When I was a young girl, I secretly harbored a curious fascination with incense.

With wide-eyed wonder, I watched the priest carefully open the lid of the gold-plated incense burner. Smoke rose from the burning coals held within. His lips moved in silent prayer as he sprinkled the fragrant incense over the coals. He closed the lid, its small slits allowing the sweet, yet spicy scent of incense to waft through the small, decorative holes along the burner’s shell.

I used to believe that if the sweet smell of incense fills you and you close your eyes and pray, then, God will hear you.

I didn’t know it then, but my little-girl-faith was not completely far off: Incense is a picture of prayer.

[The Lamb] went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. Revelation 5:7-8

Incense burning over coals—an illustration of whispered prayers rising to the heavens, reaching the throne of God.

And our prayers are a sweet smell to the Lord God who loves and sees us.

Zechariah and Elizabeth’s Life-Long Prayer

“Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside.” Luke 1:8-10

In Luke’s Gospel, the story of Jesus’ birth begins with Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the announcement of Jesus’ cousin, John. (Luke 1:5-25). Years upon years, they had prayed for a child. Yet, Elizabeth was barren.

During this single moment of tradition, everything changed when Zechariah was chosen to pray to God over the people of Israel. Incense burning over coals–God went beyond expectation and answered the life-long prayer of Israel – the coming of the Savior. And God answered the life-long prayer of Zechariah – the birth of his and Elizabeth’s son.

Could you imagine? God’s grace abounds, beyond expectation, as he meets us in prayer.

As I read this story, I wonder:

For whom have I stopped praying for? Have I stopped praying for God to meet me in my family, my community, my church, my world? What have I stopped praying for?

When did I stop pouring incense over coals?

In the years that span between my little-girl-faith and my not-so-little-girl-logic, I have traversed far from that little-girl-faith that never lost hope in the God who loves her and the firm belief that He will always hear her.

I’ve stopped relishing the wonder of God’s presence.

I’ve stopped believing God hears my prayers, overwrought with the worry that I may not have said them in exactly the right way.

I’ve stopped seeking God beyond miracles and among the mundane.

But most heartbreaking of all, I’ve stopped expecting to meet God.

That is the secret intimacy of prayer—not that our requests would be met, but within that space between heaven and earth, God meets us. My hope is that I will keep praying, keep waiting in the expectation that I will meet God.

May I never stop pouring incense over coals.