Salvation is one of those theological words, it seems to me, that is laden with meaning and almost becomes code language so it takes a little unpacking.
In the Old Testament, the most common Hebrew word for salvation is yasha, which implies space and breath. It’s the opposite of being constricted. Yasha is a verb, and it turns out that God is most often the subject of the sentences that contain yasha. Several names in the Bible that are derived from this word – Joshua, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jesus – and all of them mean, “God saves.”
A favorite author says: “Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way, it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall.” 1
Back in the 1950’s, there was a woman I once knew by the name of Ruth Johnson.
Ruth was a young wife and mom and teacher. Her family was moving from North Dakota to New York City. It so happened that her husband was in the Navy, and his career was taking the family to the big city. Ernie went on ahead, and Ruth and the three boys planned to move during summer vacation. They spent a few days in Minnesota with family, and then they hit the road, driving through Chicago, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as they made their way to New York. Along the way, she taught them to sing, introduced them to maps and drilled them on multiplication tables.
Finally, on the third day, traffic became dense. The number of lanes going each direction increased, and each lane was filled with swiftly-moving cars, making it difficult to shift from one lane to another. These were, of course, before the days of GPS. And there was not an adult navigator sitting beside her in the passenger seat. There were, instead, three young boys and the directions she had researched ahead of time.
Realizing that she was pressed in on all sides and that her quickly approaching exit was three lanes to the right, Ruth did the only thing she could think of: she stopped the car, and along with her, all of the surrounding traffic. Horns began to blare. The pressure inside the car began to rise. She was hemmed in on all sides.
Sensing that something had impeded the flow of traffic, a mounted policeman made his way through the stalled traffic to see what was the matter. As he approached on horseback, he took one look at her North Dakota license plates, and he asked, “Lady, where do you want to go?” She pointed to her exit, he stopped traffic, and he cleared a path for her to follow. He created space and openness that she might pass through. That which was constricted opened up, and all could begin to breathe once again. Life was enabled. In a tangible, practical way, there was salvation.
Today’s Bible reading is a story that comes from the Book of Revelation. It is a strange reading, and for many of us, we’re not quite sure what to do with it. The Book of Revelation is intimidating. But it turns out that Revelation has a message of hope that can speak deeply to our hearts today.
Today’s reading is in the middle of a story so a word about how we got to this place seems helpful. A follower of Jesus by the name of John from the island of Patmos has written a letter to seven churches at the turn of the First Century. The setting is the Roman Empire. Rome has been the occupying the land for 150 years. Rome is a given, it seems.
John writes his letter using a literary style called “apocalypse” in which a traveler takes a visionary journey and comes back with an urgent message for his community. Although somewhat unfamiliar to us, John’s first readers and hearers would have understood what he was doing. They would understand that he was presenting word pictures to help them hear a message.
John’s journey takes him to heaven, to the throne room of God. “Come,” a voice has said, “and I will show you what will take place.”
John finds himself at an open door that leads to the throne room. Inside is One seated on the throne, and next to him is the Lamb. Around the throne are four living creatures and twenty-four elders and myriads upon myriads of angels. All are singing praise to God and to the Lamb, “You are worthy. To you be given power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Imagine being in a great cathedral listening to the majesty and splendor of Handel’s Messiah.
And then comes an ominous turn. A different set of images form before John’s eyes, and they are frightening. John hears the word, “Come!” and a white horse comes thundering out. Its rider is carrying a carrying a bow, loaded and aimed, and on his head is a crown.
Again, a voice is heard, “Come!” and a second horse, a red horse, comes thundering out. Its rider is wielding a sword, and there is venom in his eyes.
A third time, a voice cries, “Come!” and a black horse appears. Its rider is carrying scales, the kind with a balance and a counter balance to measure grain.
A voice cries out a fourth time, “Come!” and another horse appears. This one is light green. Perhaps not as robust and forceful as the others, it looks sick. Indeed, its rider is Death.
These are the so-called “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They incite fear because they represent threats so close to the heart, dangers that seem so real.
The first horseman is the threat of other nations who want to bring down the mighty empire. There has never been an empire quite like Rome, impenetrable it has seemed, and yet, there comes another that is ready to exploit a weakness. The second horseman brings violence. What will people do to one another?
The third horseman brings economic uncertainty, the tangible need of food to eat every day. And the fourth horseman reminds us that death will one day come to all of us.
The Roman Empire and all of its specifics are long gone, and yet, if we adapt the images a bit, we see the dangers of the four horsemen are real today, too:
- Missiles being tested, computer systems hacked. We face threats from outside our borders.
- Guns in the streets, cops unsure of who is armed and who is not. Widely differing opinions of civic life, and brazen ways to shout down those with whom we disagree. It adds to the uncertainty of how we live in our country and in our neighborhoods.
- Jobs uncertain, health care in the balance. How do we know the future is secure?
- Medical tests, cancer screening. What does the future bring?
Do you feel the air constricting and closing in? Do you feel the pressure mounting?
Our reading tells us that the first horseman comes out “conquering to conquer.” His way is to dominate, to subjugate others for his own gain. In Rome, winning was everything. They not only valued winning, they worshipped it. Their goddess Victoria (in Latin or Nike in Greek) was named for victory. They stamped her image everywhere. They even had a statue of her winged foot crushing the globe.2
Over against that image is the Lamb, the slaughtered Lamb, who also comes to conquer, but in a different way. The word conquer appears 16 times in Revelation, but it becomes apparent that the way the Lamb conquers is different from the empire. Lamb power uses not oppressive systems of domination, but the power of sacrificial love to bring life and healing. It is not force or violence, but the power of the word, testifying to God’s victory in the cross, in God’s self-giving love. It is the power of telling the story of love, the power of choosing to love instead of hate, the power to bring healing and to nurture life, to build up, rather than tear down. The power of salvation. John pulls back the curtain on the powers that surround the people of God and says, “It’s the Lamb who brings God’s vision for the world. Not the warriors, not the lion, but the Lamb.”
Two weeks ago in Minneapolis, a woman named Justine Daman was killed in a police shooting. It happened just six blocks from my house. In the days that followed, there were gatherings in the neighborhood – a vigil and a march. Friends and family of Jamar Clark and Philando Castille came and stood with family and friends of Justine. A number of people spoke, but one voice, in particular, has been replaying in my head. A woman from the NAACP exhorted us to act from love as we respond to this tragedy. It will be a long process, she said, to seek justice for Justine’s death. It will take patience. But let love be the impetus and foundation from which actions take shape. She gave witness to the power of the Lamb, the power of sacrificial love.
We know the pressures of the four horsemen. We, too, fear for our security, our safety, our economic well-being, and our health. We know loss, and we feel uncertainty for the future. Some days that weighs on us more heavily than others.
In the midst of the pressures that weigh in on us comes another vision. There at the throne of God gathered around is a great multitude from every tribe and nation and language. Like us, they have gathered around to sing: “Salvation belongs to our God and to Christ the Lamb forever and ever.” The pressures, the fears, have not gone away, but the congregation gathers to sing, to be buoyed, to lean into the promise that God’s purposes are for life.
And here’s the promise: God will be with us. God will go with us and shelter us in all that we face. And the Lamb himself will be our shepherd. The Lamb will show us the way.
Here’s an invitation: As you go about your life this week, look for signs of Lamb power. As you read the paper and as you encounter your neighbors, look for the power of the Lamb. Give witness to its power. Name its presence. Emulate it, and live by it. And remember, although we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. And the One who holds the future brings healing and life. Amen.
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 2006), p. 226.
2 Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), p. 104-116.