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Nov 30 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

November 28, 2010

[Zecharias] was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. Luke 1:9-10 (read verses 5-25)

INTRO: Last week, we stood in the threshold, now we cross it

No sooner do we enter the story than we’re swept into the temple–a place that was designed to create a sense of heaven on earth (Heb. 8:4-5; 9:23-24)
– it defined sacred space–a bridge on which heaven and earth meet
– a place of encounter
Where Zacharias walks is especially sacred, “the holy place” – only priests were allowed to enter this room
– this will be a once in a lifetime experience for him
– he collects the incense and takes coals from altar of sacrifice and enters the holy place
Everything he touches and everything around him is sacred

Incense was a tradition of Israel’s religion from ancient times (Ex.  30:7-8, “perfume, work of a perfumer”)
– it was burned every morning and evening, and then also on the Day of Atonement
– at that time, the high priest raised such a cloud of smoke from the incense that he could not see (Le. 16:13)
– so incense was used to symbolize Israel’s connection with God, but also to obscure their vision of God–reminding them to keep a safe distance from his holiness

Luke ushers us into the physical space of the temple, but he also takes us into psychological space
– the personal space of a man and a woman – Zacharias and Elizabeth
– Zacharias moves through sacred space because he is a child (of a priest and a descendant of the clan of priests, to which his wife also belongs)
– Zacharias is qualified to be there because he is a child, yet he has no children of his own

Suddenly, to the right of the altar, an angel appeared (for angels, prayers and incense see Rev. 5:8; 8:3)
– this is a type-scene (recurring events in the lives of different people that follow a pattern or formula)
– the type-scene of an angelic visitation usually includes:

  • the angel’s sudden appearance
  • the terror struck in the heart of the person who sees the angel
  • the angel’s reassurance, “Do not be afraid”
  • the angel delivers a message (both the Hebrew and Greek words for angel means “messenger”)
  • and sometimes the angel provides the person with a “sign” (Jgs. 13:19-20; Lk. 2:12)

– the angel’s promise stretches Zacharias’ credulity to the breaking point
– if we are familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, we cannot help but see similarities between the Abraham/Sarah story and the Zacharias/Elizabeth story
– is Luke trying to show us a major transition from God’s earlier work to his new work?
– is he narrating the beginning of a new Israel?

My BIG IDEA: Make your prayers like incense

One of the frequently asked questions regarding prayer:

“If God already knows what we need, why pray?”
– famous theologians have proposed answers

Thomas Aquinas:
But it is not necessary for us to set forth our petitions before God in order to make known to Him our needs or desires, but rather that we ourselves may realize that in these things it is needful to have recourse to the Divine assistance.

St. Augustine:
Yet the very giving ourselves to prayer has the effect of soothing our minds and purifying them; it makes us more fit to receive the Divine gifts which are spiritually poured out upon us.

I think these explanations miss the point

  1. Augustine’s answer suggests that the benefits of prayer are psychological
    – we hear this a lot from researchers today who do not even believe in God; namely, that the value of prayer is that it helps soothe a person’s anxieties and calms his mind
  2. Aquinas also suggests that the value of prayer is what it does for us
    – neither of them argue that prayers reach God and by touching his heart effect a change in our world
    – they are guarding a Greek conception of deity in which the Supreme Being is absolutely sovereign, has everything planned and under control, and makes no concessions to humans
    – this is obviously very different from the revelation of the Hebrew Scriptures, in which we see a God who cares and is moved by the plight of his people and who does respond (even “relents”) when they pray
    – in whatever way we work this out theologically, it is obvious that Jesus taught us to pray with the conviction that God will hear us, respond to us, and act in the world according to our petitions

But even God’s answers are not the point or the heart of prayer

The heart of prayer is that, whatever motivates prayer, whatever its topic or its goal, something transpires between the soul and God
– communication is a necessary bridge in the formation of relationships
– communication is the glue of relationships

We pray because we need to be constantly interacting with our God

Incense symbolizes prayer’s spiritual nature

In the four gospels, two of them contain birth narratives of Jesus and incense is present in both of them
– is it significant that when the magi worshiped Jesus they presented him frankincense?
– incense symbolically carries worship upward

Wispy smoke twists, curls and rises according to its own rules
– you cannot discern an obvious pattern or rhythm to it
– it also disappears “into thin air”
– the smoke of incense symbolically moves from our world into God’s

May my prayer be counted as incense before You;
The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice
(Ps. 141:2)

The symbolism of incense includes

  • Fire
    – transforms what goes into it (turns incense into smoke)
  • Fragrance
    – when I visit the hermitage and get up at 5:00 for vigils and walk to the chapel, the fragrance of incense instantly brings me to an awareness of God
    – animals become aware of the presence of others by their sense of smell
    – our olfactory sense can serve us in a similar way
    The truth of the matter: incense is for us–it does something in us, to us and for us
    – it is not only for God’s sake, or its symbolic value, or to give a tangible representation to prayer
    – it awakens something in the worshiper; it makes use of olfactory memory to bring God’s nearness to consciousness
  • Smoke
    – the idea of it floating upward is useful in reminding us to turn our gaze upward in prayer
    – when we are anxious about some worldly thing, we pray to get relief. But sometimes as we pray about the worldly thing, we become preoccupied with it. Rather than our prayer bringing relief, it becomes another form of rumination that keeps us anxious or depressed
    – the prayer that brings relief–that really works–is that which turns our whole attention on God

To You I lift up my eyes,
O You who are enthroned in the heavens
(Ps. 123:1)

– this is an orientation in which God becomes everything, and when seen in this perspective, worldly things become nothing more than what is needed to sustain our journey to him
– this is what Jesus meant by “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Mt. 6:33)
– not, as the first act of the day and then spend the rest of it preoccupied with everything else, but first above everything else and in everything we do

Will lighting incense enhance our prayers?

