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Something in the Air
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
December 23, 2019
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.
There are a lot of people who love the smell of incense, and I am not one of them. It’s just a personal preference, it’s not a theological objection. Incense has a long beautiful history in Christian worship, largely appropriated from pre-Christian Jewish origins; burning incense in the temple produced this delightful smoke that worshippers could see wafting up towards the heavens, a visible sign of their prayers also ascending towards the God who would answer them: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,” the Psalmist writes, “and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” If that’s not enough, you should know, as I surely do, that any feelings I have about incense are surely not shared unanimously by the rest of your own pastoral staff, nor indeed by other members of my own marriage. I am not here to change anybody’s mind. I am not on a crusade. As it happens, I sort of like the idea of incense. I like the story of incense. I like the traditions of incense. I just don’t really like the smell of incense.
But the smell, I take it, is sort of the point. If you’re burning incense, especially in this story, especially in the temple, the smell is, I think, the point. Especially in this holy site where throngs of humanity make their way on a regular basis. Especially in this holy site where ritual animal sacrifice is just the normal course of affairs. Especially in this regularly crowded public space in a time long before anything resembling modern sanitation. Nobody comes in at the end of the day and power-washes the temple with Lysol and Clorox. Probably, in its time, that building — by degrees, because of course parts of it had more restricted access than others — but still, in its time, the temple was almost surely one of the worst-smelling places imaginable. Which is fine if you’re just dropping off a sacrifice. But if this is your place of employment. If you are one of the priests working at the temple and having by extension one of the worst-smelling jobs imaginable. Probably, if you’re burning incense, the smell is the point.
In fact it was a high honor. Zechariah is one of the order of priests who attend the temple, but Luke tells us that the opportunity to enter into the holiest of holies and burn incense was determined by the drawing of lots. Zechariah gets lucky, in what may be the honor of his career to have this one moment of going into this most sacred space and doing this most sacred task which is on one hand to commune with the presence of God and on the other to cover up the terrible smell of rotting carcass and unbathed crowds hovering thick in the air. And so it is at this apex of Zechariah’s priestly life that he approaches the altar to light this incense while the whole throng of people pray outside and while Zechariah bids their prayers ascend towards God as evening sacrifice and then quite to everyone’s shock and horror a messenger from God instead shows up, right there, right in the room.
For Zechariah, this is a terrifying turn of events. We have this story down pat, we know the whole thing — that his wife will bear a son who we know will be John the Baptist, the first beat in a story that leads through Bethlehem to Galilee and back to Jerusalem again before it’s over, we know all the beats. But Zechariah has been taken terribly by surprise. Zechariah is just trying to do his job. Zechariah is just trying to make the temple not smell quite so much like rotting carcass and unbathed crowds. Zechariah is just trying to light the incense. And instead God shows up. God shows up with such powerfully good news, but Zechariah can’t quite do his job and absorb this good news both at the same time. So he runs from the scene. He runs into the crowd. He runs all the way home. But with nobody left to light the incense. Well. I wonder whether the day God came to see Zechariah wasn’t the first day in a long time when the temple just smelled exactly like itself.
This Advent here at UPC we have been preaching our way through the sensory experiences of Christmas: on the primal touch of Elizabeth feeling the baby leap inside her womb, on the bad taste that God has working through a man living on crickets and wild honey. Last week we needed no sermon for the choir to proclaim the gospel to our hearing. But the unique thing about smell, here on this fourth Sunday of Advent, the distinctive thing about smell is how quickly in its regard we can become desensitized. Your car smells like something but you might not notice five seconds after you get in. The same with your living room or your office. If you stand in the kitchen and bake a loaf of bread you might not even notice the smell creeping up on you — but if you walk into the house with bread baking, it will knock you over. It can be the most powerful, evocative, emotional sense we have. And it can disappear so quickly into the background.
