Sunday, July 8, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "The Fifth Horseman"

Revelation 19:11-16

11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse. Its rider was called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war justly. 12 His eyes were like a fiery flame, and on his head were many royal crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He wore a robe dyed[a]with blood, and his name was called the Word of God. 14 Heaven’s armies, wearing fine linen that was white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword that he will use to strike down the nations. He is the one who will rule them with an iron rod. And he is the one who will trample the winepress of the Almighty God’s passionate anger. 16 He has a name written on his robe and on his thigh: King of kings and Lord of lords. (CEB)

“The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation,” Week Six

The Brooklyn-based journalist could not have felt more out of place—she was sitting in the main sanctuary of a megachurch, trying to take in a particular type of call to worship for this Sunday service.  As she--Lauren Sandler--wrote in her powerful 2006 book entitled Righteous:

“How many of you think we’re living in the last days?” the guest pastor, in a slick suit and expensive shaggy haircut, barks at the 7,500 congregants in the cavernous room.

All present raise their hands.

“That’s right!  You got to be blind not to see we’re living in the last days.” “Amen!”

“How many of you know we’re in a war?”  All present raise their hands again.

“That’s right!  This is not a playground, but a battleground!”

The “amen’s” continued.  In those amen’s is a tough truth about Christianity—our interpretations are so diverse that many times, we are speaking different languages.  And it is so for St. John.

Today marks the sixth week of our summer sermon series.  After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling.  Yet, enter the book of Revelation.  After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later.  His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since.  I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over! 

The first week was an introduction to how we are meant to read Revelation—and that is with the humility and knowledge that we are not John, and cannot understand his mind.  In week two, we began going through the actual vision itself, and we started in a familiar, heartwarming place with Heaven itself.  Then we began to delve into the realm of demons and dragons and wars between Heaven and Hell with the appearances of the iconic four horsemen of the apocalypse and the dragon that is cast out of Heaven by Michael the Archangel.  Last week, we tackled perhaps the most famous image in Revelation—the number of the beast—and today, we return to the familiar image of the white horseman from the passage of the four horsemen, only this time, its meaning is completely turned upside down with this new, fifth horseman.

If you weren’t here for the sermon on the four horsemen of the apocalypse from Revelation 6, or if you just need a quick refresher, the first of the four horsemen rode a white horse and was named Conquest.  Here is another horseman upon a white horse who is, then, also conquering.
But there are a few differences between the previous horseman and this.  The biggest difference is that the weaponry has become metaphorical—whereas the horsemen of Revelation 6 were armed with actual bow and arrows and swords, this horseman’s sword, John writes, comes from his mouth.  Now, clearly, this horseman is meant to represent Christ Himself, as one of the horseman’s names is the Word of God, which John’s Gospel says was Jesus.  But my guess is that John was not intending to depict Christ as literally coughing up a sword, so the sword here is probably a metaphorical sword.  John is invoking Jesus’ capacities as a prophet in the Israelite prophetic tradition, as someone who would speak truth to power no matter the consequences.

Another difference is that the first horseman with the white steed went by only one name—Conquest.  Here, the rider of this new white horse has no fewer than three names: Faithful and True, the Word of God, and King of Kings/Lord of Lords.  And to boot, John even says in verse 12 that the rider has a name that nobody knows but himself!  This is perhaps the more consequential difference, because John, whether he realizes it or not, is underscoring the multi-dimensionality of goodness, and of God.  If evil is one-dimensional in its goal—destruction—then goodness is infinite in its dimensions of love and compassion and kindness.

But I think we tend to miss that when we read this passage…we read it on the surface level and assume that John is casting Jesus not as the itinerant Messiah we know from the Gospels, this wandering preacher and prophet and healer and teacher and Savior, but as a conquering warrior.  Forget loving your enemies and turning the other cheek, this is in-this-sign-conquer Christianity, and we forget that Christ’s sword in this passage is a metaphorical sword, not a literal sword, and that goodness is not so one-dimensional that it can only come at the edge of a blade.

