“What’s that smell? I know that smell….it smells like Thailand.””It’s incense,” one of the friends offered, gesturing to a little table placed in the corner of the dining room.
Ahhhhhh. Indeed, that was the smell of Thailand. I felt like I could smell it everywhere there, inside and outside. There are shrines set up in every business and home and on almost every single city block, where people offer sacrifices to the images of their gods. I’m guessing it was at these altars that incense or candles were burned and prayers offered and that, due to their great volume throughout Bangkok, if you were paying attention, you could almost always smell incense in some capacity.
Since incense is known to accompany prayer, it occurred to me at some point during the trip that Bangkok smelled like the prayers of its people.
It made me think of Psalm 141, where David says “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” And again in Revelation 5 where it says, “And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people…”
But here…here the people, mostly Buddhist, were offering sacrifices and prayers and worship in order to win the favor of their gods. It didn’t appear that this was a casual, random occurrence either. Altars were literally everywhere, many filled with sacrifices of drinks and food and wreaths. It was very common to see someone at one of these altars, lighting a candle and praying or offering some kind of sacrifice. There were small street booths and carts everywhere with workers making flower garlands, symbols of respect, that were frequently bought and offered on the altars as well. Sacrifices and prayer seemed…part of life.
Never have the goodness and kindness and sweetness of Christ seemed quite so evident to me as while spending time in Bangkok. I was so struck by the fact that people devoted so much of their lives to offering sacrifices and prayer, striving to create positive karma and win them favor in this life and the next. Their lives were built around this belief. But my God, my God offered a sacrifice so I could have His favor. My God was the One who made the sacrifice. Not to win my favor, but to give me His. Forever. Who does that?!
I wanted to shout out the windows, “You don’t have to do that! Come to the altar of Jesus and drink and eat food and drinks that were sacrificed for you!”
Oh–I just realized…that sounds strikingly like scripture. God already beat me to it, shouting through the prophet Isaiah in chapter 55,”Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price…”
And I wondered…what if the people of Jesus understood this? Could they even begin to grasp how rare and precious and sweet and incredible this idea is–that God turned the tables on mankind and offered the favor they could never have won through striving? And what if they did, and what if they began to see that prayer and worship and sacrifice are offered not to win God’s love, but in response to it so that our streets and cities could begin to smell like the prayers of Immanuel’s people. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a smell you could sense with your nose, but what would it do to the atmosphere of a place, seeing a people rise up and spend their lives rejoicing in and worshiping a glorious, humble God who stepped off His throne, made Himself flesh and dwelled with them.
I wish people could see others love one another with such devotion that they could ask of a place, “What is that smell? I know that smell.”
And the people of God could answer, “Oh, it’s Jesus.”