Rev. Drew Stockstill
Silence of Heaven
February 13, 2022 – Rev. Drew Stockstill
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.
Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets made ready to blow them.
The first angel blew his trumpet, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.
The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.
The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light was darkened; a third of the day was kept from shining, and likewise the night.
Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew in midheaven, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”
St. John reveals an amazing image for us of how God receives our prayers. The way he sees it, God is on the throne and a moment of silence breaks out. Remember how loud it had been in that room when all the choirs of angels and elders were singing, and then suddenly everything on earth and in heaven were singing, and then the horsemen appeared. It was pretty chaotic. And then, silence in heaven. Silence, for 30 minutes. And an angel appears with this censer of incense and the angel goes to the altar with this huge amount of incense, so much smoke is pouring out of this thing. The aroma is incredible. You can taste it and feel it. It’s in your eyes, and mouth, this incense. Overwhelming. And the angel offers up this incense to God on the throne. And St. John says, what he saw was, “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.”
God is totally immersed in prayer. Does God hear our prayers? Wow, God doesn’t just hear them. See, when we pray, our prayers rise to God and God smells them, tastes them, sees them, feels them, hears them. God experiences our prayers, is covered in our prayers.
I love a good fire- fire place, bonfire, fire pit. I love sitting around the fire pit, watching the flames, poking the logs. I love the conversations measured in the number of logs I go through. I love when you’re sitting by a fire with someone, the quiet that is somehow more OK, more comfortable if you’re staring at a fire. Like you may not just sit and stare at the ground with a friend, but you can sit and stare at a fire.
What I don’t love about the fire pit is the smoke. It just always finds you. The next day, if you put back on your jeans and sweatshirt from yesterday, you remember right away about the fire pit, because you smell like a fire. Even if you put the clothes in the hamper, you can still catch a whiff of them when you’re near. And the smoke is on your skin, in your hair. Until you take a shower, wash your clothes, you remember that fire.
That’s how God likes it with our prayers. It is like God joins us by the fire pit. And sometimes we can chat and chat with God, and sometimes we can be quiet for hours just staring together, feeling peace, sad, dreaming, remembering…praying. And our prayers are mixed in with the smoke rising from the fire and that smoke and our prayers are all directed right to God. God is just covered in our prayer and the scent of our prayers stays with God. God can smell them on himself forever. From the hand of an angel all our prayers are mixed with incense and offered up to God and God doesn’t just listen to our prayers. It’s so much more than that.
It’s important that we pray, even though God already knows what we need, what we want, what’s on our hearts, because our prayers aren’t just a wish list for God, our prayers are an offering to God in worship. When your friend from church raises her hand and says, “Can you pray for my sister’s friend who has cancer?” Well, you should pray, because your prayer in that moment is an offering to God, mixed with the prayers of dozens of saints lifted to heaven for that child of God and God is not only attentive, God is absorbed in this act of faith in God and kindness to our sister and her sister and her friend who has cancer.
I love how St. John sees God prepare for this holy moment of receiving the prayers of the saints. God becomes silent. There was all that joyful worship but then, in preparation to receive this offering of our prayer everything is silent for thirty minutes. Do we have any folks here who intentionally practice silence? Contemplation, meditation? The throne room went silent and so St. John sat in silence for half an hour. Imagine, God takes our prayers so seriously that before receiving them God prepares in silence.
And all those who surround God do the same: the elders who throw themselves before the throne, now silent in preparation for your prayers, the six-winged creatures with the eyes stop singing and fall silent because because God is getting ready for our prayers; the millions of singing angels fall completely silent because God is about to experience the prayers of a parents who lost a child, and a soldier’s last breath as a battle rages around, and a child whispering to God before she falls asleep, and a prisoner in isolation who has no one else who cares to hear from him; and us when we say together, “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayers.” This is major, holy work, this is the depths of human hearts and God takes time to get ready.
I’ll tell you what, sitting with St. John’s revelation made me reevaluate my prayer practice. If God takes time in silence to prepare for me, I want to do the same for God, and for you. When I’m getting ready to offer prayers for you, I’m going to take some time in silence before I begin to pray. It will take some time before I’m up to 30 minutes, but maybe that will be what I work on for Lent.
Saints, God takes in our prayers, God prepares to do so, and then what our seer sees is God’s action. That is what we risk when we pray, we risk God’s decisive action. We welcome God’s judgement. “Lord, you know about that baby in the NICU. Please, Lord, heal him.” “Lord, you know about the troops preparing for battle. Please, let diplomacy prevail.” We’re asking for it, for God’s ruling, and action.
In C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” Lucy, a young British child and her older siblings happen upon a magical world which they discovered in the back of an old wardrobe. In this world where animals talk there is a kingdom called Narnia ruled by a noble, brave, and good lion named Aslan. The children are about to meet Aslan for the first time and have just learned that he is indeed a lion.
Lucy’s sister Susan says, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he--quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything
about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Make no mistake, beloved, when we pray our prayers come before the King, the creator, the redeemer, the judge. Praying isn’t safe, but we pray to God who is Good all the time and all the time God is good. So, we do so with confidence, but let us not be so silly to think we are not taking a risk with every prayer, a risk that God’s will, will in fact be done in response to our prayers, on earth as it is in heaven.
Writer Simon Sinek has said, “Safe is good for sidewalks and swimming pools, but life requires risk to get anywhere.” When we pray, we are risking boldly before God. He isn’t safe, but he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.
So, upon hearing the payers of the saints, the angel fills the censer with fire and hurdles it to earth. The angels sound the alarm, blowing trumpets. All in response to our prayer. Through our prayer we are made participants in God’s action. Pascal was a 17th century, French physicist, philosopher, mathematician, and theologian. He wrote, “prayer is God’s way of providing man with the dignity of causality,” or as Eugene Peterson put it, “God uses our prayers in his work.” “Prayer,” Pastor Peterson said, “pulls the action of heaven and earth into correspondence.”
God has received our prayers, is receiving them even now, and the prayers of all creation. My friend Naed Smith use to come to our weekly healing service and often he would come forward for prayer and when I’d ask him what I could pray for he’d say, “All creation is groaning.” And God hears those prayers too.
As the trumpets blow in heaven, on earth, storms rage, forests burn, the seas and rivers are polluted, St. John said, “I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew in midheaven, ‘Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth.” All creation is groaning. And God acts with justice – for that mother, that child, that soldier, that prisoner, that farmer, that warehouse worker, that bishop, and for you. God acts with justice.
John’s vision is one of hope, for not only does God see, not only is God siting on a throne in heaven and receiving our prayers, God became flesh, “He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people,” (Luke 6: 17).
God knows personally why we feel the need to pray. Jesus joined us in praying for salvation, he prayed for rescue, for relief, for this cup and that suffering to pass. He prayed from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me,” (Matt. 27:46). He knows why we pray.
We want to know where God is when we pray, we want God’s action in response to injustice and suffering. And we will have it. God’s action includes urging us to repent, to continue to return to God, to take the risks in life needed to make positive change, personally, in our communities, and in a groaning creation.
After a long night sitting by the fire with God, pouring out our hearts, and sitting in silence, as God takes it all in, we trust that not only will God act, and does act, but God slaps his knees, takes a deep breath as he stands, and wonders, “and what are you ready to do about it.
 C.S. Lewis, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”  Simon Sinek, in a tweet, February 13, 2015. https://twitter.com/simonsinek/status/566259545970720769  Eugene Peterson, “Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination,” 1988, p. 95.  Idib, p. 97