It has been a fast five-week journey of exploring our understanding of God and our place with Him through our five physical senses.
We came to see that through our sense of vision that God sent Jesus to be the spiritual light of the world to illuminate our lives within and to see God as God really is.
We then saw that through our sense of taste that we will remember Jesus as the sweetness of choice wedding wine of hope and love, the saltiness of the gospel message to change all who hear it, the bitterness that can invade our lives if we do not follow Jesus’ example of forgiveness , and the sourness of vinegar used to enliven Jesus’ mouth to proclaim to our benefit, “It is finished” and they are freed from sin.
We move from vision and taste to hearing and came to learn that God sent Jesus Christ that we could hear the words that through faith we are not condemned but we are saved, and that Holy Spirit has given us a full vocabulary to use that we can speak plainly about God.
Last week we affirmed that in accepting Jesus, we are touched spiritually and given the mission to make God real to other through the touch of love. When we reach out in the name of Christ, we can touch the lives of others and make character of God real through us.
This week we will look through the lens of our sense of smell. Scientists and medical experts tell us that our sense of smell can distinguish from among tens of thousands of different odors. And as we know, our perception of those odors is influenced by personal preferences. Just go to a farm someday and note how some folks will say the farm smells lovely and earthy and others will say about the same odors that, “It stinks!”
But one of the most significant elements of our sense of smell is how smell relates to our memory. The scientists and medical experts tell us that our sense of smell is linked to our memory more so than any of the other senses. For many people, recall of a specific moment in time or a specific event can be triggered by a smell that was present at that moment. The smell of freshly baked bread may flood us with memories of a childhood experience of coming home to bread baking in the oven. Those memories may not have been with us for years but suddenly they are as fresh as yesterday.
In working with people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, there is often a desire to preserve articles of clothing of the loved one for the scent contained in the clothing. That scent can bring back or refresh memories of that person.
Our sense of smell can also be used to create an experience in the present. In some Christian church traditions, incense is burned to create an experience of solemnity and mystery to the worship service. The visual imagery of smoke and smell creates the idea that worship service connects heaven with earth. So, in some cases, church has used our sense of smell to create a spiritual or religious experience.
But what might the Bible say of the sense of smell? How might the Bible reveal to us how our sense of smell is used to understand God and God’s will for our life? Let’s take a quick look at what the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, reveal to us.
The first revelation of the sense of smell and its relationship to God came about in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 8. Noah and his family had been on the ark, the floods were over, and now it was time to come out of the ship and begin rebuilding. “18 So Noah came out [of the ark], together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another. 20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. 22 As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease’” (Genesis 8:18-22).
Noah’s first act upon leaving the ark was to worship God. Noah did so in the form of a burnt offering of selected animals and birds. The Bible said that “Lord smelled the pleasing aroma.” There are two senses of smell playing here. The first view of smell is Noah’s. In human terms, Noah created an offering that Noah found pleasing to smell. We tend to believe that if we find the experience satisfying then so will God. But God experiences things differently. So, the second view of the aroma comes fro God. The aroma that pleased God was not the physical aroma that please Noah. For God, the pleasing aroma was found by the entirety of the experience of worship of gratitude expressed by Noah. The behavior of Noah, that in Noah’s heart, Noah’s first act upon landing on dry land was to give thanks to God without being instructed so. That Noah would seek to worship God was sweet, aromatic, and pleasing to God. Worship and prayers offered with a proper heart that expresses gratitude and love of God are acts that create, in a spiritual manner, an experience expressed as a fragrance, an aroma, that is pleasing to God.
After Noah, the Israelites developed and participated in detailed steps for burnt offerings. In those burnt offerings, the Israelites desired to create a pleasing aroma, a pleasing experience, for God. At times, when the people offered worship with a proper heart, God received these burnt offerings as a pleasing aroma, but God did not always receive those experiences. In the Book of Amos, we would read that the Israelites practiced their religious traditions, including burnt offerings, out of obligation not in gratitude. Aside from the moments of worship, the people had turned from God’s righteousness and lived lives of injustice and bitterness. The people, in a selfish manner, offered the same burnt offerings to God that once gave the same pleasant aroma to those making the offering believing God would be equally pleased. What was God’s response to such religious gatherings and offerings offered out of obligation and tradition? God said: 21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
The burnt offerings had not changed but the people had changed. The people were no longer behaving as God’s people and so God experienced their gatherings and burnt offerings as a stench instead of a pleasing aroma. A stench, a strong and very unpleasant smell, like rotting fish, is something that turns our stomachs. To God, the people had become an experience of stench, a stomach-turning odor, because the people refused to pursue righteousness and to act justly. The burnt offerings had not changed but the people had changed.
