Revelation 8:1-5 + Grace UMC + Dr Frank Drenner + 11 October 2020
When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.
Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 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.
We’ve had the privilege to sort of watch over John’s shoulder all that he has witnessed during his revelation: messages to local congregations, heavenly worship, war breaking out on earth. But as Chapter Eight begins, there is silence in heaven. And not just a momentary silence like you’d get at the beginning of a school day-- 30 minutes of it. When was the last time you sat anywhere in complete silence for 30 minutes? No TV, no birds singing, no traffic, no air conditioning, no wind, nothing but silence. I bet if you’ve experienced thirty minutes of complete silence, it was more than a little disorienting. You probably felt the urge to add some noise yourself after 10 seconds! But John gets 30 minutes. No sound in heaven-- nowhere. We could try to recreate that silence here, but on a super hot day I am not shutting off the A/C, and people on Facebook would probably assume the live feed was messed up and would begin commenting and break the silence!
After 30 minutes, John witnesses an angel bring a bowl of incense, an offering of the prayers of the saints. Then God responds. God’s response is anything but silence. Seven angels blow seven trumpets. Just as the prayers are lifted up to God, now God’s wrath is brought down to earth, in the form of natural disasters and plagues. The next several chapters are filled with the noise of violence and destruction. The plagues and natural disasters are meant to remind us of the Exodus, where God unleashed similar wrath upon Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery. Of course, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he was unable to consciously free them! Exodus is about God teaching the Egyptians a lesson-- not just about ending slavery, but about theology! There is only one God, not Pharaoh, and not the multiplicity of Egyptian gods.
Who else demanded to be worshiped as a god within a culture of polytheism? Caesar and the Roman Empire. Jews and Christians refused to participate; Jews were allowed to worship God because they were an ancient religion, but Christianity as a form of Judaism was new, and therefore, suspicious. Just as God brought wrath upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians after the Hebrews cried out in their suffering, so now God responds to Caesar and the Romans after the Christians cry out in their persecution. Prayers go up, wrath comes down.
To a modern sensibility, this may be more than a little disturbing. We don’t like to think of God causing destruction anywhere, even on those who may even deserve it! And I am not advocating that perspective. It’s bad theology. God doesn’t punish us with earthquakes or Covid19 or wildfires. Exodus is the story of God hearing one particular people’s prayers, remembering a sacred covenant with those people, and acting to save them. Remember, Revelation is a vision-- one person’s experience of God’s ultimate justice. Again, God hears one particular people’s prayers, remembers a sacred covenant with those people renewed in Jesus Christ, and acts to save them. This time the scale is different: it’s not just Egypt; it’s the entire world. God is making a theological statement-- it’s not “Act right or I will punish you with lightning…” it’s “I am the Lord your God, the God of your ancestors, the God and Father of Jesus. I am the Way the Truth and the Life. I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.”
The message of both Exodus and Revelation is this: God is victorious. God’s power is unlimited. God is in control. God will act on behalf of the faithful who call out for help, even in ways we do not understand or anticipate. God will ultimately triumph over every evil and challenge we face: our illnesses, our worries, our fears, our lack of faith. God will show up and act-- even if it’s through a family member or a stranger. This doesn’t give us permission to check out of the world in which we live. It doesn’t allow us to turn away from injustice or evil when we see it. What makes the Bible powerful-- real-- for us is not when we become certain that there are no inconsistencies and that it is literally word for word infallible. It becomes truth when we see ourselves there, and realize that by reading the stories of the past we appreciate God’s acts in the future-- bringing us all to a future salvation, shared with all of the saints surrounding God’s throne.
God will ultimately triumph over every evil and injustice. Poverty, war, racism, bigotry, violence. They will all end. The oppressor witnesses God’s actions and calls them God’s wrath. The victim witnesses God’s actions and calls them God’s wonders. What does God say to Moses before Moses is sent to Pharaoh? “So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go” (Exodus 3:20).
Revelation 8 begins with silence, a time of spiritual centering. After 30 minutes, it moves to prayer. Incense is poured out-- prayers go up, wonders come down. God’s actions in both Exodus and Revelation begin as a response to prayer. For those of us who do not know of God’s love, for those who deny God’s grace, for those we pray will one day accept and own God’s love for them: we are all part of one family, the family of God. With our prayers, with our actions, with our very lives, we partner with God to bring about God’s ultimate reign of justice, love and mercy. Psalm 105 is a glorious hymn recalling God’s victory over Pharaoh and empire. Its beginning is a good template as we join with the prayers of all who suffer and seek liberation.
O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.
He is mindful of his covenant for ever…
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.