Perhaps the most unfamiliar thing I’m going to have to get used to now that I’m a Pennsylvanian, is the concept of burning trash. I never really thought about trash men and the weekly garbage pick-up system before. It just wasn’t a thing that crossed my mind that often, if at all. But now that I’m living in a location that doesn’t have access to such a benefit, I am obligated to live out whatever latent pyromaniacal tendencies might exist in my subconscious.
It was during one of these garbage burns, however, that I was bathed in a fresh remembrance of grace.
As I loaded the rubbish into the steel barrel and prevailed in finally setting it ablaze, I stood back and watched the waste burn. Smoke plumed and dissipated into the air as last week’s trash was now being turned into ash. I walked back inside for a moment to pour myself a glass of water and was immediately confronted with the stench of smoke that had attached itself to my clothes. My nostrils were assaulted by the smell, as was my wife. I had barely stood in proximity to the flames, except to ignite them, and had done my best to position myself upwind from the fumes as I tended them. Nonetheless, I reeked of smoke.
Suddenly, a verse immediately came to mind.
I recalled that infamous third chapter of Daniel’s prophecy, in which we are told the account of the three Hebrew captives, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and their courageous confrontation with the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. In the face of certain death at their refusal to acquiesce to Nebuchadnezzar’s demands, the “Hebrew 3” are thrown into a “furnace of blazing fire.” And this wasn’t any regular executioner’s furnace, mind you — as per the king’s furious orders, the furnace was heated “seven times more than was customary.” (Dan. 3:19) What’s more, we’re told that after the “Hebrew 3” have been thrown into the blaze, the inferno raged so intensely that it consumed the very men who had been tasked with carrying them up and tossing them into the furnace’s mouth. (Dan. 3:22)
Perhaps you remember the rest of the story from your Sunday School days. Nevertheless, after being cast into the fire, much to the chagrin of Nebuchadnezzar and his cohorts, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are not only “walking around unharmed” amid the flames but also appear to be accompanied by a fourth casualty. This, no doubt, stupefies the Babylonian royalty, and he commands for the “Hebrew 3” to come out of the furnace. That alone is noteworthy. But that’s when we’re given perhaps the most miraculous verse in all of Scripture: “When . . . they saw that the fire had no effect on the bodies of these men: not a hair of their heads was singed, their robes were unaffected, and there was no smell of fire on them.” (Dan. 3:27)
The “Hebrew 3” were tossed into the heart of a furnace that was especially designed to consume them instantaneously and yet, not only are they unscathed, the fumes don’t linger on their garments. They didn’t even smell like smoke.
And that’s when it hit me: that’s exactly what grace does.
Grace stands in the flames with us, takes the blaze that’s meant for us, and delivers us to peace and safety. Grace snatches us from the grip of hell and makes us stand in its protective shadow. We are rescued from the flames of damnation to drink in the cool waters of mercy. And now, we don’t even smell like smoke. We don’t even smell like sin. That stench is washed away. Grace bathes us in the righteousness of another, removing our horrid odor of rebellion and leaving only the sweet savor of divine favor.
The gospel doesn’t blow smoke. It obliterates it, speaking forever and always the words of peace, pardon, and remission of sins because of the fourth man in the furnace. The one who stands with us is none other than the one who stands for us at Golgotha. He is not “like a son of the gods,” he is in very word and deed the Son of the Most High. God himself bleeds to cleanse and forgive the selfsame crowd who cries out for his crucifixion. And in that moment, as the fullness of divine mercy and justice meet together (Ps. 85:10), the white-hot fury the law’s wrath is subsumed in grace’s soothing flow. Our sin is burnt to ash in the fires of his faithful love. And now, we don’t smell like smoke anymore. Sin’s stench clings to another, and we live in the aroma of righteousness.