Oh, my. It is time for the death talk. I didn't intend for it to be now, but the text sets it up so well. And I've been needing to get these thoughts on paper (or on screen) for awhile. Too bad it happened on a Saturday when no one reads. Pity. But...now's the time.
I really don't feel compelled to find "themes" for the readings, but the OT and NT definitely have one today. The theme is, to paraphrase words of the apostles, "Don't you care if we die?"
OT: Lev. 9:7-10:20
Let's first take a minute to absorb the full impact of what happens in today's reading. The elaborate seven day ordination ceremony is coming to a close. Israel has just ordained its first three priests as all the people watch, perhaps with a mixture of fascination and fear. And now, it is time for the first sacrifice for the people. Before everyone's eyes, five animals are ritualistically slaughtered, dismembered, and burned. And then, the glory of the Lord appears to all the people in the form of a fire that comes out (from the cloud?) and consumes the offering. The people react appropriately: they "shouted for joy and fell facedown" (9:24). What an amazing moment. What a time for celebration and awe and hope and reverence. Seizing the moment, the newly minted priests, Nadab and Abihu take their censors, put fire in them, and add incense. Apparently, this is the wrong thing to do. Apparently, it breaks one of God's rules. To be honest, I have no idea which one it breaks, and I'm not looking back to check b/c it's kinda beside the point. All I remember about the incense is that it had to be an exact mix and that no one else could replicate it for their own use. The problem doesn't seem to be with the incense anyway here, but with the fire. Oops.
So what happens? Fire from the Lord comes out and consumes them. They burn to death in front of their father and all the people. Talk about a change in tone! The mood quickly changes from joy and awe to horror as the two men probably run, roll, and scream until all that remains of them are charred, lifeless bodies. What does Aaron do during all that, I wonder? Does he try to put them out? Does he stand there in shock? Does he scream and wail? What's even worse is Moses' reaction. Aaron has just watched his sons burn to death, and Moses' first words are essentially, "See? That's what God meant when He said He was holy" (paraphrase of 10:3). All Aaron can do is remain silent. Stunned into shock, no doubt. Moses continues to be harsh, strictly warning Aaron that while he could mourn for his sons (thanks, Moses), he could not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes or move from the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And then he decides it is a great time to let Aaron know about a few more rules for priests, namely that they can't drink wine when they go into the tent. Maybe Moses chooses this time to tell Aaron that because he knows that Aaron would like nothing more than to go into the Tent and get hammered right now. Undoubtedly, Aaron is probably wondering, "What have I done? What have I gotten myself into?" He has got to be absolutely horrified by this God that he is now commissioned to serve.
Pondering that scene brought all my "death thoughts" to the surface. I mentioned in an earlier entry that I believe that there are two erroneous reactions to shocking, God-sanctioned death. One is to be unfeeling, to think, "Oh well, God is God. They had it coming." Yes, great introspection. Do you have any idea what we all "have coming" to us? This might be a good time to explore those implications! My own reaction veers not to that extreme, but to the other extreme. I tend to see such a wanton destruction of sacred life and get angry. I ask God, "Why did you do that?" How can you just take life away like that, for nothing? (And yes, I know it wasn't "nothing," but it seemed like "nothing" to me.)
And to me, that is a good question to ask God. I think we need to explore that, if not for ourselves, than for the many, many people who are "turned off" to God because of the pain and suffering and death they see all around them. It is our job to witness to those people, to spread the Truth in a way that they can understand. But first, we have to try to understand it ourselves.
I think the issue is complicated for Americans (and I guess to most Westerners) because of the influence of Enlightenment philosophy on our thinking. Since we were schoolchildren, we have heard repeated a very powerful thought: "We hold these truths to be self-evident...that [all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." I have to hand it to Jefferson--that sentence sounds amazing. So simple. So powerful. And, the more I think about it...so patently ridiculous. We are endowed by our Creator with an inalienable right to life??? Do you know what inalienable means? It means incapable of being alienated. It means something that you can't take away. Friends, our "right to life" is alienated all the time. And our "right to life" is not just alienated by other people, like murderers or judges or soldiers or what have you. A person's right to life is alienated every time they have a heart attack. Or die of cancer. If we have an inalienable right to life, then every fatal car accident, every terminal disease, is a violation of our rights, a crime against humanity, perpetrated by our Creator.
There is no such thing as the "right to life." Life is not a right. It is a sacred, precious gift from God. And as such, the Bible tells us that in general, we have no right to take others' lives. (In general, mind you.) And as such, we have a duty as humans to seek to protect life, to pass laws securing life. But the basis of such laws is not "self-evident" ridiculousness. The basis of such laws is God's revelation to us about the sanctity of life. (And as such, when we see God take life away, as in the case of Nadab and Abihu, we need to understand that as a serious message from God. It should drive us to our knees!)
