Tag Archives: Smell

I Smell.

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“You shall make an altar on which to offer incense…”
Exodus 30:1 (NRSVCE)

I typically keep a fragrant candle on the desk in my office. I like scents of vanilla the best. Right now I’ve been trying out a candle labeled as “tobacco and vanilla.” I thought it might remind me of the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Not so much. I do, however, like the scent.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that smell is the physical sense to which we give the least attention. Sight, hearing, taste, and touch get the most of our attention. Our olfactory senses aren’t as necessary for human survival as they once were. Nevertheless, a scent can create a powerful response with me. Some experts say that smells plays more of a role in attracting a mate than we even realize. More consciously, it can bring back a memory like the smell of a rose reminding me of my Grandma Vander Well’s perfume. It can create a sense of peace and security like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting up from the kitchen. It also works in negative terms. Some smells give me a headache or can make me feel physically ill.

Incense played a large part in ancient religious ceremonies. In today’s chapter, God continues to prescribe to Moses how the Hebrew tribes will worship. The chapter begins with designs for an altar on which incense is to be perpetually burned and it ends with a unique recipe for the fragrant ingredients a perfumer is to blend the incense. Because the fragrant oil used to anoint Aaron and the priests, and the incense burned in the traveling temple was unique, the smell would become associated in the hearts and minds of the Hebrews with being present at God’s place and giving their sacrifices and offerings. The smoke of the burning incense also became a metaphor for the prayers of God’s people wafting up to heaven.

Incense once again became part of worship in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions in Christianity, though I have head it argued that it was primarily a practical way for the priest to overcome the powerful pungency of body odor emanating from the poor, unbathed masses packing into the church on Sunday. It was never a formally prescribed practice of the early followers of Jesus. In the New Testament, the only references to incense point to either the practice in the Hebrew ritual or else to John’s visions of heaven in Revelation.

The use of incense in Hebrew worship was, however, linked to an important metaphor understood by early believers. In his second letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul writes:

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. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
2 Cor 2:14-16 (NIV)

Once again, I find that the physical bricks-and-mortar (or in this case oil-and-incense) of the Hebrew system matures through Jesus and shifts into a flesh-and-blood understanding of what God is doing. In the former, people came to a central location where the fragrance of the priests and the burning incense reminded them of God’s presence. In the latter, every follower of Jesus becomes part of a “royal priesthood” taking the fragrance of Jesus with us wherever we go and among any and all people with whom we interact in our circles of relationship and community.

I have spent twenty-five years in a career in which I travel and regularly visit our clients in their places of business around the country. I am always praying that I will be the fragrance of Christ while I am there conducting training sessions, making executive presentations, and coaching or mentoring individuals.. What’s fascinating to me is that I have on several occasions had someone literally ask me if I’m a Christian. When I confess that I am, the response is typically, “I knew it. I could just tell.” Equally fascinating to me is that in almost every long-term engagement with a client there is an individual or two who react to my presence with intense animosity. In those instances, I get to practice returning curses with blessings and showing (often unreciprocated) kindness.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think of the message I gave yesterday among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Today’s chapter so beautifully illustrates a point I was making. I observe that many are stuck in the old paradigm of a religious institution founded on the notion of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. People gather to do the regularly scheduled religious bit, then forget about it until my next scheduled appearance on Sunday, or Christmas, or Easter.

Jesus changed all that in practice. He started with getting the Kingdom of God into the individual, transforming the human being into the Temple in whom God’s Spirit dwells. It is the individual who takes God’s Kingdom wherever they go and impacts people in every relationship and circles of influence. I don’t burn incense at the temple, I am the temple from which God’s fragrance seeps out in my love, kindness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness and self-control. Some are attracted. Some are repelled. That’s something I don’t control, though how I respond to it is.

Monday. Another week. Holiday coming up. I have appointments, a little travel, and a weekend full of friends. Hope I’m fragrant in all the good ways.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

A Sacrifice of Aroma

The Lord said to Moses, “Give this command to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Make sure that you present to me at the appointed time my food offerings, as an aroma pleasing to me.’”
Numbers 28:1-2 (NIV)

I remember as a young child taking a school field trip to the Wonder Bread bakery in Des Moines. I can still remember the overwhelming aroma of all those loaves baking in the industrial oven. Pardon the pun, but it was a little slice of heaven to me. At the end of the tour each of us were given a mini-loaf of freshly baked bread still warm from the oven. The simple joy of that experience is still fresh in my memory almost fifty years later.

There is, perhaps, no aroma more pleasing to my soul than that of freshly baked bread. Over the past few weeks, between baby shower and Thanksgiving celebrations, Wendy has made multiple loaves of bread at home. The aroma wafts up the stairway from our kitchen into my office. I don’t know whether it is the nostalgic memories of my mother baking in the kitchen or something more innately human that connects my spirit to the smell of something so basic to life. It fills my spirit in a way that’s almost impossible to describe or quantify.

I find it fascinating that God prescribed to the ancient Hebrews sacrifices of aroma. In my experience we rarely, if ever, connect the spiritual to our sense of smell. Yet we depend on our olfactory senses in such basic ways. When the deli meat has been in the refrigerator for a while Wendy asks me to smell it to discern whether it’s still good. I have cologne in my bathroom cupboard that I refrain from putting on when Wendy and I are going on a date because I know the smell turns her off.  Quite often one of us will stop and say, “I smell something rotten” because our sense of smell has determined there is something amiss.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth, Paul makes the point that they are the “aroma of Christ.” I’ve always been attracted to that word picture. I’ve blogged about it multiple times. When I’m on site with a client today will my spirit, my attitude, my words, and my actions be a pleasing aroma to those around me? Just as my soul smiles at the smell of Wendy’s freshly baked bread, will there be some sense in which my clients will think, “I always like it when Tom shows up.”

Conversely, it is perfectly possible that I might possibly “stink up” a place. When my life, my mind, or my soul are slowly rotting from the effects of fear, anxiety, judgement, anger, hatred, envy, bitterness, pride, conceit, or the like, others can “smell” it in the air when I’m present.

In another letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul tells them to  offer themselves as “living sacrifices.” I’ve never connected the two, but this morning I’m thinking of my “living sacrifice” being a sacrifice of aroma just like God asked from the ancient Hebrews in today’s chapter. Today I want my life and actions to be like the aroma of freshly baked bread in God’s nostrils. I want my presence on-site with my client today to be a similarly pleasing spiritual fragrance for them.

In order for Wendy to produce the aroma of freshly baked bread in our home, she has to actively preheat the oven, mix the recipe in the kitchen, let the dough rise, and bring about the conditions in which the bread will bake and the aroma will be unleashed. Similarly, I’ve got to consciously put together the recipe of intention, thought, words and actions to produce a pleasing aroma for God in my day today.

Of course, in order to produce a stench I don’t have to do a thing. When a living thing sits long enough in stagnation the rot will eventually, naturally happen on its own.