An Aroma Pleasing to God

Every once in a while, something I read in the Bible jumps off the page at me. When this happens, I’ve learned to listen up, because chances are, God has something He wants to tell me.

Like last week. I was reading Genesis and came to the part where Noah gets off the ark and immediately builds an altar to the Lord. He took one of every kind of clean animal and every kind of clean bird (how many must that have been? I’m thinking it was quite a few animals!) and sacrificed them as burnt offerings to the Lord. As the smoke rose toward heaven, it was to the Lord a “pleasing aroma” (8:21). Some Bible translations say a “soothing aroma.” That’s the part that caught my attention: The Lord, though He is Spirit, somehow smelled that offering and, incredibly, it brought Him pleasure.

Yes, I know that, lacking a nose, God probably didn’t smell that offering literally. So that description was probably an anthropomorphism (like the fancy word?). But that’s not what fascinated me. What fascinated me was that there was something Noah could do that, even after all the terrible judgment of the flood, brought God pleasure. It even “soothed” God somehow. How could that possibly be?

Still pondering this a few days later, I decided to look for other places in Scripture where God enjoyed a pleasing aroma, or where people made offerings to the Lord that brought Him pleasure. I discovered that among the many offerings required by Levitical law several ones specifically produced pleasing aromas to the Lord. These included offerings for atonement, for consecration, to fulfill vows, ones offered at appointed festivals, and those made as an act of freewill. However, none of this seemed to help me much.

“But how can I provide a pleasing aroma to You, Lord? We don’t do sacrifices anymore.”

I’m glad you asked, He seemed to say. Don’t worry so much about what the occasion of the offering. Look at the offering itself.

No Holding Back

So I did. And I noticed a lot. First, I observed that the entire animal was sacrificed. Not just the fat. Not just the innards. Not just a hind quarter. The entire thing. Its meat was not eaten because the animal was completely burnt up. All of it belonged to the Lord. Nothing was held back for the person who offered it.

A Costly Sacrifice

I then recalled that in that culture, meat was expensive, served rarely, and usually just for special occasions. To sacrifice an entire goat or cow was truly a sacrifice. It was costly. It could no longer breed. It could no longer give milk. It could not feed or profit the family.

Only the Best

I also noticed that the animal was to be perfect and in its prime. It was to have no blemishes whatsoever. Only the best for God—no second-rate offerings for Him.

Frequent and Many

Finally, I noticed that there were a lot of these sacrifices. For sin. For giving thanks. For worship. For celebration. In the Old Testament, it seems like every time you turn the page, someone is sacrificing an animal, or more commonly, a bunch of animals, to God.

My thoughts then turned naturally to Jesus. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. The best. The Lamb without blemish or defect. He gave Himself up entirely for us. He held back nothing. For the Father to sacrifice His Son cost Him everything. Truly, we were ransomed “not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.”

What must God have felt when the aroma of that offering, the sacrifice of His precious only Son on the cross, wafted to heaven? When I try to imagine that, I am moved to tears. And I want to return thanks.

“How, Father?” I asked. “Compared to Jesus’ offering, what could I possibly give You? What could I give that would be a pleasing or soothing aroma to You?”

And He brought to mind Ephesians 5:2: “Be imitators of God as beloved children and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Amazing. It seems that my fragrant offering is as simple—and as difficult—as that. It all boils down to love. It’s giving up my whole self, in love and sacrifice to God and others. A living sacrifice. God finds pleasure in that.

I am challenged by this. Sure, I love God. And yes, I love people, too. But not the way Jesus does! I withhold. I save back something for myself. Sometimes I’m reluctant to give my all, or to give my best. My offerings are often blemished by self-protection and pride.

So, in this Lenten season, I’m talking with God about these things. Thanking Him for giving Jesus as the perfect, complete, costly, once-for-all sacrifice. And asking Him to help me offer Him a gift of love that, like Jesus, is a fragrant offering to Him. And, incredibly, I believe that even that intention of my heart is pleasing to Him.

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Better with Friends

I’d been praying about a certain logistical matter for many days. In order to move forward with an assignment the Lord had given me, I needed help from someone else. But that help wasn’t coming. I’d prayed about it a lot—but nothing was happening. Still, it didn’t seem like a Big Deal prayer request to me. It was one that I should pray about on my own—not the kind you share with a bunch of other people. Or that’s what I thought, anyhow.

