A Journey Through Revelation. #5 – The Four Horsemen
Revelation 6:1-17. Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe
If you’ve watched the news this week, I’m sure you’ve been horrified by the images coming out of Indonesia. A devastating earthquake tumbled buildings to the ground. That was followed by a tsunami that flooded the land. For many in this area this was a total economic collapse. And now in the aftermath is the disease and death that follows. It is a reminder how fragile life can be at times and how easily the things we trust in to keep us safe can quickly be taken away.
But that is Indonesia, on the other side of the world. Let’s talk about something closer to home. Do you remember where you were seventeen years ago 9/11 happened? I arrived at the office of my former church that morning and immediately sensed something was wrong. The secretaries at the church had wheeled a TV into the office. The news reported that a plane that had hit the World Trade Center. We watched horrified as a second plane crashed into the other tower. Shortly after that, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. No one knew for sure what was going on, but it seemed that our country was under attack. This was a national emergency. Planes everywhere were grounded. Parents rushed to schools to pick up their children. We didn’t know what was happening. People were scared. Frantic prayers were spoken for victims and for the rescue workers searching the rubble for survivors. The next evening, we scheduled a prayer service at the church. It was packed. In times of crisis people naturally turn to God for help. What 9/11 did was to shake us all out of our complacency and our everyday routine. Our sense of safety and security was shattered. We felt vulnerable and afraid. The things we normally trust in were shown to be vulnerable and many of us turned to our faith for reassurance.
Those four planes of 9/11 function much the same way as the four horsemen do in the book of Revelation. We are on a journey through the book of Revelation, and this is the part that where the story starts to get a little scary. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse show up with all their terror. If any of you are Lord of the Rings fans, you should remember how you felt every time the Black Riders showed up. If there were a soundtrack to Revelation, the music would definitely start to change, and we would fear that something bad was going to happen. This is when it is important to remember where we have been. In chapters four and five we attended a worship service that was out of this world. We’ve been taught to see a deeper reality in the universe. We fall before the throne in all-out worship of God and the Lamb. The Lamb is Jesus Christ, the one “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev 1:5). And if things start to get a little scary in our lives then we need to be reminded to see things from God’s perspective. When life gets difficult and trials come our way, then we need to look at them from God’s point of view and know that God is there to help see us through our problems.
In chapter five, we saw a scroll with seven seals on it. The scroll represents God’s plan for the salvation of the world. The Roman Empire, that John lived in, had a plan for the world. It was built on an economy maintained by the Roman military. Emperor worship was the glue that held the various parts of the Empire together. How do you accomplish the salvation of the world? John had a message for anyone who trusted in Rome’s vision for the world. Do you trust in Rome’s military? Do you trust in Roman peace to keep the economy flourishing? John reminds his readers that all the things we trust in life to meet our needs and provide us with security can be taken away. Only God’s plan will save the world, and the only one who can accomplish that plan is a lamb that was slaughtered.
Now as we read through this chapter we need to remember that this is not a timetable of end-time events, but a description of realities faced by every age. We don’t read the book of Revelation so we can know the future; we read it so that we can know God in Jesus.
The first seal is opened and a voice calls out, “Come!” A white horse appears. “Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Rev 6:2). In that time horses were valuable tools for war. So having a horse and rider suddenly appear could be a little unsettling and worrisome. Its rider has a bow and he is bent on conquering. Roman citizens hearing this for the first time would have immediately recognized this rider. Rome had enemies on its eastern border that were famous for their cavalry and their ability to ride and shoot a bow at the same time. So John is reminding his readers of a deep seated fear they have of invasion from the east. He is reminding them of the limits of Roman power to protect them. You think that Rome is going to protect you? Think again.
Don’t we have similar fears today? I grew up practicing atomic bomb drills in school. We would run into the hall, sit with our faces to the wall and cover our heads (as if that would do any good in a real attack!) What were we afraid of? Nuclear attack from the Russians. It’s a bit like the worries we feel today with terrorists trying to infiltrate our country and do us harm. Can we really trust that our country will keep us safe? What do we truly trust in at the deepest level?
If that fear seems a little remote, then the second one hits closer to home. The second seal is broken and a bright red horse appears. “Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth so that people would slaughter one another” (Rev 6:4). Every country in every age yearns for peace. That was one of the gifts the Romans boasted about- the Pax Romana. A peaceful empire guaranteed that trade and commerce could flourish. But John warned them not to trust in the peace that Rome gives. That peace can evaporate in an instant.
America has not experienced a war on its own soil since the Civil War. While we haven’t known violence in our streets on a widespread scale, we have seen local outbreaks of anarchy. Remember what happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina? There was a widespread breakdown of law and order. I remember news commentators ask incredulously how could this happen in the United States? What about gang violence? What about school shootings? Do you feel safe to walk the streets of your town at night?
The third horseman hits us right in the pocketbook. “I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice…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’” (Rev 6:5-6).There is something wrong with an economy when it takes a whole day’s pay just for food. There is no money left for anything else. This black horse represents an economic collapse that affects everyone.
In recent years we have seen way too much of this black horse. I remember nine years ago when the market fell. I saw my pension funds cut in half, and I thought to myself, “There goes my retirement. I’ll have to work another five years.” And every so often we hear how the Social Security fund will be bankrupt in so many years. What is it you trust in to provide a secure future? The third horseman reminds us that those things can easily be taken away.
And then comes the fourth horse, pale and sickly green. Its name is death. It was “given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth” (Rev 6:8) If the third horse affects our economic health, the fourth horse impacts our physical health. No one can escape death, not even Houdini.
The fourth horse reminds us that there is no guarantee in life. We’ve all known people who died from cancer for no discernible reason. Every winter we fear the onslaught of a new and virulent flu bug. It was exactly 100 years ago, in 1918, that a flu pandemic killed between 50-100 million people worldwide. It brought the world to its knees. John’s use of the fourth horseman is meant to bring us to our knees. What are those things we trust in to provide our basic survival? Those things can be taken away in an instant. John wants us to think clearly and deeply about the foundations of our lives. What is it we trust in?
As the sixth seal was opened a great earthquake took place. “The sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth…The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place” (Rev 6:12-14). John describes a scene of utter destruction. One wonders if John had heard stories of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The city of Pompeii near modern day Naples, Italy, was buried under 60 feet of ash? It was the most luxurious corner of the Roman Empire, a place of power and wealth. Thousands of people died, gone in an instant.
After all this devastation, Revelation chapter 6 ends with a timely question- “Who is able to stand?” Who can survive all this? The answer comes in chapter 7- “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads” (Rev 7:3). Who can stand? Those who have been sealed, those who have been claimed by God. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism. We are claimed as children of God by the one “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” We are given great and precious promises by God. God “will shelter them. 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, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:16-17).
Who do you trust in? Who do you trust to save you? It’s not Caesar, John reminds us. It’s not any government or political leader. There is only one who is worthy of our trust. Martin Luther urged us to fear, love and trust in God above anything else. There is only one foundation that is unshakable, that will withstand any crisis. Trust in God. Follow the Lamb.
At the prayer service the day after 9/11, we heard these words from Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult… Be still, and know that I am God… The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
A Journey Through Revelation. #5 – The Four Horsemen