I preached this sermon on 19 June 2022 at my home church, Becontree Avenue Baptist Church.
The Bible reading was Luke 7: 36 -50
36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. 39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. 41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. 44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46s24 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
So how do you smell?
You might be sitting saying to yourself “How dare he? I have a bath twice a year whether I need it or not!”
Or maybe you think this is not a suitable subject for a Sunday morning but the Bible talks about smells both the pleasant and the unpleasant.
Do you have a favourite smell?
For some its food being it freshly baked bread or walking past the take away. Other people love the smell of flowers or the outdoors.
It was popular some years ago for estate agents to suggest to people trying to sell their home, to have freshly baked bread in the kitchen together with a jug of freshly brewed coffee. The theory was that the prospective purchasers would feel at home as they walked around the house.
There again there are unpleasant smells and they seem to be associated with decay and death. Just think of opening the fridge having forgotten to empty it before you went on holiday! Mind you I remember that at my primary school the all-pervading smell from morning break time onwards was a strange mixture of over boiled cabbage and washing powder. Thank goodness I went home for lunch!
In parts of Asia the durian fruit is banded on public transport. Whilst it tastes really good, its smell is described as “…turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away.”
Many flowers have lovely smells such as lavender, lily of the valley, honey suckle and roses. However you certainly wouldn’t want to sniff the Corpse flower! The flower spike is about 10 feet tall, but is smells like rotting meat and attracts flies and beetles to pollinate it.
When it comes to people have you noticed that some folk’s lives stink and they are the people who seem dishonest, corrupt, or just plain evil.
Business and politics seem to have many questionable decisions made and actions taken, and we think “that stinks” when we hear about the dodgy deals.
Greg Venables, (a former colleague of mine who was until 2020 the Anglican Archbishop of South America) maintained that he could smell evil. He knew by the smell if someone was into the occult or witchcraft.
Let’s look at good smelling fragrances.
In the Old Testament from the earliest days, people burnt incense to God as an offering.
Indeedthe Lord instructs Moses on the ingredients to be used and how it is to be used: Exodus 30 v34 “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices–gum resin, onycha and galbanum–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. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the LORD.”
The smoke from the burning incense was thought to represent the prayers of the people raising up to God. In Psalm 141 David asks God: “O LORD, I call to you; come quickly to me. Hear my voice when I call to you. May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.”
In Revelation, incense is related to the prayers of the saints:
Revelation 5 v 8 “And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
Revelations 8 v3 “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.”
In Bible times frankincense the main ingredient of incense was very expensive. It comes from the sap of Boswellia tree grown in the south of Saudi Arabia. It was at one time worth more than its weight in gold.
As we know, Frankincense was one of the gifts given to Jesus by the Wisemen, an acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity.
Some churches still use incense today. The church I grew up in, was a “smells and bells” Anglican church and at least for me as a young choir boy the ritual provided some amusement such as the time the incense burner or “thurible” had been cleaned but not all the inflammable metal polish removed. In the middle of the service, it became more like a flame thrower as three-foot-high flames came out of it and threatened to set light to the robes of the man carrying it!
But we can read in the Bible that offering the incense, making the sacrifices and going through the rituals is not necessarily pleasing to God. The prophets were constantly reminding people that if their attitudes stank no amount of ritual would put them right with God whatever they may think. In Isaiah 1 v 13 – 17” Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me.” Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
Let’s be honest, if we don’t bother to wash or shower and just throw some “smellies” on, people will still notice that we smell! Back in Elizabethan days people didn’t wash or bathe very often or not at all. They thought that dousing themselves in perfume would do the trick.
Maybe you remember the old TV advert for Lifebouy soap with the strap line “What your best friend won’t tell you. B O!”
In the New Testament Paul realised the futility of ritual and religious observance. They could n’t get you clean from your sin. Only coming to Jesus would clean up your life and take away the smell of sin. In Romans 7 v24 we read “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” In one ancient civilisation, a murderer’s punishment was to have the body of his dead victim tied to him so where ever he went he was reminded of his crime by not only the weight of the corpse but also the smell!
Strangely enough our sins do don’t go away simply by the passage of time. They are not biodegradable like supermarket carrier bags. They are with us like Paul’s “body of death” until we either die and face our judgement or we come to Jesus to have them dealt with.
Sadly some people don’t realise that to God they don’t smell nice. They may be at every church meeting there is, do all sorts of good works, often making sure everyone knows it, do all sorts of religious things and yet they haven’t asked Jesus to be their saviour and clean them from their sins.
There is a wonderful passage in 1 Corinthians 6:9 – 11 which not only lists the condition that many of us were in but also, thank God, gives us the cure: “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God..”
As the woman in our passage from Luke discovered it is only in coming to Jesus in repentance that we can have our sins forgiven and our lives cleaned up so that we no longer stink. And as far as God is concerned our lives have a beautiful fragrance to them just as the woman in the story released the fragrant perfume from the flask.
We do however have to remember that to those who have not come to Jesus we as Christians proclaiming the good news remind them of how they smell. In Corinthians 2 v15 we read in the Message: “Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation – an aroma redolent with life. But those on the way to destruction treat us more like the stench from a rotting corpse.”
So how do you smell today?
Do you live your life for Jesus as a beautiful fragrant sacrifice? or are you like Simon the Pharisee steeped in religious rules and regulations and full of self-righteousness at the sin of others?
Do your prayers rise to God like the smoke of this incense?
Jesus is still in the business of forgiving sins and giving new life to those who are dead in their sins.
Only he can change the stench of death into the aroma of life.