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The Apocalypse for Now 3: The Wrath of the Lamb

April 29, 2013

“The Apocalypse for Now 3: The Wrath of the Lamb” Revelation 6:1-17 © 4.28.13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Maybe you know the old story about the final exam in a college philosophy class. The students have studied and crammed, poring over dense volumes both classic and modern. The professor hands out the paper, on which is written but one word: “why?” Everyone goes to work, frantically writing against the clock, trying to recall a pithy quote from Plato or Nietzsche or Whitehead. But one student finishes in five minutes and walks out. His answer? “Why not?”

We chuckle at urban legends of freshmen who ace exams with their wit, but the question of why is no laughing matter. It confronts us every day in the news. In fact, it could be the question of our day. Arianna Huffington wrote last Wednesday: “A lot of the who, what, where, and how of the Boston bombing and what led up to it have already been answered and, no doubt, more details will eventually be filled in. The why, however, is the more elusive question. But it’s also a crucial one. Why do we have so many disaffected young men in our culture, and what compels them to act out that disaffection in violent ways?…With Tucson, with Newtown, with countless other places, and now with Boston, the justifications may differ, but the end results have a lot in common. And so, likely, do the beginnings” (“After Boston: Why It’s Important That We Keep Asking ‘Why’?”, The Huffington Post 4.24.13).

Boston and other acts of mass carnage are not the only events that send us searching for answers. Whether about destruction from floods or violence against the vulnerable or rampant greed, we ask “why” again and again. The litany of ills has new lines added every day.

And when we narrow the focus to our personal experiences, the mystery of a divine plan and reasons confronts us, too. Why me? Why now? Why does my loved one suffer? What possible purpose could an accident or a fall or a deadly storm or a lingering death serve? If God has a lesson to teach or some mission for me to do, isn’t there a better way?

As people of faith, whether watching the news or dealing with our day to day lives, we particularly ask about the power and presence of God. We believe and teach that God is good and loving and able and willing to save. So what’s going on?

The chapter of Revelation before us seems an odd place to look for an answer. It offers a picture of the ugliness and brutality of human life, not at first glance much hope for resolution of our problems. Taken by itself, this part of the epistle is uniformly pessimistic, predicting destruction and wrath and horror.

In this text, John sees a vision of a scroll whose seals are broken open so it can be read. Four horsemen come out in turn as they are told to. In general terms, they’re very familiar to us, because they are realities of our day and because they have been depicted over and over in art. The riders are war, civil unrest, famine, and death. But we don’t know them in the same way as John’s audience. For them, the images would have had very specific meaning.

Horses in the ancient world were military animals, ridden by soldiers, not civilians. For the ordinary citizen, donkeys and camels were the means of transportation. White horses particularly would symbolize victory, and these particular riders, the text says, can’t be beat. John uses a Hebrew idiom “conquering and to conquer” which means “always winning.” The crown, the symbol of victory, only emphasizes the impression of a foe that can’t be defeated.

The particular Roman enemy John sees is the Parthian army. Parthia was a rival of Rome to the east, with an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to the Indus River. Their archers rode horses, unlike in most armies where such soldiers were infantry, not cavalry. Their trademark was a white horse. Rome had lost many times to the Parthians, so John’s vision is about the defeat of the Romans by a feared and powerful foe.

Next comes a fiery red horse, whose rider is civil unrest and anarchy, in which people turn against their neighbors with shocking violence. The sword the rider wields is not the sort used for stabbing, but for slashing and cutting. It maims and kills in horrific, gory ways. John’s readers would think of how their neighbors turned against them and named them as traitors, subjecting the Christians to violence from the state. In our day, conflict among various groups, whether using cutting remarks or actual weapons, is more the rule than the exception.

The next horse and rider represent famine. But it’s not a lack of food caused by true shortages, but by greed and the economic policies of the Empire. Wealthy men from the province of Asia and from other countries had bought up land and planted vineyards and olive groves. Both of these were extremely profitable. More and more land was devoted to these money crops and less and less to wheat and barley. So basic bread grains got more and more expensive, so that ordinary working men could barely feed themselves, much less their families, due to the extraordinary inflation in grocery prices. The rich continued to live in luxury, while the poor suffered hunger due to the policies of the government lobbied by the landowners.

