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. (Psalm 141:1-2)
A Matter of Life and Death
Everyone’s talking about the vaccine. This week President Biden addressed the nation about the ongoing threat from the coronavirus pandemic, and continued to present the case that the new vaccines are a critical part of getting back to “normal” life. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Biden said, “but there’s one fact I want every American to know. People who are not fully vaccinated can still die every day from COVID-19. This is your choice. It’s life and death. And I hope everyone…makes the choice that’s going to help them and their loved ones be safe.”
I had already decided months ago that I wanted to get the vaccine as soon as it was available. I believe it is the right thing to do for myself, my family, my church and my community. I considered it a matter of life and death. But I have also spoken to a few folks who have decided not to get the vaccine. They feel the risk of getting and spreading the disease is lower than the risks involved with taking the shot. Ironically, even though we disagree completely on whether or not to receive the vaccine, we still seem to agree that our decision is a matter of life and death!
In Psalm 141, David offers a prayer of lament to God. He begins with a sense of urgency, “I call to you, Lord, come quickly to me” (vs. 1). For David, his prayers are a matter of life and death! David asks the Lord to guard his speech and to guide his heart (vs. 4); he invites God’s correction and discipline in his own life (vs. 5) and invokes God’s wrath upon the “wicked” in the world (vs. 6-7). David prays that the evildoers get what’s coming to them, while he is allowed to “pass by in safety” (vs. 10).
For David (and David’s adversaries), the prayer of Psalm 141 is literally a matter of life and death.
And so, it’s fitting that his song begins by evoking images from Temple worship—images of life and death. The burning of incense to God symbolized the constant and faithful prayers offered in gratitude to God (Revelation 5:8, Revelation 8:3-4), while the evening sacrifice reminded the people of their sinfulness and shortcomings (Ezra 9:3-9). Temple worship was all about life and death. On the altar of sacrifice, something had to die so that God’s people could live.
Our prayers and songs of worship are still a matter of life and death. They rise like incense to the Lord, joyfully celebrating God’s life-giving gifts, and they serve to remind us that something had to die—someone had to die—for us to live. The ultimate sacrifice that ended all the old Temple sacrifices was God’s only Son, Jesus. As the Apostle Peter reminds us, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) The cross was a matter of life and death.
We no longer need to journey to the Temple to lift up our prayers of thanksgiving and praise; we don’t have to offer an animal sacrifice on the high altar. Christ has done the work, “It is finished.” What we CAN do is offer ourselves as “living sacrifices” to God (Romans 12:1). We can become the pleasing incense that is continually and faithfully set before the Lord. As Paul pondered long ago in his letter to the Corinthians, “We are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)
Who is equal to such a task? You and I are! And so is every follower of Jesus that offers themselves as living sacrifices to the Lord…everyone who is willing to let the fire of their life burn like incense to the world. “This is your choice!” May it be our prayer; may it be our evening sacrifice to God. It’s a matter of life and death!
Stay thirsty, my friends!
SONG: LIKE INCENSE