Sermon: Altar of Incense

I recently heard a story about two college students in Nashville. There had been a Christian revival going on in the high schools for a couple years, but had recently died down and been replaced with a growing number of rave parties being put on by a pair of guys in the city. If you don’t know, a rave is party with loud dance music and usually lots of drugs and alcohol. This was beginning to take over the high schools. These two young men had grown up in Nashville and were passionate about seeing their generation, their city reached by the Gospel. So they began to pray and wonder what could they do, where was God calling them to step out in faith. As they prayed, they saw that no one needs Jesus more than those going these raves. What if they went to a rave and shared the gospel with them?

Eventually, they got a meeting with the two guys running this party company putting on the raves. As they sat in the room, waiting for them to arrive, they were shaking and nervous. What were they doing? Why would these guys even let them share the gospel at a rave party? They began to shake, so they texted their prayer group and got on their knees themselves and began to pray. They came before God and asked for wisdom and for the Spirit to work beyond what they could expect.

We will come back to the story of these young men in a minute, but first I would like you to come with me to Exodus 30:1-10. This passage takes place while Israel is in the wilderness. They have come out of bondage in Egypt and up to Mount Sinai. Now the Lord is giving them instructions on how they are to worship him. This passage this morning tells particularly of how God instructs his people to build an altar for offering incense. It’s Exodus 30:1-10. But before we hear God’s word, please pray with me.

Prayer

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. It shall be one cubit long and one cubit wide; it shall be square and shall be two cubits high, its horns shall be of one piece with it. You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top, and its sides all around and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around. And you shall make two golden rings for it, under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them and they shall hold the poles with which to carry it. You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. You shall place it in front of the curtain that is above the ark of the covenant, in front of the mercy seat that is over the covenant, where I will meet with you. Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations. You shall not offer unholy incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. Once a year Aaron shall perform the rite of atonement on its horns. Throughout your generations he shall perform the atonement for it once a year with the blood of the atoning sin offering. It is most holy to the LORD.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

There are two altars in the household of God. When God instructs Moses on how to build the place of worship, where God will meet with his people, he calls for an altar to be placed in the outer courtyard. It was to be the first thing the people encountered when they came into the tabernacle. This altar was a place where sons of the herd were offered in place of the people, where sin was dealt with, the people were then able to draw near to God in worship. That first altar pointed to the cross, and to Christ who offered himself there for us, where we must cling for salvation.

But there was a second altar. Far inside the holy place, where only the priests could enter, right at the curtain the separated the holy place from the mercy seat of God, there was a second altar. This altar was different. All the sacrifices that were performed on the first altar – burnt offerings, grain offerings, drink offerings, could not be performed on this altar. Instead, twice a day, Aaron the high priest was to offer fragrant incense before the LORD.

Two altars, two very different purposes. The first altar, the altar of sacrifice, points to the Cross of Jesus Christ. The second altar, the altar of incense, points to prayer.

The altar of incense is an altar of prayer. How do we know this? Psalm 141 says,

I call upon you, O LORD; come quickly to me;

give ear to my voice when I call to you.

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,

and the lifting of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (v.1-2)

“Let my prayer we counted as incense before you.” Prayer is like the incense on the altar, it ascends to God, comes before God, in a cloud of sweet fragrance. Like a sweet smell in our home brings joy to our hearts, so God delights in our prayers coming before him.

The connection between prayer and the altar of incense is strengthened by the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke 1:8-13 says,

Once when he (that is, Zechariah) was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.

When Zechariah goes in to offer incense before the LORD, all the people are praying. When the angel appears in the Holy Place, he appears at the right side of the altar of incense and says, “your prayer has been heard.”

The altar of incense is an altar of prayer.

But the connection is even more explicit in the vision given to John on Patmos. Revelation 5:6-8 says,

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. There is a lot of symbolism in Revelation that is difficult to understand, but this is direct and clear. The incense represents the prayers of the saints. There is a deep connection between the incense rising up in a sweet fragrance and the prayer of God’s people. The altar of incense is an altar of prayer.

So when we study the altar of incense, we are not only learning about the geography of the tabernacle and temple, we are not only learning about how God commanded Israel to worship and that it involved all the senses, including smell, but we are also learning about the nature and character of prayer.

