a little out of place in a Christian vision. John certainly didn't believe in the existence of the Greek gods, so we are intended to see this as symbolism, reinforcing the identity of the final horseman, Death.
So. Even if we assume the first horseman is the victorious Christ, then we're still left with three pretty scary, pretty imposing figures, representing War and Violence, Poverty and Famine, and Disease and Death. These are all frightening things...and yet, they are all things that have been with us for a long time, in every generation. Because of this, Christians throughout history have tended to look at the wars around them, the natural disasters, the poverty and diseases, and say, "we must be living in the end times. It's all coming true, just like John predicted."
So let's take a look at that. [slides and graphs]
Statistically and historically speaking, the horsemen of the apocalypse are doing are doing a lousy job. In almost every category, the negatives are down and the positives are up. That's not to say we don't have wars, poverty, disease and death. But we certainly don't have these things to the extent that Zechariah and John did. And I think that's because of the first horseman, the white horseman who rides out in front of the others: Jesus Christ, the bringer of peace, the healer. I believe that the spread of Christianity in the world, and Christian principles like the sacred value of life, love for one's neighbor, and good stewardship of our resources--all these things are directly related to the decline in the great problems of the world. Jesus Christ, the horseman who rides out conquering and to conquer is doing exactly that: He is conquering sickness, poverty, violence, and death. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and it is. The Kingdom is growing.
One last thought: Each of the four horsemen is summoned with a single word: Come. It's an interesting word in Greek: ἔρχου. It's a command that can mean either "come" or "go." It's a command that's found exactly eight times in the Book of Revelation. Four times here, with the horsemen, and...remember how important numbers are in Revelation...four times in the very last chapter. That's the last chapter of Revelation, and the very last chapter of the entire Bible. The God who summons and sends the four horsemen is a God of balance. He is the God who summons and sends us as well. Listen to the final summons in chapter 22, verses 17 and 20: The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty, Come." Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, surely I am coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!