But, as I said, nothing was happening. And with that specific door shut, I couldn’t move forward in what the Lord had indicated I was supposed to move forward in. Weeks later, that door still wasn’t budging. So I kept on praying.

Then, this past Sunday night, when I was meeting with my home group, God surprised me. Ask them to pray with you about what you need He seemed to be saying.

Really? I hadn’t expected that. When it’s time to pray in home group,  I ordinarily share mostly Big Deal prayer requests.  My need seemed too small to bother others with. Surely God would bring it about eventually without me making a Big Deal of it.

But God’s nudging in my spirit continued. So when it was my turn to share requests, I asked my friends to pray with me about my small but necessary logistical matter. And they did. There was no earthquake, no bright lights, nothing special. But it was nice to have friends praying with me.

I went home that night and didn’t give it a second thought. But the next day, before lunch, I got word that the person I needed help from had come through!  For nearly six weeks I’d been praying and nothing happened. But less than 24 hours after my friends prayed with me, God’s answer came!  I barely was able to keep from doing a happy dance right there at work.

Jesus said, “that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:19). So someone might wonder: Did God wait to answer my prayer until I got the right number of people praying on the same page with me?

I’m reluctant to say that. From what God has shared with me about Himself, He hates being put into boxes. He hates being reduced to formulas. He wants relationship with us because He loves us and longs for us to love Him back. Prayer is a means to deeper relationship with Him; it is not intended primarily as a means of getting God to do stuff for us.

So what was going on, then? Why did God not seem to answer my prayer request when I prayed it on my own, but answered it so quickly once I’d enlisted prayer partners?

I’m not sure, but I wonder if it was simply because He wanted to encourage us as a home group. We all want to grow in our relationships with God through prayer. We all want Him to increase our faith. When I kept my “little” prayer requests private, no one else was able to participate with me in the asking, and no one else could celebrate with me when God gave the answers. God made us to be a body, and He seems to love to see us seeking Him and enjoying Him together.

Please don’t hear me saying that if God isn’t answering your prayers, you need to enlist a bunch of other people with you so He will. Please don’t make a formula out of my story. However, please do consider inviting friends to join you in prayer about matters both big and small. You never know what all God might be up to—and if you invite others to join you, that’s all the more people who can enjoy seeing God at work. You never know what He might do!

Got Joy?

My friend and I started intentionally including more thanksgiving in our prayers a few months ago. We got the idea from Ann Voskamp in her book One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp’s premise is that when we receive God’s grace with thanksgiving, we experience joy. I knew that too often I take God’s lavish gifts for granted, and I wanted to show Him more gratitude. And who couldn’t use more joy? My friend felt similarly, so we bought each other pretty new journals, and took Voskamp’s challenge.

On our own, quietly, we asked God to help us be more observant. What were those everyday graces we were overlooking? Voskamp sees them in simple things like shaved cheese and soapy dishwater. I don’t see the world as poetically as she does. Still, when I asked God to help me live in the present more, to be more fully aware of His tangible demonstrations of care, I was surprised by what I started to see. Here are a few of the things I recorded in my journal.

  • An unscheduled Sunday
  • Dark roast French-pressed coffee
  • Central heating
  • An elk sighting
  • Sandpaper kisses from a cat
  • Snow tires!
  • A room with a view
  • Thai coconut peanut sauce
  • Young people who want to change the world
  • Joy in worship
  • A friend’s visit at just the right time
  • Heart conversation with my son
  • Specific answered prayer
  • A thoughtful neighbor
  • Les Mis and dinner with a friend
  • The breadth and beauty of the body of Christ
  • Special traditions
  • Fresh snow
  • Kindness from a stranger
  • Bleach that removes coffee stains from white shirts
  • Forgiveness that removes sin-stains from my heart
  • Inspiration
  • Belly laughs

As I wrote down each of those gifts, I thanked God for them, and I felt His pleasure—the same kind of pleasure I feel when a loved one enjoys a carefully chosen gift from me. Ah, so that’s the joy Voskamp is talking about, I thought.

