Today is the National Day of Prayer. I'll be part of the program at the city of Bellaire, at the gazebo behind city hall. Join me if you're able. But whether we pray today or any day, I think we should understand just how seriously God takes our prayers:
In Revelation 5:6-8, the apostle John gives us a glimpse of what he saw in his time in Heaven’s throne room:
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, 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 the saints.
There’s a lot of great detail in that passage, but notice the final image John gives us: golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. Incense was an important part of worship in the Old Testament era. Fragrant herbs “beaten small” according to a specially designated formula, were to accompany every offering brought by the Israelites. This same incense was burned every day on the altar of the tabernacle, as a constant reminder of the holiness of God. Later, incense was one of the three gifts brought by the Magi to the home of the infant Jesus, God’s greatest sacrifice. John calls on both of these images here in Revelation.
Did John see literal bowls of incense in Heaven? I doubt it. Jesus isn’t literally a lamb that has been slain, and there aren’t literally seven spirits of God. But he chose this image deliberately. It tells us at least two important things about prayer: first, that it is a pleasing sacrifice to God. When we pray, we are communing with our Father. Think back to our childhood. Our dad knew the difference between the times when we came to him for the car keys or for money to give the ice cream man, and the times we just chose to be with him…to go with him to work, to go watch a ball game, or just to sit in his lap. Our God knows the difference, too. And we are rewarded with the gift of His presence and the assurance of His love.
The second thing this image tells us is that our prayers matter to God. He keeps them in His bowls. When I was a young boy, I spent a week with my aunt. She loved to shop. One day, when she was drifting through what my parents would call a “junk shop,” I saw a couple of things I thought my parents would like. It made me feel very grown up to buy souvenirs for my parents, as they had often done for me when they were away from me. I don’t remember what I bought my mom, but I remember buying my dad a small wooden box. My childlike idea was that he would keep special stuff in there. A few years ago, I was going through my dad’s bathroom drawer looking for something else, and found that box. I opened it, and inside were notes that I had written him, long forgotten by me. It made me realize how much my dad loves me. It also made me wish I had written him more notes over the years. God hears our prayers. Not a single word goes unheard or unheeded. They are never forgotten. So let us pray today, and every day.