On one of my business trips to Australia I visited a fascinating place called the Golden Dragon Museum celebrating the long established Chinese-Australian community and culture. The visitor guide mentioned that there was a Chinese temple in the grounds that must not be missed so, after looking around the museum itself, I went to find it.
Unfortunately the signs weren’t great and so I wandered around a bit without locating it. Then, as I was about to give up, I suddenly caught a waft of a sweet scent on the breeze. I followed the sweet smell, as it got stronger and stronger, until eventually I found an ornate Chinese door leading to a closed courtyard where in the centre, surrounded by fish-themed fountains, was a shrine. A sickly sweet smell was coming from incense sticks that covered the shrine itself. As far as I could see, none were actually still burning. However, there had been so much incense offered in worship that the aroma still hung strongly and had floated out the courtyard to lead me there.
If the smell of incense offered to gods with no voice and no power was so overpoweringly fragrant, how much more so should the incense be that we offer to the living God who spoke the very world into being?
A living, burning incense
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we set up shrines in our gardens and desks and burn incense sticks to annoy our neighbours and co-workers! Although, that might start some interesting conversations.
In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 (NET) we read this:
The fragrant aroma is to know God. And who carries that aroma? It’s us! The knowledge of him being ‘in every place’ tells us that our task is to carry that aroma on us, everywhere, and to every part of society and every corner of the world. We’re called to be just like that incense on the shrine, sweet and inviting! Or… not.
Can you smell that?
The problem with an aroma is that one person’s sweet fragrance is another person’s stink.
Growing up, my mum liked kippers (smoked herring). The smell of kippers on the stove would fill the house, and I would absolutely hate it. What for her was an enjoyable treat was, to me, nauseating. The aroma of God’s love on us is actually just like that. To some, it is a fragrance from life to life. Knowing and loving God is a sweet, sweet thing and those of us that understand God’s love want to savour it. But to others, who love their own lives more than love God, it is actually a stink. It’s not the aroma that is any different, just the reaction to it. Much like my mum’s kippers. There was nothing wrong with the smell – lots of people like kippers. It was just me that found the smell awful!
Don’t be surprised, then, when things that you think are gracious, godly and loving are interpreted by people around you as stinky. It’s actually a reaction we should expect. In fact, if people who are still attached to the things of the world aren’t finding you stinky, maybe you don’t smell enough. Or maybe you smell a bit like them still. If so, it’s time to grow in your knowledge of God. Read the word of God. Pray for the Holy Spirit within you to breathe on that incense of your life and stir it up. Make yourself the stink to the world that you are called to be! And when the world criticises you for stinking then remember – it’s not the aroma that is the issue. It’s their reaction.
Do I Smell?
Of course, it is possible that rather than a sweet, sweet aroma that people just find stinky – we actually just do stink. We are human, after all. It’s certainly happened that Christians have said or done obnoxious things and misinterpreted people’s disgust as some kind of ‘holy moment’ when it’s nothing of the sort. Even people who don’t know the love of God can pick up when someone is simply stinking. So how do we know that we are worthy, and are carrying a genuine sweet aroma and not the lingering scent of kippers? Paul gives us three clear qualities of people who are giving off a genuine, sweet aroma of the knowledge of God as the passage continues in 2 Corinthians 2:16-17 (NET):
“And who is adequate for these things? For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God.”
Firstly, we don’t ‘peddle the word of God for profit’. Or, put in slightly more general terms, we don’t use the things of God for personal gain. If we live our life believing that God’s desire is purely for our own health and wealth, then we are no better than the hucksters Paul speaks of above. If we do that, then we actually do stink. The world around us will quickly see that we care only for our own well-being. Rather, we have to say and do everything not for our own gain but for others. Put simply, we have to live with sacrificial love. Only then will we smell sweet with the aroma of love.
Secondly, we speak with sincerity. This means we are always authentic and genuine – speaking with inner conviction. The world can smell fake demonstrations of affection a mile away, and it’s not surprising that we stink to them if we do that. It’s because that does stink. Rather, we need to have a pure heart of genuine love for others. When our lives are based on that, our words and actions will smell sweet with the aroma of sincerity.
Thirdly, we speak as those who are sent with a purpose. This means we carry the heart, vision and purpose of God. If we have our heart set on our own agendas and ‘fulfilling our own destiny’, then soon we’ll start to stink to those around us – and not in a good way. If we are truly sent with purpose from God, then we’ll share the testimony of God’s love and goodness to those around us.
If we do that, we will carry the sweet aroma of the gospel.
Let your fragrance linger
Maybe you’re already on fire for God and the fragrance of your love, sincerity and God’s purpose is already wafting around. If so, seek more ways to deepen your relationship with God. Immerse yourself in his word. Seek his face. Find new places that you can spread the fragrance around! Or maybe you know that you’re not as fragrant as you could be. The good news is that God is ready to fan your smouldering incense into flame. Seek him and the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit in your life every day. Your fragrance will start to linger, and others will start to notice.
Just in the same way that the incense on that Chinese shrine spread outside and led me to it, so let us spread the aroma of Christ around and lead people to the foot of the cross, where they can encounter the living God.
“But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and who makes known through us the fragrance that consists of the knowledge of him in every place.” – 2 Corinthians 2:14