Sunday, July 14, 2019

What the Lamb Lets Loose: Homily on Revelation 6:1-8

An overweight Italian shoemaker's hand trembles as he writes about dark days – how his own hands had laid to rest his wife and five children. Agnolo's quill scratches out the inky words, “So many died that all believed it was the end of the world.” And given everything that his generation had lived through, no wonder. Although his birthdate isn't known, maybe he was a boy in 1315 when the weather changed and the crops failed and the Great Famine began. Even some kings found it difficult to find food. One in ten, maybe one in four people starved to death. One poem of the time lamented that “when God saw that the world was so over-proud / he sent a dearth on earth, and made it full hard. // … A man's heart might bleed for to hear the cry / of poor men who called out, 'Alas, for hunger I die!'” In those years, crime surged rampant, with rape and murder common events. As the famine eased off, it left its mark in Europe's collective psyche.

Fifteen years after the famine's end, Europe was swept up in the start of the Hundred Years' War, entangling nearly every kingdom. Agnolo was undoubtedly relieved that the war and the revolutions stayed away from his town. But then, breaking into the war came a mysterious power. It was May 1348 when it reached Agnolo's city. He could only call it “the mortality.” People would be stricken dead, wherever they were, even in mid-conversation, after parts of them swelled. Parents abandoned their children, wives abandoned their husbands. Death was suddenly everywhere, hundreds by day and hundreds by night, dumped unceremoniously in ditches. It took Agnolo's wife. It took his boys. But beyond the walls of Siena, the same death – the Black Death, a massive plague pandemic – raged from China to Spain, killing queens and kings and archbishops and peasants. In some places, the majority of people died. Death could only be measured in the tens of millions. Overall, one in three Europeans – and perhaps one in five humans on earth – died in the span of a few years. It was a dark, ugly, and terrifying age to be living in, a generation facing famine and war, plague and uprising. No wonder many thought it was the end of the world. And no wonder many turned to the Bible for understanding.

Centuries and centuries before that generation, a visionary named Zechariah “saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. … These are they whom Yahweh has sent to patrol the earth” (Zechariah 1:8-10). “And they answered the Angel of Yahweh who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, 'We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.' Then the angel of Yahweh said, 'O Yahweh of Hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?' … Thus saith Yahweh of Hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion, and I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease...” (Zechariah 1:11-15). And immediately after that, Zechariah saw four craftsmen who “have come to terrify … the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah” (Zechariah 1:21). In due time, Zechariah writes, “I lifted up my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. … The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses – all of them strong. … The angel said to me, 'These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.' … When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he cried, 'Go, patrol the earth!' So they patrolled the earth” (Zechariah 6:1-7).

And now, in his own visions recorded in the Book of Revelation, John sees that celestial patrol set loose to terrify the nations indeed. As the first four seals on the scroll of God's plan are broken one by one, these four colorful patrol sentries are identified and commissioned to cause great havoc throughout the coming ages – great havoc meant to greatly terrify. John sees them signifying the four things the Roman Empire most feared.

John says, “I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, 'Come!' And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:1-2). To the people living in John's place and time, there'd be no mystery here. John sees a mounted archer on a white horse. Rome didn't excel at using mounted archers, but their rival empire the Parthians did, and they used white horses in every army. A few decades before John writes, Romans were shocked when not only did one of their armies lose a humiliating victory, but the Parthian king Vologaeses nearly invaded the Roman province of Syria. The Roman sense of immunity began to crumble. They were terrified of the empire being invaded and conquered – foreign armies rampaging through their land, stealing their territories, dominating their people. That's what John sees.

Next, John says, “When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, 'Come!' And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Revelation 6:3-4). The sword-wielding rider on the blood-red horse was another big fear of the Romans: internal conflict. A few years after the close call with the Parthian invasion, a revolt against the Emperor Nero allowed a general named Galba to replace him in June 68. The following January, Galba was assassinated, leading to what's been called the Year of the Four Emperors – a season of immense upheaval. And while all this was going on, the province of Judaea was in open rebellion, trying to break free of the empire. Decades later, John would only be set free from his island exile after the Emperor Domitian was assassinated and replaced by his advisor Nerva. It all reminded the Romans how fragile their society could really be. Civil war, rebellion, violence in the streets!

John goes on to say, “When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' And I looked and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, 'A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!'” (Revelation 6:5-6). Upon the black horse rides yet another of a Roman's big fears: Famine. It must be a famine, because the scales are for careful rationing of food and the prices quoted for wheat are about eight or ten times the normal going price at the time. At the prices John hears, it'd take a normal man's entire daily wages to buy a day's worth of wheat for himself or the lower-quality barley for his small family – barely keeping them alive. A few years before John writes, his province had tangled with a grain famine. The prospect of having the food supply choked off – that got Romans nervous.

