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Summer Turns to High

The Rider on a White Horse

The Rider on a White Horse
Rev. 19:6-16
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
20 May 2007

You may not know that I’m a Johnny Cash fan. I love the rawness and authenticity of his music. His was a uniquely American voice that was also deeply religious. His whole life and music can be viewed through the lens of sin and redemption, as he struggled with those two themes.

He used to tell about growing up in rural Arkansas where, as a kid, he picked cotton. And he would sing gospel music to pass the day and ease the burden of his labor. The first time his mother heard him sing was in their house. She was in another room and didn’t know whom it was she had heard. She went in to where he was and asked, “Who was that singing?” He said, “That was me, Mamma.” She walked over and put her hand on his arm and said, “God has his hand on you.”

In 1954, Johnny Cash went to Memphis for an audition with Sam Phillips of Sun Records. During the audition, he told Phillips, “I want to sing gospel music.” Phillips looked at him and said, “Before you can be believable singing gospel music about bein’ saved, first, you gotta go out and sin.” [Note: the last two paragraphs borrowed from a prayer written by Wayne Meachum.]

Some of Johnny’s best music was that recorded during his concerts in prisons. It’s interesting that he was singing in prisons. I think Jesus said something about visiting prisoners. Anyway, Johnny’s music about the prison experience is very real. In songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “San Quentin #2,” he empathizes with the experience of the prisoner. There is a grittiness and a violence to the music. But there is also contrition, guilt, and depression resulting from one’s acts. And there is always music about redemption, particularly the redemption that comes from loving Mom or wife or child. Johnny was able to speak so powerfully to the experience of the prisoner because he was both a sinner and a believer.

Johnny’s vision extended beyond the prison, listen to these lyrics from “Man in Black:”

Well you wonder why I always dress in black.
Why you never see bright colors on my back.
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless hungry side of town.
I wear it for the prisoner
who has long paid for his crime,
but is there because he’s a victim of the time.

I wear the black for those who’ve never read,
or listened to the words that Jesus said,
about the road to happiness through love and charity.
Why, you’d think he’s talkin’ straight to you and me.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.

That song is about the gospel. It’s about the reign of God and the mission of the church.

The last album released during Johnny’s life was “The Man Comes Around.” His voice was aged, his body weathered. The songs on this album seem to be about judgment. Johnny knows that he is at the end of his life and he’s taking stock. He knows there are sins in his life like his infidelity and his cocaine addiction. But there are also redeeming aspects of his life like his advocacy for the downtrodden and, especially, his love of his wife June Carter Cash.

The song from the album that was most widely played was his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” Listen to some of this:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that's real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

This is the song of someone tormented. Though the album has other songs, like a cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” that express hope and love. What is the source of Johnny’s conflict? Let’s listen to one more song, the title song of the album, which also opens it, “The Man Comes Around:”

And I heard as it were the noise of thunder
One of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw
And behold a white horse

There's a man going around taking names and he decides
Who to free and who to blame every body won't be treated
Quite the same there will be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around

The hairs on your arm will stand up at the terror in each
Sip and each sup will you partake of that last offered cup
Or disappear into the potter's ground
When the man comes around

Hear the trumpets hear the pipers one hundred million angels singing
Multitudes are marching to a big kettledrum
Voices calling and voices crying
Some are born and some are dying
Its alpha and omegas kingdom come
And the whirlwind is in the thorn trees
The virgins are all trimming their wicks
The whirlwind is in the thorn trees
It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks
Till Armageddon no shalom no shalom

Then the father hen will call his chicken's home
The wise man will bow down before the thorn and at his feet
They will cast the golden crowns
When the man comes around
Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still
Listen to the words long written down
When the man comes around

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And it's name it said on him was Death
And Hell followed with him.

The Book of Revelation, the source of many of the images in that song, gives us images of the judgment of God. Johnny is right that God will judge the living and the dead and give to each due measure. God is a god of justice. But Johnny and we also know that God is a god of love, mercy, compassion, and redemption. How do these themes fit together?

Following the lead of Eugene Boring, New Testament professor in the Brite Divinity School, I believe that the final chapters of Revelation give us a series of different images of God’s intention for creation. Here we have the rider on the white horse, the final battle, the binding of Satan, the thousand year reign, the defeat of Gog and Magog, the great white throne judgment, and the new heaven and new earth. Boring argues that we shouldn’t view these as a chronology of first one event occurring and then the next. He says that they are seven different visions of the End.

What John has done is take a series of popular and scriptural images of the end of time and showed how all of them can be fulfilled in his vision of the gospel. Many of these are references back to passages in the Hebrew scriptures, with a handful of them coming from Ezekiel.

Nor does John try to make all the images fit. They contrast with one another in significant ways. It reveals an important thing about John. John doesn’t claim to have knowledge about the great mysteries of the universe. John gives a series of images that hint at truth. John is wise enough to know that he doesn’t know. If John doesn’t speak with certainty, then surely we should not.

