[This is the sixth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]
Revelation 6:1-17—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—April 15, 2012
Kathleen and I love to go on rides out in the beautiful countryside around Harrisonburg. We’ve gotten lost a few times and once or twice had close calls with the gas gauge. But mostly it’s great and we enjoy the rides as much now as ever.
One memory is the first time we ventured west on state highway 257, years ago, not long after we moved here. I hadn’t bothered with a map, thinking part of the fun is figuring things out as we go. We drove through Briary Branch and cruised on our way to West Virginia—I thought. A nice highway. Then all of a sudden the nice highway ended. It was a shock; little warning. We had a couple of options, but they weren’t too appealing. Narrow, steep, windy roads with no lines. After wandering around for awhile, we turned back and left the way we came.
This sense of disorientation when the expected continuation of the nice highway ends is kind of how I feel with I come to Revelation, chapter 6. You may remember the first five chapters. Maybe not totally easy sailing, but fairly clear. And it’s not too difficult to see in Revelation one through five a nice message of peace, the Lamb as the way. But then with chapter six, the plagues begin. The nice part ends. What in the world is going on?
God must be ticked off….
For most readers of Revelation, this apparent turn toward judgment seems to come as kind of a relief. This slain Lamb metaphor as the key to history—that notion can only get us so far. We are happy to see as we turn to the plagues that the mercy rests on some good, hard wrath of God that gives the wrong-doers of history their due. Sure, God on the throne and the Lamb give us the picture of mercy in chapters four and five. But God must be angry, too, right? I mean, wouldn’t you be? Look at all the stuff there is to be ticked about.
I remember a bumper sticker from a long time ago that we often saw around Eugene, Oregon: “God is coming…and she is ticked off!” So, this is our first question, to get us thinking about what’s going on in Revelation six with its visions of terrible plagues. What is there for God to be angry about in our world—think back over the course of human history? Reflect on that as I read from Revelation six and we’ll talk about it a bit.
Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, thunderously, “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, the second living creature called, “Come!” 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 the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call, “Come!” There was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and from the midst of the four living creatures a voice said, “A quart of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!” When he opened the fourth seal, the fourth living creature called, “Come!” There was a pale green horse! It’s rider’s name was Death; Hades followed; 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 the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and their testimony; they cried out loudly, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” Each was given a white robe and told to rest a bit longer, until the number would be complete of their fellow servants who were soon to be killed as they had been.
When he opened the sixth seal, there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 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?” (6:1-17)
So what do you think? What is there, in our world, for God to be angry about?…
A counter-intuitive suggestion
Well, let me suggest something that might seem counter-intuitive—or at least contrary to the most obvious reading of Revelation 6—or at least contrary to Christianity’s teaching about God’s anger. I don’t think we should read these verses as being about God’s anger or God’s punitive judgment. Let me say that again: I don’t think we should read these verses as being about God’s anger or God’s punitive judgment.
This is the basic question that comes to me as I read this chapter after having reflected on Revelation four and five. The main point of Revelation four and five, I suggested in my last sermon, is to show us God and the Lamb as incredibly merciful. We don’t get a physical description of the one on the throne; all we see is the slain and resurrected Lamb, the personification of persevering love. I concluded that sermon with two biblical quotes.
From John’s gospel: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known” (1:18). From the letter of 1st John: “God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him….No one has ever seen God, [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us” (v. 4).
Remember also the agenda of the book of Revelation as a whole. In a sentence: Revelation seeks to encourage followers of Jesus to remain faithful to his way as they negotiate living in empire. This remains encouragement that we who identify with Jesus today might also want to pay attention to, I’d say.
But it is interesting to read interpreters of Revelation. Most seem automatically to assume that Revelation six is about God’s punishing judgment, directly visited upon the earth—even many interpreters who take a peaceable approach to Revelation overall. As if the one on the throne who endorses the Lamb’s persevering love as the basis for the opening of the scroll now starts to rip things apart. As if the Lamb himself all of a sudden becomes angry. Think about it though, can you imagine an angry lamb?
