Monday, February 26, 2007

A Whale of a Story

Jonah didn’t want to go preach in Nineveh. So he tried to run from God. When God sent a storm that put in danger the ship Jonah was on, Jonah was tossed overboard and saved by a “great fish.” After the fish “deposited” Jonah on dry land, Jonah went to Nineveh and preached. Actually, he went and announced destruction. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The people of Nineveh repented, and God relented. He spared the city.

Jonah should have been thrilled. One of the most successful preachers of all time. But instead, he was furious. Mad at God. He said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”(Jonah 4:2)
And he was so angry that he asked God to kill him!

I see several important things in this story:

  1. We should expect God to be merciful and forgiving. God continually surprises with His grace, though those who know him well shouldn’t be surprised. It’s quite possible that in the final judgment God will once again prove Himself to be a God characterized by forgiveness and mercy.

  2. Even though we expect God to be merciful, our job is to preach the message that has been given to us. Jonah thought that it was quite possible that God would not destroy Nineveh, yet that’s not what he preached. He was given a message of destruction and preached what was given to him. (I think that’s why he was especially angry, because God had “made him look bad,” had allowed Jonah to announce something that didn’t happen)

  3. We need to learn to care for all people. There was an article on Time’s website which pointed out that Americans have a good idea of how many Americans have died in Iraq, but grossly underestimate how many Iraqi civilians have died. We tend to focus on “our boys” and forget that God respects no borders, no nationalities. Jonah couldn’t understand why God would love the Ninevites; let’s not be that shortsighted.

It’s a whale of a story!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Why I don't support the "prayer in school" movement

The petitions come around every now and again, people wanting to get signatures to force the government to do something to “allow prayer in school.” And people are always shocked when I say that I don’t support that. “What? You don’t believe in prayer in school?” Of course, I do. I just don’t believe that prayer was ever taken out of school. And I don’t support any of the actions that government would take to try and “put it back.”

I don’t want the school system trying to teach my kids to pray. [There was a humorous article about this in John Clayton’s Does God Exist magazine (read it here).] The vast majority of teachers and administrators out there don’t believe as I do, and I don’t want them involved in the spiritual formation of my children. I will teach my kids to pray. We pray before they go to school. I teach them to pray at different times throughout the day. They need no permission from a teacher or anyone else to say a prayer. Believe me, as long as there are tests in school, there will be prayer in school!

I’m much more interested in getting prayer in our homes. If our families are praying with their kids (not just at mealtime!), if kids see their parents turn to God in times of crisis and in times of joy, there will be no need for a “moment of silence” at school. The kids will pray.

Forget the “prayer in school” movement. Let’s work on the “prayer at home” movement.

Teachers don’t bother to make my kids pray,
Their prayers will be there, can’t take them away.
Keep your Hail Marys and“Allah be blest”s
Our kids will be praying as long as there’s tests!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Aaron’s sons — what’s the point of Leviticus 10?

“Note then the kindness and the severity of God” (Romans 11:22)

This is the fourth in a series of lessons on Aaron’s sons. In the first post, I raised the question of why we in our fellowship have tended to focus so much on Aaron’s eldest sons while basically ignoring the other two. Since Nadab and Abihu are not mentioned in the New Testament nor are they ever held up as an example in the Bible, we need to take a long hard look at our fascination with them. We also need to look at why we don’t talk about Eleazar and Ithamar, even though the Bible talks about them more than their more famous brothers. As a “people of the book,” we should be concerned about such inconsistencies. In the second post, I talked about the forgotten sons, Eleazar and Ithamar. And in my third post, I looked at what happened to Nadab and Abihu.

I think that Leviticus 10 is a living example of what God says about himself in Exodus 34: 6-7 — “The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” God is first and foremost a loving and forgiving God. Yet He is also a God who punishes sin. God forgave Eleazar and Ithamar their disobedience yet punished Nadab and Abihu for their rebellion.

    Here are some conclusions that I’ve drawn from my study of Leviticus 10:
  • The death of Nadab and Abihu is not a case of sincere, godly worshipers who made a mistake as to how they worshiped God. Theirs was irreverent rebellion. It was because of this that Aaron was silent after their death; he did not seek to defend them as he did Eleazar and Ithamar. Eleazar and Ithamar disobeyed God out of pure motives and their sin was forgiven. Nadab and Abihu did not recognize the holiness of God and died for their boldness.

