The seven seals
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Let us pray. Heavenly Father, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb who is worthy to open the scroll of revelation, we seek understanding today; so we ask that you help us to hear this sometimes puzzling word with hearts and minds and spirits that are open to everything you wish to say to us. In Jesus' name we ask this blessing. Amen.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is one of the images from The Revelation that is part of cultural history in the western world. 'Countless artists from antiquity to the present have tried to capture the mood and the power of this scene' (Reddish, Revelation, 134). The image on the screen behind me and on the cover of The Life & Times folder this morning is from a woodcut by Albrecht Durer made in 1498. One hears the phrase 'four horsemen of the apocalypse' used to describe any disastrous set of circumstances. I am almost positive I heard these words in relation to one of the most recent seasons of the Toronto Blue Jays when, if I recall correctly, three or four of their starting pitchers succumbed to season-ending injuries in less than a month's time. However, I can state without any fear of contradiction that even those who see 21st century events predicted in this 1st century document would not include an ill-fated season of a baseball team in that list. What then is it that we have here? That's the question we will attempt to get at today and in our Home Fellowship Groups this week.
The first thing to be reminded of is what we discovered last week. The scroll that was found is something that John wants to understand. It is only the Lamb that was slaughtered who is worthy to open the seals that keep the scroll from being read. Therefore I think it is important for us to understand that we are hearing, through the breaking of the seals, words that Jesus wants us to hear. Therefore, as we listen, we keep in the back of our minds that this is part of the good news. I think this is vital for us because as much as we may have ignored the Revelation, as much as we misunderstand this last book of the Bible, we have tended to think that all of this over-the-top imagery is mostly bad news. But it cannot be that for a believer because it is the Revelation given to John by our Saviour.
I don't know about you but my understanding of ancient history is lacking. I don't ever remember hearing about the Parthians. What I remember was that there was the Greek empire that featured Alexander the Great and then the Roman empire. The Parthian empire was directly east of that part of the world controlled by Rome; it stretched from the Euphrates River to the Indus River, in other words, from modern day Iraq to Pakistan, a somewhat significant piece of real estate. Within a generation of the birth of Jesus, the Parthians, in 40 BC invaded Palestine, driving out the rulers installed by the Romans, including a young Herod. Three years later the Romans regained control and put Herod once again in charge. One year after that a general by the name of Marc Anthony invaded Parthia but was defeated. And as late 62 AD the Parthians repelled another Roman invasion. Does anyone want to hazard a guess as to what the Parthian armies were famous for? Some scholars say they were the first army to employ archers on horseback and most of their horses were white. I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow.
The week I prepared this sermon the frigate HMCS Toronto, which was involved in NATO military exercises in the Black Sea, was 'buzzed' by Russian aircraft in what the Canadian government described as an unnecessarily provocative manner. Some of us here today are old enough to remember a Russian leader taking his shoe off and banging it on a desk at the United Nations. Nikita Khrushchev told the west he was going to bury us. I can remember being told in elementary school what we should do if we heard an air raid siren. Russia appears to be the enemy again, but it's a different Russia. The communist empire is no more.
So what was the message to those Christians listening to the Revelation given to John. I think it's something like this: the Roman empire of which we are justly afraid cannot defeat some of its earthly foes. How is such an empire going to stand against the power and will of our God and of his Christ?
Three more seals are broken and three more horses are called to enter the scene, a red horse, a black horse, and a pale yellow-greenish horse which is accompanied by Hades. The colour of this fourth horse is the word from which we get the English word chlorine. That's a powerful image to attach to death. What I think we are meant to see in the images and symbolism of these horses is the result of failing to govern our lives according to the will and purposes of God.
Let me tread carefully here, realizing that even as I am careful there are some of you who will likely think I am seriously off the rails. When we flaunt the laws of God there are consequences. This will sound silly to some of you but let me tell you of an adventure I once had with a chipmunk. At the cottage my family had in my childhood, there were chipmunks. We fed them peanuts; we loved to see how many peanuts they could stuff in their pouches before going off to hide them in their burrows as they prepared for winter. These critters were so anxious to get the food they would take the peanuts right out of our hands. One day I wondered if the chipmunk would go into my pocket for a peanut—it did and on the way out I tried to grab it. It bit me. Of course it did; what else could I expect?
