Updated: Jul 5
This four-part devotional series are adapted sessions from theHeart Youth Summer 2022 Further Up Further In Retreat. These devotions invite you into a deeper and more rooted sense of prayer.
What Does It Look Like To Spend Time With God?
We want to spend time with God. And, more than likely, if you are reading this, you do so. You spend time with God in church, in prayer, and in other ways.
When you think of spending time God what do you picture? Feel? Hear? Taste? Smell? For the ancient Israelites, the sensory experience of being in God’s presence would have been shaped by the Tabernacle.
The Biblical Narrative of Calling Out to the Lord and the Lord Calling Back
The biblical narrative traces the thread of God spending time with his children, with us . Adam and Eve walk in the Garden with God. Even after the fall of humanity and the exile from Eden, Cain and Abel bring their sacrifices directly to him. And yet, the next generation seemingly has a more distant relationship with God. “At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26b). Humanity cries back out to God, calling on him. They want to be back with him. As we know, they let sin get in the way of that inherent desire over and over again, climaxing in the narrative of Babel, where people try to build their own great society without God (Gen. 11:1-9). Of course, God frustrates their efforts, and the very next narrative begins with God calling back, calling out to one person and his family to follow him into the unknown, into a journey of promise and hardship and formation and trust (Gen. 12:1-5). He calls back to invite Abraham into the lifestyle of faith.
As the narrative of Genesis progresses through God’s activity in the messed-up family of Abraham, we see him at work, answering the call of humanity and simultaneously calling them to himself. In a dramatic fulfillment of God’s intentions, he rescues Abraham’s now nation-sized family, Israel, from Egypt and calls them to himself to be priests for the world, so they might invite the world back to him (Ex. 19:4-6). And the centerpiece of that reality was a place to meet him, the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:8-9). Yes, God would pitch his tent in the center of their camp and invite them in. And this Tent would be the center of what it meant to come and worship God, to be in his presence.
Come Tarry Inside the Tent of God
Let us tour the Tabernacle with the use of our imaginations and the exploration of the texts that describe it. What kind of sensory experience would it be if you took God up on his invitation into his tent?
The whole Tabernacle was covered in imagery designed to recall the Garden. Something of that intimacy, that time and space people shared with God, was being recovered in the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was decorated with sacred gems and gold, recalling the precious metals of Eden. The priests also wore those precious stones, along with decorations of pomegranates, recalling the orchards of the Garden. There was a lamp stand shaped like a tree recalling the Tree of Life. Later, the Temple, a more permanent rendition of the Tabernacle was carved with flowers, gourds, and trees (1 Kings 6:18, 29). Walking into the space was like walking back into the Garden, a place to be with God. You could see the imagery with your own eyes and understand the message that God was sending through the architecture, that he was inviting his people to be near him, that he was close.
If we attended a worship service back in those times, it wasn’t all about what you “get.” It was about what you brought. You’d be searching through your livestock for the perfect offering to the Lord. Whether it was a small dove, a sheaf of wheat, or a whole cow, you were thinking of food. What do you think they did with all that food they brought to God? Did God eat it? Now, there was such a thing as a whole burnt offering, where the entire animal was burned to ashes. But for the most part, you are talking about cooking animals. Union with God was something you could taste. You take part of that sacrifice home with your family to celebrate God’s mercy with a good meal. He wants you to taste the beauty of reconciliation with him. He wants to share a meal with you.
Not only would the woodsmoke and roasting meat given you warm-fuzzy feelings of comfort through the use of your nose, there’s another really interesting sensory experience God invited his people into. He crafted a smell just for prayer. The priests who served in the Tabernacle were supposed to mix a special perfume to burn as incense. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord. Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people’" (Leviticus 30:34-8). The only place you were to smell this stuff was in the Tabernacle. Did you know that smell is the sense most linked to memory? It’s as if God wanted people to associate the sweet smell of prayer with closeness to him.
I call to you, Lord, come quickly to me; hear me when I call to you. May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.
And so, smoke and incense was associated with prayer. Now, it is here that I want to tarry. When we think of prayer, we often think of thinking. Maybe we are mumbling words quietly to God. But more often than not (in my experience), prayer is a silent and mental activity, as we try to focus on talking to God without the aid of our senses. In fact, we close our eyes, fold our hands, and seek darkness and silence. I am not saying this is wrong. Actually, most of the time I find it helpful. But for the ancient Israelites, they had sights, sounds, smells, and rituals to not simply enrich their time of prayer but to help them in it. Why might God have wanted his people to associate incense with prayer?
