Sunday, May 17th, 2015 – The Seventh Sunday of Easter, Ascension Sunday
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: John 17:6-19, Revelation 6:1-8
Hymns: “Praise to the Lord”, “How Great Is Our God”, “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”, “Rejoice, the Lord Is King”, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”, “All Who Are Thirsty”, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”, “He Lives!”
Special Music: “The Man Comes Around”, by Johnny Cash
…And Hell Followed With It
Warfare. Pestilence. Famine. Death.
Without question, the legend of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has been culturally appropriated more than perhaps anything else in the Bible (with the possible exception of the underdog-vs-champion story of David and Goliath). You can find representations of the Four Horsemen in everything from Johnny Cash’s music to movies to TV shows to the books of the late British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett – and he was an atheist, so that should tell you how much of an impact these eight verses from Revelation have had on the worldwide cultural zeitgeist!
The issue we run into with these eight verses is that, much like the rest of the book of Revelation – well, let’s be real, much like the rest of the BIBLE, but especially much like the rest of the book of Revelation – is that they’ve been misinterpreted time and time again, by mostly well-meaning people (and a few scoundrels) who think that the Four Horsemen are meant to represent a platoon of tribulation that will run rampant across the non-believers while those who follow Christ are safely ensconced somewhere else, or are simply turned a blind eye by the Four Horsemen. There’s a two-fold problem there, though. Look four chapters before, at the Scripture from last week, specifically at Revelation 2:10 – “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, and for ten days you will have affliction.” The bad news right there is that the believers are not safe from what tribulation may come. They’re going to suffer it just as much as those who do not believe, for as Christ said in Matthew 5:45, “It rains on the just and the unjust alike.”
The other issue is that the curses which come forth with these Four Horsemen are nothing new to humanity. They weren’t new when Revelation was written, and they aren’t new now. Let’s consider one of the oldest examples we know of with regard to these four – the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt.
We already know the story of the Hebrew people in Egypt. They went there in the first place because of a regional famine that affected the bulk of Mesopotamia. They grew strong and populous, and several Pharaohs down the line from the one who had trusted Joseph and made him his right-hand man, Pharaoh Amenhotep II decided he didn’t trust the Hebrew people, and so he enslaved them. And yes, I realize that in Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments, Ramses II was the Pharaoh, but more recent chronological study of the exodus of the Hebrews has determined that it likely took place about two hundred years before the time of Ramses II.
Anyway, that’s irrelevant, but you should remember that in case there’s ever another Trivia Night. The important thing is that Moses and Aaron, acting as the agents of God, eventually persuaded Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go, and from Egypt, they decamped into the wilderness, where they wandered for forty years.
Over those forty years, the Hebrew people suffered from famine – they had little to no food to eat. They suffered from pestilence – there were mass illnesses from time to time, usually due to circumstances of their own making. And when they finally got to the Promised Land, they took it upon themselves wage war upon and slaughter the Canaanite people wholesale – and while the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua say that this was something they were commanded to do by God, this is again and area where recent Biblical scholarship has led many experts to believe that the commands from God were added into the account by later Israelite historians who may have been a tad uneasy about making their ancestors look like masters of genocide. Either way, over the course of the exodus, the Hebrew people were stricken by pestilence and famine and they waged war on a large scale, with all of those leading to one thing:
Death. And hell followed with it.
Oh yes, hell certainly followed with death for the Hebrew people. You see, they spent the next thousand years in an unending cycle of war, pestilence, and famine. They insisted on abandoning their trust in God and establishing a monarchy, which led to bad king after bad king after bad king, with precious few exceptions. These kings eventually split the country in half, with each half going off half-cocked on ill-advised wartime adventures that inevitably led to Israel getting walloped by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, you name it. Couple this with droughts leading to famine, and between the unending cycles of warfare and the lack of good food, the health of the Hebrew people suffered greatly. Finally, some five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the mighty Babylon trashed Israel once and for all, leaving the country desolate and bereft of goodness. Even when King Darius let the people Israel go home seventy years later, the fractiousness of the people led to civil wars and unrest, allowing first the Greeks and eventually the Romans to treat Israel as a plaything and a wasteland. Indeed, hell followed with death for the Hebrew people in the form of a new cycle in which the first three of the Four Horsemen wreaked merry havoc upon them, with the fourth finally coming in the form of the Roman Empire.
Yes, the Roman Empire was Death… and hell followed with it.
