Sunday, June 23, 2019

Where Our Prayers Go: Sermon on Revelation 5:8

It had to be an emergency, for them to come disturb the holy man during his night-time prayers. But, panting with urgency, that's just what someone did. And so this holy man got up and went with the man. For his part, Caesarius, the thirty-something-year-old bishop, wished he were home in the town he loved to serve. But he wasn't. He'd become bishop of Arles (in what's today southeastern France) in the last month of the year of our Lord 502. Then, a few years into his energetic work, his zeal for rescuing captives – regardless of their politics or ethnicity – had gotten him into trouble, and after a false accusation was charged against Caesarius' reputation, the Visigothic king Alaric II had banished him westward, exiling him to the city of Bordeaux. Which is where he'd been praying his usual nightly prayers for the peace of all nations and tranquility of every city – when that night word reached him. A fire had broken out, and had been spreading, and now threatened with its bestial maw to gobble up the city whole. And who could do a thing?

Caesarius got up at once – there was no time to waste – and he ran. He ran, and he ran, until he found the fire, and to the surprise of everyone, he got in front of its path, the very thing every right-thinking man, woman, and child was running away from. Standing, staring down the advancing rush of flame and heat, Caesarius hurled himself to the ground in worship of his great God, crying out as he hit the dust in prostration, pleading with the Lord Jesus Christ to quell this hellish monster flame and rescue Bordeaux. He poured out his soul in prayer in the dirt as the fire raged. He didn't even look up at the gasps the denizens of Bordeaux let loose as they watched the fire unwind, retreat, die away, smothered beneath the mighty hand of God. “An apostle for our day!” they hailed.

Alaric later let Caesarius return to Arles, but during another king's reign, Caesarius was accused again and taken to Ravenna (in Italy) to be judged by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great, who saw in Caesarius' face “the face of an angel.” While there, the bishop heard that a local widow, mother of a terminally ill and comatose son who was their sole wage-earner, was desperate for the bishop to pray for the young man. So Caesarius went, fell to the ground in prayer, and left when the Holy Spirit assured him of an answer. He left behind his disciple Messianus to witness the miracle and report back – within the hour, the man revived in good health with thanksgiving for Caesarius' prayers. And Theodoric sent Caesarius back home – back home at last to Arles, the city of his bishopric.

His first day back, the church was packed. Caesarius was one of the most popular preachers in the world in his day. But that evening of his first day back, a woman burst into the church, foaming at the mouth, interrupting worship. Her need was obvious. Bystanders brought her forward to the altar, where Caesarius was. He took her gently and anointed her with oil and prayed over her. And whether afflicted by rabies or another ailment, it was promptly purged out of her system, and the prayers of Caesarius restored her to health. Another day later on, he met a woman with trembling hands, perhaps from Parkinson's or palsy – Caesarius took them, blessed them, prayed over them, and watched her hands grow still and steady. And still another day, he once again hurled himself down as fire burned in a local home, and the flames were beaten down by the force of his prayers. It tended to become known: things happened when Bishop Caesarius of Arles prayed.

It's been 1500 years since Caesarius lived, and I suspect many of us can only hear those stories, written down by an eyewitness to his life, from an experiential distance. Because for most of us, it takes a lot of praying to see things happen. And there may well be times in our lives when it feels as if our prayers must be getting lost in the mail – they seem to smack into some obstacle and fall feebly away, or get re-routed to the wrong address, or otherwise are abandoned. And we might wonder what's the point of praying when our prayers seem like they're going nowhere at all. Because if Caesarius sent his by express priority mail, ours may seem handled by the sloppiest interns the post office ever saw. And we wonder, where in heaven or earth do our prayers go?

Over the past several Sundays, we've begun entering into the beauty of the Book of Revelation. These chapters reveal the heart of worship in the command center of all things, the throne-room of God. We've met the four living creatures covered in eyes, who survey all things and constantly are awestruck by the ever-fresh holiness of God, just by who God is. We've met the twenty-four elders, heavenly priest-kings who praise God for his works in creation, who submit their authority to him again and again by hurling their crowns to the base of his throne. We've basked in the emerald radiance emanating from the throne, wrapping God in light. We've seen the seven torches, signifying the Holy Spirit, there where the crowns land across the glassy sea. And lately, we've welcomed a great surprise in heaven: When it seemed as if there was no way for God's plan to unfold, we heard report of a warrior-messiah, the Lion of Judah, who had conquered his way to victory – and behold, we saw that the conqueror was in fact a sacrificial Lamb, whose victory was redeeming others by his shed blood and laying the foundation for a whole new universe. And now, everything about worship has changed.

