Rev 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.
The Multitude from Every Nation
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 bet John the Revelator was sure he was living at the cusp of these visions. I bet he could picture this all playing out during his lifetime. I’m sure many generations before ours have felt certain that the days of utter destruction were upon them. Even now, I can easily assign caricatures to each of the apocalyptic riders, I can picture them among us, I can see their effects throughout the world. Somehow, the end has been nigh for millennia.
I don’t mean to belittle the realities of these experiences. I don’t mean to suggest that we stick our heads in the sand until things magically get better. I don’t mean to ignore climate change or hunger, or violence or hate, or the needs of the world which we can absolutely do something about. I do mean to insist that “the end times” are not the end.
The very first seal that begins the work of salvation, the rider on a white horse with a crown upon their head, is Christ…whose victory is sure. Christ is the first and the last. And just to be clear, this whiteness (which only describes the horse and not the actual rider, btw) is a metaphorical whiteness and not a literal whiteness. The world is not saved because of whiteness but because of christ.
And yet, even once Christ has come into the world, set loose among us, all is not instantly made well. The red horse and rider remove peace and bring bloodshed, the black horse and its riders mark famine and economic injustice, and finally the pale green horse and its riders bring sickness and death. At first glance, the suffering seems complete but it is not so. There is vast devastation among nature, and yet hearers are cautioned, “Do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’” Hurt and death seem pervasive, but the text says they are limited to only a fourth of the earth. Like color, the numbers are not literal. We don’t have to cross our fingers to hope we are lucky enough to be among the ¾ outside of death’s authority. The point is that, even though the circumstances seem dire, they are not all there is. They do get to lay claim to creation. At the end of the day, the forces of destruction do not get to sing a song of victory.
Still, that doesn’t make suffering any less real. We’re not facing supernatural firestorms, but threats that still loom over our world - violence, famine and hunger, economic insecurity, death. It’s easy to see why some would claim that the end is near if these are the markers…
These were bitter realities for first century Christians and are realities for us now. These threats persist as sea levels and nuclear tensions rise. Cancer and AIDS claim too many. Legislators and leaders fight to legitimize the dehumanization of trans people. Pay-day lenders gouge the most economically vulnerable. This world’s tyrants rage in crowds of screaming white supremacy with torches in Virginia. Evil still walks among us.
These visions strip away our illusions of security. They reveal our true vulnerability, the uncertainties that we can not protect ourselves from, no matter how we try. It seems overwhelming and heartbreaking. We wait for the final shoe to drop…but something else happens first. Before the final seal is opened…”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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And 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 worshiped God, singing….”
The threats persists, at least as long as this current age endures….but not forever, not without challenge, not without end. They do not overpower the promise, they do not get the final word. These are the death throes of the old creation giving way to the new. Let us not give them more authority than they deserve.
As I wrestled with this text, after this gut-wrenching weekend...an old old hymn came to mind. Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress":
“The old satanic foe
has sworn to work us woe!
With craft and dreadful might,
he arms himself to fight.
On earth he has no equal.”
Being redeemed by the blood of the Lamb does not make the threats go away, but it gives people the promise of life that allows them to stand in the face of the threats, confident that God's purposes are ultimately for life.
Human faithfulness looks like refusing to accept the powers of death as our fate. Faithfulness looks like defiant hope. Faithfulness looks like resistance. It looks like continuing in worship and prayer even when you are surrounded by torches and voices screaming into the night. But we can not sustain such strength on our own. Ultimately, it is God’s faithfulness to the promise, to us, to the triumph of life, love, and hope, over death, hate, and fear...that brings the madness to an end and ushers in a new beginning, a new song.
Again, I turn to that old hymn:
No strength of ours can match his might
We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight,
Whom God himself elected.
You ask who may this be?
The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord,
God’s only Son, adored.
He holds the field victorious.
Though hordes of devils fill the land
all threat'ning to devour us,
we tremble not, unmoved we stand;
they cannot over-pow'r us.
Let this world's tyrant rage;
in battle we'll engage!
His might is doomed to fail;
God's judgment must prevail!
One little word subdues him.
God's Word forever shall abide,
no thanks to foes, who fear it;
for God himself fight by our side
with weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house,
goods, honor, child, or spouse,
though life be wrenched away,
they cannot win the day.
The kingdom's ours forever!