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Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (August 27, 2017)
Revelation 6:1-8; 7:9-17 – “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

We continue the Narrative Lectionary’ series on Revelation by looking at some of the key symbols in the book. Remember that the author of the Apocalypse is John, who is imprisoned in the island of Patmos and writes a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor. The core message of John’s letter is essentially a plea to resist; he’s telling the Christians in these seven churches to resist accommodating the ways of Rome and instead hold steadfast to the ways of Jesus. We explored last week the symbol of the slain-but-standing Lamb, who represents Christ, the one who was and is the faithful witness to the reign of God, not to the empire of Caesar.

This week we’re looking at the four horse riders in chapter six and the saints robed in white in chapter seven. We’ll split the reading into two parts.

But before I read the first part, I’ve got to say that it’s been kind of interesting to do some reading and thinking about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because these images have really burrowed themselves into the popular imagination. One of my favorite movies, Tombstone, references this passage in the opening scene. One of the Cowboys, Johnny Ringo, quotes it after shooting a priest. The scene foreshadows the coming of Wyatt Earp with his own brand of frontier justice. For you football fans out there, almost 100 years ago, a sportswriter from a Chicago paper dubbed the Notre Dame backfield “the Four Horsemen” after their victory over Army. The pop culture references go on and on…

Let’s see what we can learn for living in our own day. John is relaying his vision and writes:

Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victory.

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Out came another horse, fiery red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth so that people would kill each other. He was given a large sword.

When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, “A quart of wheat for a denarion, and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don’t damage the olive oil and the wine.”

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and the Grave was following right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, disease, and the wild animals of the earth.

This is Holy Wisdom, Holy Word… Thanks be to God!

Tell me if you’ve ever done this before: you’re upset with someone, madder than a hornets’ nest, and you sit down to write them a letter or an email to let them know just how you feel. Let’s say it’s an email. You sit down at your computer, furiously pecking out the letter, and you let them “have it.” You channel your rage onto those keys, but now that your feelings are fully vented, a little voice inside you says, “Don’t send it just yet. Click “save as draft,” and send it tomorrow if you still want to. You go to bed, sleep on it, and your wiser, cooler head prevails in the morning and you do another draft or delete it all together.

John of Patmos did no such thing. He sent that email! He circulated it around the office, posted it on Facebook, and then some. John is seething with anger. We can speculate as to why, but it probably had something to do with the fact that he’s locked up in a cave on a remote island. Brian Blount, probably the best commentator on Revelation out there, said this in the introduction to his book on Revelation:

Teleported into its passion by the Holy Spirit, [John] is caught up in it like a broken kite jammed into the limbs of an avaricious tree. His fanciful flight of faith aborted by what he sees as evil projecting out into every direction, he fortifies himself while he holds on for the God he believes is coming to his rescue. Equally furious, this God will not climb the tree to release him; this God will rip the tree from the ground, tear out its roots, toppe it to certain doom, and take a vindicated and liberated John by the hand so as to lead him safely and comfortably away. [1]

Maybe that sheds some light on the passage before us today. To say this scene is dramatic would be an understatement. The Lamb is opening the sealed scrolls, which evokes this sense of unrolling history, and destruction on a cataclysmic scale ensues. The riders of these variously colored horses unleash war, famine, disease, and death all over the earth. And there’s no way around it—they are pouring out the wrath and executing the judgment of God.

So we can see how remembering that the writer of the letter, John, is positively livid can be helpful.

People have done some very bizarre things with this text over the years, using it to predict the future. There was a Southern Baptist church where I grew up that put on this elaborate production on Halloween called “Judgment Journey.” They’d go to all this trouble to create an experience of what the end times might look like, so that people would convert and therefore make it when the rapture comes. The Four Horsemen were portrayed as invading armies, biological warfare, riots in the streets, and such. That stuff used to scare me to death!

Now, years later with a theological degree under my belt, I would say that these Four Horsemen and the destruction they unleash aren’t signs of the things to come to come as much as signs of what has always been adn what currently is. History is replete with what these symbols allude to: warfare, economic collapse, hunger, plagues. These catastrophes have struck civilizations on every continent for as long as anyone can remember. Life is often hard, tragic, and fragile.

The Four Horsemen seem to be riding strong in our own day too, don’t they? The barrage of bad news these days is so constant and communication technology so pervasive that it seems like we’re permanently on edge, wondering what’s next. I found myself sympathizing with John of Patmos this week, almost begging for the righteous judgment of God to rain down when the President pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio. If I were writing a letter, the Four Horsemen would be tame in comparison!

Yet after envisioning this unbelievable amount of destruction, after conjuring up these characters that usher in divinely-sanctioned violence, John’s dream takes a turn. Let’s listen to the passage from the seventh chapter:

After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. They cried out with a loud voice:

“Victory belongs to our God
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

I said to him, “Sir, you know.”

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This too is Holy Wisdom, Holy Word… Thanks be to God!

“These people have come out of great hardship,” one of the elders tells John. These are the faithful who have endured the Four Horsemen and emerged victorious. They didn’t participate in the destruction, but they endured it. Even though the world around them was crumbling, like the Lamb, they were still standing. They persevered. Their faith made them strong. Up against forces way beyond their control, they conquered by staying true to who they were in Christ.

While facing the might of Rome, they remembered that their allegiance wasn’t to the Empire of violence and death, but to the Reign of God, to peace and life. They sacrificed much, John is trying to say, but they didn’t sacrifice their integrity. That’s why they’re clothed in white: they’re unsullied.

That’s been impressed upon me lately when I’ve wanted to just throw my hands up and say, “Where’s the hope? Things feel like they are getting so out of control,” even though because of my privilege I’m still relatively insulated from all this madness. I’m convinced that we who follow Jesus have to do things differently if we’re going to make a difference, whether that’s in the political arena or in the boardroom or at the family dinner table at Thanksgiving. That’s the test in these times: do we give in to the pressure to “fight fire with fire,” which is oh-so-tempting, or do we keep our focus and embody an alternative way, the way of the Lamb?

It’s like Howard Thurman, whose insights influenced Dr. King and many others, said, “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men and women often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making.” [2]

I’ll close with a brief story. Two weeks ago Alison Harrington, the pastor of Southside Presbyterian, was preaching on the story of the disciples in the boat during a storm. Jesus, out on the water, extended his hand to Peter saying, “Trust me.” Alison’s point was, “Sometimes we have to have courage and step out of the boat.” Her remarks were mostly addressed to the white people in her congregation, “We have to step out of the boat, take some risks, get out there…” But to the people of color, to other marginalized folks in the congregation, she said, “I can’t tell you what that looks like for you. You have to determine that for yourself.”

Well, later that day was the march downtown against white supremacy. One of Alison’s congregants, a person who is transgender, was marching when suddenly some men on the sidewalk started heckling them. In heels, mind you, this person veered off from the procession and walked over to the hecklers.

Alison was saying, “No… no, honey, that’s not what I meant!”

“But Alison, the person insisted, “Maybe no one has invited them into this work yet.”

That’s one person with Spirit-infused courage doing things differently. The Lamb’s way.

Howard Thurman again: “Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, and death to communion with his Father. He affirmed life; and hatred was the great denial.” [3]

Like the saints in white, may we not deny who we are.

[1] Brian Blount, Relevation: A Commentary (2009), p. 1.
[2] Footprints of a Dream : The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (1959), p. 7
[3] Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), p. 88
Featured image: “Four Horsemen of Apocalypse” (1887) by Viktor Vasnetsov, accessed here.