READ : Revelation 8:1-5
You can do it, friends. You can welcome the gift of prayer we’ve been speaking about. You can pursue the calling. You can give yourself to a lifetime of heartfelt praying.
Listen to these remarkable words from a vision in Revelation 8.
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. 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, loud noises, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
A VIEW BEHIND THE SCENES
Some time ago I attended a conference on the future. A number of churchmen had gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, seeking to anticipate what would lie ahead in the final years of the last century. And especially to plan for future Christian witness. Experts in various fields gave us their projections about what to expect. At the close of the meeting we gathered in small groups to draw up our own imagined scenarios of coming events. It was a fascinating, mind-stretching experience.
We happened to meet in a hotel undergoing extensive renovation. In many parts of the building, we saw scaffolding, movable partitions, canvas draped over this and that. The management was trying to make the best of a somewhat embarrassing situation. A number of humorous, half-apologetic signs had been posted in the lobby and on the walls of the elevators. One pleaded directly: “Pardon our mess.” Another said, “Don’t knock this project; the contractor may be standing right beside you.” One in particular I remember noticing several times: “When the dust settles, you’re going to see one gorgeous hotel.”
When the scaffolding would at last be taken down and the partitions removed, the drapes drawn back and everything tidied up, then, we were told, the true beauty of the hotel would appear. Incidentally, I’ve been back there since and the prophecy has been fulfilled! It is a gorgeous hotel.
That’s a parable of what I want to think about now: the lasting behind the temporary, the glorious behind the cluttered, the real behind the merely apparent, the mighty behind the showy. If there’s one book in all the world that gives us that perspective, it’s the last book of the Bible, the Revelation that God gave to Jesus, which he sent and signified by his servant John. There we see beyond the appearances, behind the facades, to the way things are.
THE WAY THINGS REALLY ARE
Think, for example, about Jesus of Nazareth. Who is he, really? Many people in the world of his time had not even heard of him. To some he was just a wandering teacher, a man who held no lands, commanded no fighting men. When they came to arrest him, his followers fled in panic.
In the book of Revelation we see Jesus, seemingly weak, rejected, crucified, and in his risen glory. When John sees him in his utter majesty and splendor, he falls down before him as dead. And then the risen Lord puts his hand on his head and says, “Don’t be afraid. I am the first and the last, and the living one; I was dead, and see, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades.” That’s who Jesus really is!
Then we wonder, what is history? Some people think it’s just a blind succession of events. And some people think it’s a tribute to the greatness of man. But in the book of Revelation we see that history is really God’s unfolding plan as Jesus opens the seals of the book. These various events take place in time. He’s the Lord of history. He’s the great initiator. He’s the master of everything. And so we get a sense of who he is and what history is about. And then we get a glimpse in this wonderful passage that we read today of what prayer really does in this world.
In Revelation chapter 8 John sees an angel standing by the golden altar before the throne. He’s given all this incense which he mingles with prayer, the prayers of all the saints, and offers it on that golden altar. As the fragrance rises before the throne, the angel suddenly takes the censer, scoops from the altar fire, and hurls a shower of coals on the earth. At that moment, there are peals of thunder, voices in tumult, lightning flashes, and a tremendous earthquake (Rev. 8:1-5).
WHAT SHAPES HISTORY
What does this mysterious vision mean? It shows the moving forces behind world events. What are the inner dynamics that really make things happen? What are the forces that relentlessly shape the future? They are the prayers of the saints and the fire of God. Above the arms races and political intrigues, behind economic disasters or movements of reform, the risen Christ is opening the seals of the book, working out his strange design through the burning prayers of his people.
“But,” someone objects, “aren’t the real movers of history the oil barons, the political strongmen, the moguls of the mass media, the heads of multi-national corporations?” Yes, they have their role to play, but mightier than all of them are the prayers of the saints and the heavenly fire of God.
It’s good to know that. The powers and pressures of this age are all too real. We have to face them constantly. But we can rejoice that they don’t have the last word. The fiercest of them are like lions on the Lord’s leash. He says to them, as to the proud waves of the sea, “Thus far, and no farther.” And, at the last, the lives and prayers of faithful men and women prove mightier by far.
