God acts and people respond. This seems to a fairly good summary of Revelation. Sometimes people react positively, turning to God, but more often they react negatively, cursing God for acting. This passage reverses the order, though. People act and God responds:
Another angel came and stood at the altar, and he held a gold bowl for burning incense. He was given a large amount of incense, in order to offer it on behalf of the prayers of all the saints on the gold altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense offered for the prayers of the saints rose up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the incense container and filled it with fire from the altar. He threw it down to the earth, and there were thunder, voices, lightning, and an earthquake.
This might not look like what I just described, but look closely at what is said.
At the end of the passage it talks about huge signs in nature on the order of natural disasters. All throughout the Old Testament these are signs of God’s presence in the world. These are marks of theophany, God revealing himself in creation. When God shows up, thunder, lightening, voices, and earthquakes happen. The quintessential example of this is Exodus 19 when God descends onto Mt. Sinai and gives the covenant to Israel.
Prior to this description, an angel hurls fire and incense from the altar in heaven down on the earth. We are explicitly told that the incense is the prayers of the saints. Now look at the logic of this passage. Christian prayers are before God in heaven as incense in worship–permeating everything around it in sweet-smelling smoke. Those prayers are then directed back towards earth, and with them God’s presence and power is unleashed in the world.
Christians pray and God acts in the world. This is radically good news!
This does bring up one major question, though. If this is true, why does God not seem to act according to all prayers? Why do some people continue to get sick? Why are some people exploited and hurt? Why do some people die?
I wish I knew a complete answer to these questions. I know we have to pray according to the nature and will of God, for that is what it means to pray in Jesus’ Name. I also know that evil exists in the world because of our own free will choices. And I know that good people suffer nonetheless–Jesus is a perfect example of that for he was the only truly good and righteous person ever and he was tortured and killed. If I thread these things together they seem to point in a direction of an answer, but truth be told no answers are good when loved ones suffer or die despite our prayers.
In cases like these, I can only take refuge in my faith and belief that our existence in this world is not the sum total of our lives, that life continues after our bodies wear out or stop working. Only in this way can we even hope to see the kind of outcome we innately expect as the results of this life. Only in light of eternity can restitution ever be made for evil. Evil will never make sense, because it is against God and God is not only Love, but also Wisdom and Logic and Righteousness (among a lot of other descriptions). Evil is none of these things, so it will never make sense.
But Christian Prayer can bring God’s power and presence to bear in the world. Perhaps one major way to combat evil is for more Christians to pray more often. Just a thought.