Sunday, March 03, 2024
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“Strange Fire”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, March 3, 2024
Reading: Leviticus 10:1-7


A friend of mine was in a volcano eruption. He was on a mission trip to Indonesia. They took a day to hike up and peer into the volcano. Walking back down, the thing went off. Getting the group back down the mountain with broken bones and burns left a mark—not just scars, but it sent him into ministry. Another friend was attacked by an alligator. She and her brother crossed a pond in low country South Carolina. Her brother went first and must have angered it. She got the retribution. A stranger picked them up and took them to the hospital. She doesn’t remember how many surgeries she had. She went into ministry too. My two friends haven’t met each other. But I want to pair them for a scar and storytelling competition.

It’s dangerous being alive. And the more boldly you live, the more danger you face. In our story for today we hear how dangerous it is to get close to the living God.

Nadab and Abihu are two of Aaron’s sons, so they’re two of the first priests in Israel. Aaron’s sons will continue Israel’s priestly line forever. The Hebrew word for priest is kohen, so if you know someone with a last name like Cohen they’re likely from this same family. If there were still a temple standing in Jerusalem today, they’d be there, making offerings for the rest of Israel and the world. Nadab and Abihu were there for this extraordinary moment back in Exodus:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

I was impressed that my friend saw a volcano go off. I mean, he got a free helicopter ride and written up in USA Today. Nadab and Abihu and 72 others see God. But the story doesn’t describe God—just the pavement under God’s feet. No words can do God justice. What do they do in God’s presence? Eat and drink. A little picnic. Or better said, the Lord’s Supper, a meal with the almighty.

So, Nadab and Abihu have that on their resume.

Here in Leviticus, they take their first turn as priests. Leviticus is a book of rules, and the people follow carefully. Until now. This is the young priests’ first turn at the altar, their first time to serve God on behalf of the rest of us. And how does it go?

When I was a teenager, I got my first chequing account. Put $50 in it. Wrote my first cheque for $50. I did not realize the bank charged me a few bucks for a monthly fee. So, my first cheque ever written bounced. Insufficient funds. Try again loser. Well, this is Nadab’s and Abihu’s first day as priests. They come to make their offering. And they do it wrong. We don’t know why. Scripture says they offer “strange fire,” a rabbi friend says it’s better translated “foreign fire.” No one knows what this means. Scripture doesn’t say for a reason, keeps us guessing. This is like your kid getting their license, going on their first solo drive, and wrecking the car. Not good. Fire erupts. Nadab and Abihu are killed. And Aaron is commanded not even to mourn for them as a father usually would. Aaron is silent with shock. This is a car wreck where two siblings die. This is my friend’s mission trip if they’d all been cooked. Nothing good about it.

We’re in a series on sibling rivalry at our church. Our siblings make us us, and then unmake us, and keep therapists busy. This story has both siblings die, so no rivalry, just a terrible shared fate. Hard to find the mercy in it. Friend of mine asked me about an Old Testament story one time: is this one of those things that Jesus fixes? We have that out as Christians: this story shows something bad, but don’t worry, the New Testament makes it better. Could that be an answer here?

As soon as I hear the words “Strange Fire” I think of a song by the Indigo Girls in the 80s. They were predecessors of the Dixie Chicks and Canada’s own The Wailin’ Jennys. Music always builds on tradition while changing it, like faith. One of the two Indigo Girls has a seminary professor for a dad, grew up in a Methodist youth group. Here’s a stanza:

Mercenaries of the shrine
Now who are you to speak for god
With haughty eyes and lying tongues
And hands that shed innocent blood
Now who delivered you the power
To interpret calvary
You gamble away our freedom
To gain your own authority.

It’s a critique of religion, of people like me in robes buying and selling access to God. The Indigo Girls are not a religious band, but this is a deeply Protestant take on faith. An Old Testament God, a corrupt priesthood, nothing to do with the God of love. We Protestants used to say such things about our Catholic brethren—they have priests, don’t they? Old Testament bad, New Testament good. There is something to be critiqued in all religion like all human endeavours. But when we do this sort of thing, we Christians cast judgment on our Jewish elder siblings too. As if for our faith to be good theirs has to be bad. It’s a very bad habit. I don’t blame the Indigo Girls; I blame a sort of reflexive anti-Judaism in Christianity.

I was in a conversation once on biblical interpretation by feminists. A Christian gave a lovely talk on how Jesus includes women, when his culture had not. And a Jewish feminist responded: ‘as a feminist I’m pleased. But as a Jew, I’m offended. You can praise Jesus without condemning his Jewish mom and family. Maybe they taught him all the good stuff?’ Now you know why we’re so invested in friendship with Jewish people here at TEMC: we need them to help us see our faith truly.

Okay then, if this isn’t a bad sort of Old Testament story, what is it?

One great spiritual writer of our age is Annie Dillard. She writes this:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense.

Ushers: we’ll have training in the new regs soon. Scripture calls God a devouring fire. Don’t get too close. What seems like superstition to some, seems like good sense for those who know what God is. Our forebears in Israel regarded God like we regard nuclear power. Sure, it gives energy, but it’s dangerous. Don’t deviate from the rules, not even a little, or people will die.

