Exodus 30.1-10, 22-33, Hebrews 9.1-12
The rituals surrounding incense may seem irrelevant to Methodist worship in the Twenty-first Century, and yet they raise intriguing questions which are still relevant to us.
When I was a minister in the inner city, twenty years ago now, there was some discussion about joining our congregation with the equally small and struggling Anglican congregation next-door. But there was an insurmountable problem. For many years, until the man who mixed the incense left the church, they were in the habit of using incense during their services. At intervals they would waft great clouds of it over the congregation, the lectern and the altar.
‘If we worship there the incense will get on my chest,’ one church steward declared. The fact that she was a heavy smoker probably got on her chest too, but seemed to be of less concern. She would have sympathised with the more traditionally minded worshippers of ancient Israel, who had their own concerns about incense.
Originally a special altar for offering incense was more closely associated with paganism than with the worship Israel’s one true God. So the whole idea of using incense was treated with some caution, as though it were an alien idea, just as it was to my Methodist congregation in the inner city.
As late as time of the Prophet Ezekiel, who lived during the exile in Babylon, incense finds no place in his vision of what reconstructed Temple worship should look like when his people return from exile. But, of course, people who liked incense were bound to ask, ‘Why not?’
There were some aspects of pagan worship which were clearly abhorrent to all right thinking people, such as Temple prostitutes taking part in fertility rites or the offering of child sacrifices to appease the gods. But what could be wrong with a bit of nice sweet smelling incense?
Even if people no longer believed the primitive idea that God would only be pleased with their sacrifices if they were accompanied by a nice smell, wouldn’t incense and sweet smelling ointment be bound to make things and people holier, and somehow cleaner and fresher, when they were anointed? And wouldn’t it be an appropriate way of setting them apart or dedicating them for worship of the most holy God?
As late as the Nineteenth Century, people still thought that diseases were transmitted through the air by the bad smell that came from putrefying things, so making people and things smell nice would help to purify them and make them antiseptic. It’s easy to see, therefore, why there was pressure to introduce more incense into Temple worship after the people of Judah returned from exile.
Didn’t incense have the potential to make worship better and more pure? And even if that was dismissed as superstitious nonsense, what possible harm could it do unless you had a bad chest?
Once the innovators had won the argument and created a space for incense in the restored Temple worship after the exile, their next task was to make it seem like an old tradition that was being rediscovered. Religious people always like to think that what they believe and do has a long and distinguished pedigree, that they stand in a long line of true believers. So what better proof could there be than to rediscover a link going right back to Moses and Aaron, the founders of Israelite worship? And that’s where this section of the Book of Exodus comes in. It legitimises a new innovation by making it seem old and respectable.
Even assuming that we’re not very interested in using incense or perfume in our own worship, this passage still raises intriguing question for us is. If holy scripture legitimises this kind of change and innovation, does it then give us permission to change and innovate the way we worship and what we believe? Are we allowed to revisit our own Methodist traditions and introduce what might otherwise seem to be new ways of worshipping, and new ways of thinking, which seem to us to be in keeping with the past and legitimate ways of developing those traditions?
If we’re just thinking about worship, the answer is pretty straightforward. We can, of course, introduce new songs, new patterns of prayer, new styles of worship, if these things seem to develop and build on what our ancestors in the faith did in the past. They too were innovating. John Wesley was persuaded to preach outdoors, which he at first considered to be a terrible comedown from preaching in church. Hymn writers like his brother Charles wrote new words to fit folk melodies and country dance tunes. At its beginning, Methodist worship was daring and cutting edge. If anything, by clinging to the Methodist traditions which these innovators created, we have lost touch with what they were trying to do, which was to make worship popular again and bring it to people who had lost touch with church.
BUt what if we go further, and revisit some of the traditional ideas which Christians assume are unshakably true? Doesn’t the same principle apply? So long as it does no harm, but only good, shouldn’t we be open to exploring new ways of thinking?
There will always be lines which we cannot cross if we are to remain in touch with and true to the past, like the refusal of the innovators in the Jewish Temple to allow sacred prostitution even though it was commonplace in pagan religion at the time. But, for instance, does it legitimate a re-examination of what Christians think about human sexuality and gender, given that human development and psychology are now understood very differently from the way they were understood - for instance - in the time of St Paul?
Less controversially, this passage also allows us to build on Biblical tradition to draw new conclusions about many other things which were beyond the imagining of our forebears in the faith - global warming, assisted conception, genetic engineering, nuclear physics, the list is endless. The same litmus test applies as was used to decide about using sweet smelling ointment and incense in the Temple. Could one of these innovations do any harm or cause an irreconcilable break with our tradition? If not, are there ways in which we can engage with them from a Christian point of view, rather than simply shrugging our shoulders and admitting that the Bible and tradition have nothing to say about them? To avoid becoming increasingly irrelevant, don’t we have to respond to new and changing circumstances, while keeping appropriate safeguards to protect the unchanging core of what we believe?
What this passage from Exodus shows us is that religious tradition is not set in stone. It’s a journey of discovery; a journey that must stay true to its roots but which doesn’t have to cling to them unquestioningly; a journey which allows us to build on and develop what happened in the past.
New life and meaning can be breathed into decayed traditions when they are radically transformed by our openness to God’s new purposes for them. That, after all, is what happened to the old tradition of the altar of incense, and the priests who served before it. Once it too had been a startling new innovation, but it was superseded in its turn when Jesus himself made holiness available for all of us by taking an old and cherished tradition and reinterpreting it through his death on the cross.