But as it turns out, there was still more joy to come.

My gratitude-journaling friend and I often pray together—usually about pretty heavy issues. We had planned to get together last week to pray about yet another heavy issue when God gave me an idea. “Why don’t we bring our gratitude journals tonight?”

We did. Instead of praying about the hard stuff we’d planned to pray about, we shared our records of thanksgiving. And as we read them to each other, I realized the truth of the proverb, “A joy shared is a joy doubled.” Somehow, hearing all of God’s goodness to my friend over the past few months made me almost giddy. And getting to share mine with her, deeply encouraged my heart.

Need joy? Need a faith-builder in a season of heavy intercession? Consider taking the challenge with me: Count blessings. Ask God to make you alert to the gifts He lavishes on you each day. Thank Him for them. Enjoy His pleasure as you receive them. And if you want to double that joy, share the experience with a friend. You are pretty much guaranteed to bring joy to God, your friend, and yourself!

May I Have Your Attention?

There are lots of ways the Lord speaks to us—through His Word, through His Spirit, through creation, through songs and hymns, through sermons and books, through circumstances, and often through a combination of these.

One of the ways He can really get my attention is when He says the same thing in a bunch of different ways through a bunch of different sources. You probably know what I mean—you hear something on Christian radio, and it resonates. Your pastor preaches about it on Sunday. Your friend emails you an article he “thought you might be interested in,” and you open your Bible, and there it is again.

Well, that’s happening to me. I think God has to use the sideways approach with me on this one because it’s a topic I am not really begging Him to talk to me about—suffering and brokenness. But He wants me to hear, and He has His ways of getting my ear. Rather than try to describe it to you, I’ll just quote some of the things He’s been saying to me through others.

Through Sinclair Ferguson in his book, A Heart for God:

“[God] is for us and therefore, ultimately, none of our difficult circumstances can be against us. . . . We may think that severity is inconsistent with what we know of God’s gentleness and compassion. But that is because we do not understand how seriously God loves us, and how determined He is that we should have His best, even if it means pain. . . . Beginning with the fact that God works everything together for our good in accordance with His purpose, we could reflect on what His purpose is, and on the different way He seems to be bringing it to pass in our lives” (pages 134, 135, 141).

Through Pastor Matt Heard of Woodmen Valley Chapel (message given in Colorado Springs on January 31, 2013):

“Courage finds its context in the presence of fear—otherwise there is no need for courage. . . . The beauty of the gospel is its resilience in the face of [a broken and fallen world].”

Through a study in Ephesians by Community Bible Study:

“The Greek word for bear with means to endure or to put up with, which seems like a very unglamorous virtue, but a virtue it is. Like a muscle that must be exercised to make it strong, ‘bearing with one another in love’ thrives on a good workout. . . . It might be said that difficult relationships or situations are the essential ingredient—the very building material—that God uses to build the character of His children” (page 90).

Through Henri Nouwen in his book, Life of the Beloved:

“The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it. . . .

Physical, mental, or emotional pain lived under the blessing [of being God’s beloved] is experienced in ways radically different from physical, mental, or emotional pain lived under the curse. Even a small burden, perceived as a sign of our worthlessness, can lead us to deep depression. However, great and heavy burdens become light and easy when they are lived in the light of blessing.

What seemed intolerable becomes a challenge. What seemed a reason for depression becomes a source of purification. What seemed punishment because a gentle pruning. What seemed rejection becomes a way to deeper communion. And so the great task become that of allowing the blessing to touch is in our brokenness. Then our brokenness will gradually come to be seen as an opening toward the full acceptance of ourselves to the beloved. This explains why true joy can be experienced in the midst of great suffering . . . the beloved can experience suffering as a way to the deeper community for which they yearn” (pages 96, 97, 98, 99).

Through Jesus:

“‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world’” (John 16:33).

Do you see what I mean? I suppose there might be at least two possible take aways from this post. First, if you are struggling in some painful circumstance, maybe God will use something I’ve quoted here to encourage you to find blessing even in the brokenness. Second, if you’re not experiencing anything hard right, now, maybe this will just be a reminder to keep your ears open. If you keep hearing the same message over and over again, that just might be God trying to get your attention.