Tuesday 12th November, Evening Prayer
I’m not usually the sort of person who pays attention to the signs of the times – the wars and rumours of wars Jesus tells us about in the gospels. The birthpangs. Some churches have made a living out of this – confidently predicting the end of the world on the basis of current events, signs of the times. Only they keep having to revise their estimate when the world does not stop turning on their timescale.
I’m not normally the sort of person who takes much notice of that sort of thing. But when I signed up to preach this evening… I signed up without checking the readings first. Only later that day did I look them up and see that it was the Writing on the Wall, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Perhaps someone was trying to tell me to pay attention to the signs of the times.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has such a common ring to it now – it sounds like the punchline of a joke: there was a TV advert for goodness knows what a while back where one half of a couple came into the living room with their hair in a mess and a terrified expression on their face. “I’ve just seen the four horsemen of the Apocalypse”, he said. “Don’t worry, love, it’s not the end of the world”, she replied.
The imagery feels so well worn, so hackneyed, so washed out, that we’re in danger of losing sight of what lies behind the image.
As we were reminded in our sermon for All Saints, the book of Daniel was written in a context of persecution – Jerusalem was occupied by a hostile empire in the second century BC. The context of the Book of Revelation is similar: young Christian churches fight amongst themselves and face external threat from the Roman Empire in the first century AD.
In times of conflict and persecution, when it feels like you’re going through hell, perhaps it’s not surprising that the images you draw on are violent, and at times demonic. But to state the obvious, we are not in those times. There is a great distance between us today, and those who wrote Revelation and originally heard it.
So, in our interpretation of a text like this we may fall prey to two temptations. We may think of the Four Horsemen as being signs of the end times – some sort of mythological depiction of troubles yet to come. Or we may think of the Four Horsemen as being signs of past times – illustrations of real-life persecution, which add a certain literary flavour to maximise the impact of the text.
Signs of the end times? Signs of past times? Or something else?
I looked and I saw a first rider. At first he looked like a friend, like a saviour, but he came to devour and to destroy. He looks like betrayal. He looks like the false hope of financial security, nationalist politics, isolationism, racial purity. To some he looks like religious brainwashing – the opium of the people – or religious abusers and those who institute cover-ups.
I looked and I saw a second rider. He talked of peace, but brought war. He talked of a peacemaker but brings a revolver. He talked of a peacekeeper but brings a missile. “In this sign conquer”. Conquer he did, and said that God was on his side, but all he brought was misery, death and empire, not the Kingdom of God.
I looked and I saw a third rider. The scales in his hand spoke of economic exchange – a fair day’s pay for a day’s work. But the scales were crooked. The wealth of empires, nations, universities built on slavery. The earth’s resources ravaged so that we can have the latest smart phone. Garment workers killed in unsafe factories so we can have new clothes on the cheap. A worsening climate disaster killing those who are poorest, those who are far away, out of sight, out of mind.
I looked and I saw a fourth rider. Death hand-in-hand with his three companions – eating up people as if they were bread. Death – so easy to turn into a statistic – to treat the dead as numbers not people.
Signs of the end times? Signs of past times? Or signs of the now times?
If for one moment we imagine these four nightmare figures are anything other than deadly serious, then we need to take note of the signs of the times, the signs of the now times. The writing is on the wall for us.
How does the writing finish? How does the story end? Not with the four horsemen. It turns out they aren’t the end of the world after all.
The story ends the same way it started – with the same Word, the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, the Lion of Judah looking like a Lamb who had been slaughtered, the one whose death and resurrection declares that famine, war, pestilence and even death are not the last words.
So we live with that alpha and omega as our own beginning and end. We live by faith in the historical events of the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ. We live in hope of the end of time when those events will be fully realised for all people. With faith rooted in past times and our hope set in the end times we live in the now times by love – love for God, love for neighbour, love for enemies.
Love that calls us to fashion our lives on the slaughtered Lamb we follow, to whom with the Father and the Spirit be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever. Amen.
Alastair Newman, Diocese of Southwark