June 27, 2019

June 27, 2019

June 27, 2019
Leviticus 9:22-10:11
by Timothy Hankins
Pastor of Oakland UMC (Greenback, TN)

"Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)

The demise of Nadab and Abihu is extremely on-brand for Leviticus. Strict rules, harsh punishment, and a God who is so transcendent it's dangerous: it's all very Old Testament. I guess it's stories like this one that people are thinking of when they talk about the "Old Testament God." It's all so foreign to our modern sensibilities. It doesn't make any sense and it's scary.

I mean, these guys were just trying to do their job as priests, right? And because they don't get the act of worship right, God strikes them dead? What gives?

This Leviticus passage is one of many in the Old Testament that puzzles modern, Christian readers. We know God revealed in Jesus Christ, and sometimes this "Old Testament God" seems like another being entirely. Jesus and this "Old Testament God" seem to be at odds with one another. We believe in Jesus, and we believe the Bible to be true, so it confuses us when the God revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seems so different from the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

But I honestly think there is Gospel to be found in this passage; there is good news for us even in this admittedly frightening story.

To understand this passage, we have to remind ourselves of why the Torah was given to the ancient Israelites. The law was a God-given manual for righteousness. That is, the law was meant to insure right relationships in the covenant community: right relationships between human beings and God, and right relationships between human beings and each other.

This included highly detailed instructions on the proper conduct of worship. How to approach the holiness of God was a central theme of the Torah. In the law, God gave his chosen people access to him in a way that was safe given the immeasurable holiness of God's presence and the unavoidable sinfulness of the people.

In other words, there was no guess work involved in worshiping God. What Nadab and Abihu did wrong was to treat the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob like any other pagan deity—as one to be appeased by guesswork and entreatment. They ignored the Torah in favor of their own instincts. The transgression wasn't that the sons of Aaron misapplied or failed to notice an arcane instruction, the transgression was that they employed their own judgment rather than adhering to the judgment of God.

So, where is the good news? Where is the Gospel message in this story for us today?

We believe that God has fully and finally revealed the divine character in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as the law was given to facilitate the relationship between God and the chosen people, so Jesus is given to fulfill the law and to complete the reconciliation of humanity and God. We are now able to approach God through Jesus Christ. God's presence is no longer mediated by the tabernacle or temple offerings. God's presence, God's glory is now fully revealed in Jesus, and through Jesus we are invited into God's glory. 

So here's the good news: it's easy to avoid the sin of Nadab and Abihu! 

How do we do this? By remembering that we always and only approach God in and through the righteousness of Jesus. 

We repeat Nadab and Abihu's transgression when we attempt to approach God on our own terms, presenting our own righteousness for God's approval. How could our righteousness do anything but burn like chaff in the presence of God's indescribable holiness? But when we approach God in worship and prayer, we do so in and through the righteousness of Jesus.

We present ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; and we are made holy by the righteousness of Jesus. There is nothing in our sacrifice that we can take credit for. It's all Jesus—his work, and his righteousness, which we lay claim to by faith. And so, we are able to approach the presence of God with reverence and awe—yes always! But we are bold to approach God's presence in confidence, knowing that we approach the throne of grace covered in the righteousness of Jesus. 

Pastor Timothy Hankins