Finally, John says, “When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and famine and pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:7-8). The main new terror introduced by the pale horse – really, a sickly-yellowish-green horse – is the pestilence. It represents the spread of disease epidemics, even pandemics, not unlike the plague in the Black Death.

Invasion, civil war, famine, and epidemic – the four biggest fears any Roman could have. The things lurking in his subconscious, looming over his shoulder, unsettling him, making him nervous about the future, filling him with anxiety. John warns that they're going to be set loose as a judgment on the world – stampeding like horses across the world they know, afflicting them, destabilizing them.

Our society shares many similar fears. Here in America, we haven't historically had to fear invasion – but our sense of security was shattered on 9/11, a foreign attack in our own homeland. And before and after, we've at times been worried about the prospect of nuclear war. There's our white horse. And we can feel the bonds of our society weaken and fray, we know of places with riotous violence in the streets. There's our red horse. It's been a while since we've had a famine – to us, perhaps it best conjures up images of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Economic recession is perhaps our black horse. And the last decade has seen the bird flu, the swine flu, Ebola, and the Zika virus all start to make us nervous and take evasive action. Maybe epidemic, with natural disasters following it, remains our pale horse. Just like the Romans, Americans have our fears, our four horsemen, stalking the edges of our consciousness. We know they're out there. And they frighten us.

It's no wonder we think of this as starting off the scary section of the Book of Revelation. Because, yes, we're shown some rather imposing figures, whose purpose is to terrify the nations. Forces of judgment and peril are being let loose as the seals break. And in frightful, nerve-wracking times, we're right to come back to these verses to try to understand what's happening in the world. The horsemen do pace and prance around us. But John would have us ask just one key question. Yes, the Four Horsemen are let loose as the first four seals break. But who's doing the breaking? Who lets these forces loose and gives them the power they have?

The seals are being opened by the Lamb. By Jesus Christ. The One who laid down his life for you. The One who continually calls for you, who wants to love and cherish you, who wants you by his side, who paid a dear price to breathe life into you! It's Jesus Christ, as the sacrificial Lamb of God, who lets these forces loose into the world. They are not random. They are not out of control. Even in their wildest stampede, they are under his authority. He commissions them for a purpose, and all the destruction they cause will achieve his will. The Black Death, for all its devastation, not only rebalanced Europe's stewardship of resources, not only spurred new technological innovation, but it exposed cowardly ecclesiastical leaders and awakened a deep spiritual thirst among 'ordinary people,' who began to yearn for a fresh relationship with God. God can work even the Black Death together with other disasters and turn them toward his people's good (cf. Romans 8:28). When the Four Horsemen rampage, yes, they do great harm, and yes, it seems like the world is coming undone. But they come only with the consent of a Lamb who loves his people. So when the horsemen intimidate you, shout back to them that you know who holds their reins. When the state of the world concerns you, take a deep breath and remember that all of this only moves the plans of God forward toward an ultimately beautiful end.

Whatever it is our society fears, we know that it's in the Lamb's hands. If he lets our fears loose into our world, it's only because he has a purpose for them. And he means to bless us, not destroy us. He aims to bring us into the open arms of his gracious love, and hold us tight through every storm. In days of invasion, he will embrace us. In days of violence and strife, he will embrace us. In days of famine and plague, he will embrace us. We know he died for us, know he bore the cross for us, know he lives again. And all power and authority are his. Even our rampaging fears bear witness that the Lamb is worthy, that the Lamb is the man at heaven's throne.

The Lamb, Jesus Christ, does not let these forces loose in the world to destroy his church, but to judge nations and to purify his people. Too often, we've averted our eyes from the Lamb and instead warily watched, with thundering hearts, for the horsemen. But that isn't how he means us to live. He doesn't want us fixated on the dangers in the world or on the decay of society. He wants us fixated on his goodness and beauty and truth. Let the horsemen trot around – they may patrol the earth and terrify the nations, but as for us, we will keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We will rejoice during the darkest days, because we have seen the Light. And we trust that, no matter which of our fears must be let loose in the meantime, still his plans for our fears will make for a better eternity than ever we dreamed. For Jesus means to bless us.

So, since he means to bless us, we gather at his table of blessing. He's our host, he's invited us. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” through the place where the horsemen roam, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me – your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:4-6). He sets this table before us in the presence of our enemies. Even in the midst of galloping horsemen, where we belong is at the Lamb's table. Even when violence threatens us, even when famine and poverty and disease weaken us, still Jesus sets out his table. He wants to share a communion with us that not a thing we fear can take away. So let us lift high an overflowing cup in the face of death, and if our fears teach us anything, let them teach us to crave more and more of the Lamb who gives himself to us, goodness and mercy, body and blood. Let us eat and drink and be merry in him, for though the horsemen kill, the Lamb brings life abundant, everlasting. Amen.

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