And we continue in the same mold in many ways in the church today.  The church isn’t capable of waging a war in any literal sense, but that sure doesn’t keep us from using warlike imagery and vocabulary in our churches today.  The story of the call-and-response at the start isn’t isolated—Jon Acuff on his “Stuff Christians Like” blog wrote about how so many churches use war-themed ministries for their men’s groups; he joked that there, men were equipped with the breastplate of faith and the helmet of salvation that Paul writes about in 1 Thessalonians, but also the AK-47 of love, loaded with the bullets of patience.

It hits closer to home, as well.  What is one of the most famous songs in the hymnals sitting in front of you right now?  “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”  As though all of you are soldiers and I am somehow your general.  When I look out at all of you, I don’t see soldiers, or warriors, and when I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t see a commanding officer.  I see a pastor with severe nearsightedness and an embarrassing case of vertigo, and I see a church that has, to my knowledge, marched in a straight line only when there was our cookout buffet laid out at the end!

Maybe that means we’re an undisciplined lot, and that’s fair enough.  But I think it also means that we are simply not a church that is called to engage in “spiritual warfare.”  This does not mean, though, that we are not meant to resist evil—only that there are other means available to us which are not dependent on war themes.

Think of the failure rate of America’s most recent wars.  The Vietnam War did not prevent the Communist takeover of the country.  We’re still in Afghanistan, nearly eleven full years after invading after September 11, despite our troops’ valor.  It isn’t just us—Israelis and Palestinians have been killing each other for decades with no territorial changes to show for it since 1967.

By the same token, though, non-violent resistance has reaped some pretty significant victories.  It worked for Mahatma Gandhi in India in gaining India’s independence from the British Commonwealth, it worked for the worldwide anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s for South Africa, and closer to home, it worked for the civil rights movement here in America.  And perhaps most importantly, it worked for Jesus Christ, who resisted sin with love.

So when you think of what it looks like to resist wrong, to resist evil, and to do right instead, think of it as spiritual non-violent resistance instead of spiritual warfare.  Think of it as spiritual peacemaking rather than spiritual violence—after all, Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the spiritual warriors.”  He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Because that’s what it’s about in the end, right?  Making peace in a world of pain?  Whatever our innate failings as human beings are, we can be healed of our desire to wage war on one another.  And the ways in which we can will sometimes—oftentimes—surprise us.

Sometime after seeing this church service with a battle cry call to worship, the journalist Lauren Sandler returns to visit an evening Bible study run by that same church.  The Bible study’s leader asks her if she would let the folks in the Bible study lay hands on and pray for her.  She writes:

“Gordon begins to speak.  “Lord, help Lauren to form relationships quickly on her travels so she can deeply understand people in a short span of time.  Help support her objectivity and lack of agenda.” Silence.  Slowly my stiff back begins to soften.

…A melodic female voice joins in.  “Please, God, protect her car.  We pray you keep her as safe as possible inside.  Please make sure she has no tribulations to overcome so she can focus on her work.”  Silence.  My resistance melts away a bit more; all I can hear are their voices, all I can feel is their desire to ease my way.

Another female voice softly fills the room.  “Dear Lord, please, when Lauren sits down to write this book, to write about all of us, please keep the goodness in her heart and the truth in her words.  Let the words come to her easily, Lord, and let them be full of meaning and purpose.”

Each articulation of my particular concerns—each so separate from their own—stokes embers inside my chest, the empathy, wisdom, and foresight of these prayerful men and women filling my eyes with tears.  I finally understand: they want to save me just as I want to save them.”

See what happens when Christians use the language of peace instead of war!  Walls are broken down and love is experienced, reconciliation occurs and, dare I say it, miracles can still happen.  Imagine what the church would look like tomorrow if we all performed such miracles.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 8, 2012

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