The Smell of Salvation
Scriptures: II Corinthians 2:14-17; Genesis 8:20-22
I grew up in Tacoma, back when it was a city you could smell before you saw it. Later when I lived in Potlatch, Idaho, I discovered the same thing was true of Lewiston. When you approach Lewiston from the north, before you drop down the hill you can sometimes smell the city before you see it. People in Lewiston told me it was the smell of money, which was probably what some people in Tacoma thought. It depends on how you look at it.
Smells aren’t always off-putting. When we lived in Potlatch, sometimes when we were baking a little boy would come over from next door. He would stand by the back door screen and say, "If I stand right here it smells like cookies." He usually got one. Smells have a way of communicating, for good or for bad. They alert you to the presence of something even before you can see it.
Which is why I find it interesting that Paul compares the Christian faith to an odor. II Corinthians 2:14-15:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance [Greek: osme] that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma [Greek: euodia] of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.
In the Bible there are powerful associations with these two words. In our first scripture reading, after Noah gets off the ark, he offers a sacrifice to the Lord. Genesis 8:21 says,
And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor [Greek: osme euodia—fragrant aroma], the Lord said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
God knows that even after the flood people will go on sinning. God is not naïve about the human heart. Nevertheless, because of Noah’s fragrant offering, God promises in the future to save humanity. Noah’s offering was the smell of salvation.
In the New Testament this theme is picked up and applied to Jesus. Ephesians 5:1-2:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering [Greek: osme euodia) and sacrifice to God.
Jesus was the ultimate osme euodia, the ultimate whiff of salvation.
But it does not stop there. Paul says that we also can be an osme euodia, a fragrant offering to God. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gives thanks for the financial support he has received from them for his mission work, and in Philippians 4:18 he says,
I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering [Greek: osme euodia], a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.
Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was the ultimate "fragrant offering" to God, but our little offerings--our giving, our sharing, our prayers, our serving in the name of Christ--these things share in the fragrant offering of Christ, and they allow other people to pick up the scent.
I mentioned at the beginning that sometimes you can smell things before you see them. I think the kingdom of God is like that. We can't see the kingdom of God yet. The promise of peace on earth and good will to all people is still beyond the horizon. But sometimes in a community of faith you get a whiff of it. When we come here and sing hymns, we get a whiff of the kingdom of God where people of every race, nation, and language will stand before God singing their hearts out with gratitude. And when we collect food for the food bank or provide meals for Hospitality House, the women’s shelter, or even when we do things that don’t involve food—preparing books for the inmates at the SCORE jail or hygiene packs for Children of the Nations or cisterns to hold rainwater for women in Kenya or school supplies for children at North Hill and Des Moines elementary schools—when we offering these gifts to help other people in Jesus’ name—we release an osme euodia—the fragrant aroma of God’s salvation. And people can smell it before they see it. People can get a whiff of the kingdom long before Christ returns to make it visible.
Of course, the aroma of faith does not smell the same to all people. In II Corinthians 2:16 Paul says, "To the one [it is] a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life." To a white supremacist the idea of people from all different races, nations, and languages gathering together around the throne of God smells like the stench of death. To those who want to dominate, control, or exploit others—to them the gospel of Christ has a dangerous odor, like the smell of ozone just before lightning strikes. But to those who yearn for God's kingdom, who dream of the day when people of different races and ethnic groups will live together in peace, when no one will go to bed hungry, no one will be homeless, no one will be unloved--to these people the aroma of faith is a breath of fresh air in smoggy world.
There is a wonderful illustration of this in a chapter from C. S. Lewis' book The Screwtape Letters. I have mentioned this book before in some sermons. For those not familiar with it, The Screwtape Letters are a series of imaginary letters from Screwtape, one of the devil's chief tempters, to his nephew Wormwood, a sort-of apprentice tempter. The letters give Screwtape's advice on how Wormwood should handle one of his "patients," a new Christian whom Screwtape hopes to corrupt. At one point in the book this patient falls in love with a Christian, a woman of devout, intelligent, and humble faith—all things which the devil deeply detests. Here is Screwtape's description of her in one of his letters to Wormwood:
I have looked up this girl's dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian but such a Christian …. She makes me vomit. She stinks and scalds the very pages of the dossier. [Notice how Screwtape reacts to the whiff of this woman's faith.] It drives me mad, the way the world has worsened. We'd have had her to the arena in the old days. That's what her sort is made for. Not that she'd do much good there, either. A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she'd faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile. ... Looks as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, and yet has a satirical wit. …
Then, of course, he gets to know this woman's family and whole circle. Could you not see that the very house she lives in is one that he ought never to have entered? The whole place reeks of that deadly odour. The very gardener, though he has been there only five years, is beginning to acquire it. Even guests, after a weekend visit, carry some of the smell away with them. The dog and the cat are tainted with it. ... We are certain (it is a matter of first principles) that each member of the family must in some way be making capital out of the others--but we can't find out how. They guard as jealously as the Enemy Himself the secret of what really lies behind [this thing they call love]. The whole house and garden are one vast obscenity. It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven... (pp. 101-102).
Sometimes before you can see the kingdom of God you can smell it. Our worship, our prayers, our gifts, our sacrifices, and our service in the name of Christ--all these things are the smell of salvation, giving people a whiff of what is to come.