I hope that many of you, hearing these words now, will be activists in this world, that you will hold office, exert influence, shape policy. I hope that you will write books, discover cures, inspire change. I hope that you’ll struggle for justice and freedom, that you will give yourselves to combat racism and poverty and war, and that in all things you will hold forth the gospel of the risen Christ.
But I hope at the same time that you won’t be barren activists, quickly losing enthusiasm, then becoming manipulative or discouraged because everyone doesn’t rally to your cause. I hope you won’t be numbered among those soon-weary activists who are spurred on by fragile ideals and depend on their own strength.
Prayer, friends, real prayer, is not a substitute for action, not a pious retreat from the world. It doesn’t take the place, surely, of costly involvement. It’s what comes before all of that. It’s the pre-requisite of all significant action, of everything that will prove significant, fruitful, and lasting, and make a difference.
Theologian P.T. Forsyth put it like this: “Prayer is for the religious life what original research is for science. By it we get direct contact with reality.” In this case the “real” is the risen Lord, who is opening the seals of the book. Prayer is our way of saying that the promised future comes “not by might, nor by power, but by God’s Spirit” (Zech. 4:6). It’s the expression of our dependence, the confession that the kingdom and the power and the glory belong to him. In prayer, we say with Judah’s beleaguered king, “We are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chron. 20:12).
YOU CAN BE A PART OF IT
There are Christians in the world today who are awakening to the reality of these things. They are beginning to give to prayer a more central and dominant place in their lives than ever before. There are groups springing up here and there in which people gather not only to listen to God’s Word, to share their joys and struggles, to pray for one another and their loved ones – but to go beyond that. They pray for large concerns of God’s kingdom; for some peaceful solution to the tragic hostilities of the Middle East, of northern Ireland, of Chechnya. They pray for Afghanistan and Iraq. They cry out for a great breakthrough of the Christian gospel in the Arab world, for a mighty awakening in the stagnant churches of Western Europe, for multitudes of the world’s hungry to be provided for, for AIDS to be no more, for a purifying tide of revival to sweep through our decaying cultures, for the earth to be filled with the knowledge of God’s glory as the waters cover the sea.
I’m encouraged in the town where I live. I can remember when very few people were praying about these things. Now I see springing up around us in the community and congregations in the wider area of Western Michigan this fresh hunger for God, this passionate appeal to God to do these mighty things in the midst of our time. That says to me that God is preparing to do a new and wonderful thing.
This has always been his way, to prepare for world-transforming movements by calling his people to earnest prayer. Remember the believers in Antioch, waiting on God, worshiping, praying, fasting? Then the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul (who became Paul) for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Then, from the midst of that prayer gathering, the gospel spread like a prairie fire through Asia Minor and Europe. That’s happened again and again in the history of the Great Awakenings that have refreshed the life of the church and changed the life of the world. Through the centuries people began by appealing to God with all their hearts, “O Lord, rend the heavens and come down. Send a great awakening. Pour out your Spirit upon your people.”
If we could see what goes on behind the scenes today and how many dynamic movements have been begun and carried forward through little groups of believers at prayer, we would adopt a different view about the things that matter in this world and the forces that rule. We wouldn’t be taken in by a lot of what we read in the media about what’s really important. We would see the shallowness, the emptiness, the powerlessness of it all. Let me challenge you to join yourself to a praying band, a future-shaping fellowship. Or, if you don’t know of such a group, will you call one into being? Speak to a few friends of like mind. Ask God’s Spirit to direct you into what faith dares to call “world-transforming prayer.”
Of one thing the Word makes us sure: when the scaffolding has been taken down and the partitions removed, when the drapes are drawn back, and the glory of the Lord appears, we will discover that more than any of us have hoped was accomplished here through our prayers and heaven’s fire.
You can do it, friends. You can welcome the gift of prayer we’ve been speaking about. You can pursue the calling. You can give yourself to a lifetime of heartfelt praying. And though no one may ever know of your labor or connect it with your name, your prayers will make an enormous difference. Dare to believe that. Dare to venture on it. You can shape the future after God’s design day by day. You can pray!
Let’s each one of us say this from our heart, because the shaping forces in world history are the prayers of the saints and the fire of God: “Let me serve God and my generation through a lifetime of believing prayer.” I pray that for myself and for you. Amen!