God’s words are hard. I do not think any of us want to be known as a stench. And while God’s words are hard, they are hard to shake people up to change, to repent, and return to righteousness.
Repentance and righteousness are at the center of God’s call upon our lives and the focus of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus began teaching with a simple message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). In repenting, Jesus then said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
How then does Jesus make use of our sense of smell physically and spiritually to help to inform us about God and God’s will? Well, let’s look at one example from the Gospel of John. John wrote, “1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him” (John 12:1-2). In our opening scene, Jesus had returned to the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. This is shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, resuscitating him to life in the flesh and blood once again. The family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were hosting a dinner in Jesus’ honor.
While Jesus and others reclined at the table, “3 Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3-4). Mary took a pint of nard, some 16 ounces of perfume, and pour it all out upon Jesus’ feet. A bottle that size was worth about one year’s wages. Then Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, sending the fragrance throughout the entire house. Everyone was drawn into the experience. Everywhere that fragrance could be smelled people were reminded of the presence of Christ and extravagance of Mary’s heart toward Jesus.
But virtually all stories involving Jesus have a twist and this story is no exception. After Mary worshipped Jesus with creating a fragrant experience revealing Mary’s heart, that pleasing fragrance also revealed the heart of Judas. John wrote, “4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him objected [to Mary’s behavior], 5 ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’ 6 [Judas] did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he [Judas] was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he [Judas] used to help himself to what [the money that] was put into it” (John 12:4-6).
The pleasing fragrance of Mary’s extravagance worship of Jesus was a stench to Judas because the fragrance filling the house meant the perfume could no longer be converted to cash. Judas wanted that money that perfume could have brought because Judas was a thief and was using the group’s money for Judas’ own enrichment. Judas behavior was unrighteous and unjust. In this story, the same fragrance was used to reveal the pleasing aroma of righteousness of Mary who followed Jesus with her heart and the stench of unrighteousness of Judas who followed Jesus for his own enrichment.
John ended this account this way, Jesus said, “7 ‘Leave her alone. It was intended that she [Mary] should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me’” (John 12:7-8). Jesus saw his death coming and the desire for his friend to anoint his body in death. But Jesus could also see that his death was necessary for his friends to have life and to be able to fill whatever house they entered with the aroma of Christ.
The aroma of Christ was seen as both reflective of life and death. We understand this latter point from the writings of the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul wrote, “14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14). Paul brought out that Christians are to spread an aroma among the people of the world by spreading the knowledge of Jesus, of his love and righteousness wherever we go. Paul said that the same aroma of Christians, the thoughts, words, and deeds of Christians expressing their heart-felt love of Christ, would be received three different ways.
First, Paul said, “15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15a). Like Noah’s original burnt offering given in gratitude and righteousness that gave a pleasing aroma to God, Christians who live and work in righteousness and gratitude through Jesus are a pleasing aroma to God. Our life matters to God, and we can be pleasing to God.
Second, Paul said, “Among those who are being saved…[we] are an aroma that brings life” (2 Corinthians 2:16-17 selected). To people who accept the word of God, who are encouraged by what they witness in our life, they are saved. To them we are an aroma of life, an abundant life now and forever with God. Our sharing of the gospel through our words and actions is a sweet fragrance of life. Perhaps we could think of it as the wonderful smell of a clean newborn baby. There is no greater gift we can give than life itself.
Thirdly, Paul said, “And those who are perishing, …we are an aroma that brings death” (2 Corinthians 2:16-17 selected). To those who reject the message of the gospel our testimony reminds them that absent the savior a certain and everlasting death awaits them.
Christians who follow Jesus in a heartfelt manner of gratitude and righteousness are the same aroma experienced three different ways. To God we are the pleasing aroma of Christ. To one another, Christians are the pleasing aroma of life. To the nonbeliever, Christians are the aroma of death.
What then are we to do? Our call is simple. Jesus said, “Repent,” meaning turn from pursuing our own understanding and move toward God. Second, Jesus said, “Seek God’s righteousness.” Think, speak, and act as God would desire us to do. How do we do that? We imitate Jesus. In our lifelong transformation of discipleship of Jesus, our life becomes more and more pleasing to God. If you will, we smell more like the fragrance of Christ. In being more like the fragrance of Christ, we reveal the difference in the aroma between spiritual life and spiritual death. That is our task and the opportunity God has given us. Let us then be a sweet, sweet spirit revealing the fragrance of Christ. Amen and Amen.