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15th April, 2012; Revelation 8.1-5

After Easter, we moved straight back into the book of Revelation; indeed, we barely left it...

Over the last few weeks

we’ve moved from the throne room of God’s presence

through the fiery prayers of the martyrs

into the judgement of God upon the earth

with the opening of the seven seals by the lamb that was slain.

Today we come to the seventh seal;

what will it bring?!

The first four brought the four horsemen of the apocalypse!

The fifth showed us the martyrs beneath the altar

and the sixth showed us the sealing of the saints

and the cosmic cataclysm that signals the very end:

What else can happen now

but that God rolls up the heavens like a cloak

and brings this world to a close?

Surely the seventh seal will be a catastrophic climax!?


”When the Lamb opened the seventh seal,

 there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”

What is this silence?

In some ways, it is the pause before the plunge;

this silence is a sharp counterpoint to the visions just past

and it clears the way for the next series of visions about to begin;

And, yes, the very next thing that happens

is that seven trumpets are given to the seven angels

 who stand before the throne;

seven trumpets that usher in seven scenes of judgement on the earth -

 but these first few verses of chapter eight focus not on the trumpets

but on the one nameless angel who now appears

with a golden incense burner,

so that, just as we saw in chapter five,

the prayers of the saints on earth

go up before God with the worship of heaven.

But here, in the silence of all else,

the prayers of the saints are given special prominence. 

When all else is silent

the church is praying

and God hears.

These, remember, are the prayers of the martyr church,

the church that gives witness to the lamb that was slain

and completely consistently with the crucified king

lay their own lives on the line for the sake of the lamb. 

These prayers for an end to suffering lead directly to God's action;

John sees the angel scoop up flames from the altar of incense,

and fling them onto the earth

and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning,

and an earthquake

and then we have the sounding of the seven trumpets

and their associated disasters. 

But before we go on with the sturm und drang of the trumpets

I want us to pause,

to take a breath

and to notice these prayers.

We often disregard prayer.

It doesn't seem to do anything.

And we quickly lose time and patience for it.

We’re so busy these days,

do we really have time to pray?
Prayer is costly – it costs time!

Time I could spend sleeping, or watching TV, or eating…

it really can be a sacrifice to pray.

And we see in this vision

that the prayers of the saints rise up before God

along with the smoke of the incense offering.

The Incense offering is a sacrifice – a costly sacrifice.

That’s the point of it. 

It is a precious and beautiful gift to God. 

And our prayers are like incense to God; a precious, sacrificial, gift. 

But it’s not just the cost of prayer that bothers us;

for many of us, we’re unsure that it’s worth it;

unsure that we get back from prayer what we put in;

unsure that it works for us like we think it should. 

When I turn on my computer in the morning,

I expect it to be ready to run almost immediately;

I like to flick the light switch

and have instant illumination.

We have a gas stove

partly because I don’t like having to wait for an element to heat up. 

A great many of those who begin a programme at our local Gym

drop out after a few weeks or months

because they look in the mirror and can’t see the changes yet. 

In our instamatic society

prayer can feel a bit useless;

I mean,

we put the prayers in one end

and we wait for the results to come out the other end

and so often they just don’t seem to happen!

I think we mistake prayer for a process or a product;

we think that prayer is like coins in a slot machine

and that God should be as reliable as coke-cola in delivering the goods.

or we think that it is like a magic formula,

and so long as we go through the process properly;

wear the right clothes, sit the right way

and say the right words,

then God will have to do as we ask.

But prayer is neither a product nor a process;

it is a personal relationship.

God is not a machine or an employee, to whom we give orders,

and from whom we expect results.

And yet human religion is always trying to control the uncontrollable;

this is the essence of idolatry;

Isaiah picks up on this, saying, “16 You turn things upside down!

Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?

Shall the thing made say of its maker,

“He did not make me”;

or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,

“He has no understanding”? “

9 Woe to you who strive with your Maker,

earthen vessels with the potter!

Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making”?

or “Your work has no handles”?

10 Woe to anyone who says to a father, “What are you begetting?”

or to a woman, “With what are you in labour?””

8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are our potter;

we are all the work of your hand.[1]

The glory of God’s grace to us

is that not only is he our creator; the master potter,

but he treats us as far more than the work of his hands;

he has made us to be, not just clay,

but living souls,

unique and beloved individuals whom he calls to himself

and in Jesus Christ

he adopts us into his forever family. 

He is our maker

and our father.

And prayer is not some process or product by which we make things happen;

it is the dangerous and delightful act of a child

who throws herself into her father’s arms,

who asks “Why?” ten times before breakfast,

who points out every good thing in the shop windows

because surely dad wants to give me the things I want,

and who believes everything will be ok at the doctors

when they pull out the big needles

because daddy says so. 

