Monday, March 31, 2014

Smells Good to God

Porterhouse steaks grilling barbecue grills meatYou love the smell of a good steak?  God does too  #BreakfastChit-Chat.

No, my children haven't driven me completely crazy, although I am convinced I need my own hashtag for weird things my family talks about at meals.  At least this time it wasn't an extended conversation on why superheroes without costumes - the Hulk - are so much cooler than superheroes with costumes - Spiderman (If you dare to disagree you can take it up with the 5 year old.) It's just that sitting around with the dirty dishes still cluttering the table doing our devotionals, we were talking about things that smell good to God.  We stumbled over the idea that sparked the conversation in Philippians.

But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.
Paul's in prison.  He's been there a while and the Philippians are one of his many church plants. The young congregation is worried about Paul and so they sent a gift with a mutual friend Epaphroditus to help him along.  Unlike today's prisons in which all of a prisoner's needs from clothing, to food, to recreation are supplied, in those days the needs of a prisoner were his responsibility.  If Paul's friends hadn't come through for him, he might have suffered all the more.

But what a funny thing to say: the Philippians' gift smells good to God.   But as we started talking it over we could think of lots of things that smell good (or bad) to God.

All throughout the Old Testament the animals offered on the altar are described as a "soothing aroma."  It begins with Noah offering some of each of the clean animals, mostly cows, sheep and birds, to the Lord.  And when the meat hit the altar (just like it would continue to do so for millennia of devout Hebrews) the sizzle was declared to be a good smell rising up to God (Genesis 8: 20-22, Exodus 29, and Leviticus 1).

Old Testament worship was sensory and intimate.  The temple was awash in color and people.  The sounds of David's choir must have mixed with the bleating of animals.  Each person coming to offer a sacrifice would have laid his own hand on the animal, slit its throat, skinned it and offered the pieces to the priest. Each man standing and watching an animal he raised be given would have smelled the same smell as God.

Ezekiel pointed out that these soothing aromas were intended to be a return in kind.  God poured out blessings in the form of animals and grains and he expected a very limited amount of that returned to him (Ezekiel 16:19).  Yet it was these very blessings of animal, incense and grains that the Israelites were turning around and offering to idols instead (Ezekiel 20:28).  The smell of gratitude turned to the rotting stench of idolatry.

New Testament worship is spirit worship (John 4) and much of the pageantry of smell, touch and sound is missing.  So what would prompt Paul to use Old Testament language, "a soothing aroma," to describe their gift?  It was a sacrifice.

Although Jesus is the one and only true sacrifice for sin (for both the Old and New Testament eras), we still as Christians offer sacrifices of gratitude everyday. Hebrews tells us not to "neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased" (Hebrews 13:16). Paul calls the gift our own bodies back to the Savior a reasonable sacrifice.  Hebrews also offers us the phrase "a sacrifice of praise."

Besides the smell of sacrifices, the New Testament also talks about prayers raising in a sweet aroma. John, in his vision of heaven, sees the elders and the 4 living creatures approach the throne of God with harps and bowls in hand. What was in the bowls?  They were full of incense - the prayers of the saints.  In a later vision, John sees the angel offer them up on the altar mixed together with more incense and the prayers become smoke ascending up to God.  Then the angel grabs hold of all those prayers and throws them down to the earth as fire, thunder and lightening. I've often wondered what becomes of our prayers, especially when it seems I am whispering to a deaf heaven.  The picture of my prayers mixed, burned, ascending like incense to God and descending in power is a moving one.

Not only do our prayers and sacrifices, both animal and everyday, smell good to God - Jesus does too.  In 2 Corinthians 2 Paul says that we are the fragrance of Christ spread abroad in the world. When we offer ourselves, in imitation of our Savior, as living sacrifices, we smell to God like the sweet scent of his Son.

It's fun to think about stuff like what smells does God really like.  It makes the kids laugh, and it's easy for them to remember connections about sacrifices (both literal and figurative).  But for you and I, its worth considering that although we'll never lay our hands on an animals head and see his warm blood spurt all over the gilded temple floor,  we are offering our own bodies, our own prayers, our work-a-day lives, a sweet -smelling aroma to God.  


Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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