As I stepped out to walk Sasha last month, a pervasive smell in the morning air accosted me. Something was clearly burning, but I could see no sign of visible smoke. It wasn't until later, when I logged on to my computer, that I discovered the odor's point of origin. Apparently lightning had ignited a fire in Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp the previous week. The ensuing fire had consumed well over 3,000 acres and was still going strong. The afternoon preceding our walk, the wind began to blow from the south. The entire Washington, D.C. area was now the unhappy recipient of dismal air quality, thanks to the smoke blowing over us.
You may be surprised to learn the Great Dismal Swamp is not even close to where I live. It is 250 miles away, a good five hour drive from here. We couldn't see the flames or even the smoke. Yet we were suffering the effects just the same.
The situation reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a pastor friend of mine. His predecessor had left the position after beginning an affair with a woman in the congregation. They left town together, abandoning their families and church fellowship, leaving a path of destruction behind them a mile wide.
My friend confided that in the months following the scandal, while dealing with the aftermath, he learned a valuable lesson: sin and its damage can be far more reaching than he ever imagined. Not only were the original two marriages shattered, but a ripple effect was seen in the congregation. Not long after the scandal, not a few marriages in that church began to fall apart. Apparently, once people observed their former pastor treating his marital commitment with such disregard, it was easy to follow suit. A half-dozen marriages soon ended in bitter divorce. In the end, countless people were affected. They may not have even known the original pair, but their lives were profoundly influenced by their actions.
Often, as we choose to sin, we rationalize we are not hurting anyone other than ourselves or maybe a few that are close to us. We are only deceiving ourselves.
We can see another example of the pervasiveness of sin in Scripture. When Moses was leading the people of Israel in the desert, three men named Korah, Dathan, and Abiriam challenged his authority and that of his brother, Aaron. God saw their actions as a rebellion against Him, since it was He who had originally designated the two to lead.
You can imagine how it began: three men sitting around a campfire, discussing the day's events. Soon careless remarks became angry in tone as they encouraged each other on. Others joined into the discussion, and it wasn't long before the discontentment had infected a sizable group. Bitterness quickly spread, resulting in a rebellion 250 men strong. Sin had infiltrated the camp.
With such a large group rallying around them, Korah assembled an audience and confronted the leaders. Who did they think they were, putting themselves in charge? Were not all Hebrews chosen and holy people of God? Moses humbly responded to their challenge. He suggested that they assemble at the Tent of Meeting the next day. There God would indicate whom he desired to lead.
God let them know alright, and in no uncertain terms. The ground opened up to swallow Korah and his cohorts, their families, and all their possessions. Then fire came down from heaven and consumed the 250 followers as well.
You would think that would have been the end of that, and the rest of the people would have been scared straight. Not so.
The next day, the entire congregation voiced their anger at Moses and Aaron for the terrible judgment they had witnessed. At this point, the Lord had had enough. He sent a plague; immediately people began dropping like flies. In three day's time, the sin of three men was now affecting thousands.
Moses, desperate to save the people, ordered his brother to take incense and make atonement for their sin. Numbers 16:48 tells us: "He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked." Sin's egregious effects had finally come to a halt.
Yes, sin will spread its insidious swamp smoke every time. But as we face its far-reaching pollution, we are not without hope. The remedy to stop the damage cold has already been provided. Our High Priest Jesus has also taken his stand between the living and the dead. He's made atonement for our sin. No longer are we helpless under its fierce onslaught of destruction.
After a few days of smelly air, a cold front went through Maryland. We awoke the next morning to fresh, clean air, all traces of the Dismal Swamp fire swept away by a northwesterly wind. God has offered us the same kind of new beginning. He is waiting for us to invite Him into the mess sin has caused to bring healing and restoration for all involved that place their trust in Him.
"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" Romans 8:31-32 NASB