Many kids raised in a Christian family grow up with a defining biblical story. For some, it's Daniel and the lion's den. For others, David and Goliath. Or perhaps for others it's the courage of Esther. My defining story was Nadab and Abihu. I remember more sermons mentioning it than any other narrative from the Bible. (I'm sure my memory is a bit skewed here. But we did, nevertheless, hear about them alot.) You know the story: these are the sons of Aaron who, in Leviticus 10, offered strange fire and got toasted to a crisp. It always got paired with another story, depending on the point being made. If the point was that instrumental music will condemn you, then it was paired with Noah and the gopher wood. (When God specified gopher wood, he excluded all other kind of wood. When he said sing, he thereby excluded anything else.) If the point was that baptism has to be by immersion, then it was teamed up with the story of Naaman. Go to the river, even if it doesn't make sense to you. If the point was that it's really, really easy to hack God off and that the road to hell is really, really wide, and most of you are probably on that wide road (including most so-called Christians), then it was paired with the story of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:3-8). Overall, my impression from this text was that you'd better make sure you don't make mistakes. This led to a kind of revulsion toward this narrative tucked in the middle of Leviticus. And I have to confess, I went a really long time in my preaching career without preaching on it. I want to live under the guiding authority of that text, but it holds so many memories of fearing the flames of hell. My stereotype of the way the story was used represents a religion I have little interest in because it doesn't fit the way of Jesus. But now I notice that it comes right after two chapters where the priests are prepared for leading the rituals of worship and sacrifice. We might yawn at all the information, but at the end the people were filled with joy (9:22-24). The rhythm of all this reminded them that God--the one who had chosen them and delivered them from Egypt--was in their midst. Then comes the strange fire and the sudden deaths of the sons of Aaron. But what if the story's central message isn't, "You'd better be careful to get things right"? I've tried sitting it next to a different text: 1 Samuel 15:22f. There King Saul, once again disobedient, heard these words from the prophet Samuel: "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams." Worship and ritual can be life-affirming. But they don't substitute for obedience and pure hearts (Matthew 15:3-9). Rather, they should flow out of hearts devoted to God. Whatever Nadab and Abihu did was apparently an egregious offense--something maybe even idolatrous. God had spelled out what he wanted (Exodus 30:9), and they had decided that they knew a better way. It wasn't an honest mistake. It was an in-your-face test of God. That never goes very well. This story calls on us to live lives that reflect God's holiness. It's not primarily about getting worship right; it's about having hearts that are right. Note that at the end of the chapter, Aaron also fails to follow the letter of the law when he doesn't carry out all his priestly responsibilities. But he explains to Moses that he just wasn't up to it because he was mourning for his sons. And apparently that was all right. Rituals are trying to root us in our foundational stories and to shape us. They matter greatly. But they aren't the ultimate goal. The goal is lives formed after a holy God. Now I think the authoritative word of this old text is just the opposite of what I imagined as a teen. Instead of saying that fine-tuning worship is the ultimate goal, perhaps it's pointing to a limitation of worship and ritual. They are the overflow of a well-formed heart--not a substitute for it.