by David Baer, August 27, 2017
Text: Revelation 6:1-8,7:9-17
I’m a sucker for fantasy stories, and so I’ll confess that I’ve been looking forward to the season finale of Game of Thrones this evening. Now in its seventh season, this drama tells the story of a struggle for power in the make-believe kingdom of Westeros, where would-be kings and queens fight one another with armies, statescraft, and treachery. It features epic battles on land and sea, dragons, and even zombies, but also a complex world like ours, with its own history, geography, economy, and religions. The author of the novels on which the series is based, George R. R. Martin wrote a story that kills off beloved characters with stunning ferocity, but in a way that prompts reflection on power and morality. The most honest, noble character is killed right near the start. A queen who wants to protect women and free slaves winds up torturing her enemies and burning them alive. So you find yourself asking, does doing the most moral thing always make the world a better place? If you have to compromise your values for the sake of a better world, how much is too much? If I like these stories, it’s because an imaginary world can be a compelling stage for “what ifs” like these.
When it comes to a popular show like this one, you often hear people say, “No spoilers!” Not everyone can watch at the same time, and yet most fans want to come to the show fresh, without having been alerted to who wins or dies. If you go to school or work with others who haven’t seen what you’ve seen, they might not want to talk about it.
Kids, on the other hand, often ask for the spoilers. Not for Game of Thrones—good heavens, I don’t think I want my kids watching that until they’re out of college—but for their own age-appropriate feature films or novels. Does it have a happy ending? Does the main character make out all right in the end? Far from “spoiling” the story, these assurances can take away anxiety that arises when the see their beloved protagonist in peril or facing disappointment or difficulty. If there is a sad or frightening moment in the story, they might appreciate knowing that it’s coming. Without the spoilers, some kids might not be willing to see or hear the story at all. Sometimes knowing how it ends allows you to enjoy the journey that leads there.
This summer we’ve been reading from the book of Revelation. These are visions recorded by the first-century John of Patmos, whom God invited to come up into heaven in a spiritual trance to see, as God says, “what must take place after this” (4:1). So it’s not a stretch to look at these visions as spoilers. We have to be careful, though, because the visions that John records are highly symbolic. They’re not meant to depict literal events, but to stimulate our imagination to perceive spiritual truth. What we hear in today’s reading is an assurance that in spite of the world’s troubles and turmoil, God is sovereign, God is still in charge, and that those who trust in God and hold out will come to see a time of lasting comfort, security, and peace.
Last week there appeared in John’s vision a scroll, which represents God’s will for the fulfillment of creation. The scroll had seven seals, and no one was found to open it except the Lamb, Jesus, whose laying down of his life reveals God’s plan and sets it in motion. Today he begins to open the seals. With the opening of each seal, one of the four living creatures around God’s throne calls out, and a rider on horseback appears. (These are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse you sometimes hear about.)
The first rider carries a bow and sits on a white horse, which would have made first-century Christians think of the fearsome mounted archers of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s neighbor to the east. This first rider’s crown and success in conquering symbolizes a foreign invasion.
The second rider takes peace from the earth—not God’s peace, but the pax Romana, the peace imposed on the nations and peoples of the Roman empire through domination and military force. When people begin to fight with one another, it shows the fragility of any peace that does not come from God, particularly a peace built in opposition to God’s justice and will for the world.
The third rider goes out with scales like those used in the marketplace, with instructions about prices for grain that would have been ridiculously high in the first century.1 After invasion and civil unrest comes a disrupted economy, scarcity of food, and hunger.
Next comes the fourth rider, who is identified as Death. After violence and famine come fatal sicknesses and lethal wild animals that encroach on what used to be inhabited land.
At this point we might be forgiven for thinking that it would have been better to leave the scroll and its seals alone! The Four Horsemen seem to be in the business of wrecking the world and inflicting suffering, rather than bringing peace. But it might be worth putting ourselves in the place of the people who first heard these visions. Most of them weren’t powerful or rich. The Roman empire pursued conquest and peace through strength by draining these people’s families and communities of resources through taxation and conscription. The economic system worked to benefit those who were already rich, and small farmers or laborers couldn’t make ends meet. If we remember that the people who came out to follow Jesus during his time on earth were poor, hungry, sick, and powerless, if we view these visions from their point of view, from the underside of the empire, then we start to understand why some might long for the toppling of economic, military, and political powers as a step toward God’s new world.
We might also take a step back and consider that in our own time there are institutions and systems we look to for security that the world’s vulnerable people experience as unjust or violent. Maybe you yourself have been on the receiving end of an injustice. One of the psalms says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain” (127:1). What symbols or institutions are lifted up in our secular world? Do they stand up to God’s standard of justice? And if not, how secure can they really be?
As I hear the words of today’s lesson about the breaking of the seals, it’s hard not to think about our world. I don’t know about you, but these days I seem to come to the news of the day with an added layer of dread and dismay. On Friday, as we heard about the approach of Hurricane Harvey to the Texas coast, I started thinking about all my friends who live in Texas and praying for their safety. Then there was an item about North Korea testing its weapons among increasing tensions between our two countries. And that was even before we got to politics. Do you feel it too? Do you feel the anxiety I feel? Maybe the turmoil of the book of Revelation isn’t so foreign to us after all. The picture of a world in turmoil would have resonated with the first-century Christians who read this book. To the extent that your life, your story, the world around you seems to be heaving and buckling, maybe it hits home for you too.
Now, you can hardly read Revelation without the Four Horsemen. We skipped over the fifth seal, where the souls of the martyrs cry out for justice, and the sixth seal, which brings a disruption in the natural world—the heavens and the earth, including a darkening of the sun. (Is this starting to resonate yet?) But here’s where we get a break in the action. The people caught up in one catastrophe after another cry out, “Who is able to stand?” And then there comes a vision that brings an answer.
John sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages….” One of the twenty-four elders in the heavenly throne room explains to him, “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.” (7:9,14).
This vision, by depicting robes that have been washed and made pure, invites us to remember our baptism, the sign and seal God uses to show that we are forgiven and claimed as God’s own. The vision of worship in the heavenly sanctuary connects the future we hope for with what we are doing here, now, today, as we gather to praise God. And it shows Christ’s ongoing care for his own: “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” (7:16-17).
You’ve come to worship today. What is one thing you can do in each of the six days that follow, to remember that you’re a child of God? What’s one thing you can do to lay hold of the assurance that God is at work, making a world that’s free of hunger, hurt, and fear? Some of you will be assisting with the Family Promise shelter. Some of you will be gathering here during the week for Bible study or exercise. Some of you take time to pray each day for yourselves, for those in need, for the world. What are you going to do to remember and hold on?
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal,” says the elder. There is an end to disruption and fear and hurt. How do we stand when the world seems to be shaking to pieces all around? By remembering our identity as God’s children in Jesus Christ. By gathering with those who share our hope. By praising God as the One who remains sovereign, who is shaping and remaking the world like a potter at the wheel, even as it spins and totters. By looking forward to the time when tears will be wiped away.
Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come. Amen.
Bruce Metzger says that a denarius, the usual daily wage for a worker, would have bought eight to sixteen times as much grain. From Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1999. p. 58.