"There is no right to life," is part one of my thoughts. Part two is, "God looks at life much, much differently than we do." Our natural instincts, our desire for self-preservation are so strong that we see life as a "self-evident" right. For our life-loving selves, anger is a natural reaction to death, either our own or others'. After all, life is a sacred and beautiful gift, and having that gift taken from you (like Aaron did, not to mention Nadab and Abihu themselves) will rock your world. Take it from me, it will not be a cool experience for you. But in God's eyes, physical life is not something to which we should cling. God came to give us life, but by that, He didn't mean air in our lungs. Whether we have a beating heart is not God's chief concern. Real life is not found in the functioning of your vital organs. Rather, the life God wants His people to have is found in Him. How many times have we read in Psalms and Proverbs this year that wisdom is life, that God's words are life, that God is life? How many times do the Gospels call Christ "life"? How many times does Jesus say that He has come to bring life? Life is a relationship with God. Strictly speaking, the functioning of your vital organs is irrelevant. That is in God's hands. And if it is best for His plan that you get publicly immolated, that you get slaughtered with your whole city, that you get your head chopped off because of a vindictive queen, that you get crucified upside down, or sawed in two, or used as a human torch...well, then that's what is going to happen. And those things aren't tragedies or crimes against humanity. No, those things are part of a glorious, divine plan. And for God's saints, they are merely a prelude into the full, complete version of real life.
Wow, there is so much more to say. I have verses about how God views the deaths of the wicked and righteous, respectively; thoughts about the dramatic shift in perspective on life b/t the OT and NT (seen, for example, in David's groveling v. Paul's "for me...to die is gain" pronouncement); and caveats galore about our attitude toward the pain of others and about the eternal implications of OT deaths like Nadab and Abihu...but I have a feeling that we will have plenty more time to continue this discussion when the Israelites start clearing out Canaan. For now, my brain is satisfied with unloading that portion of my thoughts:). I welcome feedback! Really--I would like nothing more than to have a discussion with someone who disagrees with or is bothered by this line of thinking. Such discussion serves to refine my thoughts, and I would hope it would be beneficial to the other person, too.
NT: Mark 4:26-5:20
This passage starts off with some great little parables highlighting the power of the kingdom of God. In the first, the kingdom of God continually grows and expands on its own, regardless of man's intervention. In the second, the kingdom of God flourishes from a tiny seed into "the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade" (4:32). Nice.
In verse 33-34, it is reemphasized that Jesus is using only parables to teach and that he is only explaining them to His disciples. More mystery.
In light of Nadab and Abihu, I found 4:35-41 to provide a fascinating contrast. In the OT passage, God is frightening and awe-inspiring, and He kills at will if one misstep is made. In the NT passage, foolish, faithless apostles are literally shaking God and yelling at Him, "Don't you care if we drown?" And then the Holy One wakes up, calms the storm, and asks the disciples, "Why are you so afraid?" Umm...so many answers to that question, especially in light of our OT reading:).
Of course, it is also interesting to keep in the back of your head how the lives of all these apostles ended. I think that historical records indicate that all of them, or almost all of them, were martyred. And the last chapter of John indicates that Jesus definitely knew at least of Peter's fate. So..."do you care if we drown?" Well, yes, b/c it is not your time. But your time will come. And it will not be pretty. But it will be part of the Plan.
It's amazing to me when it starts to sink in how much our physical lives are merely tools for God to use to spread His kingdom. We are His instruments, to use as He sees fit. And He may see fit to calm the sea for us. Or He may see fit to let us be crucified upside down. It all depends on what is best for God's kingdom at the time. His Kingdom is the reality. Our physical lives are not. They are only real to the degree that they are used in service to the reality of God's kingdom.
And...we also have Legion in this passage. Hmmm.....oh, what the heck, I'll try to tie it in, too. What struck me today was that Jesus brought new life to the demon-possessed man...and the townspeople reacted with fear. Even after the man explained it to them, they begged Jesus to leave (15-17). Similarly, I think that the"true life" that we've been talking about is scary to people. And why wouldn't it be? It is scary to hand over your physical self to God, to see your human existence as a tool. Yes, it is the only real existence, but it is so different from what we are used to--just like that sane, dressed man in the eyes of the townspeople. It should have been a wonderful sight, but it was just so different from their expectations, that they freaked.
Oh well, that was kind of weak:). But I was intrigued by the townspeople's reactions today.
There is some good, encouraging stuff in here. But my brain has already emptied itself, so I've got nothin'.
Some contrast between the righteous and wicked. The righteous gain blessings and leave legacies; the wicked will be brought down with violence and forgotten.