Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week on Ash Wednesday, we began this series of art inspired by the Book of Revelation with the opening phrase that Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In these words we are reminded that Jesus is the fullness of all living, the one who knows all possible outcomes, and understands what must be done to reach life’s desired end.
The Book then continues with a series of commendations and warnings to each of the seven churches in Asia. In the face of Roman Empire’s brutal persecution of Christians, several of the churches were struggling to remain steadfast in their faith. Individual believers were denying Christ and returning to their pagan practices. In other places, believers were becoming haughty and self-centered. Still others were simply playing it safe and choosing to let their faith remain hidden. In the face of these struggles, John who was exiled on the island of Patmos, warned the churches, encouraged that if anyone was listening carefully, they should be aware of what was about to happen. The reader then is introduced to two different realities side by side. The one is the reality of the believer, and the other is the reality of the believer who has fallen away. On the one side, the reading unfolds into a grand, colorful scene of heavenly worship with the elders, and the four creatures all gathering around the thrown of God. There beside the thrown rested an unopened scroll with seven seals. There is an excitement in the scene. What does the holy scroll contain? The question is asked, “Who is worthy to open the seal?” The answer is Jesus, the Lamb, who was slain. The Lamb then breaks the first seal. We are surprised, however, that it is not a joyous event. The day of the Lord’s coming, a final judgment day unfolds, which is a day truly to be feared. The Four Horsemen are thus a prelude to that fearful day and a harsh reality.
The image of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the bulletin cover is an 1887 painting by Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov. Vasnetsov, who descended from a line of clergy and icon painters, specialized in mythological and historical subjects. He is considered a co-founder of Russian folklorist and romantic nationalistic painting style, and a key figure in the Russian Revivalist movement. He was commissioned to paint frescos for Orthodox churches across the Russian Empire and to create mosaics for the exteriors. Unfortunately at the time, his works were considered sacrilegious as being neither Orthodox or western European enough by some critics, while others felt they represented “the first bridge over 200 years-old gulf separating different classes of Russian society.”
The painting itself which hangs today in Moscow depicts the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation. The Four Horsemen correspond with the first four of the seven seals broken by the Lamb as he opens the scroll of judgment. The first Horseman likely refers to the Antichrist. He is the false imitator of the true Christ. At the beginning of the tribulation, the Antichrist will be given the authority “a crown”, and he will wage war with “a bow” conquering all who oppose him. The second Horseman riding a red horse refers to the terrible, bloody warfare that will break out in the end times. The third Horseman portrays a great famine that will take place. Food is scarce, and prices are inflated beyond reason. The command to spare the oil and the wine, however, seems to signify that the luxuries will still be available during the famine to the rich and powerful, but the staples for daily life will not. Finally, the Lamb breaks open the fourth seal, releasing a pale horse! Other translations say pale green. Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. It is often portrayed as pestilence and plague.
Over the centuries, theologians have chosen to the interpret the Horsemen in different ways. Before the Reformation, the usual and more influential commentaries of the Book of Revelation thought there was only one horseman riding these four horses successively. Martin Luther, in particular, focused on the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church as guiding the horse. Contemporary Evangelical interpreters regularly see ways in which the horsemen, speak to contemporary events. Some who believe Revelation applies to modern times can interpret the horses based on the various ways their colors are used. Red, for example, often represents Communism, the white horse and rider with a crown representing Kings and Queen, Black has been used as a symbol of Capitalism, while Green represents the rise of Islam.
So what good is to come from this story? How did the seven churches respond to such a message? The promise of hope is actually found at top of the painting. It is in the Lamb who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals. In this particular painting by Vasnetsov, the Lamb is seated in the highest position on the canvas. He is the One who rules forever and ever, and by his authority, the enemy will and has been defeated.
Too many people lose sight of the Lamb in the painting- and in the world. They see only the fearsome horses, and so they are lead to believe that the promise of Jesus’ victory is only in our future. They would have us fear these end times that are yet to come. But the Book of Revelation reminds us, as does this Vasnetsov’s painting, that Jesus’ victory took place at the cross. When Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives to heaven, he sat down in his rightful place as the ruler of all creation. He is there now watching over and protecting those who honor and trust in him. That is the warning, and promise, John of Patmos shared with the seven churches. Yes, there is still evil in the world, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t reigning. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse may be crossing the land, but no matter what happens, we must never lose hope that Jesus is Lord and that he reigns over all. He always watches over his people. So, my friends, place your trust in him, not in religious leaders, politicians, governments, business, the news or media. Our hope is in the Lamb who was slain, and who rose again victorious. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.