So, I was reading through one of those passages. You know, one of those passages where the entire chapter (or entire group of chapters) is a list of names. "So and so begat so and so" or "The leaders of the people were So On and So Forth and So Good and So Keep Going." The kind of passage where you are tempted to skip it and instead sit back and start moving through the list hoping something worthwhile jumps out at you but knowing you are likely to be too bored to see it if it does. Please tell me I'm not alone on those passages.
Anyway, the passage I was reading was from Ezra and it was an account of all of the Israelites that King Cyrus sent back from captivity so that they could rebuild the house of God. There were some verses devoted specifically to the priests who returned that mention an interesting problem. Some of the returning priests could not find documentation that they actually belonged to the family of priests and so "The governor ordered them not to eat the most holy things until there was a priest who could consult the Urim and the Thumim." (Ezra 2:63 HCSB)
The Urim and the Thumim were a way that God had given the Israelites to ask God yes/no questions. They were most likely a pair a stones which were both black on one side and white on the other and the priest would ask God the question and drop or toss the stones. If they both came up one color the answer was "yes," if they both came up the other color, the answer was "no," and if they came up mixed it was God's way of saying that He wasn't going to answer the question. We think. (Most of that is educated speculation). But the Urim and Thumim aren't really important in this passage. What is important is that these priests had to wait to eat from the food given through sacrifice until God could be consulted to verify their status.
See, we live in a world where we never want to hurt anyone's feelings and we go out of our way to include everyone in everything. But God had set up the priesthood as something different, as something holy, as something that was supposed to be set apart. Not just anyone could be a priest. A priest could only be a Levite and he could only be a Levite from a particular lineage. For someone outside the tribe or outside that lineage to serve as a priest would invalidate and defile the sacrifices being brought. The people who returned to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the house of God had too much respect for the sacrifices and for the commands of God to take that chance.
If our churches were faced with a situation like that today, I can easily see someone trying to be diplomatic and saying, "Well, they say they are from the priestly family. Let's just let them serve until we find evidence to the contrary." But that wasn't good enough for these people who were finally getting to return to the land that God had taken away from them for being to loose and lenient with His covenant. These people weren't taking any chances that they could lose the blessing of God in their lives because of uncertainty about whether these people should actually be serving as priests. They weren't taking any chances that what they offered to God would be defiled or less than acceptable. They wanted to make certain that their acts of worship were absolutely pure.
The ethic of these returning peoples stands in stark contrast to our worship ethic today. How often is our worship less than pure because we don't want to take the time to do things right? How often do we miss out on the blessing of God because we don't make sure that what we offer is what God actually wants from us? How often do we treat the worship of God as less than an act of pure and holy devotion because of our impatience? We skimp on prayer time because we could be off doing other things. We stop paying attention in church because the hands on the clock are ticking past noon. We skip over having a time of worship on Christmas day in order to gratify our desire to open presents as quickly as possible. We miss out on entire chapters during our quiet time thinking about all we have to do while our eyes skim over the words of scripture without ever absorbing them.
Today, let's make sure that we take the worship of a holy God seriously enough to get things right. Let's not do things the wrong way just because we are afraid someone might be offended. Let's not rush through things we should pray through thoroughly just because it is more convenient. Like those returning to Jerusalem, let's do things the right way, no matter how inconvenient or how great the risk to our feelings.