“And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Matt. 2:11
“When anyone brings a grain offering as an offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour. He shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it and bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests. And he shall take from it a handful of the fine flour and oil, with all of its frankincense, and the priest shall burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” Lev. 2:1-2
There has been a lot of talk about incense recently. Probably due to yesterday being the Feast of Our Lord’s Epiphany (one of the magi’s gifts being frankincense and all). Unfortunately, all the discussions I hear about incense seem to be missing something. They seem to be missing the gift!
There are a slew of people who can’t stand the smell of incense. Just the sight of a thurible can send them into a mad fit of coughing. Perhaps, that is because they associate all smoke with the smell of not-so-good smelling smoke. Perhaps they have better reasons. On the other side, there are people who use entirely too much incense for the space and ventilation of the area they are burning it in. That’s not very helpful and could send many more people into fits of coughing.
Let’s put all of that aside and assume that everyone can sit in a sanctuary where at least a very little incense was burned before a service or during the singing of Psalm 141. Now what? Why use incense?
Before I go on, you should know that I love incense. A couple years ago, I was talking with a friend and found out that an organist, who couldn’t stand incense, was the reason we didn’t have incense at one of the evening services we both attended. To which I responded, “I hate people!” (I haven’t been able to live that one down yet.) I knew that I liked incense but I wouldn’t have been able to give you a good answer as to why. I probably would have said the same things that many incense advocates say now. “Shouldn’t church smell like church?” “It visualizes our prayer before God” “It’s biblical. The Psalms say, ‘Let my prayer rise before You as incense.’” “People just don’t like it because they think it’s too Roman Catholic.” Not that any of those are completely terrible answers, I suppose. They just still don’t get to the gift of incense.
Then, a couple months ago I heard someone say, “If you ask someone why they like incense in worship and their answer has nothing to do with Jesus, they’re probably better of without it.” That’s what I was missing! Jesus! That has been sitting in the back of my mind since then. Sometimes, I even thought that I was better off without it. I just liked incense for incense sake. I thought that’s how the liturgy was REALLY suppose to be done! There’s no gift there. No gift at all.
Then comes Epiphany. (You could say that I had and epiphany on Epiphany). The magi bring Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We always hear a lot about the gold and myrrh – how they are fitting gifts. I just don’t remember ever hearing much about the frankincense. (It is perfectly possible that I just wasn’t listening.) The gift of frankincense.
What was frankincense used for? It was used with sacrifices to make the aroma pleasing to the Lord! My Hebrew knowing, pastor, friends tell me that in the Old Testament when God was angry the text literally talks about His nose burning. The incense was meant to soothe the nose of God so that the Israelites might be in his favor once again.
Now, it probably isn’t so hard to see the gift of incense. The magi give frankincense to Jesus pointing us to why he was born in the first place. Born to be the ultimate sacrifice, the final sacrifice for them, and for you! So, now? Now, it serves as a reminder to us while pointing to Jesus. The gift of incense is that it reminds us that God is angry no more. Incense proclaims that there was a sacrifice who’s aroma was pleasing to God. Jesus, on the cross, taking upon Himself the sin of the world, for you! No longer will God’s nose burn against you. Jesus has taken up all the anger having it focused on Himself, so that you may have forgiveness and everlasting life!
That’s the gift of incense. Always pointing to Jesus, whether we like it or not.