Sunday, August 09, 2009

By the Numbers: Four Horsemen

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-4; Revelation 6:1-8

In honor of our teachers and students heading back to school soon, I have a little pop quiz. Which one of the following is a true statement?
A) Revelation is the book the New Testament folks dropped in to make God sound a little more like the wrathful God of the Old Testament
B) Revelation is a dream John had after eating something he shouldn’t before going to bed.
C) Revelation is a book a hope.

If you’re scratching your head and wondering if this is a trick question, you’re probably not alone. The answer is C) Revelation is a book of hope but don’t worry if you didn’t get it. Most of us hear the word Revelation and think fire and brimstone, cryptic messages from the past that some people interpret as a blueprint for the future, doom and gloom for the world with a hint of new creation at the end.

And the scripture this morning is just one of the many reasons why we think that. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse do not appear to be bringing tidings of good news of great joy. Hardly. Instead we have war, bloodshed, hunger, death. We have the sword, famine, pestilence, and wild animals bringing civilization into chaos.

Who are these four horsemen? Well, that’s a tough question to answer. Perhaps one of the reasons understanding Revelation is so challenging is because it’s like trying to read a political cartoon from 2000 years ago. We may get the overall gist but we aren’t going to get the jokes or the jabs.

Borrowing heavily from Old Testament imagery, John is speaking to people living in an unjust empire. The writer of Revelation is speaking truth to power through a specific literary genre – apocalyptic—a form that is used to unveil or reveal things we do not see. He is watching his friends, his family, his fellow Christians being persecuted by the great power of Rome and he is writing to them in encouragement. In hope. Yes, this book with its beasts and women of Babylon was written to give hope to those who were being persecuted.

Even our section on the four horsemen.

The four horsemen have been imagined in literature, art, television and movies probably since John of Patmos first took pen to paper, or whatever the 1st century stuck in a cave on an island equivalent is. We imagine these horsemen in different ways because the writer of John wants us to. Apocalyptic literature requires imagination in the reading. There are symbols, colors, names, numbers and everything is a part of the mysterious unveiling. Everything has meaning – sometimes this meaning is more obvious than others.

Each rider comes from the Lamb, each rider is summoned by one of the living creatures near the Lamb’s throne, each comes out in terror and power. The first rider carries a bow (the favored weapon of a neighboring people known for their war-making) and is wearing what we read as a crown, but could more accurately be translated as a wreath. A wreath of victory like the ones placed on the great conquering generals’ heads. The first rider out of the gate, so to speak, is a Conqueror.

The rider that follows is on a bright red horse, red like the blood this rider insists people to spill. The rider has been given power to take peace, to stir up anger and hostility, hatred and violence among the peoples of the earth.

The third rider, the rider on the black horse, comes in with scales in hand. This rider is not justice, rather injustice, as the rider is instructed to charge outrageous prices for food staples—though leaving olive oil and wine alone. A denarius – an average day’s wages – normally had the buying power of anywhere from eight to sixteen times more than this. The third rider charges in leaving economic injustice, poverty and hunger in his wake.

The rider that comes in last could be understood as the natural conclusion of the three previous riders – conquering, bloodshed, hunger. Death comes in on a pale green horse with Hades – the ruler of the dead – at his side. And with these two comes the result of war – swords, famine, disease, and finally, what was once homes, communities, civilization, is now abandoned, over run by wild animals.

Four horsemen – War, Bloodshed, Hunger, and Death – come into our world and bring misfortune with them.

And somehow this is hopeful? For John of Patmos it was. For us, may it also be so. These four riders have wretched power. War, Bloodshed, Hunger and Death – swords, famine, disease, destruction – all of these terrible things are the tools used by the empire to keep the weak down. These are what Rome uses to rule the world, to oppress those who are less powerful – like the Christians. The four horsemen use the tactics of the oppressors.

And where did they get their weapons – these weapons of Rome, of empire, of oppressors? From God. God is the one who grants them power, God is the one who grants them dominion. They have no power of their own – all power comes from God. While the contemporary reader may see God’s giving of power to these forces as a suggestion that God is wrathful, John is using this image to bring his readers attention to the one with ultimate authority and power. For John, it is not about why bad things happen to good people or anything like that – the focus is on the one who will reign forever and ever.

Even though an empire may seem like it has total power, total control, total authority over all those in its dominion, it does not. God does. God alone has ultimate power and authority over everything under heaven and on earth. God is the one who makes mountains quake and nations tremble. Any power that Rome or any other empire may think it has comes from God and is thus bound, restricted, limited by God. Rome is not the ultimate power, God is.

The four horsemen begin the section of Revelation that imagines what the future tribulation will be like and it can be simply summed up as this: Life is hard, will continue to be hard, but the powers will not win; God will. What wondrous hope we may find in this. What needed hope.

The empire will not win nor does it have ultimate power over your life, no matter how it often seems like it does. In John’s time, the empire was the Romans, those that persecuted Christians, denied them the opportunity to worship freely, threw them to the dogs, used them as human torches, among other less than pleasant things. John spoke to them of hope through this vision, helped them to stay strong and faithful in the midst of persecution.

For you and I today, the empire looks a little different. While some of our brothers and sisters live in fear of religious persecution, we live in a nation that ensures freedom of religion. Our empire doesn’t look like room. Instead, it comes in the form of prejudice and phobia, disadvantages and doubt, temptation and trial. The empire appears in the forces of destruction, the ones that make you believe you will never see sunshine again, that the darkness will win.

The empire you face may be one like Rome but maybe it’s more like something you call stress. Stress over getting everything you need to do done; stress over providing for your family in tough economic times; stress over figuring out who it is you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to do.

Perhaps it’s what you call cancer. We have statistics and screenings but you never know if you’re going to get it or if you do, what’s going to happen. And the most insidious thing about this disease is that it’s not out there lurking, it’s in here. Sometimes it seems to have a power over you that no one can promise will not win.

Maybe your empire is something like depression. That sorrow and heaviness you just can’t shake off. That little voice inside that speaks lies, telling you that joy will not come with the morning.

Whatever the empire you face is called, John reminds us of the gospel truth – an earthly empire –stress, cancer, depression, bigotry, intolerance, materialism, sin, death—will not reign forever nor is its power over us complete. All of those things we deal with, we suffer through, are there – the empire is there as neither John nor we could deny—but these powers have nothing in comparison to the Lamb. God is the one with the true power – not Rome or anything or one else. God is the one who reigns and in the end all creation will sing of God’s glory forever and ever.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse do not create an easily understood image. But the image they present is one of hope, one we can turn to when we fear that these earthly powers have won. War, Bloodshed, Famine, Death – these frightening forces may seem to have total dominion but they don’t. Neither do the empires that choose to weld them. These empires will never win – they can’t! God is the one who established the heavens and the earth and God is the one who created the power these empires abuse. No matter how terrible it may seem, God is the one who will win ultimately and save us eternally. God will win and we will be with God.

What could be more hopeful than that? Amen.