The Prayers of the Saints

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 19, 2002

Readings

Psalm 65:1-8 A Psalm of praise and prayer

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;

     To you our vows will be fulfilled.

O you who hear prayer,

     To you all people will come.

When we were overwhelmed by sins,

     You forgave our transgressions.

Blessed are those you choose

     And bring near to live in your courts!

We are filled with the good things of your house,

     Of your holy temple.


You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness,

     O God our Savior,

The hope of all the ends of the earth

     And of the farthest seas,

Who formed the mountains by your power,

     Having armed yourself with strength,

Who stilled the roaring of the seas,

     The roaring of their waves,

     And the turmoil of the nations.

Those living far away fear your wonders;

     Where morning dawns and evening fades

     You call forth songs of joy.


Revelation 8:1-5 The opening of the seventh seal

When he 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 to them were given seven trumpets. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.


Apocalypse Revealed #278 "The prayers of the saints"

"The prayers of saints," means insights of faith that come from the love of kindness in people who worship the Lord from spiritual goodness and truth. "Prayers" mean different aspects of faith together with kindness in people who pour forth prayers, because without faith and kindness, prayers are not prayers, but meaningless noises. "Saints" mean those who are involved in spiritual goodness and truth.


 Sermon

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand (Revelation 8:3, 4)

The chapters suggested in the Dole Bible Study Notes for today's lesson cover the opening of the seventh and last seal that had closed up the scroll in the hand of God, leading to seven trumpets being sounded in succession. After each trumpet, there is one or another variety of disaster, destruction, and death: hail and fire mixed with blood; a blazing mountain thrown into the sea; a star named Wormwood falling from the sky; a third of the sun, moon, and stars turning dark, and so on.

Now, I dutifully read through Revelation chapters eight and nine, plowing through all that death and destruction. But as those of you who attend the Wednesday evening Bible studies know, just a few weeks ago we finished going through the entire book of Revelation. And quite frankly, I've had enough death and destruction to last for a while! So today you can relax. I'm not going to preach about death and destruction.

Fortunately, throughout the book of Revelation, in the midst of all the darkness, there are bits of light shining through. Chapter 7 is an interlude of peace and worship after the opening of the first six seals. And at the beginning of chapter eight, after the seventh seal has been opened but before the trumpets begin to sound, we also have a brief interlude of peace and of prayer. My soul, hungry for something more hopeful and uplifting, latched onto verses three and four--especially the memorable phrase, "the prayers of the saints."

So this morning, instead of talking about death and destruction, I'd like to offer some thoughts on one of the ways we can avoid spiritual death and destruction, namely, genuine prayer. But first, let's talk about who these "saints" are--since this turns out to be essential to understanding what real prayer is, also.

For our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church, "saints" has a specific meaning: a holy man or woman of history elevated to the status of saint by the church in recognition of his or her highly spiritual life. Many Catholics even pray to the saints--though they're apparently supposed to pray with them, and ask the saints to pray for them. Perhaps they believe that God is too busy to hear all of our prayers--and besides, the argument goes, our prayers will have more pull with God if someone important, like a saint, brings them to God's attention instead of little old me. Friends in high places, you know.

However, the Bible is very clear about where our worship and prayers should be directed. Twice in the book of Revelation (19:10 and 22:8, 9), John falls at the feet of an angel to worship him. Both times, the angel stops him, saying, "Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God! (Revelation 22:9). The angel makes it clear that our prayers should not be directed to any human being, saint, or angel, but only to God.

Further, at the time the book of Revelation was written, the Catholic Church didn't exist yet, and the formal process of canonization was still many centuries in the future. So the "saints" mentioned here could not possibly refer to the saints of Catholicism.

Who are the "saints," then? Swedenborg gives a simple and very useful definition: "'Saints' mean those who are involved in spiritual goodness and truth." In other words, saints are people who devote themselves to the way of the Lord by following the Lord's truth from a desire to be good and loving to others. This definition harmonizes very well with the way the word "saint" is used in the Bible. If you look it up in a Bible concordance, you will find that it is used, not just for people who have died, but for good people in God's congregation right here on earth. And you won't find any complicated legal process of canonization!

What does this mean? This means that you and I are saints when we are listening to God's truth and living according to it. It means that everyone who does this, of whatever faith or creed, is a saint. And we don't have to do miracles in order to achieve that status! We simply have to devote ourselves to the ways of the Lord.

Now we can begin to understand why it was "the prayers of the saints" that went up to God together with the smoke of the incense from the golden censer of the angel. And we can gain greater insight into when our prayers will work, and when they will not.