We Christians have been trying so hard to make God warm and cuddly, that we’ve rendered him sort of toothless, harmless. But this is the living God at the molten core of the universe. Imagine if we talked this way about God? How was church? Not bad, lost a few pastors, it happens. We’ll need a search committee or two. How was the youth sleepover? Fun! Lost a few kids though, got too close to God, I guess? Please forgive the dark humour.

There is a tradition in Israel, a strong one, that Nadab and Abihu aren’t being punished, they’re being promoted. Elevated into the divine presence. Taken up. They’re too good for this world. That’s why Aaron is forbidden from mourning. There is precedent. In Genesis, Enoch is taken up into God’s presence and seen no more, he was too good for creation. Could be. But here’s more. A priest’s job is to make offerings on behalf of the people, to restore what’s been broken. Nadab and Abihu step up to do that and make the ultimate sacrifice: they offer themselves. And God’s relationship with Israel is repaired. Earlier in Exodus, when God was furious for the golden calf, God planned to destroy all Israel. And Moses said no, God, you can’t do that, if you want to take someone take me. That’s what a priest does. Pacifies God. Offers himself, herself, instead.[i]

Do you see where we Christians get our notion of Christ offering himself for all humanity?

Last week I was standing up at that altar with our gifts. It’s our most priestly moment in here. Doxology rumbling on the organ. I’d just preached on Aaron the priest wearing Israel on his heart in the form of a breastplate, Jesus in our stained glass has Aaron’s breastplate on, he wears Israel before God on his heart. So, I covered my heart with my two hands. And I looked at the altar cloth. And I noticed the cloth looks like a fire, doesn’t it? I was making an offering before a fiery God. A dangerous spot, like the lip of a volcano. I was glad to sneak back down to my safe seat.

We Christians can’t feel superior about not making sacrifice, as if it’s a primitive notion. All ancient cultures seem to have practiced human sacrifice. Israel remembers this as something its neighbours and opponents do—offer children to Molech. In the Bible there are frequent commands not to offer children, which suggests we did. Lawyers know you don’t pass a law against something no one is doing. Why did people do this? We offer what’s precious so that God will bring blessing: victory in war or end of disease or whatever. Israel stepped away from such sacrifices with the story of Abraham not offering Isaac. God steps in and intervenes, don’t do this. We Christians do the same with the cross: that’s the last sacrifice, no more. But there lingers a memory of when we did make more costly offerings.

Don’t feel superior: we still have sacrifice. This church honours the names of those lost in the world wars, etched in stone, we read their names with reverence on Remembrance Day. We speak the same of fallen police or fire fighters: they sacrifice their safety, and sometimes their lives for the rest of us. When Notre Dame was on fire a few years back a fire crew refused to go in and save the façade. The middle ages’ greatest church would be no more. Until another crew, led by a young woman, stepped up, and said, we’ll go. It would be an honour to give our lives for France’s greatest symbol. They went and saved that thing; may it stand another 10,000 years. We have no other language with which to speak of such bravery except sacrifice. One reason we honour the soldiers in stone is we have so few opportunities to offer ourselves for others. We’ve lost something there, haven’t we? A sense that giving oneself for others is the most beautiful thing you could do. Be careful with it—the language of sacrifice, like every language, can be abused. But I kind of miss it, don’t you? Our culture’s numbing drumbeat says, live for yourself, acquire all you can, make your own happy, die suddenly at 120 years old with no pain and plenty of money left. And we wonder why people are so crushingly lonely and sad.

There is a deadliness at the heart of our faith. When we baptize, we lay people down under water until their old self dies. Then a new person rises to resurrection life. When we take the Lord’s Supper there is a broken body and spilled blood that give life. Scripture often speaks of the Word of God as a sword. It’s sharp. It protects life, sure, but it takes life too. Never think words can’t hurt, they certainly can, use them wisely. Lots of modern faith has tried to blunt the sharp edges of these deadly teachings. I think that’s a mistake. Faith is life or death. Pretend it’s not, and you’re not being serious. Worse, you’re not taking care at the edge of the volcano, at the alligator pond. Life is dangerous, are we surprised eternal life is too?

But there is life in faith too, not just death. Eternal life. The only sacrifice required is not us or our children or anything we give. The only sacrificed required, God has already given in Jesus Christ. God requires an offering. And then God provides the offering required himself. Many of our greatest saints speak of being full of God as like, well, being in a fire. It burns, as our sins melt away. But fire also purifies, cauterizes wounds, gives life. When we speak of an athlete or a musician at their best, or a mom so pregnant she’s like the sun: we say they’re on fire. That’s life with God.

God speaks to Moses in a burning bush. You know what Christians have seen in that burning bush? The Virgin Mary. In the same way the bush is on fire but not destroyed, so too Mary is filled with the fiery presence of God and not consumed. Instead, she births life, for all. So yes, God is a raging fire, a molten core, an inferno. But God offers none but himself, in his servants Nadab and Abihu, in his Son Jesus. And God sets all creation ablaze, especially you. Amen.



[i] This is all from Ephraim Radner’s Leviticus commentary.