Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Albrecht Durer, ca. 1497
Scripture can be found here...
Last week I was able to travel with four women from our congregation to participate in the triennial Churchwide Gathering of the Presbyterian Women in Orlando. The theme of the gathering was “River of Hope,” taken from Psalm 46: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” Each morning and each evening we were invited to wade into that river of hope, through the inspiring preaching, through prayer and the study of scripture, through the stirring calls to action for peace and justice, and through visible and tangible evidence of Presbyterian Women’s ongoing commitment to building an inclusive and caring community of faith.
If you’ve ever been to a gathering like this one, you know exactly what I mean: there is nothing like being immersed for five days in this kind of worship experience, this kind of bonding and fellowship, this kind of sheer jubilation. It’s exhilarating. It’s amazing.
Then we all woke up to Friday’s news. A young man had opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where hundreds of young people had come together for that consummate summer recreational activity, the opening of a big budget action movie. By the time the shooting had stopped, 12 people were dead or dying, including “a U.S. Navy veteran who served three tours of duty in the Middle East, a 6-year-old girl excited about learning to swim, and a New Jersey native who shielded his girlfriend with his own body when the shots rang out.”[i] An additional 58 people were injured.
And whoosh—we were taken and thrown like a raft going over the rapids, into the swirl of violence and despair that, at times, seem to epitomize life in this broken world of ours. And it is true: life immersed in the gospel in no way exempts us from life immersed in the pain and cruelty of this world. In certain ways, it makes us more vulnerable to it. There are so many mass shootings in the United States we are starting to lose track of them—there have been 645 separate events of mass killing in this country since 1976. That’s an average of nearly 18 mass killing events per year.[ii] We continue to watch in helpless horror as the Syrian army goes about its systematic crushing of opposition among its own citizens. The Pew Economic Mobility Project tells us again what we already know: the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.[iii] And despite being the wealthiest country in the world, US citizens are less healthy than ever: we’re 49th in life expectancy, 41st in infant mortality (placing us behind Slovenia, the Falkland Islands and Cuba), but holding firm worldwide at first place in obesity.
I 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… And 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… I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand… I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death… (Rev. 6:2,4, 5b, 8)
This week we have arrived at “Four” in our countdown of the symbolism of numbers in scripture. And though I was tempted to preach on the fact that there are four gospels, for example, or the four rivers flowing out of the garden of Eden, or the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, earth, air, fire and water, the ancient four elements: there was no real question: I wanted to talk with you about the four horsemen. This image is incredibly powerful and pervasive in our culture., so much so that many people with little or no familiarity with scripture have heard of the four horsemen and have some sense of what they portend. In fact, this concept has so thoroughly saturated popular culture, there is a therapist on the West coast who has come up with “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of relationships,” a checklist for couples who want to make sure they aren’t engaging in behaviors that will signal the “end of the world” for their marriages.[iv]
But it would be good to back up, really back up. This image of the four horsemen, that they signify the end of the world, is predicated on one particular and very popular reading of the book of Revelation as being a blueprint for the last days and times. That’s an approach called “premillenial dispensationalism,” and the popular form of it gained traction in the 1830’s in the writings of Irish minister John Nelson Darby. More recently, it has earned the authors of the “Left Behind” books untold riches. But this is a view of Revelation that has been rejected by theologians from the earliest days of Christianity. At the 213th General Assembly (2001), the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed an overture urging pastors to communicate to their congregations that “Left Behind” theology is not in accord with a reformed interpretation of scripture. But there are numerous scholarly approaches to this beautiful and complicated portion of scripture that do fall within reformed understanding: I’ll share just a few of them with you.
One way of looking at Revelation is that it is a description, in code, of first century Christianity struggling to survive in the midst of the hostile Roman Empire. Seen through this lens, the reader can try to match the grand metaphors of the text to the historical events of that era. That’s one approach. But Revelation can also be seen as a mythic/poetic dreamscape, a kind of diary of the journey of the human soul towards Christ. Looked at this way, it is an intensely personal document about its author—but it is also an invitation to each reader to find our own dreamscape, our own journey to Christ. That’s another approach. Finally, Revelation can be seen as a lens through which to interpret all of human history. Viewed in this way, you could say that it is a story about empire and oppressed religious minorities—a story we see playing itself out over and over again. The main point I want to make about Revelation is this: The text is explosive, filled with whiplash-inducing turns of phrase, and maddeningly obscure and double-edged symbols—despite the fact that this book is called by a name that means “revealing.” To try put it in a box, and say, “That’s it, there is only one way to understand this,” is to treat the text with far less respect and awe than it deserves.