Finally among the horsemen comes Death on sickly-pale green animal, and with him, the all-devouring Hades. The extent of the destruction by all sorts of means is shocking, but by no means total. John means it not as a literal figure, but as symbolic of how far-reaching is the harm done by the policies of Rome. He sees in the imperial actions a forerunner of woes to come at the end of history.

The scene shifts now to heaven, where we hear and see the martyrs under the altar in the throne room of God, which is also a sanctuary. They are under the altar because that is a place of honor; the blood of sacrificial animals, their very life, flowed under the altar when the Jerusalem Temple still stood. What Paul had called for a generation earlier, to present our bodies a living sacrifice, has come to pass literally for these witnesses. John means for us to think of all the Jewish martyrs from previous times, plus those Christians killed by Nero thirty years earlier. His readers will remember their own man, Antipas, who was killed for his faith. And the writer expects more to die, though that has not happened yet. Events have only begun to unfold for John, and before the end, there will be much more suffering. God’s people do not escape. The way they bear witness and the manner of their ascent to the throne is by suffering and death.

The final seal opened brings general chaos, as the universe folds in on itself, with all the usual apocalyptic trappings found in this sort of literature. The situation is so bad that people great and small long to be crushed to death by mountains toppling on them. Everyone is affected, but notice the classes of people John particularly singles out for attention. They are the kings of the earth, and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful. These are the people especially responsible for the oppressive, biased policies and for the wars and ills that make life so hard for John’s churches. Everyone, though, cries out to be hidden from the face of God and the wrath of the Lamb.

What are we to do with this difficult material? Reading Revelation piecemeal the way we have to do in worship is much like coming in on the middle of a TV series and not knowing what went before. We lack continuity. This book is meant to be read aloud in one sitting, so we get the flow of it all, and the images engage our imaginations.

Adding to our troubles is John’s expectation that In his lifetime the end of the world would come, preceded by the events he describes. That didn’t happen. Should we then discount what John has to teach us? No. It doesn’t matter that his timetable was off by centuries. He still offers some timely and important help for us as we try to make sense of suffering and wonder about the presence and power of God.

First, this Christian prophet believed and taught that in the events of his day God was at work. He found meaning in Roman battles with the Parthians or in the announcement of an economic policy by the emperor. Prominent figures were the instruments of God, whether they knew it or not. Nothing was outside God’s sovereign care. Even the riders on the horses, who thought they wielded ultimate power, had everything “given to” them. John sees the reality of evil and its destructiveness in light of his vision of a heavenly throne room in the preceding two chapters. God is on the throne, and those with eyes to see will acknowledge that, falling down with the saints and heavenly creatures in worship. All might be chaos on earth, but in heaven there is a glassy sea. In other words, chaos, the restless ocean, is held at bay.

The 1970s statement called A Declaration of Faith says something similar: “God still works through the processes that shape and change the earth and the living things upon it. We acknowledge God’s care and control in the regularity of the universe as well as in apparently random happenings. There is no event from which God is absent and his ultimate purpose in all events is just and loving. That purpose embraces our choices and will surely be accomplished. The Creator works in all things toward the new creation that is promised in Christ.”

But what if we become impatient with what God is doing or decide we disapprove? Then John, following the lead of the psalms, encourages us to tell God about it. The saints cry out “How long, O Lord? We want justice!” They’re not happy campers, as we would say.

It is in worship, whether corporate or personal, that such language is always appropriate. That’s contrary to what we’ve often been taught. I’ve known people who think it’s unacceptable to cry in church, much less rail at God for not doing something about injustice, for being so slow to act. But the prophet insists we can and ought to hold God accountable for his promises, demand an answer to the pressing “why” questions of our day, and not give up.

God can take whatever we dish out. We are covenant partners, and that means the relationship is two-sided. No less than in a marriage or a friendship may we talk about our deepest feelings and hurts and fears and needs. As the late novelist Chinua Achebe put it, “things fall apart,” and on such occasions, when the center of life is gone, when the sky rolls up like a scroll, and our world quakes and shakes us to the core, at such times, nothing else but bare and near-blasphemous emotion may do. Otherwise, don’t we act as if injustice is nothing, our hurt is not important, and evil need not be taken seriously? Do we not let God off the hook for fulfilling his promises, while he demands obedience from us? “How long, O Lord?” is the prayer of the church when all around gives way.