The altar of incense is an altar of prayer. So what do these instructions about the altar tell us about prayer? I want us to notice three things about prayer that can be seen from the altar and then I want to invite us to in the spirit of Psalm 141, Let my prayer be counted as incense before you. I want us to notice when it happens, how it happens, and where it happens, and then we will take some time to offer our prayers as incense before the Lord.

First, when it happens. Verses 7-8 of Exodus 30: Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations.

The incense offering was regular. It happened twice a day, every day. It happened at the same time that Aaron would prepare the lamps on the lamp stand, which we talked about last week. Our forebears in the faith saw in this a beautiful picture of the life of prayer. Every morning Aaron would dress the lamps and offer incense. When we rise in the morning, we can dress the lamps, which is reading God’s Word – a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, and we can offer incense, by prayer. In the evening, the same pattern for Aaron and for the Christian. Lamp and incense, word and prayer. It is a picture of a regular pattern of prayer that comes out of consistent time in God’s Word. The regular pattern of incense offered before the LORD is a picture of a life where there is a regular pattern of prayer offered before God.

There are times in life where, as a Christian, one cannot survive without prayer. You can’t make it through the day without coming before the Father in prayer. But there are other times where we know that when the pressure builds and our margin is squeezed, time in word and prayer are the first things to go. However, the incense offering is a picture of a life set by a regular pattern of prayer.

It should be encouraging to us that we are not told how long this took Aaron, offering incense. There is freedom in our Christian life to be mindful of the season you are in. Before kids, Olga and I could get up well-rested in the morning and spend time in prayer, either separately or together. That is not realistic right now. I head in to church early for work to have time to pray. I know right now I have a lot more, but shorter times of prayer. There have been other seasons where I would take fewer, but more extended times during the day to pray.

The point of noticing when the incense is offered and connecting it to our life in prayer is not to try and regulate and command when and how long each of us should pray. Instead, it is an invitation to make it a regular pattern in your life. To make prayer more than something you just do on Sundays or when life starts to fall apart, but a regular part of your life. Start small, but start. It is always easier to steer a bicycle when it is moving.

Side note: this pattern of word and prayer is central to how to worship on Sunday morning. I don’t know if you have noticed this, but we regularly pray seven different times during worship. We have an opening prayer – a prayer of praise and calling upon God’s presence. We have a prayer of confession, I pray with the children after the children’s message, a prayer before hearing the Word. A prayer after the word is proclaimed. A time of prayer where we pray for the blessings and needs of our community and our people. And we pray as we offer our gifts to God. These prayers are consistently and intentionally connected to the Word of God. We do that, in part, because this is the vision that God gives of worship in his house, a regular pattern of word and prayer.

So first, we should notice when the incense is offered. It is offered regularly – morning and evening – which is a picture of a life of regular, consistent prayer.

Next, we should notice how it happens. It’s verse 10: Once a year, Aaron shall before the rite of atonement on its horns. Throughout your generations he shall perform the atonement for it once a year with the blood of the atoning sin offering. It is most holy to the Lord.

We will talk more about the rite of atonement next week, because it is central to understand the ark of the covenant, but for the sake of this morning, we should know that the blood of the atonement offering was used to cleanse all the pieces of the tabernacle. The altar of incense never had animals offered on it, but once a year the blood of the atonement offering was placed on the horns of the incense altar.

This tells us that even the incense altar needs to be cleansed. Even it needs atonement. The incense was not pleasing before God if the altar was not cleansed. In other words, the prayers that are pleasing in God’s sight come from those who have been cleansed by the blood of the lamb. Even prayer needs Jesus.

We cannot pray on our own. We cannot have our prayers come before the Father on our own strength or goodness, but we must be cleansed and covered by the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. We can pray only in the strength, in the righteousness, in the name of Jesus. It was the blood of the atoning sacrifice that cleansed the altar so that the prayers of the people were heard and it is the blood of Jesus Christ, the ultimate, final, and complete atoning sacrifice, who cleanse us so that our prayers can be offered on the altar before God.

