Unauthorized Fire

For the week of April 2, 2016 / 23 Adar II 5776

UnauthorizedFire01_480

Shemini & Parah
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47; Bemidbar/Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

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Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:1-2)

It is incidences like this one that challenges pop notions about God. Perhaps it also reinforces an older view that helped create the current one. It seems that there was a time when the God of the Bible was depicted as a big angry man in the sky, who was just waiting for one of his lowly human creatures to mess up, so he could give him what for. I don’t know if this is myth or not, but this depiction of the Great and Awesome Holy God was completely devoid of love, mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance.

We don’t hear too much about the Great and Awesome Holy God anymore. He has been replaced by a far gentler, tolerant, and understanding universal force known for his unconditional love.

From a biblical perspective both of these caricatures of the God of Israel are inaccurate. From Genesis through Revelation, his love, mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance are essential aspects of his character. From the moment the human race fell into the clutches of evil, he has been determined to rescue us (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:15). The reason for calling Abraham and developing the nation of Israel was to bring the blessing of life to the whole world (see Genesis 12:1-3). The whole story of Israel is one of a loving Father yearning for the welfare of his people with the goal of the promised blessing enveloping the globe. The greatest expression of this love is evidenced in the gift of the Messiah, his Son, along with an invitation to all to receive eternal life (see John 3:16).

If this is true, what do we do with a story like Nadab and Abihu? How could a God of love strike down Aaron’s sons like this? Apart from offering “unauthorized fire,” we don’t even know exactly what they did wrong. They may have been drunk (see Vayikra/Leviticus 10:8-9). But the prohibition against priests being under the influence wasn’t given until afterward. Whatever the reason, it resulted in a most drastic response from an otherwise merciful and loving God.

This is not an isolated case. Through the Hebrew Scriptures, we see God harshly punish people. For some, the activities of a wrathful God is a so-called “Old Testament” phenomenon, but that simply isn’t true. This same complexity of character is revealed in the New Covenant Writings as well. While love, mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance are so central, Yeshua has harsh and even cold words for all sorts of people. Later, God kills two people for spiritual hypocrisy (see Acts 5:11), and Paul even strikes a person blind who was getting in the way of God’s love (Acts 13:4-12).

Believing in a god who only does nice things is escapism. It might make you feel better to think that God’s love is warm and cozy fluff that wants nothing more than to coddle you in your dysfunction. But God loves you too much to simply give you whatever you want. The love of God is love on his terms, not ours. He is overwhelmingly merciful and accepting, but only if we are willing to come to him his way, by repenting of our sins and humbly trusting in the Messiah Yeshua.

And once we experience his forgiveness and acceptance in Yeshua, that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want. It’s true that God isn’t waiting to blast us for the smallest slip-up. He is way more patient than that. But if we think we can take his love for granted, and assume that he will put up with our irresponsible behavior, we are fooling ourselves. I don’t know what your “unauthorized fire” might be. But don’t wait until it’s too late.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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More than Heart

For the week of March 19, 2016 / 9 Adar II 5776

Book pages in the shape of a heart

Vayikra & Zakhor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (English: 1:1 – 6:7) &
Devarim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 2 Shmuel/1 Samuel 15:2-34

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If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. (Vayikra / Leviticus 1:3)

When reading the descriptions of the various sacrifices in the third book of Moses it becomes apparent that the emphasis isn’t so much over why various sacrifices were offered, but rather what the requirements were for each sacrifice. This includes which animals were allowed, since certain animals were acceptable for some and not for others; which offerings included portions for the cohanim (English: priests) and which did not; when the people were to keep parts of the animal for eating and when not to; which offerings included grain and/or drink; which ones allowed for less expensive items when given by the poor, and so on.

It is clear that God was very particular about the regulations surrounding the sacrifices. People were not to offer to God whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and however they wanted. How God was to be worshipped was determined by God – not by the people.

Someone might want to point out that God was never really interested in the external aspects of worship. Didn’t the prophets make this clear as in this example from Isaiah and quoted by Yeshua several centuries later?