Here's the short version: our prayers work only if they come from genuine spiritual love in our hearts, and a real desire to live good lives of loving God and showing kindness to our neighbors here on earth. Let's let Swedenborg explain the situation:

Worship does not consist in prayers and in outward piety, but in a life of kindness. Prayers are only its outward expressions, since they come out of us through our mouth. So our prayers have the same quality as our lives. It does not matter whether we act humble, kneel, and sigh when he pray. These are external things, and unless they come from inner realities they are only gestures and sounds without life. In everything we say there is love. All people, spirits, and angels are their own loves; for our love is our life. It is the love itself that speaks, and not the person without it. Therefore our prayer has the same quality as our love. Spiritual love is kindness towards our neighbor. To be involved in that love is true worship; praying is what comes from it. We can see from this that the essence of worship is a life of kindness, and that praying is a tool and an expression of worship. In other words, the primary way that we worship is through a life of kindness, while prayer is a secondary form of worship. So we can see that people who place all divine worship in verbal piety, and not in practical piety, are greatly mistaken. (Apocalypse Explained # 325.3)

Or, putting it more simply, he writes:

True worship of God is unknown to those who think that all worship consists in acts of adoration and prayer, and thus in speaking and thinking, and not in actions flowing from the good of kindness and of faith. Yet the reality is that when we offer adoration and prayer, the Lord pays attention only to what is in our heart--that is, to what we are like inwardly as to love and the faith that comes from it. (Arcana Coelestia #10143.5)

What it all boils down to is that our prayers make a difference only when we live as if we mean them. It is summed up nicely in the saying, "Pray to God but row away from the rocks." God does not listen to our prayers if we have no love and kindness in our hearts and do not make the effort to actually live by what we have prayed for.

Prayer without the inner attitude of faith, love, and kindness that true prayer comes from is just meaningless babble. God is not so vain as to enjoy our praise and flattery for its own sake. God enjoys our prayers and listens to them when they come from a humble heart and a willingness to live according to the teachings of the Bible. And the most fundamental teaching of the Bible is that we love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28-31).

In our reading from Revelation, the difference between prayer offered by a saint and by a sinner is symbolized by the different effects of the prayers. The prayers of the saints (those who live in faith and kindness) rise up to God with the smoke from the angel's censer. But when the angel takes that very same censer, with the very same fire from the altar of God, and hurls it down to the earth, instead of the sweet smell of incense ascending up to God there come "peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake."

In this context, the earth--as compared to heaven where the angel is standing--represents our lives when we have devoted ourselves to earthly and material things rather than to spiritual things. If we are more interested in our own power, pleasure, and possessions than we are in loving God and showing kindness to our neighbors, then our prayers have no good effect. In fact, God doesn't even listen to them, because as God said to Samuel, "the Lord does not see as mortal see; they look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). When we pray, the Lord looks at what is in our heart, and not at what comes out of our mouth except as it reflects what is in our heart.

If our heart is not dedicated to God and the neighbor, but instead is dedicated to our own pleasure, then prayer does very little good. In fact, it will probably bring us into conflict with God instead of bringing us closer to God. Our prayers come from our heart. And if our heart is selfish, we will pray mostly for things for ourselves. Very often, those things will be exactly the opposite of what God wants for us. So God won't answer those prayers. Or to be more accurate, God will answer those prayers by saying no. When we realize that God is not answering our prayers the way we want them answered, we are likely to get angry at God, and even to deny God's existence. Our anger and our arguments against God are symbolized by the peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and earthquake.

What does all this mean? It means that true prayer and true worship are not words and gestures, but a life devoted to the ways of God. Ritual and prayer are important and helpful, but definitely secondary to living according to God's commandments--especially the commandment to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). In fact, coming to church and saying our prayers have meaning only if they are an expression of our heart's devotion to loving the Lord and loving our neighbor.

If we do have that devotion to love and truth in our hearts and minds, then prayer becomes a wonderful way of talking with God, and also listening for God's answer. Because prayer is truly a conversation, just as real as when we talk with one another. Perhaps God does not talk to us in words that we can hear with our ears; but God does speak with us from within, if we are truly listening. How does God answer us? I'll let Swedenborg have the last word. In one of his best-loved statements about prayer, he writes:

Prayer, regarded in itself, is talking to God, and at the same time some inner view of the things we are praying for. Answering to this there is something like an inflow into the intuition or thought of our mind, which brings about a certain opening of our inner self toward God. But this experience varies according to our state of mind, and according to the essence of what we are praying for. If our prayer comes from love and faith, and we are praying about and for only heavenly and spiritual things, then there is something like a revelation present within our prayer, which shows itself in our feelings in the form of hope, comfort, or an inward joy. (Arcana Coelestia #2535)

 


Music: No Truer Love
2002 Bruce DeBoer

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