Why Frankincense?

A Christmas Day Sermon:

One of my favourite things to do is burn frankincense.

I started this whilst living in Egypt and enjoying it in the Coptic churches.

All the way through the Old Testament, the priests would burn incense.

And somehow this represents before God the prayer of the people.

Even today in many church traditions, incense is still used in Sunday worship.

Rev 8:4  “The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the people, went up before God….”   The Magi brought this stuff to Jesus.  Why?

So I discovered something amazing (Song of Solomon 4:9) 

“You have stolen/captivated/ravished my heart with one glance of your eye..”  

And I need you to hold that verse as we continue.

How do we get incense?

It comes from a certain type of tree.  It is the blood of the tree, the sap.  And you get at it by repeatedly wounding the tree;  So the sap leaks out, congeals, hardens. And if left, remains useless, dead and odourless.

Throughout the Old Testament era, the Priests would take it and place it on coals in the Temple.  And it is this act that begins the transformation.  As the incense melts, it releases the sweet smelling smoke.

So this is what it means:  The priest takes the painful wounds of the people;

Using the symbol of incense, places them before the warm coals of God’s love;

And so they are transformed into something prayerfully beautiful – true worship.

Why did the Magi bring this to Jesus?  Not simply because it is a religious symbol.

But because Jesus Christ is the beginning & end of human wounding and human healing.

And this is why the Gospel is the supreme act of divine mercy.

One of the great titles for Christ is: Great High Priest.

In becoming a human being, Jesus extends this into all time and for all people;

To those who are wounded by sin (our own or others);

And transforms us into a beautiful, sweet fragrance pleasing to God our Father who loves us.

There’s more:  Go back to the Song of Solomon (4:9):

“You have stolen/captivated/ravished my heart with one glance of your eye..” 

In Hebrew it says:  “leva-ba-theenee” –   Leva = heart.

And all together this is about ravishing the heart (this is what Christianity is meant to be)!!

In the ancient world outside the biblical literature this word is used to describe – guess what?

The stripping of bark from a tree!! The bark is the hard outer layer of protection from danger, disease etc.  Stripping the bark makes it vulnerable, and exposes the tender layer beneath the bark where the sap/blood runs.

And so, in Song of Solomon, the bridegroom’s heart is made vulnerable by the bride.

He lets down his walls.  He allows the tender underlayer to be exposed.  He allows himself to be wounded by her beauty, her plight, her own woundedness;  By his desire to love, to rescue and to serve her.

Now, back to the Temple and Priestly idea:  

The priest takes his people’s “wounds” but he’s also offering his own.

A Michael Card lyric goes:  “Worship him with your wounds, for He is wounded too.”

It was Jesus who had his outer layers stripped for us. His blood/sap ran freely into the soil. He was wounded “many times” for the sins of the world. And his tree was the Cross. The Great High Priest is also the Lamb that was slain: He offered Himself.

He does this for us, so that he might ravish our hearts. He never forces or coerces.  But neither does he beg.  He woo’s:  “Come unto me all who are weary, and I will give you rest!”

One Medieval Christian said, “The Lord loves us into letting go” (St. John of the Cross)

It is only when we know that we are loved, do we let down our defences, and allow our hearts to be stripped.

And then, as in the Song of Solomon, with “one glance of the eye”; we shall see the God who delights to capture, steal and ravish the human heart. It is in this way, that Isaiah 53:5 can say, “By his stripes, we are healed.”  We really are! 

Don’t even get me started on Gold and Myrrh.

Have a wonderful Christmas day in the Joy of the Lord.

All glory to the God who says: “Thus says the Lord who created you. Fear not, for I have redeemed you.  I have called you by name, you are mine.”


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