Thwack!. I am enjoying a beautiful spring day, attending a minor league baseball game with my family. My attention is diverted toward my bratwurst when suddenly a shadow seems to appear above me. Is it a bird? Then fans around me gasp and lunge as the shape– now clearly baseball sized–appears to be zooming toward my head. The maroon-uniformed batter down below has hit a foul ball and its wayward trajectory is about to ruin my day, or worse. Fortunately another spectator with a glove catches the ball, snatching it out of my orbit. This man in the stand cheers and waves his catch around like a trophy. He has caught the foul ball!
This baseball memory came back to me the other day as I was in a hospital corridor. Sunlight was streaming though patient windows. Spring was in the air–until suddenly it wasn’t. For some reason the door to the surgery recovery unit was closed. As I pushed it open, I soon learned why. Wafting down the corridor was an acrid stench that almost felled me. It was like bowel gas mixed with something infectious, like the purulent stinky drainage from a boil or the rot of an infected abdominal wound. It slapped me in the face and drove away all other thoughts. I started to hold my breath as I exited the unit. Soon I was back outside in the sunlight and the fresh blossom-scented spring air.
The word “foul” has layers of meanings that are worthy of reflection. When we go astray (like foul balls) we have deviated from God’s intended trajectory for us. It has happened to all of us: “all we like sheep have gone astray”, as you may remember from Handel’s famous chorus which is taken straight from Isaiah 53. Paul in Romans 3 also reminds us that we have all “fallen short” of God’s glory.
What is worse, though, is that our misdeeds make us, in a sense, smell bad–we “stink to high heaven” as an old saying goes. In Isaiah 65, God says the following of his wayward people. Here I use the Living Bible translation, for its descriptiveness:
“These people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away.”
When we stray from God’s will, we become like that odor I encountered in the hospital. Or like my dog, who sometimes on walks through wooded parks will suddenly dart into some leaves and roll in the liquifying remains of some dead rodent, thereby acquiring an awful odor. (When this happens, he finds that he very quickly gets some kind of bath).
But there is a promise to the faithful. Through the prophet Hosea, God exhorts His people to return to Him, and promises to make Israel smell good: “His splendor will be like an olive tree,
his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.” In Ezekiel God says, “As a pleasing aroma I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered. And I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations.”
Blast forward four centuries to the New Testament, and we find that the apostle Paul used the idea of fragrant burnt offerings as a metaphor for the Christian life. He asked his readers to become “living sacrifices”–they are to be as consumed by passion for the things of God as to be on fire, and as dead to self as the animals consumed by that fire on the altar.
“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”
(2 Corinthians 2:14-16, Holy Bible, English Standard Version).
The Living Bible clarifies verse 16: “To those who are not being saved, we seem a fearful smell of death and doom, while to those who know Christ we are a life-giving perfume.”
So, don’t be like my dog, or like that festering sore. Instead turn from worldly ways and embrace God’s love; let God bathe away your stench. (Though I won’t pursue this further in this little meditation, I will mention in passing to any non-Christian readers that the Christian initiation rite of baptism is a rich metaphor for such a spiritual bath–consider looking into this further).
I’ll conclude with another passage: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”