See, the Lamb of God – Jesus Christ – is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals. The Lamb is worthy to shepherd history to its goal. The Lamb is worthy to receive worship – worship meant for God alone – and to get it right there in God's presence. If any false worship were offered there, it would be the greatest blasphemy of all time. But the Lamb is rightly worshipped, worthily worshipped, as one with God the Father. From here on out, it's obvious: there's no such thing as right worship that doesn't include the Lamb. The Lamb can't be gotten around, can't be bypassed, can't be overlooked. There's no other name, not even in heaven. There's no other way or truth or life, not even in heaven. The Lamb shares the throne of God, belongs there, is worshipped there forever – worthy is the Lamb (Revelation 5:1-7)!

And now, for the first time, worship becomes a song. As soon as the Lamb takes the scroll, that's when we read that the worship leaders of heaven – the four and twenty-four – all begin singing (Revelation 5:9). That's the first time we've heard that. All their worship in the last chapter – they said those things, but they didn't sing yet. They start singing now. And now they have instruments, too: “The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp” (Revelation 5:8). Instruments in heaven! (And Kenny, you'll be glad to know that the word for 'harp' here is kithara, from which we get the word 'guitar,' so you'll fit right in, won't ya?) The presence of the Lamb really changes everything about worship, elevating it to a new key, bringing a new and resplendent joy that we'd never have without the deep saga of redemption.

But there's something else that changes in heaven's worship when the Lamb steps in, something we haven't yet heard about. See, the twenty-four elders are holding something in the other hand. They don't just have their harps. They also carry “golden bowls full of incense” (Revelation 5:8). And that takes us back to another saga of redemption: the exodus. When the Israelites came out of Egypt, when they journeyed deep into the desert, when they camped in the frightful light of Sinai's blazing summit, Moses went up into the dark cloud, and we know he got the commandments of the law. But he got more than ten things. Actually, equally importantly, he got instructions for building a tabernacle for God's worship, along with all the furnishings necessary for it. And this is the big centerpiece of Exodus: the book doesn't end until that tabernacle is built.

Part of the instructions Moses got were to “make its plates and dishes for incense,” and to “make them of pure gold” (Exodus 25:29). These are the golden bowls that the priests of Israel would have to use, and it's their heavenly counterparts that John's seeing in heaven. Moses was also told to “make an altar on which to offer incense” (Exodus 30:1). God instructed that “Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it – every morning when he dresses the lamps, he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it – a regular incense-offering before Yahweh throughout your generations. But you shall not offer unholy incense on it” (Exodus 30:7-9). God even laid out a recipe for the special blend of incense he wanted, and banned the Israelites from ever using that combination for perfume or anything else – it was to be his and only his (Exodus 30:34-38). Later evidence lists the ingredients in more detail: mastic resin, operculum, galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, agarwood, saffron, costus, cinnamon bark, and Jordan amber – but only one priestly family, the House of Avtinas, knew how to add a secret ingredient that made the smoke go straight up in a pillar.

Exodus ends with the offering of some of this fragrant incense (Exodus 40:26-27), but Moses still can't enter the tabernacle until the priesthood is set up, which is what Leviticus covers. And there we learn that this incense would be an absolutely necessary part of the Day of Atonement ritual, whereby Aaron the high priest would address the sins of the whole nation – for his own safety, he'd have to cover God's throne with a cloud of this incense, layering it on like a safety buffer in the air, in order to step into God's presence (Leviticus 16:12-13).

We find in the next book, Numbers, that the incense dishes were dedicated by each tribe of Israel, each of whom provided some of the initial stock of incense (Numbers 7:86). But the actual offering of incense is reserved to the priests descended from Aaron, who had to make incense-offerings to atone for the people in emergencies (Numbers 16:40-46). This, it turns out, was one of the basic functions of priests in Israel: “to offer incense” (1 Samuel 2:28). It's one of the things they do: they “offer to Yahweh every morning and every evening burnt-offerings and fragrant incense” (2 Chronicles 13:13). As the Bible goes on, we meet kings who are good because they support the priests in doing just that (1 Kings 9:25); we meet kings who are judged because they try to do it themselves, as King Uzziah did and became a leper (2 Chronicles 26); and we sadly meet kings who endorse the burning of incense on other altars and to other gods (1 Kings 3:3; 12:33; 13:1-2; 22:43). But the prophet Malachi looks forward to a day where God's name will be “great among the nations; and in every place, incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering” (Malachi 1:4).