There is conflict on the earth and what do people do? Do they seek to discover how peace may be nurtured? No, so many of us look for ways to kill one another. This is the red horse. The black horse rides into the scene with a set of scales. '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!” There is tragedy that we do not immediately see in this image. The denarius was likely the most common coin of the Roman empire. It was equal to a day's pay for the common labourer. You will recall the story Jesus told about the labourers in the vineyard; they lined up at the end of the day to be paid. The reason for that was simple. If I have worked in your field one day I need the money I have earned in order to buy food for my family. Scholars tell us under normal circumstances a denarius would buy enough grain to make bread for one family for one day. They also tell us the price quoted in this verse is from eight to sixteen times the normal price—this is runaway inflation.
Two things to be said here: if these are the prices then I am going to be hungry, but my children are going to starve. Here's the second thing. The rich were untouched by this crisis, the olive oil and wine remained plentiful.
Then Death and Hades enter the scene. This image I think reinforces the idea that the choice that has always been put before God's people by God is to choose between God's ways which lead to life and the ways of selfishness and darkness that lead to death in all its forms.
When the fifth seal is broken we hear the cries of the martyrs. Here is an image in which more guess work is required. The altar in the Jerusalem temple was a place of sacrifice. When the animal brought for sacrifice was killed, its blood was poured out at the base of the altar. In Jewish thought the life of any living being was in the blood. Remembering that we are dealing with poetic images and symbols, I think what we are meant to understand is that the heavenly altar has become a place of protection and sanctuary for those whose blood has been shed because they remained faithful to their Lord and Saviour Jesus.
There are once again a couple of things that ought to attract our attention. The martyrs cry out pleading with God for justice to be done, for God to finally show his power and will to those that have insisted on being God's enemies. This is the voice of lament. This is a voice that we hear in the Psalms, which is another part of the Bible focused upon worship. Listen to this: How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire? Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name. ...Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake. Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes (Psalm 79:5, 6, 9, 10).
Some of you are not happy those sentiments are in the Bible. Some of you may be thinking, but that is Old Testament stuff and we are beyond that. I don't think so. I think this is the honest pleading of God's faithful servants facing the persecution of Rome, facing the brutality of the Islamic State, facing the intrusions into the church of the Chinese government, facing the tyranny of North Korea. The life of faith is not easy. We believe in the sovereign power of God and it is legitimate for people of faith to plead with God to let that power be shown to all of creation.
But God says, not yet. What is the message the church is being given? We are not sure if John took literally the idea that there was to be a fixed number of martyrs before God intervenes. What we do know is that John believed the call of God for faithfulness no matter what was because such faithfulness matters. These martyrs are given white robes. Try to think of it like this. When in the first century Christians were rounded up, imprisoned and executed the empire would paint them with the brush of criminality or treason. The clothing given to them symbolizes the purity of their lives through Christ and the victory that they share with their Saviour.
There is a sixth seal. You’ll pardon what may sound like inappropriate language for a sermon but the condensed version of verses 12 to 17 is this—all hell breaks loose! Those of you who are part of one of our Home Fellowship Groups may want to dig a little deeper into these verses in your meeting this week. I want to point out something that I think might have come as a bit of a shock to John. Look at verse 16. The people who have refused to submit themselves to the will and purposes of God call out to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb…” What are we to make of that idea, that image, the wrath of the Lamb?
New Testament scholars wonder if John has taken the image of the Lamb and reworked it. I don’t think so. The message here is that God takes sin seriously and that God will turn the world back to justice, righteousness and peace. But as one scholar puts it, “the wrath of God is defined by the cross of Christ…. God’s purposes are ultimately achieved through self-sacrificial love”(Reddish, Revelation, 134).
Here is a word to the church in whatever age we find ourselves. God will judge, the martyrs for the faith will be vindicated, but the one who will judge is the one who has already paid the supreme penalty on behalf of the world. As another faithful servant named John once said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)!