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13 cf. Matthew 15:8).

Performing our duties, while our hearts are actually distant from God is hypocrisy. God is not fooled by our simply going through the motions. But the prophetic warning against the trap of heartless submission to God doesn’t imply that it’s all about the heart. Scripture never gives the impression that God accepts anything and everything we choose to offer him. Faith in God is never to be a cover up for evil.

Our acceptance by God due to Yeshua’s final sacrifice for sin doesn’t mean that how we approach God no longer matters. In fact, the restrictions upon us are greater than ever before. While the sacrificial system is no longer in force, the offering he now calls for is the offering of ourselves. The New Covenant writings sees this as the only reasonable response to his great mercy toward us in the Messiah. Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Romans 12:1)

And just as Torah carefully outlined the requirements for the sacrifices, so Paul reminds us that we should take similar care about how we offer ourselves:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).

Certainly our inner motives are essential, but so are the externals. We don’t live godly lives in order to achieve God’s acceptance. Rather because of God’s acceptance of us in Yeshua, we strive after godliness—a godliness according to his design.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Divine Interruptions

For the week of March 12, 2016 / 2 Adar II 5776

Divine Interruptions

Pekudei
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 38:21-40:38
Haftarah 1 Melachim/1 Kings 7:40-50

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot/Exodus 40:34-35)

Who likes interruptions! We live in a busy world. Places to go; things to do. But interruptions are a fact of life these days especially. Phone calls, text messages, tweets, emails all vie for our attention. Already while I have been writing this message I have been interrupted by a text and a phone call. I know I could probably do a better job at resisting the buzzes and bells of these attention grabbers, but you know how it is.

Some people are better than others at not being interrupted. They are very focused individuals that are so keenly aware of their responsibilities that nothing will get in the way of their goals.

Hold on, my daughter is texting me.

Okay, I’m back. Where was I? Oh yeah, focused individuals—

Focused individuals can be so good at resisting interruption that they might actually be missing what God is trying to do in their lives. You might wonder how that could be possible. If God is God, then how can he be resisted? We’ll get to that in a minute.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is interrupted by God. After completing the building and setup of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), we read that the glory of God filled it in such a way that it prevented Moses from going into the special tent where he normally met with God. That means that this tangible manifestation of God kept Moses from doing his regular God duties.

I imagine most people reading this would consider it amazingly wonderful that God’s presence would be among people in such a spectacular, awesome way. But that’s the perspective of an objective reader. It’s another thing when you are in the middle of it. In Moses’s case, he may not have had much of a choice, but how about when God interrupts our lives in other not-so-obvious ways? When great unexpected events happen to us—the kind that have the potential to completely change the course of our lives, what then? I am not saying that every such event is a divine interruption, but I wonder how much we might be missing—or worse—resisting.

The greatest divine interruption in history was the coming of the Messiah Yeshua. The Jewish people had been prepped by God for centuries for his arrival. By the time he came, messianic expectation in Israel was at a fever pitch. As he began to teach and perform signs and wonders, crowds of people began to wonder if he might indeed be the One. The leadership was hesitant, just as established leadership tends to be. But then most of the leadership became more than hesitant. They became outright resistant; hostile, in fact. Even though they were the ones who had taught the people about the Messiah in the first place, he was interrupting their lives by not doing things exactly as they expected. They had successfully built a community of survival within a very oppressive society and were legitimately afraid that change would undermine their rule. Therefore, interruptions could not be tolerated. They may not have been conscious of how much their insistence on staying on course blinded them to God, so that most of them failed to see that the Messiah was in their midst.

This should be a great warning to us all. These leaders, for the most part, were acting out of a good motive as they sought to fulfill their God-given responsibilities. But if experts and keeners out of their earnestness could resist a divine interruption, how much more we? Do we think that we are not susceptible to being so focused on our agendas, our plans, and our ways of doing things, that we wouldn’t ever push God away when he shows up?

This is not to say that every interruption in our lives is from God and should be wholeheartedly embraced. But let’s be careful that in our desire to stay focused we don’t miss how God might be trying to get through to us.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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