On the Plains of Moab Blog
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August 18, 2013, 12:40 PM

Sermon Text: 2 Cor. 2:14-16

An Aroma of Christ  Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cameron Smith

During my sophomore year at college, there was a student on my dorm floor who was apparently averse to any form of personal hygiene.  The guy never took a shower.  He never washed his clothes, and quite frankly, he didn't smell very pleasant.  For me, it wasn't so bad.  All I had to do was hold my nose when I walked by him.  But for his three poor room-mates , they were truly suffering.  They dropped hints.  They kidded him almost mercilessly.  But to no avail.  To this guy, he thought he was just fine.  He saw no need for change.  Finally, when it got to the point it was ready to blow up, one night, several guys on the hall conspired to get him out of bed and throw him in the shower, along with all of his clothes.

This is a great illustration for the Christian life.  You, just like our Pigpen in college, go about your daily business, most of the time not giving much thought, if any, to the way you interact with others; or how you handle yourself in public.

What are the words you use in casual conversation?  What kind of driver are you when driving around town?  How do you talk to a customer service representative when that rep is rude?  What kind of a jokes do you tell?  Or laugh at?  Do you find it irresistible to spread a little gossip here and there?  How do you do your job?  What kind of worker are you?  What kind of co-worker are you?  For you students out there, what’s your reputation in school?  And the really big smell of them all, how do you handle yourself when you are in personal distress or something has gone wrong, or you've been mistreated, or you've gotten bad news?

When I am in public, I do not normally like people to know that I am a minister.  I have been embarrassed on several occasions when I was wearing my LU shirt or a shirt that I used to wear advertising the fact that I served as a chaplain at Florida Hospital.

Tell me true, would it puzzle your colleagues, neighbors or classmates if they knew you were a Christian who attended church on a regular basis?  What kind of “smell” or "aroma" are you giving off?

In our Scripture reading this morning from 2 Corinthians 2:14-16.  As Paul is writing to the congregation in Corinth, he launches into a doxological note during his discussion of his frustrations with this difficult church:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ's triumphal procession and uses us to spread the [sweet] aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.  For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.  And who is equal to such a task? (NIV).

Even though Paul is talking primarily about himself, you are included too.  You’re life -- in good times and bad times, but for the most part, during bad times -- is to be an “aroma of Christ [pointing to/ magnifying] God….”  And so I ask, do you stink or are you an aroma of the sweetness of Christ?

If I could put it mildly, the congregation at Corinth, quite frankly, needed to be thrown in the shower in the middle of the night.  It was a church that was full of problems.  Corinth at that time was comparable to New York City or L.A. in that it was very cosmopolitan – culturally, on the cutting edge.  And it was this uncritical, cultural influence that was so evident in the life of this congregation.

From the opening verse in the Corinthian letters, it’s painfully obvious that they were a factious, quarreling bunch.  From 1 Cor. 3, we see how they battle over personalities in the church.  They were bringing lawsuits against each other (1 Cor. 6); a son was sleeping with his father’s wife and the congregation didn’t seem to think anything was wrong with it (1 Cor. 5)!  Instead of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, they were showing up drunk, turning the love feast into a gluttonous affair.  To make matters worse, the poorer members of the congregation were being excluded from the feast (1 Cor. 11).  And speaking of the poor among them, these Corinthians had promised Paul that they would take up a collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem; but apparently had gotten off track with that project.  And so Paul had to sternly admonish them to finish what they had started (2 Cor. 8).  Worship services had degenerated into shows, with some getting up and showing off by speaking in tongues, and in addition, demonstrating that they knew very little of the nature of spiritual gifts! (1 Cor. 12-14).  And then, to make matters worse, there arose some teachers who taught what Paul called a “different gospel,” and again, the church couldn’t even tell the difference between the true and the false (2 Cor. 11)!

Is it any wonder that to be called a Corinthian at that time was an insult?

And so coming back to our doxological note in 2 Cor. 2:14-16 to this wayward Corinthian congregation, Paul uses sacrificial language to describe his (and their) ongoing relationship with God through Jesus Christ and to teach them something very, very important about the Christian “walk.”

The language of aroma and fragrance is right out of the playbook of Leviticus.  The various sacrificial offerings were said to be a sweet aroma arising from the altar into the nostrils of God.  They were pleasing to him, as you and I are to be!

To drive his point home, Paul mixes his metaphors.  Along with the Levitical language, he brings in the imagery of the ancient Roman practice of the triumph parade:  But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ's triumphal procession.... (v.14).  Here, the Roman army, returning from war victoriously, would parade through the city with their prisoners of war in tow.

Sweet smelling incense was burned on a grand scale so that it filled the air to delight the senses.  The climax of the spectacle was when the prisoners reached the center of the city, they were then executed.  The sweet smell of incense was the smell of victory to some, while for the prisoners; it was the odor of death.

Paul calls himself a “prisoner for Christ Jesus” (cf. Eph. 3:1; Philemon. 1:1, 9).  The apostle's experience is likened to that of the doomed prisoners in the triumph parade in that he is “dying” every day as he preaches and lives out the Gospel.  Paul is being used in a mighty way even through his weaknesses and setbacks to display the glories of Christ in his life.  Paul is a servant of Christ, being used in all circumstances.

In 2 Cor. 11, Paul speaks of his journey in this triumph parade of life.  In contrast to those who think he’s cursed of God because of his extreme hardship, he says, I speak as if insane-- I more so [a servant of Christ than my detractors]; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death.  Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.  I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches” (23-28).

And yet, through, in and by all of this, Paul’s life is “a fragrance of Christ to God.”  God uses this frail, imperfect, mortal man and his trials to impact and change the world!  To those who hear and obey, it is aroma that brings life.  To those who reject this message; it is the aroma that leads to death.

Let me ask you, do you see your Christian calling to be a fragrant aroma to God through this lens of sacrifice and obedience modeled by both Jesus and Paul; indeed, the godly example of every man and woman of God recorded in the Scripture?

We are talking about self-denying, selfless service, being inconvenienced; suffering reproach for doing what is right; risking embarrassment in witnessing to Truth in a sea of relativity and uncertainty; praising God in all things, good and bad; following in the footsteps of the one who gave his life for us.

I think the Church has, by and large, lost this core message.  Some Christians seem to think – and I recognize that I’m painting a picture in the most general terms -- that being a Christian is about what you can get from God.  They turn the Bible into a simple cause and effect “owner’s manual.”  It’s primarily about what God can do for you!  He’s the “cosmic bell hop.”  If things are going well, you’re blessed – but if things start to go wrong in your life – where are you God?  Why are you doing this to me?

Suffering and discipleship aren’t mutually exclusive terms!  Consider Paul’s words to his protégé, Timothy:  Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Tim 1:8-9).

There’s one final, important thing that I want to point out to you this morning.  Speaking of this charge to be a sweet “fragrance of Christ to God”, Paul adds this:  “And who is sufficient for these things?” (Who is equal to such a task?)

The answer is nobody – apart from Christ!  It is Christ in you and through you that works these things:  In health or illness; in strength and infirmity; through liberty and in oppression.  Christ makes you worthy so that your efforts are never in vain.  (1 Cor. 15:58) Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

And so, I ask you once again:  What do you smell like?  Are you in Christ, a sweet, fragrant aroma of salvation penetrating the mundane; challenges of life as we know it?   Amen.

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