And this is the last thing we should notice – where the prayers were offered. They were offered before the mercy seat of God. We saw that incense or prayer was offered regularly. We saw that it was offered because of the cleansing blood of the atonement. But it was always offered before the mercy seat of God. Listen again to verse 6: You shall place it in front of the curtain that is above the ark of the covenant, in front of the mercy seat that is over the covenant, where I will meet with you.

Behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies was the ark of the covenant, where God promised to meet with them. Between the cherubim on the top of the ark was the space God promised to dwell, known as the mercy seat. The altar was placed close to the ark, but still separated by a curtain. Even though they could not see the mercy seat when the incense was offered, it was offered toward the mercy seat, toward the God who promised to meet with them there. Even though unseen, the incense was offered before the throne of God.

So too prayer. When we pray, we come before the mercy seat of God, even though we cannot see it with our eyes. When we pray, we are as close to the throne of God as we come in this life, just as the incense was offered as close to the mercy seat as possible.

When you pray, you are not throwing out wished into the universe or sending a postcard to heaven from a distant land. When you pray, your prayers come before the mercy seat of God. When you pray, you are drawn close to the very place where God has promised to meet with his people.

In studying it this week in preparation for preaching to you, I have come to love the altar of incense. At the altar, we who have been cleansed by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ can regularly and consistently come before the very mercy seat of God. The more I have contemplated it this week, the more humbling, joyous, and beautiful prayer has become to me.

The two college students were praying and texting all their friends to pray as they prepared for this meeting with the two guys running the raves in Nashville. As they sat down with them, these two guys made a simple pitch. If we promise to bring fifty people to one of your raves, can we have five minutes to share the gospel with them. They knew the kind of revenue fifty people would bring their company, but had no clue how these guys would respond. One of them leaned in and said, “We weren’t sure if we should keep doing this. We were thinking we might just close up. I wonder if maybe God sent you here.” One of the college students jumped on this, “God did send us here this morning. You have gone through school, gone through life, living it up and serving yourself, but if you do this, you can make a difference in the lives of other people.” The first guy was in, but the second had been sitting back with his arms crossed the whole time. He finally said, “I started this company when I got back from Juvie, because I just wanted to forget everything.” One of the students responded, “That’s why people come to your raves. They all have things they are running from and trying to forget – abuse at home, depression, anxiety, fear. But I want five minutes to share with them something that will change their lives, so that is so much better than just trying to forget.”

The two guys from the rave company nodded. They were in.

A couple weeks later, the company starts to get cold feet, so they pray. They talk to someone they know who offers them a 1200 person venue for the event for free. They call up the company and say, “We have a huge venue you can use for free, but now we get 20 minutes to share the gospel and you need to use all the money you would have spent on the venue to advertise and get people here.” They agreed.

The night before, only 250 people have pre-registered for a venue that holds 1200 people. So they pray. The next day, over a thousand high school students show up without a clue of what was going to happen that night. As the music is blaring and the rave is happening, these students and the fifty people they brought with them are praying. It is time to go on, the transition is terrible, no one is really listening, until the speaker says, “Some day everyone of you will end up in the grave.” Silence. He shared the gospel, the hard challenging but freeing message of Jesus Christ. Over 400 people responded that night. These two students and their team followed up with them and are now discipling four hundred new Christians who went from high at a rave to on fire for Jesus Christ.

As Olga and I heard the story, we wondered, “What would it look like to pray like that?” What would it be like to, in the name of Jesus, come before the throne of God ask for the Spirit to move and work in ways we might not know beforehand? What would it look like for us to offer our prayers as incense before the Lord?

After I pray, I want to invite you to do something a little different. Normally, we take prayer requests publicly and then I lead the prayer as we pray together to the Lord. Instead, I would like to invite you to break up into groups of three in order to pray together. You can introduce yourself if you don’t know everyone in your triad. Make sure no one is left out and be mindful that some people might find it more challenging to get up and move than others. This is also an invitation, not an obligation – still get in the triad, but if you aren’t sure how to pray or feel uncomfortable praying out load, that’s okay. But I will pray and then you can break into groups and answer one question before praying together – Where would you hope to see the Spirit at work? The question is there in the sermon notes in the bulletin.

So I will pray, we can gather in threes to pray together for the Spirit’s work, and then I will close the time of prayer together. So let’s pray:

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