One more thing to keep in mind. John is speaking about the End. But “end” does not simply mean “final” or “last.” “End” also means “purpose” or “goal.” As such, John is speaking about the purpose or goal of creation. Therefore, what we have are not so much images of the end of time, as they are images of the past, present, and future. They are images of God’s victory that has already occurred in creation, cross, resurrection, and church. They are also images of God’s on-going work in history. So, these are not things we simply look forward to, they are things that have already occurred, are currently in process, and will occur at the culmination of creation.

This week and next, we will focus on these images in the final chapters of Revelation. What I want to emphasize is this conflict that Johnny Cash was so concerned with – on the one hand we have images of the judgment of God, while on the other hand we have images of God’s salvation. How do these two images fit together? What do they mean for us?

Like many of you, I grew up in an evangelical church. We weren’t fundamentalists, but we were conservative evangelicals. At the core of that worldview is a conviction that sin is something personal of which we are each individually guilty and that if we do not accept God’s gift of salvation, then we are doomed to spend eternity separated from God in hell.

In the churches of my youth, pretty much every worship service was focused on this theme, because of the imperative of saving the souls of the lost. Each service ended with an invitation, when we could come forward to the altar and make a public decision to accept Jesus Christ.

There were a small number of hymns that we sang during this time of invitation, with passages like:

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me

The Savior is waiting is to enter your heart,
Why don’t you let Him come in?
There’s nothing in this world to keep you apart,
What is your answer to him?
Time, after time, he has waited before, and now he is waiting again,
to see if you’re willing to open the door,
Oh, how he wants to come in.

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
in the light of His glory and grace.

As much as we might critique the negative aspects of the worldview reflected in these songs, I think that it is important that we not forget the value held in these images of God’s judgment on sin. The conservative evangelical worldview reminds us that Holy scripture is quite clear that God will judge the sins of this world. In fact, we want God’s judgment. Those who have suffered violence and oppression at the hands of the powers-that-be, seek God’s justice upon the oppressors. It is part of a larger vision that seeks a new creation, one that is freed from sin, one that is healed and reconciled to God.

John presents an image of a Rider on a White Horse. This is Jesus, who has otherwise appeared as a slaughtered but standing Lamb throughout this book. Is John changing the image? I don’t think he’s changed it that much. Notice that the rider’s robe is stained with blood before the battle. This is the rider’s own blood. Jesus has already conquered through his own death and resurrection. Notice also that the supposed armies of God have white robes. They are not stained with the blood of slaughter. Finally, notice that God’s judgment is executed not with literal weapons, but with the spoken Word of God.

John draws on a number of sources in presenting this image of the Rider on a White Horse. One of those is the Exodus experience. Remember that the two key salvation events in the history of the people of Israel were the Exodus and the Exile. The Exodus is the story of a people who cry out to God for help because they are the victims of oppression and violence. God saves the victims and enacts justice upon the perpetrators.

So, John’s image of the rider is an image of hope for the victims. God will bring justice upon our oppressors. Just as these evangelical songs emphasizes the hope, light, and new life that we will find when freed from sin and darkness.

But we must also remember the theme of Exile. The Israelites were sent into exile because they were judged to have become as corrupt as the Egyptians had been to them. The Exile experience reminds us that victims can be oppressors as well.

In fact, I think the biblical message of sin is that we are all caught up in sin as both victims and perpetrators. We are all guilty. We all must face the judgment of God. And we all stand in need of the grace of God.

This is a core evangelical truth. Remember, though, that the word “evangel” is another way of saying “good news.” So then, how can our sinfulness, our guilt, our judgment be “good news?”

Because confession of our sin is the road to healing. When we acknowledge that we are a sinner in need of the grace of God, then we free ourselves from guilt, anxiety, and shame. This confession frees us to participate with joy in the new life that God is calling us to.

You see, we are judged. When our lives are examined, all those aspects of our lives that have run counter to the way of God will be expunged. We are faced with what we have done for good and bad. Let me demonstrate what I mean. [object lesson]

The question that faces us is how much we have contributed to God’s new creation. Some of us will have contributed much. Others will have contributed little. I think facing our fruits is the toughest judgment there can be. That’s what Johnny Cash was doing, coming face to face with his own life and acknowledging that some of it was weeds and some of it was flowers.

Or, for another example, just imagine Jerry Falwell coming face to face with Jesus and learning that he has spent his entire life misunderstanding Jesus. I pity Falwell in that moment as he realizes how much of his life’s work that he thought would add to the great bouquet of creation was actually weeds that will be cast aside.

You know what I think God does in those moments when we come face to face with ourselves? I think God reaches out and embraces us in a big hug and says, “My beloved child, your sins are forgiven, welcome.” God’s like a beautiful, wise, old grandma who loves her children no matter who they are or what they’ve done, who always makes a place for them to come home.

I believe in judgment. But I also believe in salvation.


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