Incense was a big part of Old Testament worship, and so John won't be surprised to see it in heavenly worship. Neither would he be too surprised that the incense is offered by heavenly beings – he knows traditions where archangels gather and collect things to present them to God (Tobit 12:15; 3 Baruch 11:8-9, esp. 14:2 Slavonic). And the Old Testament had also long linked incense with prayer. That's why, when the Baptist's father Zechariah went to make the incense-offering in the temple – which is where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him – it was as the people outside prayed, so that the rising fragrance of incense could symbolize their prayers going up, up to heaven (Luke 1:10). And the psalmist had already prayed, “I call upon you, O Yahweh; come quickly to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you! Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:1-2). And now John sees the fulfillment of that psalm. For he sees these elders holding “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8).

And what that means is this: Even if you aren't Caesarius of Arles, even if you're somebody like me or someone like you, your prayers are not getting lost in the mail! If you've ever wondered what happens to your prayers once they leave your heart and your lips, John sees the answer staring him in the face: the prayers of the saints go into the bowls of incense that these elders present to worship the Lamb.

And that changes everything. These 'golden bowls' hold the prayers of the saints, the holy ones, God's own people who belong to him through Jesus the Lamb, whose lives have begun to be purified and sanctified by the sevenfold Spirit. Every prayer you pray to God will find its way into those bowls. They will be purified and prepared and presented in the presence of Father, Son, Holy Spirit. 
And that is the foundational act of heaven's worship. Heaven worships God by using your prayers. That's what John is seeing. Your prayers are significant enough, your prayers are important enough, your prayers are valued so highly, that they are included in the grandest ceremony of the universe and beyond. Heaven worships God by using your prayers. So if your prayers seem to be floating off, if your prayers seem to be bouncing back, if your prayers seem to you as though they're doing nothing, know this: That isn't true. That isn't true at all, not if you're bought by the blood of the Lamb. Your prayers will never be overlooked, they will never be set aside, they will never be ignored. What's happening is that your prayers are being stored up for the right time. The incense must be collected first.

We know that the incense for worshipping God has to be made from a whole list of ingredients. And each one of those ingredients has its own unique properties, its own smell, its own texture. Some of them, on their own, may not be the most pleasant substances. But they combine into an aromatic whole, and those who smelled the incense used in Israel's worship said it was a fragrance unlike any other. And if our prayers are the incense for heavenly worship, then heaven's incense – being equally derived from varied ingredients – needs all the rich diversity our prayer lives have to offer. These golden bowls need to hold our happy praises. They need to hold our weary petitions. They need to hold our heartfelt thanksgivings. They need to hold our bitter laments. And they need the passion that makes the smoke rise straight. They need all of it, without any being left out. So we can't afford to hold back or limit ourselves to only the bright notes. We are the tribes presenting the ingredients for heaven's incense, and the fullness of a life is what's required, in all its sweet and all its bitter.

The Old Testament also already taught us that this special blend of incense was forbidden for private use – that it was a great offense to offer it on any other altar, and especially to any other god. The righteous king Josiah had to “depose the priests … who burned incense to Baal and to the sun and the moon and the constellations and all the host of the heavens” (2 Kings 23:5). Offering incense to any of those things – good created things or demonic powers, any of them – was a major crime. And if our prayers are meant for heavenly incense, then they are meant for God and the Lamb. They must not be aimed elsewhere. We must not go around praying to the trendy idols of our age. We must not pray our lives out to money, asking it to fulfill all our needs and give us security. We must not pray our lives out to sexual gratification, asking it to give us an identity and to soothe our wounded souls. We must not pray 'patriotic' prayers to America – (but I have seen some so-called 'churches' do exactly that, displacing the worship of God with vows, pledges, and prayers to the stars and stripes). God states openly in the Bible that he's offended when we do any of that. He is offended when we pray to any of these things. He says that one who uses his incense in such ways should be cut off from God's people (Exodus 30:38). Our prayers, our petitions, our thanksgivings, our laments – these don't belong to money or sex or family or country, they belong to God and the Lamb, and that's the only address they should have. We do not pray as money-earners or money-yearners, we pray as the saints of God. We do not pray as sex-seekers, we pray as the saints of God. We do not pray as patriots, we pray as the saints of God. We do not pray as devotees defined by anything else, we pray as the saints of God. And as the saints of God, our prayer lives are too holy to God to be shared with any other use.

