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.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling 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; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’
Congratulations if you have made it all the way through our reading today! The notorious ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ make for disturbing reading. What is there that edifies in what seems to be the product of a nightmare? And yet, if eighteen months ago someone had predicted that a deadly and highly infectious virus would kill over 2 million people worldwide, including over 100 thousand in the UK, we might have dismissed this as the product of a nightmare too.
The tragedy that many have suffered as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic points to the fourth horseman, named Death, riding a sickly pale horse and bringing pestilence, as being regrettably appropriate today. But what makes matters worse in our text is that it is the Lamb, Jesus Christ, who breaks the seals of the scroll that then unleashes death and disaster. Why?
George Caird, in his commentary on Revelation, comments that the author, John, would have lived through a series of disasters. Earthquakes, war, persecution, and disease would have been part of John’s recent experience. His challenge, and that of the early Church, was how to maintain trust in the kingship of Christ when events seemed to testify to the continuing disruption of chaotic powers.
Jesus’s kingly power has its source in the Cross. Because Jesus was willing to accept the death of a sacrificial Lamb, God turned the defeat of human death into the triumph of divine love. Jesus’s kingship does not prevent death and disaster. Rather, where sin and chaos are most in evidence, the kingship of the Crucified and Risen One is to be seen, transforming selfishness into generosity.
Some have argued that the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has shone an exposing and revealing light on society. Selfishness and callousness have been exposed; the generosity and kindness of those whom we formerly took for granted has been revealed. Is this evidence the kingship of the Crucified and Risen Jesus at work?
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus Expose our selfish and callous attitudes. Reveal our better and true selves in thankfulness and kindness and generosity.
The Reverend Julian Templeton, Minister, St John’s URC New Barnet