My little canine companion Sophie is an absolute sweetheart. She does like to play and growl and bark, but she shows very little evidence of having much of a temper—though maybe a little. But a lamb? I don’t really think so. I believe it is clear that the metaphor in Revelation of the Lamb means to evoke a sense of gentleness, not punishing anger, vulnerability not domination.
Bringing together two truths
So what then might be going on in Revelation six?
John brings together two truths. First, he affirms that the one on the throne made, sustains, and heals creation. The scroll that the Lamb took from the one’s right hand truly does contain the story of the healing of heaven and earth. And this healing will happen through persevering love, expressed most fundamentally in the Lamb’s path of faithful witness.
But the second truth cannot be avoided. And it is this: The world we live in remains broken. It remains powerfully alienated. It remains the home of terrible injustices, violence, and domination. People suffer, nature suffers. The need for healing remains all too obvious—as does the influence, even we could say, the reign of the powers of greed and inhumanity.
How can we understand and affirm God’s care for creation and all that is in it in face of the brokenness that is so apparent? That is the question Revelation six (and the bulk of the rest of the book) tries to respond to with these horrific visions of destruction—the so-called plague visions.
But does God add to creation’s hurt with punishing judgment? How could this be in light of what we learned from Revelation four and five? How could this be if truly we see God in Jesus, the Jesus who shows us, above everything else, that God is love?
So, we remember, front and center, what Revelation has already told us about God and the Lamb. Then we look more closely at the imagery of chapter six itself.
Let’s note that the Lamb breaks the seals to the scroll. This act does not reveal the content of the scroll. These plagues are not the message of the scroll—that message is the New Jerusalem, the healing and renewing of heaven and earth.
Breaking the seals as a metaphor
I suggest we best see the opening of the scrolls as a metaphor. The Lamb in this way provides insight into how we understand the world we live in right now. These are not visions of a future catastrophe a punishing God is going to visit on rebellious creation. Rather they are visions into the world in which we live.
Think about all the terrible tragedies in human history—especially almost continual wars somewhere, and the accompanying disease and hunger. We don’t have to look to the future to see the four riders. They are in the past and in the present.
A key number in Revelation, not yet mentioned but significant in relation to these plague visions is the number 3½ years and variations. It contrasts with seven years (the time of wholeness). The three and a half years (or 42 months or 1260 days) refer to the time of the present—our time of brokenness. We will read in other visions that the plagues last these 3 ½ years. The plagues characterize the time before the establishment of the New Jerusalem. The plagues characterize the brokenness of the world we live in.
That the Lamb opens the scrolls does not mean the Lamb causes the violence and destruction. That the Lamb opens the scrolls tells us that we are to understand the various expressions of hurt and damage in our world from the Lamb’s perspective.
Note, as well, with the four riders, the passive voice: “a crown was given” (6:2); “its rider was permitted” (6:4); “they were given” (6:8). This passive voice makes the source of the plagues ambiguous. The source actually could be the Dragon. Chapter 12 will imply this. But even if in some sense we are to think of God as involved in the plagues, the passive voice creates distance. If it is God, in some mysterious providential way, God does not intervene directly way. God does not reach down to make the plagues happen. Many other wills shape these dynamics—especially those who oppose God.
“Wrath” and God and the Lamb
But what about the “wrath” here—“the great day of their wrath” (the one on the throne and the Lamb)? What does “wrath” mean? “Wrath” in the Bible actually most often means something much more indirect and less personal than anger. In fact, often the word “wrath” is used alone. The English translators add “God’s.” But it really just says “wrath,” not “God’s wrath.”
In Romans one, Paul talks about the outworking of “wrath” being that “God gave them (the idolaters) up,” not that God directly punished them. Wrath has to do with the processes of life. We tend to become like that which we trust in the most—if we trust in lifeless idols, we become damaged, our hearts are darkened. As we could say, time wounds all heels. I’ve wanted to use this saying in a sermon for a long time. I’ve also wanted to use “praise with faint damns,” but haven’t found a spot yet….But this is wrath in a nutshell: time wounds all heels.
