I spent my entire childhood in Vienna, Virginia. From infancy to my eighth year we lived on Hillside Circle. In the back yard, a swing took me up above a honeysuckle bush with every push from my mother. I can still smell the honeysuckle. Eventually Mom and Dad bought a nicer home, and although they sold it several years ago, I remember every beloved detail of the place.
When I began my ministry at Church of the Redeemer, I worried each Sunday that the choir would outnumber the congregation. Everybody knew we had to grow. “We have to grow, you know,” they’d say, with all the enthusiasm of a person scheduling a dental appointment. “We need to attract new members and change,” they would say.
When Jim Douglass graduated from college, his father sent him a life insurance policy. Jim thanked his father but returned the policy. He could not accept the gift, he said, because he wanted to understand the truth of an “economics of providence” that he had read about in Matthew 6. Rather than pay premiums on a life insurance policy, Jim said he would store up treasure in heaven by sending a monthly payment to provide basic care for a little girl in France. I’m convinced that Jim is right.
What does God’s love smell like? Like honeysuckle on a warm spring day? Like a salty ocean breeze? Can God’s love also smell like a person who hasn’t bathed for days? For the people in the story in John 12, God’s love smells like their brother Lazarus, who has just been raised after four days in a tomb. Now his friends and loved ones are sharing a dinner in celebration and thanking Jesus, who has come out of hiding to see his friend Lazarus enjoying his new life.
Isaiah knew his congregation. His word from the Lord spoke into the chaos and confusion of a people who had suffered not only a disruption of life, but also a disrupted understanding of God. Their cherished expectations of what it meant to be the covenant people had crumbled along with the destroyed Jerusalem. God had allowed this destruction of their naïve theology, and now they were exiled from both the land and the notion that God would protect them. It was this befuddled congregation that assembled to hear Isaiah’s sermons.