"Strange Fire" - Andrew Scott, Pastor (Printable version)
In my time I’ve served some pretty small churches. How small, you ask? So small that at least one of them could have met in my van. So small that in one non-air-conditioned church I instituted the Last Supper Rule: if fewer people showed up than attended the Last Supper, I got to take my coat off. So small that when George fell asleep – and he did, every week – I lost a tenth of the congregation.
Any fool can talk to 1000 people; it takes a real communicator to keep half a dozen interested. You tend to notice absences a whole lot more in small groups. Israel wasn’t a small group – far from it – but the priests were. So as Israel prepared to leave Mt. Sinai, somebody must have noticed that they had forty percent fewer priests than when they had arrived.
Mind you, there were only five of them to start with: Aaron – the brother of Moses, spokesman for God – and his four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. But Nadab and Abihu didn’t make the trek to Canaan. They didn’t even begin it. Why? Because, as we’re reminded here in the first verses of Numbers 3, they were dead.
Verse four explains: “But Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai…” That seems a little harsh, no? Keep in mind, their father, Aaron, had actually built an idol – literally, a golden calf – at the foot of Mt. Sinai only a few months earlier, declaring “this is your god, O Israel,” and he got off with a warning. Nadab and Abihu offer “unauthorized,” or “strange fire” before the Lord… and they’re killed.
The story is actually only a reminder of something that was already related in the tenth chapter of Leviticus. There it says that Nadab and Abihu went to offer incense before the Lord – they took censors, these metal bowls on chains – you’ve seen them in Catholic weddings – filled them with incense, and lit them on fire. Only it was unauthorized fire, fire that the Lord had not commanded them, according to Leviticus 10:1 – in other words, they weren’t following the instructions for worship that God had given Moses, and as a result, according to Leviticus 10:2, “fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” Which, I think it’s safe to say, is a fairly horrible image.
Now, last week I suggested that Numbers, as a book, particularly speaks to us, as a book about the people of God in the in-between time, between their salvation from slavery in Egypt, and their entry into the promised land of Canaan. In the same way, as Christians we find ourselves in an in-between time, between the experience of salvation from slavery to sin and death through Jesus Christ, and our final entry into the promised land, into Jesus’ own country. Like the wandering Israelites we find ourselves in the world, but not of the world – and we have to figure out how to handle that, how to stay engaged in the world around us without selling our souls, so to speak; how to remain faithful and fruitful as we confront a world that constantly urges us to submit, to compromise, to surrender. And in the process, how do we bear witness, how do we participate in the redemption of the world, through Christ?
Again, Numbers has a lot of advice for us, but it also has a lot of warnings. In this book we see, over and over again, the consequences of sin, the danger of an unrepentant soul. And this is one of those warnings – a simple reminder that Nadab and Abihu weren’t going to be making the trip to Canaan, because they had messed up, and were dead. But what had they done? More to the point, what had they done that was worse than their dad?
It was their father Aaron, after all, who only a few months earlier, in the absence of Moses and urged on by the mob, had gathered together a large quantity of rings and necklaces and earrings and melted them down, forming from them a golden idol. A calf. And then proceeded to stand before it and declare, “this is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Now, when most of us compare straight-up, golden-calf idolatry to lighting incense with “unauthorized fire,” the latter looks… well, kind of petty, doesn’t it? And furthermore, if indeed Numbers – along with all of scripture – is inspired and given for our benefit, for our instruction, what is it we’re supposed to get out of this? Or is it just one of those examples of the inscrutable wrath of God that we’re supposed to accept and file away for future reference?
There are answers here. And in order to understand them, you’re going to have to remember a few things: First, you’ve got to remember that God cares about how he’s worshipped. Read Exodus and Leviticus. The vast majority of the two books preceding this one consist of instructions about worship. How do you make an offering? Who gets to go into the Tent of Meeting, and when? What kind of sacrifices are acceptable to the Lord? That sort of thing.
There’s a reason we do the sort of things we do in worship. We’re not just making things up. We didn’t wake up one day and say, “hey, I really like singing, let’s sing to God.” No - the pattern of worship is set in his Word. As it happens, as Christians we have more general instructions, with a little more leeway, but in the Old Testament here, it was all laid out in black and white. And there are more than a few hints here that Nadab and Abihu did it wrong.
For example, in the tenth chapter of Leviticus, right after telling us what happened to Nadab and Abihu, there’s a command – it seems almost out of place – not to drink any wine or liquor before going into the Tent of Meeting, on pain of death. That command is addressed to Aaron and his sons. There are also pretty strict rules about who goes into the sanctuary, into the Tent of Meeting, and when (Lev. 16:2). And the answer (apart from Moses) is really only a couple of times a year. So what we sort of piece together is that Nadab and Abihu went into the Tent of Meeting, into the Holy of Holies – possibly while drunk – and proceeded to make stuff up, to do it their own way. And they died.
The second thing to remember is that God doesn’t tolerate being treated lightly. When David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel, he loaded it in a cart (2 Samuel 6:3), contrary to God’s direct instructions, like a piece of luggage. When the cart hit a rut, and a man named Uzzah put his hand on the side of the Ark to steady it… Uzzah was struck dead. Or how about Ananias and Saphira, who – according to the fifth chapter of Acts – sold a piece of land and made a show out of giving all the proceeds to the church. Only they hadn’t actually given all the proceeds: they had held back. When Peter confronted them about it, they were struck dead – not because they hadn’t given everything; Peter said they were under no obligation to give anything. But because they had lied about it – they had lied to God.
God is not mocked. If you think you’re pulling one over on him; if you think you’re getting away with something; if you think that because other people don’t know, he doesn’t know – well, you’re in for a nasty surprise.
The last thing worth pointing out here is that Nadab and Abihu are hardly alone. The Bible is chock full of priests – and especially the sons of priests – behaving badly. Look at the sons of Eli. Eli himself was a good man. He took in the prophet Samuel, and served the Lord for decades. His sons? Hophni and Phineas were too busy seducing women who came to worship at the Tabernacle. They also, incidentally, paid with their lives. Now, what do all of them have in common, and why is it worse than what Aaron did? When Aaron made the golden calf, and led the people to worship it, he didn’t really know God, and so he got God wrong. Nadab and Abihu – along with Eli’s sons – knew God, or at least they knew about God – and they treated him… casually. As if he weren’t holy. As if he didn’t care. As if he weren’t there.
And that, my friends, is the real danger. It may be that some will abandon the faith altogether, that they’ll deny Christ outright. But many more will pay him lip service, only to treat him casually. I think of the people I talk to who claim to be Christians, but who live lives of sensuous immorality. Or the people who assure me that they’re okay, because they’ve got “an arrangement with the man upstairs.” If that sounds like you, let me tell you this: you are in danger. Because there’s only one arrangement that’s worth a nickel, and that’s the one laid out by God himself: repentance, faith in Christ, and obedience. That’s it. Anything else is unauthorized fire – worthless to you, and offensive to God. So be careful. Amen.