It really doesn’t take much.
It might happen when you hear your parents’ favorite Christmas carol. Immediately the song transports you out of your sterile workday back to your childhood, to a living room bursting with tinsel, gifts, and anticipation.
Or maybe it happens when you smell the spices of cider moving through your house this Christmas and you half-expect the memory of your grandfather to be standing in your kitchen, bragging about his perfect recipe, through his playful grin.
Worship with All Five Senses
Of course, the memories aren’t always that idyllic. For some, they’re unwelcome intrusions into a life under construction. Good or bad, sweet or bitter, the memories still come each Christmas. Just one small trigger, and everything we’ve loved, lost, and treasured seems to swell up in our hearts.
Nostalgia arrives through our senses. What we hear, see, taste, touch, and smell is the ink we use to write our mental autobiographies. We cannot escape our memories, because we cannot escape our senses, just like we cannot escape ourselves.
This is beautiful because we were created this way for a purpose. God gives us five senses to help us worship him: the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes testify to the diversity of God’s gifts and to the depth of worship God deserves.
But in our pursuit to conform our hearts and minds to Christ, we often forget the physical elements in worship. When we lose this dimension, we often lose what it means to be altogether human, and ironically we lose a principal way God means to transform our hearts and minds. Our Lord consistently builds worship around our senses.
Remember the Passover
Standing on the precipice of Israel’s chaotic redemption, God commands his people to sit down for a meal — a directive that may seem slightly out of place and misguided. But when we see this scene in light of the whole drama, God’s instructions are perfect. The exodus is not just about God leading Israel out of Egypt; it is about God leading Israel into lifelong worship.
Passover is theological nostalgia. It defines the redemptive experience of a whole generation, so much so that God commanded an encore performance every year (Exodus 12:14). With every lamb, they smelled redemption. When they tasted bitter herbs, they tasted God’s goodness. When they fastened their sandals, every step reminded them of his grace. Every time they dipped hyssop into blood, they painted their theology.
Remember the Temple
The temple is the instrument God uses to overwhelm his people from the outside in. Its worship patterns shock each of the physical senses to press his purposes into his people. God tuned Israel and her priests to his presence and praise through the taste of showbread, the heat of the burnt offerings, the scent of cedar and incense, the gloss of gold, and the echoes of prayers. The temple’s multi-sensory experience brought the whole person before the presence and glory of God (2 Chronicles 7:1–2).
Like the Passover, every visit to the temple etched smells, touches, tastes, sounds, and sights into the worshiper’s consciousness. After leaving the temple, when a familiar scent or sound broke their routine, they were pulled back in memory to the place where God was present, where their sins went to die, and where God’s promises were on full display.
Remember the Incarnation
In Christ, God took on flesh and tabernacled in the midst of his people (John 1:14). In Christ, we see God and, simultaneously, what it means to be truly human.
This is why Jesus’s ministry invades every part of us, including our senses. Through mud-caked eyes, the blind can see. Through a touch of his garment, he heals the broken. Through voicing a simple prayer, the multitudes taste bread and fish without end.
In Jesus, the one who created our senses entered his world to redeem them. He comes to touch, smell, hear, see, and taste death for his people so that you and I may do what we were made to do: worship him with every part of our being (Romans 12:1).
We were made for this. God calls us to taste this Bread of Life, to drink this life-giving water, to see this light of the world, to smell the sheep on our Good Shepherd, to hear his question, “Who do you say that I am?” We were made to touch his nail-scarred hands and see him standing outside the empty tomb (John 20:27).
Remember the Good News
We need to hear and experience the gospel over and over again. God has made a way for this. Jesus gives us new-covenant nostalgia in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. And through the waters of baptism, we see, taste, hear, smell, and feel what it means to move from death to life.
God saves all of us — redeeming and reinterpreting our senses, too — so that we can worship him more fully. So, taste and see — and touch, hear, and smell — that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). You were made for this — every part of you.
Editor's note: This was originally posted on Desiring God's website here.
Ryan Lister is a husband, father, blogger, author, and professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. He is also the Director of Doctrine and Discipleship for Humble Beast and co-creator of The Canvas Conference. Follow him on Twitter!