There is a Fire That Never Burns Out
Well, the imagery of fire is a dense concept and can be used in a variety of ways. We are “on fire” for something when we are passionate about it. We might say, “great balls of fire” as a bit of an old-fashioned expletive. “That podcast is fire” might be a way for us to say that it is punchy and entertaining. But what did the ancient Israelites think of with the special lamp stand burning around the clock, the special incense smoking in the tent, with the fires of the altar roasting meat? Well, it’s a multi-layered metaphor as well as something practical for the worshippers in the Tabernacle. Let me read from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
“Beyond the common secular uses, people also used fire for religious purposes. In Numbers 31:22-23, for instance, fire is an instrument of ceremonial purification. More importantly, sacrifices - not just ‘burnt offerings’ - are typically burned (Lev. 2:2). Perhaps we should find a symbol here: the fire represents God’s desire to destroy sin and to purify his people (Is. 6:6-7). Moreover, the smoke from the fire rises, which is an appropriate indication of the symbolic movement of the sacrifice: the offerer on earth is seeking to communicate with God in heaven (incense and prayer ascending to heaven, Rev. 8:4; Phil. 4:18).”
In a later section about how God associates his own presence with fire, (remember the burning bush or the fire on top of Sinai?) the entry says this.
“That God should appear as fire for many reasons. Just as all physical life depends on the fire that is the sun, so does all spiritual life depend on God. Just as fire both purifies and destroys, so does God purify the righteous and destroy the wicked. Just as fire lights up the blackness of night, so does God overcome the dark powers of evil. Just as fire is mysterious and immaterial, so too is God enigmatic and incorporeal. And just as fire is always flickering and changing its shape and cannot be held for examination, so is God always the indefinable who is beyond our grasp.”
Okay, so there’s a lot going on here in the simple and beautiful presence of fire. God desires our purification, for the stuff that doesn’t belong to be removed, making us pure. One recurring image throughout the Bible is the idea of God purifying us like fine metals. It takes heat for impurities to come out. And fire represents his presence, that he is among his people, doing just that. Meanwhile, the burning incense and the sweet smell it produced made tendrils of smoke curl up through the Tabernacle like prayers going up to God. God is here and he hears me. God is here and he changes me. God is here and he wants me to be here with him. All of these deep, deep truths conveyed by the sight, smell, and sounds of fire crackling, incense wafting, and the orange-yellow light of the living flames. What if we let this imagery, that would have been an everyday experience for the priests in the Tabernacle, shape our view of our times and spaces with God?
Smells Like Prayer
Did you know the Bible compares me, you, and every Christ follower to the Temple? (1 Cor. 6:19) Somehow inside us is that fiery presence of God, inside us is that offering of incense and aroma of prayer. Listen to Paul here about this continuous offering of prayer for which he advocates.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
(1 Ths. 5:16-18)
This kind of constant, continuous prayer is something Paul wants us to do. Just as the incense burned in the Tabernacle, let the prayers of our hearts continue to rise to God, as we become purified in his presence. For the ancient Israelites, you could smell it if you’d been praying. It was as if they could smell the presence of God in your life. Can people smell your prayerfulness? Does your life smell as if you spend time with God?
Our Incense of Prayer Offered to God
What if, like smoking incense, we continue to offer our prayers up, believing that God’s presence is in them, that he can take us and purify us, that he is indeed inviting us deeper into his presence? What if we lived in such a way that we smelled like the presence of God, that our prayers would be something people could sense on us? What if those around us saw them rise to an attentive God? What if they could see the light of the fire of God’s presence in our lives? People are calling out to God, but do they realize how close he is? We are little priestly tents holding just that truth to the world around us. I believe that’s the kind of prayerfulness Paul is speaking about. And I want that so bad. Don’t you?
Do we smell like prayer?
Let's try a spiritual practice. You can do this on your own or incorporate it into a special night with friends or your spiritual formation group this summer. If our prayers are like burnt offerings, let’s try a unique style of prayer. There’s nothing magical about it, God hears our prayers the same; but what if we burnt prayer letters to God to engage the imagery of the Tabernacle? It is just a symbol and a visualization inspired by imagery in the Scriptures. But perhaps we could reimagine how God hears us with this rich experience.
SPIRITUAL PRACTICE: BURNT OFFERING PRAYER LETTER
Build a campfire
Write a prayer letter to God on paper
Read aloud your letter in prayer to God
Place the letter in the fire
Symbolically watch this prayer rise to God