Beware the incense.
I bought a little incense burner the other day at Ross. It cost $6, discounted, and is a round piece of wood with two little gold stars painted on it. It is a replacement for a lovely lotus burner that one of the kids accidentally broke a month ago.
There’s been a lot of breakage in our home recently: a broken rake, a broken nightlight, a chipped blue drinking glass, some broken, unruly springs in our sofa cushions, a couple of broken eucalyptus stems, and yes, the aforementioned broken lotus incense burner. All of these things have been reused or repurposed in some way. Life can be a rotation of broken things, can it not? Broken hearts, broken people, broken promises, and broken memories. That being so, can we also testify that God works within that brokenness to reuse or repurpose? Can we see that our brokenness can, mysteriously and ultimately, heal the world’s disease and pain?
Some people are unfortunately allergic to incense; I thankfully am not. Incense always reminds me somehow of sanctuary, Sabbath, the rituals of peace, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia at this time of year. The various associations are much too hard to unpack here, yet a word of caution from our bible today to you who have ears to hear and hearts to listen.
Beware the incense.
Beware of burning incense lest angels visit and announce a baby is due.
Beware of burning incense at the altar of the Lord lest what is barren bear holy fruit.
Beware of burning incense lest your disbelief in a future of glad tidings render you completely mute for a season.
Beware of burning incense lest someone around you or someone with you, or maybe you yourself, regain the sense of smell, the smell of goodness, of awe, of possibility, and of hope.
For burning incense is what is happening in our text today. The prayers of the faithful– then and now–would rise like the incense. Incense was rising prayer made visible to the people. All those longings, all those hopes, and yes, all those tears rising in the pungent air. It was Zechariah’s turn to stand at the altar as a priest of the Lord and burn some fragrant resins. He was chosen by lot, by chance. He got his role in the house of the Lord, his chance to serve near the Holy of Holies, by chance—God’s holy chance. One minute Zack is holding those fragrant fragments in his hands about to scatter the sacred smell of prayer on the fire, and in the next, a heavenly angel is whispering oddities in his ear about his future.
I’ve always found it interesting and poignant that our bible speaks of the ones that come before Jesus. For instance, today, we have Zechariah’s song which you heard read from Luke’s gospel. You remember Zechariah, yes?
Daddy of John the Baptist.
Husband of Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin.
In Luke’s gospel, Zechariah was rendered mute because he did not, at first, believe the angel Gabriel who slyly approached him in the temple just as Zack was on chance rotation to burn the incense for the worshippers outside the temple.
And what was the message to this particular incense-burning, rotation Priest that day? “You and Elizabeth, despite being old and barren, will bear a child who will be a joy and delight.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Gabriel, the same Angel, brings a birth announcement to Mary. She doesn’t really know what to make of the news, but she takes it in. Yet, because old Zechariah can’t quite wrap his head around his future fatherhood, he is rendered mute, silent, until the day his child is named. I wonder if Joseph knew this and took note.
As I said, one must beware of burning incense. The smell will get in your hair, your clothes, your prayers, and your memory, and you just might attract angels with unbelievable news and pregnant outcomes.
Though today, when we hear from Zechariah, he is noticeably *unmuted.* He has found his voice and his voice is a song across the ages. He and Elizabeth have born a child. He’s got something to say now, something he couldn’t quite say before. He agrees with both his wife and the angel regarding this little one’s name. His child will be named, ‘JOHN.’ But Zack and Lady Liz don’t name the child; no, God does the naming. God determines the name.
Of course, friends, I “get” that you are skeptical of angels. Of course, we wonder why it was so important for Zechariah to sing his song, this song of his child. Why was it so important to declare this child’s purpose, a purpose that wholly preceded Jesus, a song that declares for all who are listening, and particularly for the one to come:
‘And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God…
Why that song and why at that moment, we might ask? Each one, each person, each song precedes…even our hopes.
What were the hopes and dreams of your parents as they held you? Do you know? I imagine that some of us may feel that those hopes and dreams were simply out of reach, or a complete mismatch, or not relevant to who we actually became. However, each of us is a song of our Creator, and God’s songs are well-placed within hearts.
Do you know your song? Do you know the holy purpose unique and special to you? Sometimes our song gets muted through disbelief, through the pain of life, through our own misgivings, and through the mistakes and folly of others. But can you imagine someone, God or an angel, perhaps, singing at your birth, or singing now—just because you exist as you are, and you have brought the world something that the world would sorely lack without you?
In this story, each one precedes another with purpose. Zechariah and Elizabeth go before John…and John will go before our Lord Jesus. And you, my friends, will go before our Lord and are, even now, the next heavenly messenger that God sends to bring about peace. What is it about peace that builds upon the efforts of those who come before? What is it about you, especially and uniquely, will bring about the efforts of those who will come after?
We each have a heartsong, like Zechariah, to sing unmuted when we hold something of God in our arms, in our hands, and in our hearts. I don’t know what your song is; I only know that you have one and that this song is both particular and necessary for you. Only you can sing it; there are no substitutes.
And when your song isn’t sung, when you withhold your unique gifts and graces, the world’s song suffers, and your soul suffers from the withholding. Someone once said, “a friend is someone who knows the song in my heart and sings it back to me when my memory fails.”
Zechariah’s song was a song of praise, speaking of salvation and healing that were happening right here and now, in present tense. Importantly, Zechariah’s song points to a covenant that enabled God’s people to serve God without fear, whether at God’s table in the temple, or out in the streets, whether sprinkling love, like incense in the boardroom, the schoolroom, or the living room. Zechariah showed the people that one could stand before the altar, stand in the temple, stand in the sanctuary, without fear and be certain of God’s mercy. But what had changed relationally for Zechariah to sing what he sang as he held God’s promise to him in the flesh?
And what would have to change for you to ‘come before God’ without fear and worry in your heart? What would have to change for you to be convinced of God’s assurances of tender mercy? Toward what paths of peace would your aching feet and troubled heart turn?
Friends, beware the incense that rises with your prayers to the Holy One. What may seem like just a chance rotation of God’s servants may be a loving reminder that your song, when sung passionately, faithfully and unmuted, precedes Jesus and paves the way for peace.