In preparing to write this devotion, I checked the lectionary selections for this week and was led to Chapter 5 of the Book of Revelation. The bold imagery pulled me in and I read more. The scene where St. John describes his vision of the Lamb that was slain, standing amid the four fantastic creatures and the twenty-four elders captured my imagination.
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, Revelation 5:7-8, NIV.
The prayers of the saints are incense in golden bowls. This metaphor set my thoughts racing. Prayers are generally associated with words. We say a word of prayer. We ask a blessing. We pray in the name of Jesus. How often do we imagine prayer as the drifting smoke of incense?
The idea that the prayers of the saints rise upwards as smoke and smell makes me wonder about the times when my own prayers seem stiff and empty. They don’t have the softness and breathiness of smoke. They don’t have a mystic smell like incense.
Suppose that all our prayers mingle together before God, and, no matter how inadequate they may be when first uttered, they blend together over time and eternity and create a holy odor that reaches God. Perhaps the prayers even become part of the Holy Spirit.
Lutherans love to sing together the beautiful words of Psalm 141, which also refer to prayer as incense. “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice,” Psalm 141:2, NIV. These words relieve us of anxiety over the wording of our individual prayers. As we sing together, we turn our hearts to worship in the sweet prayer of our song.
Suppose that God wants our prayers to be collected together. Taken together, they belong in a precious container, the sweet-smelling result of countless petitions and expressions of faith, composed sometimes with humble words and sometimes with eloquent poetry, all mingled together as an offering to the Lord.
I used to believe that prayer was a spontaneous outpouring. Some people had the spiritual gift to speak prayers, and others were left with repetitions of “God bless,” applied to family members. I didn’t think you could develop prayer skills.
It never occurred to me that prayers could have a cumulative value. Someone once defined prayer as a way to participate in the purposes of God. As an American individualist, I took this to mean that our prayers could work with God in our individual lives.
Now, having the image of the golden bowls of incense in my mind, I can imagine how the prayers of all faithful people rest with the Holy Spirit, and have increasing value as they are constantly mingled with new prayers.
How beautiful to be part of this! We are all included. No one’s prayer is left out. Simple prayers, poorly worded prayers, formal prayers, majestic prayers, and even self-interested prayers are all included.
It is wonderful to me to think of all of our spiritual lives combined together in these offering of prayers before the throne of God.
Let us pray...
Holy Spirit, continue to encourage us to offer up our prayers. Jesus our Redeemer, wash out everything that is not sincere in what we offer up. Holy Spirit, accumulate our prayers with all the prayers of the faithful and store them up in precious containers. Heavenly Lord, inhale the sweet smell of our unending offerings of prayers before your mighty throne. Amen.