Let’s start with a fairly simple question. Why four horsemen? The number four in scripture represents God’s creative works, especially those works associated with the earth. Thus, four seasons, four elements, even four evangelists—four earthly voices telling us about Jesus and the reign of God. And the four horsemen don’t arrive in a vacuum… before they make their appearance in Revelation, we have the “four living creatures,” the ones who open the seals and bring the riders forth. They are introduced in chapter 4, and together they represent the creatures of the earth: one has the face of a lion, one the face of an ox, one the face of a human being, and one the face of an eagle (Rev. 4:7). “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come’” (Rev. 4:8). They see and they sing: these are some of the fundamental tasks of creation, to see the glory of God and to sing God’s praises.
The four living creatures introduce the four horsemen, who come representing conquest, and war, and economic inequality, and death.
Our job as living creatures is to know ourselves to be part of God’s good creation, and to see and to sing. And sometimes what we see is disheartening to say the least. Sometimes what we see, whether it is the illness of someone we love or the sickness at the heart of an entire social system or government or ecosystem, causes us to weep. And when we are confronted with all that is disheartening or downright heartbreaking, when we feel alienated from life and joy, we are presented with the conundrum faced by the psalmist. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Sometimes we can feel exiled right at home.
And we are compelled to ask: who or what will save us? Who or what will save the protesters who only want a voice at the ballot box? Who or what will save the land, that threatens to be despoiled with every latest attempt to squeeze water or blood or oil out of the very stones? Who or what will save the people who cannot afford food or prescriptions or shelter from the heat or wind or flood? Who or what will save the people who just wanted to see the latest Batman movie?
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10).
This is both the most hopeful and most frustrating prescription. The earth, this fourfold creation, is the Lord’s, and everything that is in it. That means that salvation belongs to God along with all the rest of creation. But what about this Lamb?
Here is where the “Left Behind” authors go seriously, devastatingly astray. In their novel “Glorious Appearing,” they describe a Jesus who is all too willing to wield heavenly power to deal out death and destruction. They write,
''Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again.''
This is a depiction of Jesus as Action Hero, a Jesus who would be entirely at home as the lead in “The Dark Knight Rises.” And this is the version of a savior our culture prefers—from Batman as portrayed by Christian Bale to the Navy Seals who killed Osama Bin Laden. But for those who read Revelation deeply, it is absolutely contrary to the vision of salvation depicted there. “Salvation belongs to… the Lamb.” Jesus is the Lamb. And the Greek word that is used for “lamb” in Revelation is “arnion,” which means, actually, “lambkin.” Lambkin is a word that conveys, not the kind of power that arms itself and fights back, but complete vulnerability. The power Jesus wields is not the power of one who is on the side of the great armies, ready to defend themselves and swallow up the bad guys in a hail of bullets. The power of Jesus is the power of one who emptied himself of power, and became just like us. The power of Jesus is the power of the victim. The power of Jesus is the power of compassion, the power of understanding what it is to be human, vulnerable, scared, and dying. As writer Diana Butler Bass writes of Jesus in A People’s History of Christianity, “His is not a revolution of militant victory, rather of humility, hospitality, and love.”[v] That is the power of Jesus’ salvation. Salvation belongs to the lambkin, the one who shows compassion for frail and broken humanity, and the frail and broken creation.
The Lamb at the center of the throne, John tells us, will guide us to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. This is not a savior who is arming himself. This is not a savior who is gearing up for a political battle, to pass the best legislation or elect the right candidate. This is not a savior whose power will reside in economic policy or in health care reform. This is a savior who invites us to wade into the springs of the water of life, the river of hope, and drink deep. This is a savior who models for us the way of vulnerability and compassion. This is a savior whose power lies in understanding the depths of human pain, and in letting us know we are not alone in it. Are we called to a way of peace and justice? Yes. Are we called to protect those even more powerless than we are? Absolutely? Are we called to offer ourselves up as victims to an unjust system or even to a partner who abuses us? Never—Jesus has already done that and there is no need to repeat his sacrifice. But we are called to full immersion in Jesus’ way, the way of humility, hospitality and love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] “Colorado Movie Massacre: 12 Lives Cut Short by Violent Shooting,” Associated Press, July 25, 2012, http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/07/midnight_movie_massacre_victim.html.
[ii] Joel Achenbach, “Colorado shootings add chapter to long, unpredictable story of U. S. mass murder,” The Washington Post, July 24, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/colorado-shootings-add-chapter-to-long-unpredictable-story-of-us-mass-murder/2012/07/24/gJQAK6Xe7W_story.html.
[iii] Catherine Rampell, “Richer Rich, and Poorer Poor,” Economix Blog, The New York Times, July 10, 2012, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/10/richer-rich-and-poorer-poor/.
[v] Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 14.