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.

Consider the Lilies..

We just celebrated a most unusual Easter– traditions, like gathering at church for sunrise services or grand cantatas, big family meals, Easter Egg hunts, and parades had to be re-imagined, or cancelled. And one Easter tradition that didn’t get a lot of press attention was the damage done to the Easter flower market. Lilies, hyacinths, daffodils, and other spring flowers–some grown locally, others imported from around the world–were unable to be shipped or sold as people are in quarantine. Churches and restaurants, two of the largest consumers of Easter Lilies, had to cancel their orders for this year. People who normally buy lilies from garden centers or florists were unable to do so, and those who grow them were unable to ship them out or sell them. Literally millions of flowers had to be burned, composted, and destroyed during this season of “new life.” Flowers for funerals, weddings, and birthdays were also lost, and millions more will be lost as we approach Mother’s Day next month. What a waste of beauty and life!

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And yet..

Some will say that it is a waste of time to mourn the loss of flowers when we should be mourning the loss of human life to COVID-19. I don’t think it is an “either/or” kind of mourning. There is a lot to mourn during these days, and we should not be ashamed to mourn–loss of connection, loss of beauty in the form of flowers, loss of jobs and prosperity, loss of opportunities– many of which we take for granted.

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But Easter is not about our loss– in fact, it is not about loss at all. It is about victory and hope and ETERNAL life– not the life of a lily or even a human body– eternal, joyful, victorious life given to us as a gift for all who will receive it! If we are missing a beautiful symbol of that victory this year, we can never be deprived of the reality the Lilies represent!

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I am reminded that Jesus (and others in the Bible) had a lot to say about Lilies..and grass, and other plants, and their relation to human life. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6%3A25-34%2CLuke+12%3A22-32&version=ASV https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+103%3A15-17&version=ESV
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+peter+1%3A22-25&version=ESV

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In this season, many of us are feeling very much like the “lilies of the field.” Our lives seem uncertain, our days unproductive, even futile as we wait for this crisis to pass. We miss these symbols of beauty and new life, but we must not place our hope in the symbols. We must not place our hope in what we know or what we do or what we own. Jesus reminds us that we are– our souls, our lives, our hopes, our thoughts, and our longings– worth far more than lilies or sparrows– God knows what we need, and His love for us doesn’t depend on our being “essential”, or healthy, or having all the answers.

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This season reminds us that our lives here are precious, and temporary as the grass. But our existence is both precious and eternal–and thanks to the very God who clothes the lilies of the field, we need not worry or fear what lies ahead. All who turn to Him will be saved. We are not destined to be burned or composted or forgotten. We may face uncertain days ahead, but God has a purpose and a plan for us to bloom– not just for a season, and not just to adorn a building or a home, but to bloom for eternity in His very presence!

You Aren’t What You Eat…

There is a common English saying, “You are what you eat.” It suggests that if you eat a lot of fatty foods or sugary foods, you will suffer the consequences– you will become fat or develop health problems associated with sugar, cholesterol, etc. There is some truth to the saying, especially if a person eats such foods to excess, and does not eat a balanced diet that also includes foods high in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and other nutrients.

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But the saying also suggests that a person’s diet determines their identity, which is not true, and often involves labeling and unfair judgment. And the judgment comes, not just based on what a person eats, but sometimes how, when, and where a person eats:
“couch potato”
“gourmand”
“junk food junkie”
“vegan”
“carnivore”
“gluten-free”
“keto”
“midnight snacker”
“carboholic”
“power foods”
“see-food diet (if I see it, I eat it!)”
“fitness diet– I’m all about fitness (fittin’this) whole pizza in my mouth!”
“picky eater”
“fast food”
“five-second rule”
etc.

The truth is, our relationship to food can indicate aspects of our personality or character, but it is not “who we are,” unless our entire life is about food. (Even for those with conditions like anorexia or bulimia that turn food and/or eating into an obsession, it is one aspect of their life–a diagnosis, not an epitaph.)

Our world today is filled with opportunities to make an idol of food and eating, diets, nutritional fads, supplements, etc. We end up ashamed of every meal– counting calories, pointing fingers at those whose eating habits don’t live up to our standards (while secretly envying them), trying to excuse (or hide) any trip through the fast food drive-thru window, feeling guilty over a candy bar, or feeling depressed when we cannot afford to eat like the people we see in magazines, in movies, or on TV. In religious circles, we champion “God-given” diets, some of which are not given by God. “What would Jesus eat?” The Daniel Diet, or The Shepherd’s Diet– these may be good principles and even helpful nutritionally, but they won’t “save” you or make God love you better than He already does.

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Jesus himself addressed this question. His disciples were being singled out by the religious leaders of their day because they ate without performing the ritual handwashing ceremonies. They were declared “unclean” for eating in this manner. But Jesus saw through this criticism. It wasn’t based on God’s law, but on the human traditions that had been added over the centuries. What God had said about cleanliness and hygiene was meant for general health AND to distinguish the nation of Israel from other cultures whose eating practices were sometimes part of their worship of idols. After chastising the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus turns to the crowd:

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Matthew 15:10-20 English Standard Version (ESV)

10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+15%3A10-20&version=ESV

Notice that Jesus does not say that it is healthier or better to eat with unwashed hands, nor does He say that people should eat without washing– instead, He is speaking common sense about obsessive and judgmental practices. Jesus himself followed the traditional kosher diet of His people, as did His disciples. Jesus also fasted, and recommended it as a companion to disciplined and earnest prayer.

It isn’t what we eat, or when or where that makes us who we are. Our eating habits and diets may help our bodies, but they won’t save our souls, or make us better than our neighbor. In fact, if our eating habits are more important than our neighbor–if we use them to try to manipulate, control, shame, or label our neighbor–we need to reconsider how “healthy” they really are.

Diets are not bad. Food is not bad. Pride, envy, self-righteousness– these are bad for the heart, the stomach, and the soul. Let’s be grateful for food, but even more, let’s be grateful for a God who knows us intimately and thoroughly– a God who knows that we are NOT “what we eat!”

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