Prayer is personal relationship.

It is the conversation, the words and the silences,

the gestures and the attitudes

that are built up through the minutes and the hours,

the days and years that we give ourselves into our father’s hands and heart.

Does he hear all that we pray?

Of course!

Will he give us all that we want?

Of course not!

Does he love to give us good things when it’s right for us to have them?

The Father is thrilled to give us gifts that we enjoy.

And when the bullies pick on us, what does our father do?

What does Jesus say?

2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge

who neither feared God nor had respect for people.

3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying,

‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’

4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself,

 ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,

5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice,

 so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ”

6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.

7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones

who cry to him day and night?

Will he delay long in helping them?

8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”[2]

And so the prayers of the saints lead directly to the judgements that follow;

This is shown most clearly by the angel’s bowl

that was used to hold incense for prayer

now being used to hurl fire upon the earth. 

John sees a direct link between the cries of pain of his persecuted people

and the impending judgement upon the earth.

Next week we’ll take a look at those judgements,

but before we go there,

I want to briefly notice something interesting about this judgement.

There are three cycles of judgement visions in Revelation;

the seven seals, the seven trumpets,

and then the seven bowls,

these visions of judgement are all closely linked

and each one ends with a vision of the throne room

- and lightening, thunder, and earthquakes.

In today’s passage, with the opening of the seventh seal,

we have peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

In 11.19, with the blowing of the seventh trumpet, we see

19 Then God’s temple in heaven was opened,

and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple;

and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder,

an earthquake, and heavy hail.

In 16.17-18, the last cycle of judgements come to an end like this;

17 The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air,

and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying,

“It is done!”

18 And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder,

and a violent earthquake.

Each of these 3 series of 7 judgements finishes with a glimpse of heaven

and lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and an earthquake.


What is John trying to tell us?

The first step in understanding this

is the first time we get these rumblings and lightening and thunder;

in Revelations 4, when we first glimpse the throne of God, John says,

5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning,

and rumblings and peals of thunder,”

When we first came across this,

we noticed that it looks back to the story of the Exodus,

when God had brought his people out of Egypt,

set them free from the power of Pharaoh

from infanticide, and back-breaking labour,

and then met with them at Mt Sinai, where 16 On the morning of the third day

there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain,

and a blast of a trumpet so loud

that all the people who were in the camp trembled.

17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God.

They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.

18 …while the whole mountain shook violently.

19 As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder,

Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. [3]

Thunder and lightening, the ground shaking and a trumpet blasting.

John uses the same language to describe the presence of God in Heaven,

and that’s the message!

That these judgements bring the presence of God!

but wait,

there’s more…

And this is a bit speculative, so take it for what it’s worth,

but I’m struck by the similarity here,

not just to the presence of God as he made the covenant on Mt. Sinai

but also to that covenant sealed with the blood of Jesus

on the mount of crucifixion. 

When Jesus died the temple curtain was torn in two,

and he cried out with a great voice,

and said “It is finished”

and there was darkness,

and the earth shook.

Just as here, with the blowing of the seventh trumpet,

“God’s temple in heaven was opened,

and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple”

and with the pouring out of the seventh bowl,

“…a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying,

“It is done!”

18 And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder,

and a violent earthquake.”

I can’t tell you that this is definitely what John was trying to communicate,

but for me the echoes of the crucifixion are too loud and clear to ignore;

and they keep coming at the end of judgement,

so I hear the words of the song; that “On the cross as Jesus died,

the wrath of God was satisfied.”

Not only is John saying that there shall be judgement on the earth

for all sin and all evil and all persecution and cruelty and hate,

but I see he is saying that already God’s judgement has been carried out;

already sin has been punished,

and the veil between the holy God and sinful humanity has been torn in two

and already it is finished.

We read of the judgement of God

and it sounds terrible and frightening.

It is no more and no less than what we read each Easter

 as we remember the story of Good Friday,

each communion Sunday

as we proclaim his death until he comes.

Yes, the judgement of God is dreadful

and it has already fallen upon Jesus.

For those who shelter under his wings

there is now no condemnation.

But those who wilfully reject him

and his offer of forgiveness of sin

shall stand exposed on the last day

before the wrath of God.

God does hear our prayers

and God will punish evil.

There will be justice.

For those in Christ,

there is justice with mercy. 

As we come to the table

remember that Christ died for your sins.

If you desire that God should forget your sins forever,

come this morning to the table,

and receive the free gift of God;

eternal life in Christ Jesus.

If you want to know more about how to live in Christ,

how to live free from the power of sin

and to know his resurrection power in your life,

see me or one of the elders after the service. 

Let us now come to the table as we sing together…

[1]Isaiah 29, 45, 64, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2]Luke 18, The NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[3]Exodus 19, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.