For the last five weeks, together we have been on a journey toward Christmas Day. We have thus far experienced the sounds, tastes, touch, and sights of the Christmas story through our senses. Today, we will conclude our journey with the opening and closing passages scenes of the Christmas story. In doing so, we will employ our sense of smell and perhaps we will gain for ourselves another dimension to the greatest story ever told. That story is the story of God sending His son to live the perfect sinless life that through Him we would experience God himself. That His son, Jesus, would give up his sinless life on the cross to cover over our sins. That in that exchange, our sins become his and Jesus’ perfection becomes ours. In that exchange, we are then able to be at peace with one another and in God’s presence forever. The story of Jesus began with the Christmas story and it was marked at the beginning and the end with the sense of smell.
Now our sense of smell is most important to us. On the most basic level, our sense of smell serves to help us determine what is safe. When we smell smoke, we know there is the potential for danger. We use our sense of smell to know what foods are safe for us to eat. Think of a simple example. You go to the refrigerator. You see some leftovers and you wonder, “Are these leftovers still good?” What do you do? You peel back the covering on the food and you sniff the food. Is the odor pleasing and excites your appetite or is there an unpleasant stench causes your stomach to turn? We depend upon our sense of smell.
Just as important as our sense of smell is to our safety, our experience tells us that our sense of smell is linked closely with our memory and our emotions. A certain scent can make us feel a certain way. Perfume makers depend upon our sense of smell to draw out from us certain emotions such as sex appeal, power, vitality, or relaxation. Our sense of smell can bring us back in time by triggering powerful memories. We walk into a house and smell a fresh baked apple pie and we think, “I remember when my mother used to make such a pie.” I encounter this experience of smell connected with memory often when I work with people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. In grief, people can become very emotional when they smell a food item that their deceased love one enjoyed because in the instant of smelling that food they are mentally and emotionally flooded with memories of that person. Articles of clothing that have the scent of that loved one are cherished items because grieving people can choose to smell the clothing and remember. So, our sense of smell is important to our sense memory and emotions.
Knowing then how important our sense of smell is to us, let’s explore, how the Christmas story began and ended with smell and let’s experience the story in a new way.
The opening to the Christmas story began in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, beginning at verse 5. I invite you to turn to that passage. The story began with an announcement to a man named Zechariah, a humble priest. Luke wrote, “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Lk 1:5-9). The Christmas story thus began in a most formal place, the Jerusalem Temple, and began with the smell of burning incense.
The incense used in the Temple was a formula designed by God and given to Moses. The Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin [a fragrant oil or resin], onycha [an ingredient from shellfish of the Red Sea] and galbanum [a gummy substance from shrubs of Persia] —and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred” (Ex. 30:34, 35).
God asked that the Hebrew people burn incense. It was both a symbol of obedience and symbol of a relationship between the Hebrew people and God. That obedience and relationship was most profoundly seen in prayer to God. So the smoke and the aroma of burning incense was often seen as prayer rising to God.
In Hebrew, the word for incense is formed from four Hebrew letters. The ancient rabbis taught that each of those four letters stood for a different character trait desired of God for each person. The first letter, Tav, stood for holiness. The second, Dalet, stood for purity. The third, Teit, for pity. And the last, Qof, for hope. The rabbis saw the equal part combination holiness, purity, pity, and hope as the character with which we must approach God in prayer and the character that God reinforces in us from prayer. The incense burned by Zechariah created the atmosphere and aroma of prayer. The aroma, the smell of incense burning, was considered by the Lord to be holy. The smell remained the same through the centuries connecting Zechariah with all generations back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. The aroma of incense produced comfort and memory on a relationship with God and with family.
The opening scene to the Christmas story with the aroma on burning incense reminds us that we are in a relationship with God. And in that relationship, God desires that we would seek holiness, purity, pity, and hope. As we breath in this scene, it triggers our memory that God is the God of our fathers and mothers, grandparents, and all other ancestors back to the beginning of humanity. And there is comfort in remembering.