Even the big ones. About twenty years ago, after Proctor & Gamble first brought Febreze onto the market, its initial sales were pretty terrible. It was a bit of a surprise — Febreze was this wonder-cleaner that could chemically absorb and remove particles that created bad smells but even though everybody deals with bad smells apparently nobody wanted to buy it. So the marketing department starts doing some research, including some home visits, and the legend goes that they go to visit this woman in Phoenix who gives them a tour of her home, this beautiful, organized, immaculately clean home. And then she opens the door to the living room. Which might as well have been a pet store. There are cats everywhere. Dogs. Cages with guinea pigs and rabbits. And of course the smell that comes with it. One of the researchers starts to physically wretch and gag because of the terrible, terrible smell. And so the researchers ask her — what do you do about the pet smell? And she says, “What pet smell?” And they say, “Do you smell it right now?” And she says, “No, isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all.”
They had this conversation over and over, with customers of all shapes and sizes, with one consistent conclusion. The people who were most in need of Febreze were consistently the ones who did not realize they were most in need of Febreze, which of course explained why their marketing was failing entirely – because nobody identified commercials featuring somebody who could finally get that old smell out of their house. People just become desensitized. Which I think tells us two things about Zechariah and the priests and the people thronging through the Jerusalem temple day in and day out. The first is that of course they can tell a story about incense being a symbol of prayers lifting up towards God, if they’re desensitized enough to the rest of it, they might not even realize what rotting carcass and unbathed crowds will do to a place when it soaks into the walls. But the second is. As soon as that incense stops. As soon as Zechariah runs from his post and the sweet perfume leaves the air. As soon as God shows up and interrupts this ritual masking of the scent underneath. Maybe then the real stench of the place starts to come back into the air. Maybe then the truth starts to come out.
And of course the truth is that the Gospel that follows will take us into some foul-smelling places. The incense cuts out, and the scene shifts, and now Jesus is being born in a manger surrounded by farm animals, and you can only imagine. The incense cuts out, and the scene shifts, and now Jesus is preaching among the outcasts, among the sick, among the lepers, among the unclean, and you can only imagine. The incense cuts out, and the scene shifts, and now Jesus is strung up on the cross, surrounded by criminals, a whole mass of bodies left dying in the midday sun, and you can only imagine. The truth is that this Gospel smells terrible, because it doesn’t just happen in the perfumed halls of the wealthy temple elite. The truth is that the Gospel smells terrible, because it happens in the very sunbaked and exposed places where God’s people live in the most vulnerable conditions. The truth is that the Gospel smells terrible, because it happens in the real world. And the truth is that this Gospel starts by turning off the incense, so that we can all smell that real world just as it is.
So that we can tell the story, just as it is. It might not be the story we’d like. But it is for sure the story we need, a story that happens in the most forgotten places, a story that happens among the marginalized, a story that happens among the outcast, a story that happens among the oppressed, a story that happens at the shelter, a story that happens under the overpass, a story that happens at the detention center, a story that happens in the overnight clinic, a story that happens just across the border. It is the story of Jesus Christ born into a world full of places we might just as soon forget. And yet Christmas is here to remind us. Christmas is here to reveal to us. Christmas is here to tell us the story again, the story of God born for the world which is the story of God born for the whole world which is the story of God born for the whole world just as it is, in all its beauty, in all its brokenness, in all its fragrance, in all its stench. Into such a world. Into only such a world. Into such a world as this. A child is coming. A savior.
I surely hope that your Christmas will come with the sweetest perfume, that it will smell like pine needles or fresh-baked gingerbread or cinnamon and chocolate wafting through the air. I surely hope that it will smell like peppermint and cloves and allspice and all of the rich flavors of joy and health and laughter and abundance. But I also want you to know. That if the day does not feel as beautiful as it should. If the day does not feel as sweet as it should. If the day does not feel as holy as it should. If this Christmas instead comes with the stench of the world around it. If this Christmas instead comes with the stench of desperation or debilitation or despair. If this Christmas instead finds you more in touch with the smell of the unwashed crowd than it does with the sweet perfume of the incense. Just know this. This is the Gospel. Jesus is born into a world full of desperation and debilitation and despair. Jesus is born for a world full of desperation and debilitation and despair. Jesus is born for such a world as this, for such a time as this, for such a mess as this. Jesus was born, after all, among the farm animals. And maybe, just for a moment. Maybe they hardly smell at all.
Thanks be to God.
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