You can hear a preached version of this sermon on Podbean.
August 29, 2021
It is our third week in the book of Revelation, and we are still in the throne room of God. In chapter 5, John (the writer), saw the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, who is worthy to open the scroll with seven seals. Now here, in chapter 6, the Lamb begins to open those seals.
With the opening of the first four seals, out come the infamous four horses of the apocalypse. That’s quite a visual image: a horse and rider emerging out of a rolled-up scroll, riding out . . . into the air, I guess? It’s all very dramatic. But remember that “apocalypse” just means “revelation” or “unveiling.” And really, what these four horse-riders bring is nothing new, nothing startling, nothing we aren’t already all too aware of.
Of course, the exact meaning of each of the horses is debated by scholars, but what John Yeats suggests in the Believers Church Commentary is certainly in line with the general gist of what most people think: the first horse is war, the second civil strife and bloodshed, the third famine, and finally, of course, death. Notice how the four are connected, how war leads to bloodshed and famine and it all leads to the final greenish-yellow pallid horse of death.
It’s not pleasant to think about, but it’s hardly an unveiling.
Lots of people like to read Revelation as end-time predictions, and they have a field day with these horses. Oh look, there’s a war. That’s the first horse. It means the end is near! Wow, heatwaves and drought and famine. The third horse! Jesus is coming!
But the sad fact is that none of these horses bring anything new into the world. War, bloodshed, hunger, death—none of this is surprising or unexpected. Not for John’s first readers and not for us today. The horses are not the revelation; they are merely the context, the confirmation of what people are already experiencing in the world.
The revelation comes in the portion of our reading from chapter 7. (Yes, we skipped some good stuff. I’m not covering it all in this sermon, but you should definitely go back and read what we skipped.) The unveiling happens when John looks “and there [is] a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
The horse of death riding out of a scroll? That’s . . . a striking image. But this? The great, multi-ethnic multitude wearing white and waving palm branches around God’s throne? This is truly unexpected. Unimaginable. On many levels.
The sheer number of people praising God is unimaginable. Remember that when Revelation was written, Christianity was new—and very much a minority religion. Today, about 1/3 of the world population and 2/3 of the US population is, at least nominally, Christian. But when John of Patmos was writing Revelation, it’s estimated that there were only about 3 Christians for every 2,000 people. John is writing to small, scattered house churches. So this vision of uncountable multitudes worshiping God and the Lamb is astounding.
I imagine that for the first readers of Revelation, this image might have brought to mind the Circus Maximus, the structure with the largest capacity in the ancient Mediterranean world. It held, by modern estimates, at least 150 thousand people–three times as many people as the Coliseum.
The venue was often used for ludi—public games that were part of the largest religious events held in the Roman empire—where huge crowds would gather to be entertained as they offered worship to Roman gods and the emperor.
And yet John’s vision unveils “a great multitude that no one can count,” not in service to the Roman empire, but surrounding the throne of God. Proclaiming that salvation comes from God and from the Lamb. All of the voices in the Circus Maximus cheering for the Roman emperor as savior of the world would be drowned out by the sheer volume of the great multitude worshiping God.
In addition to the mind-boggling size of the crowd, the rich diversity of those gathered would have also been astounding to John’s readers. Maybe not the existence of diversity, but certainly the equality that is suggested among these people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”
One of the hallmarks of Roman society was the privilege experienced by those who possessed Roman citizenship. (Remember the story of Paul getting arrested and how everyone freaked out when he told them he was a Roman citizen?) There were also very clear markers between classes in the Roman empire. While people from all walks of life could—and were actually encouraged to—attend events at the Circus Maximus, they certainly didn’t all hang out in one vast crowd. The rich would have had seats higher up; the poor would have crowded together on the lower levels of seating.
So the gathering around God’s throne of so many people from different places and different walks of life, all united in the worship of one God would have seemed truly amazing to John’s first readers.
The final, and possibly most surprising, revelation I want to highlight from this passage is the fact that, in this vision, God and God’s people are victorious. All of the people gathered around the throne are “robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” Both the white robes and the waving palms are symbols of victory. In fact, the winners of the chariot races at the Circus Maximus were given palm branches! Everyone worshiping God is a winner in John’s vision.
This was not true in John’s reality. There’s nothing very victorious about being exiled to an island. Or trying to figure out the theology of a new religion. Or struggling to support your little house church because nobody has any money. Or being thrown to wild beasts. Christianity was fairly spread out and diverse in the first century. Persecution was not universal; it happened in pockets and to varying degrees. Still, it’s not likely that any Christian at the time Revelation was written felt like they were “victorious.” If religion was about money, and numbers, and power—which people generally thought it was—then the imperial cult was definitely the victorious religion.
But John’s vision unveils the truth that, in fact, those who worship God and Christ are the victors. That no matter how alone a Christian feels, they are actually part of a great multitude. And that they are fully a part of this victorious multitude no matter their nation, tribe, people or language.
The four horses with their riders, however spectacular, bring nothing unexpected. But this vision of worship around God’s throne is a true revelation.
Chapter 7 concludes with a beautiful promise—a respite of peace and hope before John’s vision jumps back to the opening of the seals. The angels and elders and four living creatures who surround the throne declare, regarding the multitude of those robed in white: “The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Isn’t it beautiful? Over and against the suffering that is so obvious in the world, isn’t it lovely to think about a time when there will be no hunger, no scorching heat; when Jesus will guide us to springs of living water and the holy God will wipe away our tears?
It is. Beautiful.
I came across more beautiful words this week. They were written about 1,500 years after John of Patmos wrote down his vision, by another John—John Donne. Donne’s Holy Sonnet 7 is clearly inspired by chapter 7 of Revelation (including the part we skipped this morning). If you will indulge a former English teacher, I’d like to read it to you:
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.
It is fascinating to me that Donne is asking for exactly what I shared my own odd hope for last week: that he might be allowed to “mourn a space.” Donne says, God, I know that the trumpets are just waiting to awaken the faithful dead into the divine presence, into this glorious vision of victorious worship around the throne. But “let them sleep” a little longer, so that I can remain “here on this lowly ground.”
Even though the world has violence and suffering; even though we are seldom victorious, even with the “flood” and “fire,” the “war, dearth, age, [disease] . . . despair,” Donne wants to stay here “a space.” He says that it seems a bit late, once he’s in heaven, to ask for God to forgive his sins, late to ask God for grace.
So Donne prays, “here on this lowly ground / teach me how to repent.”
And isn’t that beautiful in its own way? Isn’t that its own kind of unveiling? That when the curtains close—or before they open—on the heavenly vision, we can, right here in the midst of it all, learn to repent: to be better people, to make better choices, to live in ways that are more life-giving for ourselves and for others.
I understand that John of Patmos’ vision is a holy one, of saints and angels praising God in their white robes with their palm branches waving. So too is John Donne’s vision a holy one: that we would linger here in the world, working toward repentance, seeking God’s grace.