12 November 2019 Sermon (Westcott House, Cambridge)

Daniel 5.1-12

King Belshazzar made a great festival for a thousand of his lords, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.

Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar commanded that they bring in the vessels of gold and silver that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners; and the king said to the wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever can read this writing and tell me its interpretation shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around his neck, and rank third in the kingdom.’ Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.

The queen, when she heard the discussion of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting-hall. The queen said, ‘O king, live for ever! Do not let your thoughts terrify you or your face grow pale. There is a man in your kingdom who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father he was found to have enlightenment, understanding, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and diviners, because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will give the interpretation.’

Revelation 6

Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘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, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ And 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 he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; 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 he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and 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?’

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May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (+). Amen.

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.