"When you can’t stand ... Sing!"

October 5, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Revelation 6-7

A Lutheran pastor in the city of Eilenburg, Germany, Martin Rinkhart was well acquainted with tribulation. He faithfully served his church and this city for 32 years, throughout what came to be known as the "30 Years War." As Eilenburg had a wall surrounding it, refugees fled to it as a place of safety, adding more mouths to feed and bringing with them the plague. In the year 1637 thousands of people died, the result of war and disease, including Martin’s own wife. Since all other clergymen had either left or died, he conducted more than 4,000 funerals that year, sometimes 40 or 50 a day.

In the midst of the violence and pestilence of that period, this pietist minister wrote the words of the popular hymn "Now thank we all our God." What on earth, we might wonder, did he have anything for which to be grateful? He, himself, survived the war, but died a year later, exhausted and prematurely aged. Nevertheless, his song continues to ring out. "What in the Sam Hill is going on here?"

In chapters 6 & 7 of the book of Revelation, John reveals to us - in the language of the imagination, the reality of evil in this world. Six seals are broken open on a scroll, and with each opening we see a different picture. Four horses gallop across the page, three of them wrecking havoc as they go. Hymn-writer Martin Rinkhart would’ve recognized them, for he saw these horsemen daily as he buried their victims - casualties of war, famine, or sickness.

One doesn’t need to walk the streets of 17th century Eilenburg to know these creatures. "What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you," the book of James asks (4:1-2) "Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask." The root of war is in each of us. Are we honest enough to amid it?

Where the first horseman comes with a sword, the second carries a pair of scales. Did you catch the irony of the words? A tidbit of food for a day’s wage, but no shortage of oil or wine. In the grocery store at our campground in Yellowstone Park this summer, I noticed something peculiar. About 20% of the shelf space was devoted to booze. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? We could’ve bought nearly any brand of wine, beer or hard liquor, if we’d wanted to, but had to search for only one brand or limited quantities of certain essentials... One definition of famine is "the condition in which we have most of what we don’t need and almost nothing of what we do need." Famine is nature out of balance.

As one writer put it: "We put millions of people to work at idiot jobs to make machines that pollute the air we breathe, so that we can move rapidly from one place to another in projectiles at lethal speeds (killing and maiming other millions - more than have died in all the wars ever fought on the earth) so that we have more time to sit before outrageously priced electronic devices that flicker with forms of flesh fantasies that attempt to convince us (usually successfully) that we must have oil and wine luxuries for which we must go back to idiot jobs to make the lethal machines." Ouch!

These horsemen are not all that foreign to our experience, are they? The fourth brings sickness in its own pale green way. You know, with all the money put into health care in this country alone, that we would be one of the healthiest nations on earth. But is that really true? Doesn’t it seem strange that technology has become more important than the human body and spirit? When was the last time you underwent a major medical test? Was the temperature in the room set for your comfort or for that of the machine?... When Tessa was born, we were immediately asked about whether anyone in our family had a hearing problem. Upon our yes, she was whisked up to a machine, which only later we were told was not designed to register hearing loss of a child that young. We were, in effect, paying for the machine. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for the benefits of this health care system we do have, but I hear the hoofbeats of the horseman. Do you?

Other seals on the scroll are opened in these chapters, revealing persecution of the faithful and natural catastrophe. Indeed, we hear stories of believers struggling around the world just to live by faith. Sometimes the persecution is at the hands of other believers. In Martin Rinkhart’s day, the 30 Years War was a religious conflict with Christian battling Christian over which brand would be dominant. The Evil One has always been an equal opportunity employer. "Sovereign Lord," the persecuted cry out in John’s vision, "how long until you set things right?" That question is still being asked.

Much hay has been made over the years concerning the signs of natural disaster in these verses. Seems to me the point of these words is not for us to be "counting beans" to see how close we are to the end of the age, but to recognize that even wealth and privilege do not protect anyone from catastrophe. The walls of every kingdom, even our own, will eventually fall, by accident or design. At the end of the vision of the sixth seal, the once mighty and proud, along with everyone else, cry out "who is able to stand?," an echo to the question of the faithful "how long?"

Who is able to stand in the face of evil, whether it is experienced directly or indirectly? I am reminded of our sister Betty Rupp’s encounter with her ex-husband last New Year’s Eve, when the bullet of a .22 caliber rifle just missed killing or maiming her. How does one "keep on keepin’ on" after that? I’m reminded of those in our midst who are living on very little, or who have no health insurance. Who can stand? Who can stand?

While the question "why do these terrible things happen?" is not really answered in this or any other scripture in the Bible, we do receive an answer to the question, "who can stand in the face of them?" The angels stand, and amid all these unsealings, when it appears that humanity as well as all creation is pulling apart at the seems, coming undone, falling down all over the place, these angels are busy holding back all hell from breaking lose. There is more going on than what we can see. God is sealing, putting people together again amid the unsealing.

"Who can stand?" The faithful can stand, as they have for centuries when, as the old hymn goes, "the wrong seems oft so strong," and they continue to sing out "God is the ruler yet." The 144,000, like all similar numbers in Revelation, speaks of God’s completeness, how there is a design amid the chaos whereby God’s broken people are made whole by the blood of the Lamb.

Who can stand in the face of evil? Those who live by faith can stand, today and in the future - whatever it may bring. How do they stand? Just as they have always stood. How did Martin Rinkhart stand in face of the horror of those thirty years of war and pestilence? He sang. We’re still singing his song. That’s how believers stand when everything and everyone seems to be falling around them. That’s the truth, isn’t it? We don’t need this vision from Revelation to know that, do we? It’s all through scripture. When Jesus hung on a cross, what did he do? He sang out a psalm, and on the wings of that song he went from death to life.

Speaking of Jesus, this One whom Revelation calls the Lamb, could it be that the first horseman out on the field in this vision full of evil is the One who will set things right? Does the white horse and rider - who come out, as it says, "conquering and to conquer" - represent what Christ is about in this world, the good news at work even now? If so, we need a caveat, a "yes, but" qualification. Much has been said over the years of the conquering Christ, but make no mistake - the One who wins over evil does not (and will not in the future) employ the weapons of this world. He still rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. The faithful recognize this in chapter 7, verse 9, as they sing with palm branches in their hands.

Yes, in the book of Revelation, there are upcoming surrealistic scenes of final battles when Evil is fully dealt with, and there is an end to the old and a new beginning. However, the truth is, that "war" is already over. He has already conquered. Remember that. Sing it out. Of course, it may not seem that way from our perspective. But God’s people know the truth. The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. And nothing can get in the way. As the apostle Paul so ably put it in words that feel like a song, "in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:37-39)

Evil is a fact of life, whether we experience it directly or just feel its effects in the world around us, in ways great or small. However, when you don’t think can stand one more moment, when you’re about to fall, to give in to despair, to give up hope, to let fear have its way, to allow hate to rule your life, to let go into any other hands but the hands of the One who loves you most and will not let you fall ... SING!!!! ... It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune. My father was one of that variety. But still he sang. One of his favorite hymns is still one of mine. Won’t you stand and join me in singing it out?

1997Peter L. Haynes

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