Luke continued with the story in verse 10, “And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. [We see most directly the connection the aroma of incense and a prayer life.] Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.” [The connection of incense and prayer, the relationship between God and humanity is reinforced and so we can breath in this scene a bit more.] Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John…17 And he will go on before the Lord…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
The aroma and the scent of this announcement in the incensed filled room of the Temple is that Zechariah’s son shall prepare people for the coming of the Lord himself. We breathe that experience into our lives and we remember. We breathe that experience into our lives and we can relive the emotions of that moment; the awe and wonder that God would come among the people.
This scene is the beginning of the Christmas story, rich in history of traditions and history of the Hebrew people and the good news of the coming of the Lord. It was an announcement made in the most formal setting of the Jewish faith, the Temple.
The concluding scene to the Christmas story, is also rich in fragrance but the locale in which it plays out could not be more different from the opening scene to the story. For that scene, let’s move to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, beginning at verse 7.
We pick up the final scene of the story in the power center of Jerusalem, with a king named Herod. Magi, or wisemen, from the east have come to the center of power looking for the child born a king. There is at least some assumption here that the Magi expected to be welcomed into the presence of this child. Instead, the Magi are met with confusion, fear, and disbelief that a new king has been born. With secrecy and suspicion and sabotage in mind, Matthew revealed to us the concluding scene of the Christmas story. In verse 7, “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’ After they [the Magi] had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them [the Magi] until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”
The final scene of the Christmas story was not like the opening scene in the Temple of God. The final scene took place in a home. The final scene was not like the opening scene with a solitary Jewish priest. The final scene took place among non-Jewish people. The final scene was not like the opening scene with a group of people surrounding the Temple in prayer. The final scene was played out with a murderous king in the background seeking to destroy the new born king.
But the final scene of the Christmas story was like the opening scene because they both involved worship of God. Zechariah was steadfast in worship of God in the Temple and the Magi were overjoyed to worship God in a simple home setting. The final scene was like the opening scene because those who came to worship did so with frankincense and myrrh. The desire of those worshipping was to put forth a pleasing aroma to God in recognition of God’s gift. Jesus was welcomed with the fragrance of worship.
The final scene reminds us of the beginning. The God who chose the Hebrew people was the same God who was calling the Gentiles to his son. There is but one God worthy of worship. God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son who was now as at home in the Temple as he was in a simple house.
The aroma of worship was and is important to the story of that baby who became our Savior. We see that continuing in the gospel story itself. In the gospels, there is a woman who poured a bottle of expensive perfume over Jesus and the fragrance of worship filled the entire house. Jesus said that she was preparing his body for burial and that wherever the gospel was preached people would speak of what she did in memory of her worship of Jesus.
The apostle Paul encouraged the church at Ephesus and encourages us “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1, 2). We are to be like God and see that Jesus offered himself in worship to the Father as an offering of incense displaying holiness, purity, pity, and hope.
Paul encouraged all churches to give “thanks be to God, who always leads us in victory through Christ. God uses us to spread his knowledge everywhere like a sweet-smelling perfume. Our offering to God is to be the perfume of Christ that goes out to those who are being saved and to those who are being lost. To those who are being lost, this perfume smells like death, and it brings them death. But to those who are being saved, it has the sweet smell of life, and it brings them life” (2 Cor. 2:14-16).
The Christmas story is fragrant and aromatic. It is a story of worship among the Jewish people extended to include all the peoples of the world. The Christmas story extended the aroma of worship from the Temple to our homes. The aroma of our prayers should be that of seeking holiness, offering pity, seeking purity, and joyously recognizing the hope with have in a God who loves us and sent His son to us. The aroma of our lives should be an expression of life toward others. Our life seeking to imitate Jesus should be fragrant and sweet to those who love the Lord and yet with gentleness and respect should remind those who have rejected God that they are choosing to surround themselves with the smell of death.
This week let us enjoy the smells, fragrance, and the aroma of Christmas as God intended and then let us be that sweet fragrance of life to others. Amen and Amen.