But just the same, we must pray. We read in the Bible that another righteous king, Hezekiah, led people in great prayers of repentance, and the great sin he named was that their ancestors “have not burned incense or offered burnt-offerings in the Holy Place to the God of Israel; therefore, the wrath of Yahweh came on Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 29:7-8). The sin that put Judah and Jerusalem on the wrong side of things was, in part, that they had stopped offering incense at all. And John now sees that we commit the same sin as they did, whenever we give up praying. If we let our prayer lives fizzle out, if we set prayer aside, if we become a non-praying people, then we are no different than the faithless generation Hezekiah was talking about, are we? We, too, if we give up prayer, are withholding incense for the heavenly worship – by not praying, we cripple the purpose of the universe's existence.

So when you're happy and you know it, don't clap your hands – pray! When you're thrilled and thankful, pray! When you're sad and forlorn and alone, pray! When you're exhausted and drained and spent, pray! It doesn't matter if your prayers are happy ones or sad ones, fast ones or slow ones, eloquent ones or inchoate ones, smooth ones or gritty ones, sweet ones or bitter ones. The incense blend requires some of all of them, and we'll balance one another out in the bowl. So don't let that hinder you. Just pray – provide incense for heaven's worship.

Because, in the end, it really does matter. In a few chapters, once the Lamb has opened all seven seals, we read that “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them” – instruments for more worship. “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer,” an incense-burner. “And he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (Revelation 8:1-4). There we finally see the offering of what the twenty-four elders were holding. Israel had twelve bowls of incense, heaven has twice that; it comes from us; and now we see the great incense-offering. What does it do?

The next verse will tell us: “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth – and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:5). The signs of the invasion of the presence of God Almighty, coming in judgment to set all wrongs right, to vindicate the oppressed and overturn injustice, to cut through all the red tape and burn down the dividing walls and make holiness known in the world. Not only do our prayers equip heaven's worship, but that worship – our prayers in heaven's hands, our worship plus heaven's music – is the very tool that God will use to fix what's wrong in the world. Whatever it is you've been praying about – God will fix what's wrong in the world, and the very prayers you're offering, the prayers you maybe fear aren't being heard, the prayers you suspected were lost in the mail – no, God is holding them in reserve as his instrument of breaking down everything wrong so that something better and truer and more beauteous can be born. And that, in the end, is where our prayers go – Caesarius' and mine and yours.

If our worship here does anything, if our lives do anything, they have to take seriously the privilege of prayer. Did you ever imagine your prayers did all that? Did you know that's where your prayers go? Your prayers, my prayers, our prayers here, have a role to play in heaven's worship, in Jesus' own presence, at the Father's throne. They are what heaven offers to God. They are how God judges and purifies the world. Without them, heavenly worship would be impeded, and the world's redemption would be further off.

So what would happen if you and me and us all together started really believing this about prayer? What if we thought about our prayers like this – as holy incense for heavenly worship? What if, when you prayed happy or sad or thankful or weary or sweet or bitter prayers, you envisioned the incense being mixed and pounded down, the powder being poured into the gleaming bowl in heavenly hands, the solemn dignity of its presentation to God and to the Lamb with shouts of “Worthy!”, the sense of anticipation for the offering and the burning and the falling of fire to fix all that's wrong? What if we prayed as people who see in our prayers what John saw about our prayers? How much more seriously would we take prayer? How much more careful would we be to reserve it to God and to the Lamb? How much more insistent would we be about praying in all circumstances (cf. Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:18)? How much more awe would we have of the privilege of praying, the privilege we have, not just of releasing a mishmash of words into the atmosphere, but of preparing incense for heavenly worship to cleanse and heal the world? How eager would we be to pray?

So pray, don't delay! Pray, don't let those incense-bowls linger half-full! Pray to God, pray in the worthiness of the Lamb, pray in the Spirit who radiates sevenfold from them both. Pray as one bought by blood, redeemed out from your nation and heritage and allegiance and identity, and given a new calling in Christ. Pray with the heavens open to the throne of God and Lamb, in the name of Jesus, in the Spirit's power, for whatever rests on your heart, whether light or heavy, sweet or bitter. Pray with faith like Caesarius, even when the fires still burn and the mouths still foam and the hands still tremble. Pray with the blessed assurance that, in Jesus, no prayer of his holy people will ever go to waste, even if the impact can't be seen 'til the very end. Pray, because your prayers have important places to go and important things to do, in bowls more radiant and hands more steady than ours. So pray. May our prayers be counted as incense before the Lord God Almighty, and may all heaven's worship resound with sweeter and louder songs through our worship here, in Jesus' name. Amen.

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