"Reversed Thunder"

October 12, 1997
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Revelation 8 & 9

Does God really listen to our prayers? Sometimes I wonder. There are many things I don’t understand in this world, like why rotten things happen to good people. Like that cancerous growth just discovered on Mary Stephen’s tongue. It makes no sense that this tongue used so often to bless rather than to curse should suffer in this way. Of course, her story is not over by any manner of means. Through the prayers of the faithful and the efforts of the medically trained things can happen for the good. Still, we wonder. Does God listen?

Last week, in our journey through John’s Revelation, we heard the cry of those persecuted for their faith. In our country, at present, the living out of what we believe is not actively opposed by the powers that be. However, there are places in this world where religious persecution is a vivid reality. The believers in John’s day faced very real dangers. All too soon it would not be enough to banish someone to an island to silence their tongue, as was the case with John himself. In the story of the early church, the day was dawning when Christians would be killed for simply believing. There are terrors we can hardly imagine today, even with our ability to experience them vicariously on television. Our spiritual ancestors became entertainment for the elite when they were fed to lions in coliseums. They were strung up on crosses just like Jesus. One Roman emperor even tied them to poles and set them on fire to provide a ghastly sort of light to his gardens. "Deny Christ or die," was a very real threat. Would we remain faithful given such a choice? I wonder.

The persecuted were given a voice in John’s revelation, crying out "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood? How long before real justice is done?" I’m not sure how I like the answer given at that time, but then I’m not the judge. As John saw it, the persecuted believers were each given a white robe and told to wait. More would suffer... That’s not much of an answer, is it? Sometimes, though, waiting is all you can do.

I recall 10 to 20 years ago I was pretty pessimistic about the prospect of change in South Africa. There a white minority all but enslaved a black majority through the policy of apartheid. All I could envision was a huge race war breaking out and tearing that nation apart. Well, like the iron curtain in eastern europe, the wall of apartheid came tumbling down of its own weight. And it fell through some other power than war. We get surprised sometimes, don’t we? Of course, we live with a hope in more than the mere "process" of history. There is a power at work beyond what we can see setting the world right. That’s the basic message of this book, whether we’re talking about the book of Revelation or this library we call the Bible. As I said before, Revelation doesn’t really provide us with new information. There’s nothing in here we haven’t heard before in the Bible. Instead John’s vision pulls images from all through God’s Word with the purpose of setting our imagination on fire such that we might have, as the old hymn says, "strength for today and bright hope for tommorrow."

One of the Bible stories we need to recall as we approach this morning’s scripture is the Exodus experience of the children of Israel. There we find folks who are pushed down to the point of breaking by the iron hand of their Egyptian slavemasters. They can’t take it any more. In desparation they cry out. They are so far down that they don’t even know who to cry out to. They just cry out. We know the story, don’t we? God heard their cry and called out Moses to be their rescuer. It’s a long story. Along the way, Moses confronts the ruler of Egypt, Pharoah, to "let my people go!" Does Pharoah relent, does he turn from the wrong to the right, does he repent and let God’s people go? Not at first. A series of Godly actions were required, one at a time, to get Pharoah to change his mind. Problem was, his heart only got harder. The various plagues initiated by Moses were not a form of punishment, but rather intended to cause repentance. By repentance, we’re not talking being sorry for what we’ve done, though that may be a part of it. Repentance means "turning," as in turning from what’s wrong toward what’s right, in effect turning toward God. In the Exodus story, the plagues finally accomplished God’s purpose and the Hebrew slaves were set free. A whole new chapter began.

The point is, God heard the cry of his children, whether it was in the form of a "proper" prayer or not, and responded by eventually setting things right. It took awhile, granted. It had to begin with a baby in a basket on the river Nile, and later involve a burning bush on a mountainside. Nevertheless, the prayer was answered with more than a white robe and an invitation to wait. The same is true in the book of Revelation.

Chapter 8 reveals the power of prayer. In previous verses, evil has been named. Sometimes naming your demons is the first step in overcoming them. Conflict, mismanagement, disease, religious persecution, and natural catastrophes are all revealed in the process of unsealing the scroll in God’s hand. An exhaustive list of evils? Hardly. Experienced by everyone in the same way? No. Are we merely victims in the face of such evil? Not really. We often have a role to play when it comes to the cause of our troubles, as well as the solutions. Are we to blame for evil? Depends. Sometimes we are directly, more often it’s the human condition. The world as it presently exists is pretty broken. The human race as a whole has fallen and can’t get up.

