The Smells of Christmas
It’s Christmas time. One of the things that everyone experiences at this time of
year is the smells of Christmas. Cookies. Turkey or ham. Pumpkin pies.
Cinnamon. Pine trees.
I’ve been remembering smells lately. I found some candies recently that remind
me of my grandmother. She always smelled like those candies. I found the
perfume my mom wore. Standing there in the perfume aisle of a store I took a
whiff and was taken back in time to when she was still alive.
Aren’t scents powerful? Smells are powerful and God uses them.
Over 2000 years ago a young woman in her teens, a virgin, gave birth to a baby
and then placed him in a manger. We all know that true story. What was that like
for her? What did she and Joseph smell in that b arn?
I’ve been in a few barns…..the hay smells earthy and sweet. There is a musky,
dusty smell sometimes. Then there are smells that aren’t so lovely to most
people. Animal smells. Real life smells.
God the Father chose to bring Jesus into a place dominated by real life smells.
And this was how Jesus, Emmanuel, (God with us) was going to be in His 33
years on the earth: real.
Some time after His birth, we are told in Matthew 2 that wise men came to visit
Joseph and Mary with gifts for Jesus.
“And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with
Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had
opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense,
and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)
The Magi represented other nations worshipping Jesus. Someday everyone will
Speaking of Jesus, Paul says: “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him
and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of
Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth,
and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
EVERY knee will bow; EVERY tongue will confess.
They gave gifts to Jesus. One is gold. Two are fragrances. Did you ever wonder
what these were for?
I believe there is a principle regarding God and His people that we should always
keep in mind: He ALWAYS provides what we need before we need it. He is a
pro-active and preparatory God. This is how the Creation unfolded: first dirt, then
light, then grass and then cows.
The gold was provided by God through the Magi to fund the first major road trip
Jesus ever took.
“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to
Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother,
flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the
young Child to destroy Him.’ When he arose, he took the young Child and
His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death
of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through
the prophet, saying, ‘OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.’”
So here we have the King of the Universe born in a barn to a working class
family that lives in an out of the way place in the middle of nowhere and born
under the threat of death. So they flee. It doesn’t seem very victorious, does it?
(HIS victory would come 33 years later.)
The Magi gave them gold and this was most likely used to finance their trip to
Egypt, at least until Joseph could find work there for his family. What else did
they give? Frankincense and myrrh. Have you ever really looked into what
frankincense and myrrh are?
Frankincense is tapped from the scraggly but hardy trees by slashing the bark,
which is called striping, and allowing the exuded resin to bleed out and harden.
These hardened resins are called tears.
According to Holman’s Bible Dictionary, frankincense was an ingredient used in
making the perfume for the most holy place in the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:34)
and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was burned in the incense altar to
sweeten the odor of burnt up sacrifices.
That is sobering to me.
Myrrh is harvested in the way frankincense is: the bark (or flesh) of a tree is cut
open and the resin that bleeds out is collected. It has no scent. Then it is dried. It
still has no smell; however, when myrrh is crushed it has the scent that we know
as the perfume myrrh.
Myrrh has been used as an ingredient in anointing oil that has had many uses.
The one that I believe is most telling is that it was often used to embalm bodies
So, let’s think about this from Mary’s perspective. She is an unmarried virgin that
many people think was 14 or so when her first baby was born. Her child is born in
very humble circumstances (in a smelly barn) away from her home. Strangers
come, worship her son and leave gold (a gift for a king), frankincense (a perfume
used in the Holy of Holies – where the atoning sacrifice was made once a year
on behalf of all Jews) and myrrh: a burial spice.
She may or may not have known how these spices were made but I would
imagine that, as a Jew, she was familiar with this verse about the Messiah:
“But He was pierced through (like the frankincense tree) for our
transgressions, he was crushed (like myrrh) for our iniquities; the
chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are
healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
This verse was written about her son. A king. A sacrifice. A death.
Mary knew from early on in her pregnancy that her son was to be a King (God
would give him the throne of David.)
“Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found
favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring
forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be
called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of
His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of
His kingdom there will be no end.’” (Luke 1:30-33)
Did she know He was to be associated with a sacrifice….to be a sacrifice? Did
she know that He came here to die – to die in her place….to die in my place….
in your place?
Soon after receiving frankincense, gold and myrrh as gifts for her baby she and
Joseph, taking heed of an angel’s message to him in a dream, set out for Egypt
because satan had touched a man’s heart to do what satan loves most: to kill.
What is it like to flee for your baby’s life and while doing that, you know you are
carrying burial spices given to you by strangers that had come and worshipped
God has always associated these things together: gold, sacrifice and death. The
Tabernacle had all three. Later, the Temple would have them too.
Have you ever considered that the birth of Jesus was just one part of a process
that is still going on to this day? I want to quickly paint us a mosaic with words
showing some of the big picture.
In the Garden of Eden God instituted the first sacrifice: killing an animal to clothe
man because of his sin. This began a system of sacrifice all because of man’s
sin. Later, the Tabernacle was built as a mobile Temple in which sacrifices were
made – because of man’s sin.
When the Chosen People were settled in Jerusalem, the Temple (a permanent
Tabernacle) was built – a single geographical spot on the earth where sacrifices
were offered to God…because of man’s sin.
