Where Are the Altars?

I’ve been reading through the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.), and there are many references to altars and sacrifices–both the ones built to honor Jehovah God, and those designed for idols.

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Israel and Judah were guilty of building thousands of altars and shrines to false gods. Some of them were found even inside the Holy area of God’s own temple! As part of God’s judgment, He repeated that He would no longer accept the empty sacrifices of His people–He would no longer hear their prayers, unless they repented.

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I read these words and wondered– Where are our altars today? When I was a child, many of the older churches had what we called an Altar. It was usually a raised platform, with a podium for the minister, and possibly a “host table” for communion. My childhood church also had a small table that held a large Bible. Sometimes, the platform would have a railing around the edge, with a couple of stairs on either side. And, while many churches “passed the plate” for offerings, some had a special plate on the railing of the altar, where people would march up and place their offerings for the week. There it would sit for the rest of the service–random dollar bills of random denominations in random states of being crumpled, folded, and worn, along with checks, and, sometimes even coins. All of them brought forward and placed on the altar.

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Today, many churches have stages, like any large theater or event center. There is no railing, but there are hundreds of spotlights and fog machines. There is no podium for the pastor–just a headset and maybe a small stand for notes. Sometimes, the pastor reads from a teleprompter. Often, he or she is joined by a full band or orchestra, and dozens of singers, actors, or other assistants. No one from the congregation approaches the stage– why would they get up from their comfortable reclining padded seat? No one even “needs” to bring a Bible– the sermon text is printed out on the giant screens hanging above the stage. Our worship is comfortable, and entertaining.

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But we have no altars. There is no place for someone to lay their offering before God; no place to meet with Him in repentance or revival. There is no place to remind us of sacrifice and atonement. Oh, to be sure, many churches have a large cross on display somewhere. Some even have the “host table” for communion– somewhere in the wings, just in case–but the concept of an “altar” has all but disappeared from churches in the West. It is an anachronism–something ancient and uncomfortably part of the distant mists of tradition.

I miss the altar. I believe God misses it, too.

Daniel– A Life of Dangerous Prayer

When we hear about the Biblical story of Daniel, we usually hear only the small story of Daniel and the den of lions. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for refusing to obey the king. God shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel was saved. It is an amazing, miraculous, even incredible story. But what makes Daniel’s story truly amazing is to see it in perspective. I’d like to spend a couple of days looking at the larger picture of Daniel’s life.

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Daniel, like Jacob or Hannah, was an ordinary person– yet he was different, too. Daniel was from the line of kings and the royal household of Israel. He was strong and intelligent, among the elite young men of the land. According to the Bible, he was also gifted with the ability to interpret dreams and visions– a gift of extraordinary importance that set him apart from others. In that sense, he is more of a “Bible Hero” than those we have looked at in the past few weeks.

But Daniel was also a slave– a captive who was ripped from his homeland and taken by force to serve in the court of the Babylonian king. He was a stranger in a strange land; he walked a very dangerous line of trying to keep the favor of the king while dealing with very powerful and resentful enemies among the king’s other courtiers. Daniel stood apart–there is little mention of a family in Daniel’s story– Daniel faced many of his trials alone (except for God). And, while Daniel survives many extraordinary trials, he never receives the kind of promise or fulfillment that we saw in the lives of Hannah or Jacob. Daniel spends most of his life as a captive. He never gets to go back to his homeland. He never gets to see the fulfillment of his great vision– in fact, he asks for clarification, and is simply told to go his way–he will understand at the end of time.

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But Daniel has a lot to teach us about prayer– it’s power, it’s peril, and it’s promise.

In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, we are told a very little about Daniel’s background and how he ends up in the service of the king. https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%201 One little detail that stands out today, in light of our recent study of Jacob, is that Daniel is given a new name– not by God, but by the Babylonian official who is his new “boss”. Daniel is to be known as Belteshazzar– “Protect the life of the King”. Daniel is used by God to protect, and even warn, the foreign kings who have taken him captive. Daniel faithfully serves his oppressors– he does not seek to betray them or plot revenge against them. But the new name doesn’t stick– just as we still know Jacob by his old name (and the nation he founded by his God-given name), we know Daniel by his original name–“God is my Judge.”

Daniel’s first trial comes when he and his friends are selected for potential service to Nebuchadnezzar. They are to be trained and fed at the king’s own palace. They are to be assimilated into Babylonian culture, history, laws, etc. But Daniel refuses to be “defiled” by the royal food and wine. Instead, he and his companions ask for a diet of plain vegetables and water. Much has been made of this– entire diets and healthy living books have been based on just this simple request. I think such plans miss the bigger picture. Daniel’s request wasn’t about veggies or “strength training.” It wasn’t about eating smarter or being stronger and healthier than the other captives. It was about obedience to God AND to the very authorities who were offering the food from the king’s table.