Possibly, but that’s not the point–the point is to become alive and awake to God

Thursday I found myself meditating on a passage from the prophecy of Amos:

Spare me the din of your chanting,
let me hear none of your strumming on lyres,
but let justice flow like water,
and uprightness like a never-failing stream.
Amos 5:23-24 (NJB)

Sacrifice was the tradition of Israels worship and it was meaningful in its time–the focal point of Israel’s interaction with God. In time, however, it was deprived of its ability to inspire reverence or carry the burden of mediation. The fault lay in the priests and the people.
Music was the (davidic) innovation that brought renewal to sacrificial worship. It added depth and beauty to the ritual. More importantly, it gave the people a greater participation in the ritual. In its time, it breathed newness into Israel’s life before God.
Nevertheless, worship eventually degenerated to such a degree that there was no more hope for renewal or restoration. Offerings were unacceptable to God and he no longer wanted to hear “the din” of Israel’s singing and music (Amos 5:21-23).
Amos had a song, however. It was a dirge that invited others to lamentation, mourning and wailing (5:1, 16-17).
Contemporary Christian worship has brought renewal to older traditions that were effective expressions of worship in their time. As in the case of Israel, it has not been for any flaw in the forms that Christian worship sometimes goes bad. It is the inability of the people to sustain their focus on Yahweh and maintain the freshness of spirit that keeps forms meaningful. Now that contemporary worship has become such a strong force in Evangelical and Charismatic churches–especially in regard to the youth–, it seems impossible that God would ever want to put an end to it.
But contemporary worship has also become an industry, a commodity, a show, and an event that too easily hypes the emotions without engaging the heart. More seriously, it too easily separates itself from our behavior in the world.
When our worship fails, what is our recourse? Further innovation? A time comes when innovations is merely building additions to a burning house. When worship is beyond salvaging, we need to turn our attention to the worshiper. It has always been about the one who brings the offering and not the offering. The acceptable sacrifice is that which is offered by the acceptable person. The quality of our worship can never rise any higher than the quality of our lives and spirituality. Raising the temperature of our devotion during an hour of worship cannot counteract all the other hours of forgetfulness–or worse (Amos 8:5-6)–during the week.
The underlying problem addressed in Amos chapter 5, which is the problem that ruined Israel’s worship, was both social and personal. In society it was the disappearance of justice and in personal interactions the disappearance of righteous (Amos 5:7, 10, 12, 15, 24). That is why God’s denunciation of worship finds a resolve in justice and righteousness (v. 24).
How to recover and improve righteousness: Refuse to practice or support the practice of oppression and exploitation, of cheating and fraud, of greed over truth and personal gain over compassion (vv. 11-12, etc.). Help the poor and the upright.

When Helmut Thielicke was visiting Hong Kong, be became distressed over the coolies pulling rickshaws in that “murderous heat.” Europeans living there presented arguments to justify why it was alright that one human should labor and another enjoy the fruit of that labor. He said:

“But it is curious that all these arguments do not help me get over the shock it gave me . . . . For the crucial point, it seems to me, is a certain symbolical implication: here one human being pulls another through the streets. The one who pulls is obliged to run and tug like a draft horse or a motor–like an animal, therefore, or a thing. The one who is being pulled, however, lies back comfortably on the cushion. The one endures the heat in a far more intensified form in order that the other may feel it less and rest quietly beneath the sunshade.”

Soren Kierkegaard compared the differences between people (the privileged and underprivileged, the high and low) to people in a play:

 “But when the curtain falls on the stage, then the one who played the king and the one who played the beggar, and so on severally, they are all much alike, all one and the same: actors. . . . the differences of life are only like the player’s costumes . . . which everyone ought to take care of and see that the strings with which this overgarment is fastened are loosely tied, and particularly not in hard knots, so that when the time comes to change, it may easily be thrown off.”

(This is precisely the ministry that John the Baptist will undertake later on in Luke’s gospel)

CONC: A word of encouragement

Yes, it is true that our lives must demonstrate the sincerity of our heart’s devotion to God for our prayers to be like incense–meaningful, worshipful, and acceptable to God
– however, we do not have to be perfect for our prayers to be like incense
– Zacharias was not perfect and therefore the sign he received from the angel was also a punishment for his doubt
– nevertheless, he was a good man (v. 6), he just found it difficult to believe
– in spite of his skepticism, his petition had been heard (v. 13) and he and his wife received God’s blessing

We do not have to be perfect, our faith does not have to be relentlessly solid, and it is not likely that we will never again commit another sin
– but, as long as the course of our life is headed in God’s direction, we can offer prayers like incense
– we can lift our eyes (awareness) upward to God, present ourselves to him exactly as we are, and with a willing heart, hear and receive whatever he has to say

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