Strange Fire

Strange Fire

Well, that’s a real downer of a Bible story after such a joyous celebration last Lord’s Day, isn’t it? 

I don’t imagine we’ll see a Veggie Tales video about Nadab and Abihu anytime soon.

Although they had a great story at first.  Other than mentioning their birth, the first we read of them is in Exodus 24.  After the Israelites confirmed God’s covenant with them, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders of Israel went up Mount Sinai and saw God. The Lord was walking on something that looked like pavement made of clear sapphire.  They all worshipped God, and from there, God called Moses up farther to get the tablets of the Law.

But it was not long after this glorious beginning that Aaron’s two older sons did something that cost them their lives.  It involved “strange fire.”  Several versions call it “unauthorized fire.”  Others refer to it as “profane fire.”

Numbers 3 mentions the incident without much detail, probably to explain to readers and hearers why Eleazar and Ithamar are the only sons of Aaron who are helping their father.  Leviticus 10:1-7 has more detail about what happened to Nadab and Abihu and why.

So what exactly did the two men do that was so wrong?  Were they rebellious or presumptuous?  Careless or ignorant?  Impatient or impulsive?

Maybe drunk? The passage from Leviticus 10 goes on to say that the priests are not to drink alcohol when they are serving in the Tent of Meeting.

“Strange fire” was involved both in their sin and in their death.  Was it fire that came from God and killed them or lightning?  In either case, it should remind us of Elijah and his showdown on Mount Moriah with the prophets of Baal – when God sent all-consuming fire, which burned not only the sacrifice, but also the stone altar and evaporated all the water in the trenches surrounding it. 

For Nadab and Abihu, the fire was all-consuming.  They died without any sons to carry on their name or to continue in their role as priests. Their destruction was so complete that God forbade Aaron to grieve for his firstborn and second sons.  It was as though they never existed.

There were warnings: the past two Sundays we have read how Israelites who were not from Moses and Aaron’s families or from the tribe of Levi had to keep their distance from the Tent of Meeting or they would die.  If anyone doubted the seriousness of God’s word and the sacredness of that space – that ended with the death of Nadab and Abihu.  It set a tone of reverence for God and God’s commands and God’s dwelling place on earth.

But the question still bothers us – what did they do that was so wrong?

There are a number of possibilities – and maybe a combination of them.

Each used his own censer and not a sacred one from the sanctuary, they offered incense together even though God had decreed that only one person – their father, the high priest – could burn incense, and they did it apart from the morning and evening sacrifices.  Perhaps they even planned to enter the Most Holy Place – which only the High Priest could enter only once a year, and only after offering a sacrifice for his own sins. 

If the High Priest had to be careful in the Tent of Meeting, his sons had to be even more careful to follow the letter of the law.

What made the fire “strange” or “unauthorized” or “profane” was that it did not come from the bronze altar, where sacrifices were offered and God Himself sent the fire to consume the initial sacrifice.

The fire that God provided was to be kept going as a reminder of God’s presence.  Nadab and Abihu apparently found their fire somewhere else, so it was common, unholy, or “profane” fire.  I believe this is what angered God the most.

But what is the ultimate point of this tragic story?  This is where Christians of all types have hijacked the death of Nadab and Abihu to be used as a weapon to push their particular agenda.  It has been used to condemn contemporary styles of worship – as well as high-church liturgies for daring to use incense at all.  It has been used to criticize professional clergy for handling sacred objects and events and sacraments too casually because they get too comfortable with them – as well as lay church leaders for handling them even with utmost reverence.  It has even been used to suggest that church leaders must be teetotalers.

The Scottish Presbyterian pastor James Philip got much closer to the point when he wrote, “To serve God acceptably, we must light our flame at His altar.  This must be our only inspiration and dynamic.”  And it is true that any who worship – but especially those who lead worship – must do so by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by their own cleverness or creativity.    

The deeper truth of this story is same as in every Bible story: the Gospel.  The Gospel is the bedrock that all Scripture is built upon. 

At this point, no one could criticize you for having a hard time finding the Good News in this awful story.  But it’s there.

Consider how complex and specific God’s commands were for how people were to worship Him and to carry out the sacrifices required for forgiveness.  And how harsh the penalties were for not following the Law to the letter.

Now contrast that with our New Testament passage from Hebrews 10:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.

We no longer live in fear of incurring God’s wrath by violating God’s laws. No longer are we commanded to keep our distance from God’s presence. Now we are encouraged to approach the throne of grace with confidence.

Boldly.  We can do this because Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice has opened the way for us.  The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is reminding us of the story of the crucifixion – how at the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place in the Temple was torn from top to bottom.  We now have access to God’s presence, without fear of being struck by lightning or incinerated. 

And yes, that goes for people who insist that the roof would fall in if they ever showed up in church.  No hardhat required.  No asbestos suit needed to come to worship in God’s presence.

We may chuckle at that thought, but I know people who will not go to worship because they believe they are not worthy to come into God’s presence.

We can worship without fear of inadvertently failing to follow God’s prescribed order for worship.  When we think about it, our worship can never be perfectly what God wants – because we worshippers are not perfect.  Paul wrote in Romans 8 that God has that covered, too:

… we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Everything about worship changed with the death of Jesus – the carefully prescribed system of sacrifices, the limits on access to God by His people,

the tight restrictions on people’s even being able to come to worship God –all were covered by the blood of Jesus. 

So the sad story of Nadab and Abihu makes the contrast between the old system of worship and sacrifice and the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood all the greater.  And should make us all the more grateful and all the more eager to come to worship God.  Amen.