Saturday, 7 October 2017

A beautiful fragrance

And when he [the Lamb] had taken it [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. Revelation 5:8

Only very rarely have I attended a church service where incense is used. It doesn’t mean anything very much to me; in fact, to be completely honest, I rather dislike it, beautiful though it is. Is that because I don’t have a very good sense of smell? Or because, being a died-in-the-wool evangelical protestant, I’m instinctively suspicious of anything that smacks of Roman Catholic ritual?

Never mind! Let’s just say that it really isn’t my thing.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that incense played an important part in the worship of Israel in Bible times.

That worship, when you stop and think about it, must have been a seriously smelly affair. I’ve never been in an abattoir, but there must have been a similarity – with animals slaughtered, their blood shed, and their bodies burned. The fragrance of incense must have been a welcome counterpoint to this.

We never read in the New Testament of incense being used by the early Christians. But it certainly has a place in John’s description of the worship of heaven. Here it is in Revelation 5:8: the “twenty-four elders” (whoever they might be) “were holding golden bowls full of incense…”

The Book of Revelation is full of colourful, poetic and dramatic imagery: angels, dragons, thrones, scrolls, seals, trumpets, you name it. It isn’t always easy to say what these things represent – that even applies to the “four living creatures” and the “twenty-four elders” in our verse.

But when it comes to the bowls of incense, the writer John very helpfully spells it out for us: “which are the prayers of God’s people”. Ah! – that incense is our prayers!

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Way back in the Old Testament the psalmist asks God that his prayers “may be set before you like incense” (Psalm 141:2). There is, it seems, a thread running through the Bible.

How can this image speak to us today?

I suggest two simple applications.

First, it reminds us that our prayers are precious to God.

Incense is a sweet, beautiful fragrance, and probably very costly. And in the same way, God values and delights in the prayers we offer.

You might think, “But, hang on, my prayers are really pretty feeble! Often I’m praying more out of duty than joy. The other day I actually nodded off while I was praying! I find it hard to believe that God is that interested in my praying.”

But wait a minute! All that God wants of us is that our prayers should be  sincere and from the heart. Who knows? – perhaps he values more highly the prayers that we struggle to pray than the ones that trip lightly off our tongues.

Let’s get it into our heads: God loves to hear us pray! We are his precious children, and just as an earthly father or mother is thrilled with their child’s attempts at speech, so God is thrilled with our prayers.

Second, it suggests that our prayers are in safe hands.

As I said, we can’t be absolutely sure who the twenty-four elders represent. But they are obviously significant figures in God’s heavenly court. Their task – at this point, at least – is to present the prayers of God’s people at his throne. And just as not a drop of incense will be spilled (I don’t think the words “Oops, silly me!” will ever be heard in heaven), so we can be confident that not a single prayer of ours will go to waste.

The very idea of our prayers gathered up in a bowl suggests to me that they ascend to God not just in dribs and drabs, but as a united voice from his people.

We pray a prayer and then very possibly forget that we ever prayed it. Or perhaps we sometimes give up praying for a particular person or a particular situation. And so we are tempted to think that that prayer might just as well not have been offered.

But no! Who knows when that prayer might be gathered up, so to speak, and poured out before God? Things are going on in heaven – things are going on in the very mind of God – which we couldn’t even begin to guess at. Again, who knows? – you might receive tomorrow the answer to a prayer you prayed five years ago – and then forgot about.

So, Christian, however ordinary, fumbling and inadequate your prayers may seem to be, keep that fragrance rising to God! He values it, even if you don’t.

Loving Father, please help me to keep those golden bowls well filled! Amen.

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