Revelation 6:1-8; 7:9-17
Then 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!’ 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.
When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ 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.
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, and 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!’
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I 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.
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. 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 worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I 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.
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.
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.’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about the Devil who was sitting at the gates of hell. All of a sudden, an old man arrived in a burst of flames, looking confused and lost. The Devil looked at his paperwork and frowned. He was unable to find this old man’s data file. “This can’t be right,” the old man grumbled, looking at the Devil, “I’ve been a good man my whole life.” The Devil nodded apologetically…most people said this when they arrived at Hell.
“Why don’t you start with how you died and we’ll figure it out,” he said. The old man sighed and said, “Well, I was out minding my grandchildren, enjoying a fun day out. I don’t get the grandchildren often because my eyesight is starting to fade. But we were having the most wonderful time. And that’s when everything went crazy! Out of nowhere, I spotted the largest, most grotesque mouse I’ve ever seen moving towards us. It was absolutely enormous! And that’s when it moved. Straight towards the grandchildren first, limbs outstretched. You don’t know where mice have been, what if it had bitten one of them? Can you imagine if they got rabies on my watch?” “So what did you do then?” the Devil whispered, entranced by the story. He was munching on a box of popcorn. The old man continued. “You don’t get how big this mouse was! Radiation it must’ve been. Too many phones these days, that’s what causes it. I did the only thing I could! I grabbed my walking stick and I cracked it over the mouse’s head. Now my eyesight isn’t that good anymore, but I whacked it good! The kids started screaming at this point. You know how they get when you have to kill an animal. But I needed to keep going. You see with mice, you need to see their guts to know they’re dead. Otherwise they’ll be back with others.” “So you killed it?” the Devil asked. By now some of his demigods had come to listen to the story as well. The old man nodded, “By golly I did! Guts and all were splattered for all to see. The kids had lost their mind at this point. Tears everywhere. A crowd had gathered, all screaming at the sight. It was at this point though, that the exertion caught up with me. I felt my heart give way. I must have suffered a heart attack. Next thing I know, I’m here.” “Huh,” the Devil said, concerned. “This just doesn’t seem to add up. Let me give heaven a call and we’ll try and see what’s going on here.” The Devil pulled up a phone from thin air and dialed a number. “Hey, Jesus, bro,” the Devil said. “I think I’ve got one of yours here. His story checks out. Must have been a mix up.” The Devil nodded as a voice on the phone spoke back to him. He gave the old man a silent celebratory thumbs up as the voice continued. The Devil covered the phone speaker with his hand, turned to the old man and said, “You’re all good, they just want to know where you were when you died.” The old man nodded, “Oh, that’s easy. I was at Disneyworld.”
Poor grandpa, taking out a beloved icon of childhood, Mickey Mouse himself. All he ever wanted to do was bring cheer and happiness to millions of children around the world! He certainly didn’t deserve to go out in a bloody massacre…or did he?! Well, regardless of our opinions on Mickey, I think we’d probably agree that the old man certainly didn’t deserve eternal damnation for an honest mistake. I mean, his eyes weren’t good anymore and he was just trying to protect his grandkids from a potential disaster. His intention was good and well-meaning. His poor eyesight, something outside of his control, was to blame. But, thus, is the nature of suffering. It affects both the deserving and undeserving alike. Our reading from Revelation is a testament to this.
It’s a passage with imagery that is familiar to many. Recall from last week’s reading that the Lamb, i.e. Jesus, is the only one found worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals. And when he does, he unleashes these four horsemen, the so-called “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” for they bring nothing but pain and suffering to the world. The white horseman conquers, the red horseman slaughters, the black horseman brings famine and pestilence, and the green horseman brings death itself. All four horsemen, none of which bring anything good, unleashed on the world for no apparent reason. Why was the Lamb given the scroll in the first place? Why was he expected to open the scroll? Couldn’t he have simply declined the expectation and kept the scroll sealed? Surely he knew what would be unleashed by opening it! Unfortunately we don’t really have answers to these questions. The Lamb was doing what it knew how to do best: obey and fulfill expectations. Of course, we can always speculate answers to these questions. Perhaps the world was completely overrun by sin and death already and needed a cleansing on a grand scale. Perhaps the world needed to be cleansed for the second coming of the Lamb. Perhaps the world needed to be punished for its treatment of the Lamb during its first visit! These are all speculations that are neither confirmed nor denied by John’s vision. John simply presents the event without justification, which leads to the larger question that was posed in our Bible study earlier this week: if God is an all-powerful, all-loving God, why does He allow suffering to exist at all? Isn’t suffering contradictory to love?
Of course, these are questions that we have wrestled with since the time we entered into relationship with God. They are more than simply, “why is there suffering in the world?” No, they are much more accusatory towards God. “Why, God, why would you allow us to suffer if you love us and are powerful enough to get rid of suffering altogether?” Clearly the onus is on God to explain why He allows for suffering. So why, God? Well, I think we’d all agree that there are some people who deserve to suffer by not heeding God’s will, nor his law. There must be some type of consequence for not obeying God. Suffering is an appropriate consequence for such disobedience. Now then, we struggle to understand why the undeserving should suffer. Why must those who obey God’s will and law suffer? To answer that question we have to look at the nature of suffering itself. When we suffer, we the faithful tend to draw closer to God. The unfaithful rationalize their suffering (i.e. it builds my character, it makes me stronger, it helps me know myself better) while the faithful question God (i.e. How long, O Lord? How did I not live righteously? What is the purpose of my suffering?) God may or not answer such questions but the end result is the same–suffering draws us closer to God. Suffering draws us into ourselves and to God within us. Suffering often draws us into prayer, a time of deliberately listening for God to speak into our lives. Perhaps the four horsemen represent God’s definitive attempt to bring us closer to him. So perhaps we ought to welcome them with gratitude and appreciation when that day comes.
And we hear from the second half of our passage that not all of us are destroyed by the coming of the horsemen. Some of us are transformed into worshipful beings of the Lord. We leave our sinful bodies behind and dedicate ourselves to worshiping God day and night. Some of us are drawn even closer to God! Friends, there is hope in these passages. Suffering is a means by which we get closer to God! Perhaps we ought to appreciate our suffering more. Recall the wisdom from Peter’s first letter, “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” (5:10) All suffering is temporary, even the suffering brought from the four horsemen. God will transform us in our suffering. God uses suffering to reveal his glory and our glory. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (8:18)
It is powerful imagery in today’s reading that can be dreaded or awaited. But know that suffering does bring us closer to God, some closer than others. Let us rejoice in the wisdom of James that says, “blessed is anyone who endures trials. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (1:12) Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.