Beyond the 4 Horsemen

Revelation 6:1-8 and 7:9-17

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.

9 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. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, 12singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ 14I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he 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.
15 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.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre 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.’

I still remember when this happened:

That’s Nirvana. A band that came onto the scene in 1989-1990 and looked nothing like the scene. Curt Kobain’s cartigan sweater and shaggy appearance, his deep guttural voice, flew in the face of the hair, makeup, and spandex of the time. It got my attention. It woke me up. I still remember standing in my apartment in Moorhead, listening and saying, “what is happening?”

John, in his writing of this letter called Revelation, is trying to wake up his audience, the church. He’s trying to turn the volume up to 11. 5 of the 7 churches he is writing to are comfortable. They’ve begun to assimilate with the culture around them, and the culture around them is steeped in keeping the Roman Empire, the government, in ultimate control. They tell you they are the peace keepers, but they tell you that with a sword hanging over your head, with crucifixion scenes happening on roadsides all around the region. They tell you they will save you through military might and power. They tell you that Caesar is Lord and demand your worship in exchange for this “peace.”

So then, imagine yourself, a new Christian, following this Jesus who John portrays “like a lamb who was slain” – the exact opposite of what Rome was promising. But to do business in this atmosphere? Say that you sell fabric or grain. So, you head down to sell at the local market. And, sort of like paying rent or for your booth, you instead offered incense to Caesar. You declared your allegiance to Caesar. It was a sign of worship, of prayer, of adoration. And, as Rob Bell says in *his book What is the Bible, “Caesar claimed to be God, and in Jewish thinking anyone who claimed to be a god was like a beast, so to offer incense would be taking the mark of the beast.” (pp.205-206)

So no wonder John pulls out all the stops when it comes to opening the scroll sealed with 7 seals. This is Lord of the Rings kinda stuff today, isn’t it? This is about how you will live your life – will you hold true to this other way, this lamb who was slain? Or will you worship Caesar to keep feeding your family? These were the things people were wrestling with in their daily lives.

John had to do something. This letter is trying to bust through the narrative of culture to wake them up out of their lock-step rhythm with Rome. To shake and clear their heads of the notion that government will save them. That that is who they are.

Enter the 4 horsemen:

The first, a white horse, the rider wearing a crown, coming to conquer them. A warning that their government can’t protect them from outside threats. Even powerful Rome will fall. And wouldn’t you know, just outside the reach of the Roman Empire was Parthia, known for their archers riding on horseback. They were evidence that Rome had been held back in their takeover of the region. They had driven back the Roman empire in 53 and 36 BC and 62 AD, halting Roman expansion.

The second, a bright red horse, and its rider wielding a sword, was permitted to take peace from the earth so that people would slaughter one another. A warning of homegrown violence here and now. Rome won’t save you. Rome isn’t peace.

The third, a black horse, the rider holding a pair of scales used for commerce. A warning that economic hardship is coming. You’ll spend a day’s wage to buy grain. You’ll survive, probably. But no oil and wine for you. Only the wealthy will enjoy that.

And the 4th, a pale green horse, it’s rider’s name is Death and Hades followed with him. It’s like the 4th horseman combines the first 3 to bring about death. He warns, we will all die.

John sees this epic vision and communicates it by shaking the foundation of the church’s certainty that they can save themselves. That money will save them. That Caesar will save them. No, only the lamb.

We like to think we can save ourselves, don’t we? We’re fine. We can pay the rent, we’re good at our jobs, we can take vacations. It’s all good. But then. There’s a diagnosis that changes everything. A tragic car accident. Those wake us up, don’t they? Or how about noticing there are hungry and homeless in our own community. And then we see that there are homeless and hungry in every place. We see racism rear its ugly head in the most obvious ways and realize it’s been there all along and is being sanctioned by our government. Even here in Hutchinson.

At the end of this chapter, this incredible question is asked: who shall stand? Who shall stand? It’s a hard question. It’s the right question.

I can only imagine the 2 churches being persecuted for living out their faith took comfort in this part of the letter. For I imagine this was no stretch of their imagination. I imagine they saw evidence of these 4 horsemen daily as they suffered hunger and oppression and death. This wasn’t a new sound to them, waking them up. This was meeting them in the depth of their reality, with the crystal clarity of just what was at stake: everything.

Who shall stand, John asks? Will you? Does this wake you up? Is this your signal that something needs to change? Is this your wake up call?

Just when you think Revelation has left you in the midst of this chaotic imagery, then a new vision breaks in, a response to these 4 horsemen. A vision teeming with saints, the ones who did stand. The good news we hear today is that there is a greater vision. One that unites every tribe and nation singing praise to God. We hear that, after all of this tribulation, after all of this hardship, God will wipe away every tear from your eye.

But what do we do now? Who will stand?

Following Jesus, being redeemed by the lamb who was slain does not make the threats go away. It makes us able to stand, to speak, to act, to love.

This is hard news. This is Good News.