Finally, John is not afraid to talk about the wrath of God or specifically, the wrath of the Lamb of God, who is the crucified, risen, and ascended Christ. We don’t like to talk about such a thing in the mainline church. Our lectionary leaves out passages that speak of it. Hymns that mention it have their lyrics changed. (See endnote.)

We avoid the subject for good reason. Fundamentalists have decided that God is angry with anyone they don’t like, who offends their sense of what is right and proper, while they themselves are never the subjects of God’s judgment. But to us, a wrathful, violent God seems unworthy and sub-Christian.

Presbyterian minister John Buchanan commented recently on the Red Sea scene from the series The Bible on the History Channel: “There was death and destruction everywhere, all orchestrated and carried out by God.

“Who could believe in a God like this? Who could believe in a God who orders his people to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, making certain that everyone is dead, just to make way for God’s people?

He continues: “[The Franciscan] Richard Rohr…offers a [standard for] interpreting scripture. In regard to any text, Rohr proposes: ‘If you see God operating at a lesser level than the best person you know, then the text is not authentic revelation.’ If God is love…then no person could be more loving than God, Rohr says. ‘God is never less loving than the most loving person you know.’

Buchanan concludes: “Most of us, like Rohr, do not believe, cannot believe, that God told the Hebrew people to kill everyone who got in their way. No doubt the Hebrews did commit horrible acts; history is full of such stories. But the voice they heard wasn’t God’s voice.

“It’s a sad reality that many continue to believe that God orchestrates death, destruction and human suffering and orders people to kill. That, in my mind, is a gross and harmful distortion”  (http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-03/bible-s-violent-god).

I agree with Buchanan and Rohr, but I also have to deal with this text that speaks of the “wrath of the Lamb.” The only way I can make sense of it is to read it in the light of God’s love made known and demonstrated in Christ. Wrath in this case is the expression of love. What do we do on behalf of those we love? Do we just ignore injustices done to them? Do we fail even to attempt to hold those who do wrong accountable? Could we turn our backs and close our ears to the cries of a loved one who is hurting and longing for help?

Our motives in such cases are never pure, but the character of God is holy and just. His justice is an expression of his love, and his love a reflection of his justice and holiness. He’s not some petty tyrant who loses control and starts killing nor does he throw a tantrum like a spoiled child. God’s wrath is the holy and just response to the destruction and deformation of creation, to the inhumanity of people to each other, to the viciousness of greedy and frightened power-mongers and bullies, to the oppression of the powerless by the strong. In a word, it is the clear signal that the sovereign God who sits on the throne will not ignore the evil in the world, the blight on his good creation or the cries of people for justice. The wrath of God is not unfairness; it is letting people live out the consequences of their own actions. It is visiting upon them the return for their deeds.

So what does John mean by the puzzling phrase “the wrath of the Lamb”? I think we start by remembering that the Lamb of God was slain for the world; Jesus “ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). The aim of the Sovereign is redemption and restoration for all, to bring them into the new Jerusalem whose gates never close, where God dwells with humankind. The wrath of the Lamb convinces and convicts and brings people to their knees crying “Who can stand?” only to be lifted up by the only One who does stand for all time and beyond.

The wrath of God has always to be understood in light of the cross of Christ. It is an expression of his self-sacrificial love that is always involved with us, always seeking justice for those who are wronged, always comforting those who are hurting even as it confronts those who cause the hurt. The wrath of the Lamb is the action of the One who has confronted the worst evil could do, and has conquered, not by violence, but by love.

This is John’s answer for anyone who suffers and especially those who suffer for doing right. He doesn’t answer the why or even with any specifics the when and the what. Instead, he gives us something more wondrous and mysterious. He tells us who is with the hurting and the longing, namely, the Lamb of God who by his death has won the victory.

————–

Endnote For example, “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above” originally had in v. 2: “His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form, and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.” The Presbyterian Hymnal [1990] offers instead: “The chariots of heaven the deep thunderclouds form, and bright is God’s path on the wings of the storm.”)

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