  • This story shows us once again that God looks on the heart, looking at our motives when we fail to do what He has said and looking at our motives when we do what He has asked. Prideful rebellion against God will be punished as such. Yet God reserves the right to forgive failure to keep “the letter of the law,” because He and only He looks on the heart.

  • The sin of Nadab and Abihu was the failure to recognize the holiness of God. Theirs was the sin of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:7) and the sin of Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:16 and following). Theirs was the sin of Simon the magician (Acts 8) who sought to purchase the gifts of the Holy Spirit. God will be seen as holy by His people or they will not be His people.

And therein lies the main lesson for us. The holiness of God. The overwhelming characteristic of God, from what I can see, is holiness. Beings in His presence cry out “Holy, holy, holy.” His holiness overwhelms. We, as priests, enter into the Holy of Holies because of what Jesus did (“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Hebrews 10:19-22) . He opened the way for us to do what Nadab and Abihu tried to do. We enter confidently (Hebrews 4:16), knowing that our entry is permitted where theirs was not. Yet we must not enter flippantly. We must be aware of the holiness of God. God is not my good buddy; He is the holy God. We fear Him, not in the sense of being afraid of Him, but as we fear electricity: we’re not afraid to be around it, but we’re not going to stick a fork in the socket, either. I remember William Barclay writing about a Jewish rabbi who began every prayer by saying “Lord, forgive me.” He says that this rabbi confessed his fear of dying after calling on the Lord and before asking forgiveness. I by no means advocate that kind of fear of God, but I think we need to recognize that, when we worship God, we are entering onto holy ground. We are entering into the same area where fire consumed Nadab and Abihu, consumed them because they were flippant about the holiness of God. If their story is to be a warning to us, surely that is the warning: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29) Acceptable worship has to do with the condition of our heart before God.

Our God, the Holy God, is a consuming fire. Let us draw near to Him with confidence; let us draw near to Him with reverence and awe.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Aaron's Sons, Pt. 3

“Note then the kindness and the severity of God” (Romans 11:22)

All right, as Don said last week. let’s talk about “the boys.” Nadab and Abihu. While not mentioned as often as their brothers Eleazar and Ithamar, their story is definitely more dramatic (Sort of like why they always show tragedies on the news, not the happy endings).

Leviticus 10:1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. 2 And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

What’s that all about? Contrary to popular notion, it is not common in the Bible for God to strike people dead. This is the sort of incident that makes us say, “Man, whatever they did, I don’t want to do it.” So what did they do? With my best investigative skills, I’ve tried to reconstruct what happened. Here goes:

Aaron and his four sons have been named priests, going through an elaborate ritual that ended with fire coming out of the tabernacle and consuming the burnt offering and the pieces of fat that were on the altar. Seemingly, what happens to Nadab and Abihu happens in this same context (remember, that big number 10 in your Bible wasn’t in the original copy). During the festivities, Nadab and Abihu grab their new priestly censers, put fire into them and head off for the tabernacle. Apparently, they didn’t use the fire that God had provided (fire which was to be kept burning at all times and was to be used for holy purposes). The Bible calls what they used “strange fire”; think “strange” in the sense of stranger, not weird. It was fire from another place, not from the place that God had commanded.

A big part of their sin lies in the phrase “before the Lord.” They weren’t just making a strange offering; they were going to trot into the Holy of Holies to do it! Look at Leviticus 16:1-2. “The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died, and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die.” They drew near before the Lord and died. Having been given power, they wanted more. They wanted to do what only the high priest could do, enter the Holy of Holies. They wanted to do it when they wanted, not just on the Day of Atonement. They wanted to use the fire of their choosing, not just what God had ordered. And they died for their audacity. They did not respect the holiness of God. (Leviticus 10:3)

How could this happen? I think the Bible gives us a clue. Look at Leviticus 10:9-10. “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” Now I have to admit, it’s possible that God’s thinking was: “Now that I’ve got their attention, I’ll give them another law to remember.” But the more likely explanation is that this statute had to do with what had just happened. I think that Nadab and Abihu had been drinking. They were sacrificing under the influence. Their inebriated state kept them from recognizing God’s holiness, and they paid the price for it.

That’s my reconstruction of the crime scene. We’ll take a break for comments.