There was nothing nutritionally “wrong” with the king’s food or wine, nor any particular virtue in the vegetables Daniel requested. But there were at least three good, Biblical reasons why Daniel may have refused to eat the king’s food. First, the Babylonian customs called for sacrifice to their gods–even human sacrifice in some cases! But much of the meat, fruit, and grain offered at the king’s table may have come from the temples. Food that had been ritually “offered” to the gods would be fit for the table of the king. But Daniel would not want to eat the food offered to these other, false gods– it would suggest that Daniel agreed that these gods were worthy of the sacrifices that had been offered– including infants. Better to eat plain food of any type than food that had religious implications. Second, the food was likely to be non-Kosher. God’s people were to be distinct, including in their diet. There were several types of foods forbidden to the Jews that would likely be on the daily menu of the palace–not just the foods themselves, but the way they were prepared. It’s not that these foods were not edible or nutritious, but God wanted his people to demonstrate discipline and obedience. Daniel did not want to compromise or cause trouble on a daily basis rejecting first this dish, then questioning that one…easier by far to simply request what he knew was in line with God’s ways. Finally, Daniel was being offered rich and decadent food while many of his fellow Israelites were starving in their captivity. To stuff himself full of the best food in the land would not change their circumstances– but it would change Daniel’s heart. This was more important than any particular diet. Daniel did not claim that his requested diet of vegetables would make him stronger or wiser or healthier than the others– he trusted that God would sustain him to be at least as strong and healthy as anyone else. And God did more!

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It is important, also, to note that Daniel did not defy the king or demand special treatment. He won the respect of the official in whose charge he was being kept. He even helped the official overcome his fear of the king. Why is this important? Daniel was in a difficult and dangerous position. He was a captive– a slave in a strange land– with a golden opportunity. He was chosen to be in the elite group of young people who could serve with power and influence in the land of their oppressors. Daniel, in fear or seeking his own advancement, could have trusted to his own wits and the favor of the Babylonians. He could have abandoned his commitment to serve God in favor of serving the immediate whims of those around him. He could have determined that in his new situation, he should adapt to the new rules, even those that contradicted God’s word. Or, he could have been defiant and arrogant–demanding that the Babylonians recognize all the customs of his native land, including his Kosher diet. He could have encouraged his friends to lead a rebellion; he could have gone on a hunger strike to protest the king’s food. But the king had never commanded that the young people eat his food– he had merely offered it as an incentive. Daniel used wisdom and tact. He won the trust of the official by suggesting a trial period of ten days to see if the “alternative” food plan would prove acceptable. He didn’t place his trust in his own actions– he placed his trust in the true Judge, and offered faithful service– both to God and to Nebuchadnezzar.

No matter our circumstances today– whether we are in a palace or a prison; whether we are free or enslaved– God sees us. He will judge, not only the actions of our oppressors, but our response to oppression and hardship, and mistreatment (or our oppression and mistreatment of others). May we, like Daniel, turn to the true Judge, and walk worthy of His Name today.

Trusting in Chariots

Psalm 20:7 New International Version (NIV)

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

King David wrote this verse..one that I learned at Vacation Bible School as a child.  Taken out of context, it reminds us that the Name of the Lord is powerful and trust-worthy.  It is better to trust in the Lord than to place our trust in even the might of an army.  Military might, political power, wealth, popularity, social influence– all are fickle.  God is Sovereign and will do what He says He will do.

In context, David is not just recounting a principle; he is speaking from the experience of being God’s anointed King.  In the verse just before this, David says:

Now this I know:
The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
with the victorious power of his right hand.

See full text of Psalm 20 here

David knew God’s saving power– he had experienced protection, blessing, and victory from the hand of his Creator.  He had also known exile, hardship, and danger.

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It is interesting to note that King David did not come up with the image of horses and chariots– God had already spoken to the people of Israel, warning them NOT to put their trust in such things.  David was proclaiming his adherence to God’s command several hundred years before:

Appointing a King

14 When you have come into the land which the Lord your God gives you and possess it and dwell there and then say, “I will set a king over me just like all the nations that are around me,” 15 you must set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. You must select a king over you who is from among your brothers. You may not select a foreigner over you who is not your countryman. 16 What is more, he shall not accumulate horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order that he accumulate horses, for as the Lord has said to you, “You must not go back that way ever again.” 17 He shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he acquire for himself excess silver and gold.

18 It must be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write a copy of this law for himself on a scroll before the priests, the Levites. 19 It must be with him, and he must read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, and carefully observe all the words of this law and these statutes, and do them, 20 that his heart will not be lifted up above his brothers and so that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or to the left, to the end, so that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel.

Deuteronomy 17:14-20 (ESV)

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David did NOT adhere to all of God’s commands for a king.  He had many wives, and family troubles plagued his house for generations to come.  Tragically, his son Solomon, for all his wisdom in other areas, failed in his kingship because he failed to put his full trust in God.  He accumulated wives, horses, chariots, and wealth, but he lost the opportunity to establish his father’s house and his family’s dynasty by trusting in the very blessings of wealth and wisdom that God had given to him.

