Monday, 9 May 2016

What does Life smell like?

"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.”Ephesians 5:2

The skies are suddenly paler. The air seems thin and sounds come drifting up like wispy clouds. Disembodied, they grow images and bring messages of mid-morning activity on a mountain village. A chainsaw whirs as steel teeth cut into wood. A neighbour's sheep bleat mournfully and the dogs are disturbed by a graceful row of horses as they pass our gate. The aroma associated with early winter takes me back to our first winter here. Moulding leaves, wattle fires, pine-needles underfoot, damp soil...

More than images, tastes or sounds, a scent can transport in an instant. Just recently I bent over a yellow rose to inhale it's perfume. Suddenly, I was standing behind my mother, watching her get ready for the Sunday morning church service. Most women of her generation did not indulge in expensive perfumes, but I somehow remember a small yellow topped bottle with the essence of roses captured in it. Tucked in between her other precious things. It was a bit too strong, and stung the nose at first. But the fragrance of an old English rose will for me ever be, the memory of my mother in her Sunday best. My father would be waiting, swathed in a spicy whiff of after shave. We slid into the last church pew in a cloud of roses, cinnamon, cedar wood, vanilla and musk.

This all got me thinking - why were we created with a sense of smell? If each nuance of my being is created for God's glory, and we were created in His image, what is the purpose of the ability to inhale fragrances and odours along with life-giving breath?

This may seem a fickle topic, but I thought it may be interesting to see where it leads...

The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of fragrance in biblical times, is those countless burnt offerings that the people of Israel made to God. I know we live in a country where the smell of a "braai" makes people salivate and sets stomachs agrumble, but did God really care about the aroma of the sacrifices?

The very first mention of God smelling the aroma of a burnt offering is found in Genesis 8:21. Noah offered a burnt offering of clean animals and birds after leaving the ark. We are told it was a “pleasing” aroma to God. The idea is that Noah’s sacrifice was an offer of propitiation (a type of atonement), or satisfaction, of God’s righteous requirement. God was pleased with the sacrifice and then gave the promise to never again destroy every living creature with a flood. A promise God gave to replace the stench of death (sin) with the sweet fragrance of life (grace).

We continue reading throughout the Old Testament of various offerings of Jewish tabernacle worship. The priest had to burn all of it on the altar (Leviticus 1:9). As in the case of Noah's offering, what pleased the Lord was the commitment to offer worship in His name as He commanded. The "pleasing aroma" , emphasises the action with a devoted heart, rather than the actual smoke of the burnt offering. Even the larger sacrifice at the yearly Feast of Weeks focused on the redemption of sinners as the reason for the pleasing aroma.

The connection between olfaction and ancient Jewish concepts of purity may not be immediately obvious to our modern minds. And in many ways, our perceptions about what smells “holy” and “unholy” may be heavily influenced by cultural standards of “clean” and “unclean”. Nevertheless, one useful way of understanding ancient Jewish purity laws is to think about “clean” as the line demarcating life, physical wholeness, and order, from death, disease, and disorder.

In light of Levitical purity laws being seen through categorisations of “life” and “healthy” against “death” and “decay”, Martha’s warning to Jesus in John 11 not to roll away the stone covering her dead brother Lazarus's tomb is understandable: "Roll the stone aside," Jesus told them. But Martha, the dead man's sister, protested, "Lord, he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible." - John 11:39

In Martha’s eyes, Jesus was taking a huge risk in uncovering a decaying corpse, lest they all become unclean from the very odour of putrefying flesh. I recall writing about the "rot in the world" in the previous blog message. This sums it up for me: The smell of death. But Jesus is not perturbed. He orders for the stone to be rolled away - as the stone was rolled away when He rose from death. Jesus himself walks into that stinking grave, covering the unholy smell of death with His Divine fragrance of life. The dead man who walked from that tomb and was welcomed by his sisters, their eyes still red from weeping, "stank" no more. And even though his physical body once again surrendered to the grave when the time came, he pointed toward Another who conquered death forever and is able to cover us all with the wonderful fragrance of eternal life. Many would think that the "greater things than this", means that we should be healing and raising from the dead at will, but my heart tells me that Jesus was giving them a glimpse of how all would pass from death to life, from decay to newborn freshness, from the stench of sin and captivity to a bouquet of freedom, from helplessness to authority and power, through Him and Him alone.

So when the world was overcome by sin - leading to death, God gave us Jesus as a fragrant, perfect sacrifice, so that we would be released from sin, be justified before the throne, and covered with the life-giving fragrance of Jesus - the promise full-filled.

Sacrifices, rituals, confessions before saints or priests, good works etc. to bring us in right standing with God are superfluous (unneeded) and unscriptural. In Hebrews 10: 8-10 we read: "First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." His fragrance is the fragrance of unconditional love. To walk in this Love, means to walk in grace, humility and surrender.

My worship is a pleasing fragrance to God. My obedience is a pleasing fragrance to God. My surrender to His will, His Word, His guidance.

I particularly love the certainty that regardless of my fallible nature and leaning to stumble, the fragrance of Jesus covers me, swirls around and follows me everywhere I go. And since he is such a personal God, for me it means a scent that clears the air, lifts the spirit, makes you close your eyes and inhale deep and deeper still. The bouquet is subtle, yet undeniable. It does not fade, is perfectly balanced. With tones and notes never perceived by man, but so wonderfully familiar and comforting, that it is a balm, an invitation, a song, a taste of unequalled richness. ("For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" ~ 2 Cor 2.15).

As a flower does not do anything else but lift her face to the sun to exude the lovely smell placed at her centre by a loving Creator God, - so we also need do nothing but lift our eyes up to Jesus, who has done it all. His essence cannot be imitated, earned or forced. Neither can it be suppressed, once it has filled our repentant hearts. But it needs the Son. How we need the Son! Nothing else can release the wonder, the glory.

For all to hear, see, feel, taste and SMELL...

..."offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God - this is your true and proper worship." ~ Romans 12:1

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