Do you remember the old days when we could only come into the presence of God once a year? And even then, only one of us was allowed to step into the place of God. That would have been a bad time in history to be a bull or a sheep or a goat- or even a dove because the whole “Day of Atonement” celebration might make you at least the slightest bit nervous. Where did Bo Peep go? Uh oh. Yom Kippur? Dumb luck, that.
I know I would not want to be a man of the cloth at that time, either. Sure, you get the unspeakable privilege of being the guy who makes a way for the people to enter into God’s presence, but on the other hand there is more than one way to fail in your responsibilities. The good news is that, if they conducted personality tests in the Ancient Near Eastern world (which we have no documents explicitly stating otherwise), I would be in the clear. Given my inability to follow detailed instructions to accomplish important things, like, say, to navigate me to the interstate, my priestly career would be cut short by a divine thunderbolt. Man, I always forget the step about boiling the entrails. Oh well, I guess I’ve entered into the presence of God one way or another.
There is a holy seriousness attached to entering the presence of God that I take for granted. The priests in the Old Testament who had the same problem did not live to tell the tale. The best example is the story of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu. These poor fools had only seconds earlier witnessed holy fire reigning down from heaven to burn up (or in biblical language- to consume) the offering of an ox and a ram. The scene was so dramatic that the people “shouted and fell on their faces.” This is one of those times in the bible that you could say: “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” Dramatic. Wild. Powerful. The biblical word is sovereign.
Standing alongside watching their dad and Uncle Moses call down the reigning of fire, Nadab and Abihu handed their respective beers to their respective friends and joined in the fun. Playing off the drama of the scene, the brothers took their respective priestly pots and used some of the holy fire to light their incense “to God.”
Well, apparently the brothers and God disagreed as to who was the intended recipient of this act of worship. They had turned the show of God’s power into a sideshow of their own inherited priestly authority. God’s powerful display quickly becomes his wrathful display. It is not acceptable to use the things of the Lord in an “unauthorized” manner. You come to him on his own terms or not at all- simple as that.
Another way to describe this scene of Nadab and Abihu is the simple phrase: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
As much as we would like for this to be a phase in the life of God- something that he may have outgrown in his later years- the same truth attends those of us who are in this “priestly position.” This is not a time to check out, either, because the whole point of Jesus’ gospel is that we are all priests now.
That is intended to make us shudder. In our world we are just too busy with all we have going on in life to be priests. We can hire one to work for us down at the church while we go about our life and work, but who are we to stand in the holy place that unites God and man?
This was at the heart of Martin Luther’s beef with the church. He looked around and he saw a people who were not allowed to meet with the Lord. Can you imagine coming to church on Sunday morning, sitting through communion and then not being able to drink the blood of Christ? That is exactly what was going on. The people of God were being denied participation with the presence of God.
The real sticking point is that every time we refuse to enter the presence of God, we are bypassing the incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, mediation and promised second-coming of the God-Man.
God becoming Man for us means that the priestly work has been done once for all. Our role is to share in the privileges. Our work is to live our lives in the presence of God for our neighbor. In our everyday lives, we are living out the meeting of God and man. Our role is to celebrate. Our role is to live in humble adoration to this endlessly compassionate, albeit serious God. The word for this is freedom.
We have non-stop, unfettered, unshakable access to God.
In becoming our Great High Priest, Jesus has once for all lived the life that we were born to live. He has died the death we had brought on our own heads through our faithlessness. He has risen to new life and recreated us by his Spirit. He gives us the power that he showed in his move back to his Father’s right side. Now he makes us participants in his ongoing priestly prayers. Soon he will return for his bride.
And we have all of this because God has made himself known. He has taken on flesh and become one of us. His has given us that same access he had with the Father.
Yes, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It still is. But we have something stronger than Moses and Aaron had in their obedience in the things of God. Jesus, the God-Man has opened a new way.
We have a way of constant access to our Father in the midst of the daily tasks of life.
Our priestly duties require nothing more than to rest in the constant presence of the God who is for us.