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Draw near: Fragrance

Lynne Baab • Tuesday November 1 2022

Draw near: Fragrance

Way back in my 20s, when I was joining the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an older staff person prayed for my commissioning. She opened her prayer with 2 Corinthians 2:14: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” Then she asked that God would help me spread the fragrance of Christ. At the time, I had little idea what she meant or what that looked like, and I frankly thought her prayer was slightly weird.

I mostly forgot about that prayer until I learned John Wimber’s praise song “Sweet Perfume” more than a decade later. Notice the variety of perfume/fragrance imagery in the words to the song, none of them identical to 2 Corinthians 2:14, but all of them having some connection:

Consider how He loves you
His arms of love enfold you
like a sweet, sweet perfume
He left His word to guide us
His presence lives inside us
Like a sweet, sweet perfume

(Refrain) Don't ever think that you're worthless
You have His life within
You are a sweet wholesome fragrance
So valuable to Him

He'll drive out all your darkness
And fill you with His Spirit
Like a sweet sweet perfume

Your prayers are very precious
They reach the heart of Jesus
Like a sweet sweet perfume

Consider how He loves You
—John Wimber, 1934-1997, founding pastor of the Vineyard movement
(you can listen to the song here)

Wimber uses the fragrance/perfume imagery in five different ways, and I want to describe some ways we can deepen our prayers using Wimber’s words. Let me begin by giving a brief overview of the notion of perfume and fragrance in the Bible. The words “perfume,” “fragrant,” and “fragrance” are used 43 times in the Old Testament, referring to anointing oils and incense, perfumes that people wore, and plants and flowers.

In the New Testament, these words appear eight times, one of them in the verse I quoted at the beginning of this post, which continues by saying that Christians are “the aroma of Christ to God,” a “fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:16-17). John 11:2 and 12:3 refer to Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume. In John 12:5, Judas criticizes Mary: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

The term “fragrant offering” is used twice, once to refer to Christ giving himself up for us (Ephesians 5:2) and once to refer to the gifts Epaphroditus brought to Paul from the Philippians (Philippians 4:18).

Using John Wimber’s words, I’ll make some suggestions for prayers that build on the idea of fragrance and perfume.

Wimber’s first two mentions of perfume refer to Jesus' presence with us and in us: “His arms of love enfold you like a sweet, sweet perfume. . . . His presence lives inside us like a sweet, sweet perfume.” This idea could trigger prayers of thanks for the times we sense God’s presence, as well as gratitude for Jesus’ “fragrant offering” of himself for us. We might want to express our longing for the sweetness of the perfume of God’s presence. We may want to engage in lament prayers for the many times God seems absent and the only aroma we smell is sour and rotten. Connecting perfume and sweet smells to God’s presence might help us perceive beautiful smells differently. When we smell something lovely, perhaps that smell might remind us of Jesus right beside us, smelling so beautiful, and we might view that delightful smell as a call to prayer.

Twice Wimber refers to the sweetness of our perfume because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is inside us. “You have His life within. You are a sweet wholesome fragrance. . . . He’ll drive out all your darkness and fill you with His Spirit like a sweet, sweet perfume.” This may be the hardest to bring into prayer if you’re like me. Self-criticism is my default state. To rest in God’s presence, imagining that God has filled me with a sweet aroma, is a big ask. To imagine I bring God’s life-giving fragrance every place I go is fuel for a lot of prayers.

Wimber’s final word picture about perfume is a beautiful call to prayer. “Your prayers are very precious. They reach the heart of Jesus like a sweet, sweet perfume.” I wonder if we would pray more often and with more joy if we truly believed that our prayers give God joy and pleasure, like a beautifully scented rose pleases us and like the woman anointing Jesus’ feel pleased him. I wonder how it would shape our prayer life if we believed that our prayers are precious to God.

I have always loved the story of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with scented ointment, a powerful act of worship. It is one of the few stories that appears in all four Gospels (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-8), and the details are different, so maybe the incident happened more than once. John recounts, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). I want my house to be filled with the fragrance of God’s presence, and I want to bring that fragrance into the places I go and the conversations I engage in. There’s plenty here to pray for, and also a great deal to thank God for.

Creator God, thank you for creating us with a sense of smell. Thank you for beautiful smells, like roses, lavender, baking bread, and roasting vegetables. Help us experience lovely smells as a call to prayer. Surround us with the fragrance of your love, and dwell inside us like a beautiful perfume. Help us live into our call to be your fragrance in this hurting world. Amen.

Next week: praying for workers of all kinds. Illustration by Dave Baab: roses in Parnell, Auckland in December — high summer there — with the Auckland Harbour in the background. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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