There is, however, a power that answers our powerlessness in ways that lead toward the ultimate best. Remember the crying out of the faithful in chapter 6 of Revelation, "how long before you make things right, God?" God hears the cry. In fact, as chapter 8 reveals in the language of the imagination, God listens and acts. "When the Lamb opened the seventh seal," it says, "there was silence in heaven for about half an hour." Now, this might be a pregnant pause in a great drama, as some commentators suggest, or it might just be a time when there is nothing standing in the way of the God of the Universe hearing the prayers of the saints. Every "sincere desire," as the old hymn suggests, the "hidden fire;" every "sigh," or "tear, or upward glancing of the eye;" every simple communication or profound statement; the very breath going in and out of the human lung seeking out it’s source; God listens and hears it all.

That’s an awesome suggestion isn’t it? I can’t even begin to fathom what all it entails. Even so, it doesn’t end there. God isn’t merely a great big ear, a heavenly therapist’s couch upon which we pour out our heart, even as helpful as that is in and of itself. Yes, our prayers reach God, that’s what John’s vision reveals. Along the way there, however, all the impure stuff - the garbage - is burned off, such that God hears what is most essential, what our truest need is. An interesting thing then happens to these prayers, according to Revelation. In a sense, they return to earth with immense force: "peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake." George Herbert, an English poet/pastor once referred to prayer as "reversed thunder."

Reversed Thunder... Herbert was himself a visionary like John, and lived long before scientific study revealed that an electromagnetic charge does, in fact, reach up from the ground as much as it comes down from the heavens. The book of James says that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective, and goes on to link us to that powerful prophet Elijah, who prayed first for drought and then for rain, and it was so. Lest we be tempted to place Elijah in a category far different from us, we need to remember that this very man whose prayer brought down lightning and thunder showers on the prophets of Ba’al, himself only hours later ran with his tail between his legs from a woman who opposed him. That doesn’t sound terribly powerful or righteous, does it? Still, God used this imperfect vessel as a channel of his will - just like God uses us.

Prayer is like Reversed Thunder. Sometimes I don’t think we realize the effect. Yes, prayer is a listening to God. We need to pay more attention to the listening than to the talking aspect of prayer, tuning our lives to God’s perfect pitch. Having said that, however, amazing things happen when God’s people pray. Those famous trumpets spoken of in chapters 8 & 9 of Revelation, each of which usher in an act of God, they are the result of prayer. They are God’s answer to the cry of his people. Did you know that? You could say the breath of prayer is amplified by the wind of God and blows through the ram’s horn of God’s judgement.

Remember the story of Jericho, how the children of Israel after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness finally crossed the Jordan only to run up against the stumbling block of that fortified city? It was the sound of the trumpets and the shouts of the people which brought the walls down and opened the way for them to enter the promised land. John’s revelation is leading us across similar terrain. Now, I’ve always found this section we’re entering in this book the most disturbing. From here on there’s a lot of talk of judgement. This is where the old fire and brimstone stuff comes from, looking ahead to awful plagues, terrifying locusts, and a demonic calvary, the likes of which this world has never seen, all resounding from an angel’s trumpet.

Judgement. We’ve a lot to learn about God’s justice. I know I do. These trumpet calls are very reminiscent of what happened in Egypt when Moses tried to convince Pharoah to let God’s people go. There is a purpose behind this justice. It is not punative, that is - the truest intent is not to punish, though I find it hard to see that point behind all the grotesque imagry. Instead, the goal of this justice on God’s part is restorative. This means that what God desires to happen out of this mess is that people would wake up, pay attention, and turn from the wrong toward the right. The waiting father of the prodigal son is still waiting for that turn toward home, even as the far country is falling apart at the seams. Of course, some people only harden their hearts in the face of the obvious. You and I know that. You and I have been there. Maybe we’re still there.

This vision of judgement, however, is not what powers our life in Christ. We’re not intended to lick our lips and savor the taste of the bad guys getting their just rewards as a motivation for us living lives that are right. That would be evil incarnate in us. On the other hand, if this vision causes us to repent, to turn away from evil and turn toward a better vision, then maybe a blessing can come out of such a curse. We place our trust in the One who listen, and who will make things right in the end. It’s this vision of the Lord of our hearts, a vision of a world gone right, a new heaven and earth, that we need to focus upon. As we turn toward him, strangely enough, our prayer changes the world.

1997Peter L. Haynes

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