So, we may link the wrath of God and the Lamb with God’s respect for human choice. God lets us make our choices and then face the consequences, for better and for worse. Revelation six, then, does not picture an active, punishing, angry God and an angry, vicious Lamb. Rather, Revelation six, through the breaking of the scrolls, helps readers understand better the world in which we live so we might better follow the Lamb wherever he goes—the way of persevering love.
A key image in the chapter points in this direction, though it is commonly misunderstood. Interpreters usually assume that somehow God and the Lamb change character between chapter five and chapter six. They seem all of a sudden to become crusading avengers; then interpreters also assume that this punishing vengeance is fueled in part by the cries of the martyrs “under the altar” spoken of in verse 9.
These martyrs cry out, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (6:9). Clearly a cry for punishing revenge, right? Well, not so fast….
The key word here is the word often translated “avenge.” However, the word, more literally, could be translated “bring justice.” If we recognize that it is a “justice” term, our understanding of what it means here will be shaped by our more general understanding of what “justice” means in the Bible. And biblical justice is not about vengeance. Biblical justice is about restoring relationships; biblical justice is about healing that which has been damaged. So maybe this is what the martyrs cry out: “How long before you heal creation; how long before you transform the inhabitants of the earth?”
Because, notice two more things here. First, each of the martyrs was given “a white robe” (6:11). The white robes throughout Revelation are the garments worn by those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. And what was the Lamb’s attitude toward those who took his life? “Forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Does it not stand to reason that those who are closest to Jesus, to the point that they receive the reward of the white robe, wouldn’t you think those closest to Jesus would share his views about the treatment of offenders?
I know that in my own life, when I feel closest to Jesus, I find forgiveness to be a much more natural response than a desire for revenge—not that I’m claiming I’m always that close to Jesus! Just that I have had glimpses of closeness, and when I do I find I tend toward being more merciful.
And then, second, after their call for justice, the martyrs are told to remain patient. This “3 ½ years” of struggle we live in will continue for a while longer. Then God will answer your pleas. This promise, of course, makes us want to peek ahead in Revelation to the ending. How will the cries for justice ultimately be answered?
Before we peek, let me mention one more image from chapter six. A great earthquake—a metaphor for a major upheaval in the social and political realm. I think actually this upheaval refers to the revelation and embodiment of the politics of the Lamb—a politics of disillusion with empires and hierarchies and greedy corporations. As this kind of politics gains traction, the great ones indeed tremble. The leading tremblers are the “kings of the earth.” They experience the Lamb’s ways of love as “wrathful.” Terrified, they cry out, “who can stand against it?” Indeed, we see in the various empires that have crashed and burned that they can’t stand over the long run.
But how does this all end? How is the call for justice answered? Let’s peek at the end of Revelation, the vision of the New Jerusalem, renewed heaven and earth, the completing of the story from the inside of the scroll.
How do God and the Lamb bring justice? The story ends in the New Jerusalem. “The nations will walk by [the light of the glory of God], and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (21:24). Indeed. The justice of God heals even God’s greatest enemies. How does this happen? Well, one important part is for those with the white robes to remain patient, to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and to trust in God’s true justice.
So, it turns out that maybe Revelation has more coherence than many think. Visions of the slain Lamb as the meaning of history bracket the middle part, the plague visions that make up chapters six through eighteen. These plague visions, then, also illumine the Lamb’s sovereignty, the sovereignty of love. They do not contain certain predictions of God punishing judgment on creation. Rather, they contain insights into what actually is going on in our world right now—and how this is to be negotiated by people genuinely committed to the ways of peace. Our “highway” through Revelation actually remains viable and well-marked—leading us to the New Jerusalem.
The book has a clear message: Cry out, passionately cry out, for justice—for God’s healing justice. And follow the Lamb’s way, strive for the white robe of love and compassion. Amen.