You see, the Roman Empire is the reason for the Four Horsemen being unleashed in Revelation. The legendary corruption of Rome did not escape the notice of John of Patmos – and of course, we have to recognize that John had been exiled to Patmos by none less than the mad Emperor Nero, he of fiddling while Rome burned fame. So John personally held a bit of a grudge against Rome (and specifically Nero – in fact, the Hebrew letters that correspond to “six hundred and sixty six” actually spell out “Caesar Nero”), but placing the blame on Rome for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at that particular moment in time was not unjust. Rome was the colossus astride the known world, going where it pleased and doing as it pleased. For centuries before (and centuries after), Rome waged war against basically every country not just in the region, but as far north as the British Isles. They intentionally destroyed farmable land, and they rerouted waterways through a highly advanced system of aqueducts to make sure that their cities had plenty of water, without caring whether there was any left for farming. The dual prongs of warfare and forced famine led to a highly unhealthy population, and of course, all three led to death for millions upon millions of European and African people.
John foresaw the fall of Rome, though. He knew that the Four Horsemen, when unleashed, would turn back upon Rome and destroy it as well. And sure enough, over the following centuries, Rome grew weaker and weaker, trying futilely to reshape itself through several iterations, until finally, the remnants of the Roman Empire were overthrown by the Ottomans in 1453. Yes, it wasn’t until centuries after John’s visions in Revelation that it happened, but eventually, death came to the Roman Empire…
And hell followed with it.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire set off a wave of exploration among the Western European nations, who were looking for trade routes to the East that didn’t involve going through Ottoman lands, as well as looking for places to colonize. And as we all well know, in the 1490s, Christopher Columbus arrived in North America – but not as the heroic explorer that we all learned about in elementary school. No, rather Columbus was the first of many who would come to North America who would enslave the native population, setting off myriad conflicts between the European settlers and the many Native American peoples.
Over the following two and a half centuries, wave after wave of European settlement arrived in the North American colonies, and with each wave, the native people who already populated the east coast was pushed further and further off of their land. French settlers eventually declared all-out war on many of the different tribes east of the Appalachian Mountains, so angering them that when France entered the Revolutionary War on the side of the United States, all of those tribes that had been walloped by France declared war on the U.S. And that, of course, led to even worse conflict.
Almost from the moment George Washington was sworn into office as the first President of the United States, the American government unleashed the Four Horsemen to ride forth on the Native American people. Much like Rome before them, they waged war against the different tribes, they made farm land unusable, and they introduced European diseases to many different tribes, diseases against which those tribes had absolutely no natural immune defense. In fact, it was so bad that in the 1850s, a smallpox outbreak among US Army soldiers at Fort Tejon led to the deaths of an estimated ninety percent of the entire Chumash nation.
The United States unleashed war, famine, and pestilence upon the native people of this country, leading to death… and hell followed with it. All you need to do to see that that is true is look at the state of so many native nations today – those that are still intact are riddled with corruption and poverty. Many nations have seen their heritage all but destroyed. Some, like the Chumash cannot even claim that there is one full-blooded member of their people remaining.
And it’s not going to end there. Warfare, famine, and disease have become a seemingly “normal” part of today’s world. They all lead to death, and with each cycle, it just gets worse. Hell follows with it.
That is tragic, and it’s the whole point of this passage from Revelation. We’re not looking at these Four Horsemen as a sign of times to come, but rather, they’re something that exists here and now. John’s writing was meant as a condemnation of the debauchery and corruption of Rome, but it applies to times and circumstances across the ages.
And the true tragedy of it is that we allow it to occur, over and over again, in God’s own kingdom. We live in a place inhabited by God in the presence of the Holy Spirit. So callous are human beings with God’s creation with was lovingly given to us so that we could live in fellowship with God that we have seemingly forgotten God’s own presence in this place. The way the Four Horsemen have been unleashed upon this planet by its inhabitants is akin to walking into your parents’ house, while they’re in it, giving rabies to the dog, shooting the place up with a platoon of soldiers, and then setting it on fire. War, famine, pestilence, and death, indeed.
And once your parents got their hands on you, you better BELIEVE hell would follow with it!
But the good news is, the loving God that we call Father is more forgiving than our human parents ever would be in such a situation. No matter how much destruction we may wage upon this beautiful Earth that God has made for us in which to live, no matter what horrors we may wage upon our fellow human beings, no matter what manner of sins we commit in the name of making ourselves better, God still forgives us. We put God’s own self in the person of Jesus Christ to death on a cross, and we were forgiven for that. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ redeemed us from our own deaths. The war, famine, and pestilence were set aside, and we were rescued from death, so that hell could never again follow with it.
Through Jesus, our ugliness has been turned into beauty. All ugliness shall be turned into beauty. Death will be turned into life, and we go from hell following death, to heaven following life.