What do you do for Lent?
It’s just not a time to exercise will power and give something up for a month and a half.
Lent is a time of reflection. It’s a time to prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection at Easter.
It’s a time to consider holiness.
Why did Jesus have to die and rise again from the dead? Because God is holy, and we are not. God created Adam in his image and breathed his own life into him. Adam chose to obey Satan instead and forfeited that life.
God’s inherent holiness cannot make any deal with sin. He must oppose it and ultimately destroy it. He chose to prepare to do so through the nation of Israel.
At key points in Scripture, God displays his glory and his judgment on sin in close juxtaposition. These points are especially important at the beginning of something new.
Holiness and sin at the tabernacle
Holiness means being set apart. The law set Israel apart from other nations.
The sacred garments, among other things, set Israel’s worship apart from other nations. Aaron and his sons stayed apart from the rest of the people inside the tabernacle for an entire week.
And of course, God’s inherent holiness sets him apart from all of creation.
At Sinai, God gave Israel not only the law, but instructions for making the tabernacle, its contents, priestly garments, and conducting formal, public worship.
After the tabernacle was finished, Leviticus 8 describes the formal ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests. Leviticus 9 describes the very first public sacrifices. It concludes,
Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face down.
The glory of the Lord brought joy to the entire community. It was short lived. Soon thereafter, tragedy struck:
Aaron’s [two oldest] sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command.
So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: ‘Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’” Aaron remained silent (Leviticus 10:1-3).
God had specified how priests should approach the altar and what incense they should use. Nadab and Abihu didn’t bother to follow instructions.
Moses’ almost immediately prohibited Aaron and his two younger sons from drinking wine or other alcoholic beverage when they went into the tabernacle. It appears that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when they began to minister.
How many other times did priests approach the altar without respect for God’s holiness? Very often. Only on this occasion did God immediately strike them dead. It was, after all, the beginning of tabernacle worship. Everyone had to understand the importance of holiness.
Holiness and sin at Jericho
The conquest of Canaan began at Jericho. Israel did not fight to take it.
They marched around the city a few times, blew trumpets and shouted, and the walls collapsed.
God, in other words, demonstrated that victory in the conquest came from him, not Israel’s military prowess.
Over and over, the Bible makes it clear that God has given us everything we have. It commands us to give back to him from the first of everything we receive.
Jericho, the first fruits of the invasion, belonged to God. No one in Israel had any right to any of the plunder. It was holy.
Humiliating defeat at Ai followed quickly on the heels of the glorious victory at Jericho. Achan sinned by taking some of the plunder for himself. Joshua, sinned, too. He chose Ai as a target and planned the tactics without prayer or acknowledgement of God’s holiness.
Again, Israel as a whole committed far more egregious sin in the course of its history—at least from a human viewpoint. God’s judgment fell at the beginning of a new work, not as a matter of routine.
Holiness and sin at the temple
Building the temple was Solomon’s crowning achievement. The temple remained the center of life in Jerusalem and the sign of God’s presence for centuries. God showed his glory in the first worship service there just as he had at Sinai.
When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. 2 The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. 3 When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chronicles 7:1-3)
In this case, disaster did not follow quickly. Solomon married an obscene number of women from pagan nations against the law’s explicit prohibition of intermarriage. He erected temples in Jerusalem to their gods, including those that required child sacrifice.
Then in old age, he started worshiping those gods and, when God called him on the carpet, refused to repent.
Ten tribes rebelled against his successor, and the divided kingdom began its inexorable descent to eventual destruction.
A more dramatic disaster had happened much earlier, when David decided to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem.
At first, he treated it like a piece of fine furniture instead of something holy. He had it placed on an ox cart, and it started to fall off.
A young man put his hands out to steady it and instantly dropped dead.
Holiness and sin in the early church
On the day of Pentecost, fire again fell. This time it didn’t consume a burnt offering. It was but one of the ways the Holy Spirit made his presence known.
Unlike speaking in tongues, the visible tongues of fire and audible wind did not happen on later occasions. They were special signs of holiness attending the beginning of a new move of God.
As in the case of the temple, the act of judgment did not come immediately, but it came soon enough. Members of the church began to sell property and bring it to the apostles for use in ministering to the poor.
Ananias and Sapphira liked the thought of a good reputation from donating property, but they apparently feared the consequences of being so generous.
So they conspired. They decided to sell some property. They donated part of the proceeds, and told Peter it was the full amount.
He told them separately that they weren’t lying to him. They were lying to the Holy Spirit. And separately they dropped dead.
In all these cases, people died because they failed to acknowledge God’s holiness in their actions. Which means they failed to acknowledge it in their attitudes.
People don’t routinely die in church for not acknowledging God’s holiness. That doesn’t mean we won’t suffer consequences from our own neglect.
Consequences most likely will come slowly. God in his grace has given generations of his people ample opportunity to repent.
Scripture includes these and other stories as a warning. And Lent is an annual opportunity for us to examine ourselves and repent as necessary.
The death and resurrection of Jesus reminds us that God has done all the heavy lifting, as he did at Jericho. Therefore, we, too, must become holy. We must think and act like holy people.