God blessed both King David and King Solomon with peace and prosperity.  Neither one followed God absolutely, but David understood something his son never fully grasped.  God’s blessings are abundant; they are rich and glorious.  God showers blessings upon both the just and the unjust.  They are not always a mark of God’s favor– frequently, they become a stumbling block and a substitute for the worship that belongs to God alone.  Solomon began his reign by trusting the God of his father, King David.  But in the end, he put his trust in his wealth and honor, and turned his back on God.

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25 Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots and twelve thousand horses, and he put them in designated cities and with him in Jerusalem. 26 He ruled over all the kings from the River to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt. 27 So the king made silver in Jerusalem as abundant as stones and cedar as plentiful as sycamore trees in the lowlands of the Shephelah. 28 The horses of Solomon were imported from Egypt and from all other lands.

2 Chronicles 9:25-28 (ESV)

In fact, he did exactly what God had warned against during the days of Moses– importing horses from Egypt.  Without context, it seems like such an ordinary thing–kings accumulate might and power, and they import the best this world has to offer.  What’s wrong with that?  Solomon’s own father had the answer; the answer was written into the laws of Moses(the very ones Solomon was commanded to keep with him at all times!),  but Solomon turned away and crossed the line between gratitude for God’s blessings to placing his trust and identity in those very blessings.

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Some (people) trust in chariots and some in horses;
Some trust in their jobs or their homes;
Some trust in their bank accounts or their popularity–

Where is my trust today?

Nought Be All Else to Me…

“Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my Heart;
Nought be all else to me, save that Thou Art.”

 

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christand be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:7-14 (NIV)

Have you spent time recently with someone who is young and “in love” for the first time?  You may spend time with them, but their time, their thoughts, their energy, their conversation– all revolves around their loved one.  All the other things in life are secondary, and life is lived on auto-pilot.  They forget to eat; forget to do even the most ordinary tasks, and daydream through whatever tasks they do manage to complete.  What time is it?  What are they wearing?  Is the snowing?  Raining?  Have they spoken to their parents today?  They don’t know!  They don’t care.  But they can tell you how long it has been since they’ve spoken to “that” person.  They remember what they wore, what they ate last night, what they said two days ago, and how their hair reflected the moonlight…

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God is not so foolishly forgetful as we are, but he loves us with that same kind of abandon…he knows the very hairs on our head.  He knows our thoughts and every joy and hurt in our heart.  He loves the sound of our name, and the sound of our voice as we call to him.  He longs for the same ardent love from us.

When we sing a line like “nought be all else to me, save that Thou art,”  or we read the Apostle Paul talk about everything else in his life being rubbish or garbage, we are not literally saying that everything is worthless, or that we would rather sit alone in a darkened room than to live our lives in the world and interact with those around us.  God has not called us to be hermits who pray in locked rooms on our knees for 20 hours a day.  He does not call us to fast to the point of starvation, or shun all human contact.  Jesus himself did not despise food or rest or people.

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But He did say some startling things about the importance of God in relation to all the things of this world.  God gave us wonderful gifts– sunlight, water, food, blue sky, grass and trees, families and friends.  God wants us to enjoy them–AS GIFTS.  Never should we love the gift more than the giver.  Never should we take the gifts for granted or forget that they are gifts– not earned, not the work of our own hands.  If we are not careful, they can become idols and distractions.  Suddenly, we are torn in our affections.  God wants us to love our neighbor, but not to worship her/him.  God wants us to nurture our families, but he wants to be part of that process, not left on the sidelines.  God wants us to use our talents and our gifts to benefit others.  And God’s gifts, while always “good” are not always pleasant or easy.  Loving others can be risky and exhausting.  Putting God first often means sacrifice and ridicule.  And some of God’s gifts may be wrapped in hardship.  When we experience tragedy, like a house fire, that is not a “gift” from God.  But God will send us gifts even in times of grief or stress– an understanding friend, a temporary shelter, a renewed sense of purpose–in the midst of our darkest moments.

Young love, while ardent and intense, often burns itself out.  TV shows and football games become more “important” than deep conversation and longing looks.  “He makes me laugh,” turns into, “he never takes anything seriously.”  “She walks in beauty like the night,” becomes, “She snores like a pig!”  Worse, we take for granted that we know each other “well enough.”  God knows this– he warns us that the same thing can happen to us in our relationship with Him.  We can easily be pulled away or lulled into a false sense that “all is well” even as we drift off course.  We need reminders of God’s rightful place in the center of our attention– our focus and vision fixed on Him.

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“Nought be all else to me”  isn’t about the things of this life disappearing or being worthless; it’s about them being “worth” less than the one who rules over all things.

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