While that Temple still stood, the writer of Hebrews wrote that “every priest
stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which
can never take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:11) Those sacrifices never took away
sin but they were offered because God commanded that something precious had
to die…because of man’s sin.
When the time was right, Jesus was born. He lived and when the time was
perfect, He died. The writer of Hebrews continues in Hebrews 10:12 and 14 as
he says that after Jesus “had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, He sat
down at the right hand of God” and that “by one offering He has perfected
forever those who are being sanctified.”
This sacrifice, God giving Himself up because of man’s sin, took away man’s sin.
Every sacrifice up to that time led up to this one. Every one of them was a
shadow of the real thing. None of them had the power and significance of the
Ultimate Sacrifice – the death of Jesus; yet, each was precious to God. Those
animals were killed and then the bodies burned away. The scent of a sacrifice is
said to be precious to God.
In Genesis 8:21, when Noah offers sacrifice we are told it was a soothing aroma
to God. “Soothing” is a Hebrew word that means “restful, pleasant, delightful.”
Over and over again we see that when something precious is given completely to
God, this is a sweet aroma to God. It smells good to Him.
Why is this? Why would the smell of an animal killed and being burned away
smell so good to God? It’s because of what it means to Him: that someone is
devoted enough to God to obey Him, give their best and allow Him to use it all up
– just because of the relationship between him and God.
What does all this have to do with us….here….now?
I said earlier that the birth of Jesus was just one part of a process that is still
going on to this day, a process that involves us. I spoke of the sacrifices…how
they went from being on a flat rock somewhere to being performed in the
Tabernacle (a mobile temple) and then to being performed in a single place on
the earth: the Temple in Jerusalem.
In A.D. 70 that Temple was completely destroyed. Why? It was no longer needed
and not just because Jesus had become the ultimate sacrifice for man’s sin.
The Temple has been replaced. It’s been replaced with billions of walking, talking
temples of the Holy Spirit. It has been replaced by the hearts of Christians – you
“Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is
in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?”
(1 Corinthians 6:19)
And what happens in those temples? The same thing that happened in the
Temple on Temple Mount in Jerusalem: sacrifices, but with a difference.
These sacrifices are not to atone for man’s sin. God wants our heart sacrifices to
be because our sins have already been completely washed away – for good!
These sacrifices aren’t a way for us to play catch up with God’s holiness or to
earn His approval or to pay Him back for all He is and has done for us. None of
those things are possible. These sacrifices are also not to be mere habitual,
routine spiritual events.
THESE sacrifices are designed to be a way of living that reflect thanksgiving to
God for all He has done. They are to be a celebration of His touch on our lives.
They are to be you and me….naturally and fully giving our most precious thing:
our lives, to God in thankfulness.
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present
your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your
reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1)
Just as Jesus WAS the sacrifice that took away our sins, we can be both the
temple and the sacrifice, in how we live our lives. This smells good to God.
“….whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17)
“by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the
fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good
and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”
When Mary accepted burial spices for her baby she acknowledged that her
mission in raising this Child would involve sacrifice and death. One day she
would be standing at the foot of a cross watching her Son struggle for his last
breaths before He died.
I wonder if she remembered the Magi that day. I wonder if she thought about
gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In a way…..right now, every day we’re at that Cross too. Galatians 2:20 starts out
like this: “I AM crucified with Christ”.
“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his
cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-34)
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:31 that he dies daily. I wonder what that smelled
All this has brought us to this question: “Spiritually, what do you smell like today,
in this season that so many celebrate the birth of Jesus…..Emmanuel – God
among us – Who came to die for us?”
Do we ever get uncomfortable for the benefit of someone else or do we always
make sure we get ours first?
Do we serve others without expecting something in return or do we always do
things with “strings attached”?
Do we obey the Lord or do we ponder what He says to do, wondering if it will be
I believe that as Jesus was born to die and resurrect , so were we Christians
reborn to die and experience resurrection life over and over again. Continually.
We were reborn designed to die daily. That’s why Paul said this to people in
Corinth that were living sacrificial lives:
“Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and
through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we
are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and
among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death
leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.”(2
When we live sacrificially we are the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ.
You know….we’re gonna smell like something – if we live like He did…we will
smell like Him.
Paul encouraged us “to walk in love (that means that we make sure others get
what they need before we get ours), as Christ also has loved us and given
Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling
aroma.” (Ephesians 5:2)
Let’s do that. Let’s walk in love…..like Jesus did.
Just as I stood in a store and the scent of my mother took me back in time, there
are spiritual smells that remind me of key people in my Christian life. Some of
them smell just like Jesus to me.
Right now we are building memories in the lives of people around us…our
families, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. What do we smell like to them?
What spiritual scent will they remember in us?
Will we smell like the world? Or will we smell like Jesus to them and every time
they sense Jesus in someone else will remember us?
If you are one who smells like Jesus you will know it by the fact that people will
respond to you. Some will love you because you smell like our King and some
will hate you for the same reason. In either case, this can be taxing. Ask the Lord
to comfort you.
Perhaps as the Lord has spoken today through this article you sense that you
smell spiritually more like the world than you like. You might not be happy with
how sacrificially you live. Ask the Lord to change your heart to be more like
Jesus. God promised He would complete what He started in us.
Pastor Mike McInerney
© December 25, 2016 (a re-write of a sermon I preached twice)
For use with permission