How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Heaven’s Armies. I long, yes, I faint with longing to enter the courts of the Lord. With my whole being, body and soul, I will shout joyfully to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young at a place near your altar, O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God! What joy for those who can live in your house, always singing your praises. Psalm 84:1-4 NLT
The 1st reference to the building of an altar appears in the flood story after the waters subsided and the passengers were once again on dry land. As God’s story of salvation moves on, altar building became more commonplace. Scripture tells us that wherever Abraham set up camp an altar was built for worship. Who could blame Issac if after his near-death experience on an altar, he would not have anything to do with them. However, Issac continues the tradition of his father, building altars wherever life would take him.
The tradition of altar building continued in the next generation with Jacob whose family struggled to carry on practices that represented the intention of altar building and the role that altars play in our religious beliefs. Family dysfunction, cultural influence and the pressures of life resulted in “spiritual affective disorder” (SAD) in our spiritual ancestors. So Jacob told everyone in his household, “Get rid of all your pagan idols, purify yourselves, and put on clean clothing. We are now going to Bethel, where I will build an altar to the God who answered my prayers when I was in distress. He has been with me wherever I have gone” (Genesis 35:2-3 NLT).
Altar building at the places where God is present continued as God’s chosen people made their way from slavery towards the promises God intended to keep. God had intervened into history and saved the people from destruction promising them that they could proceed without fear for the Lord, the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob was with them. But the people took altar building beyond what God had intended and soon graven images were included in their worship, distracting them from a focus entirely on God. It was time to get back to basics – to do away with anything that could push God aside. “Build for me an altar made of earth, and offer your sacrifices to me…Build my altar wherever I cause my name to be remembered, and I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:24-25 NLT).
And so it is with altar building and altar usage. God gifts us in ways that will bring glory to God. For some of us our altar is a workbench. For others our altar could be a desk, a journal, a computer, a stove, our voices, a musical instrument. We did not get here by our own power, nor are our gifts created from our own ingenuity and intellect. The cells that make up our brain were organized by the only power that can truly create anything of worth.
We were created by God for worship. Our gratitude is shown through our labors whenever our labors glorify the One who makes our labor possible. When we serve one another we give glory to God. When we use our gifts to satisfy our own desires we honor ourselves and take credit for that which we did not do on our own. There are altars everywhere we look. Altars everywhere that we turn and whenever our attention is on God and we focus on gratitude and worship.
The Psalmist points out that the Sparrow lays her eggs in God’s presence. In God’s Holy Temple. God created the world for God’s pleasure and has seen fit to share these pleasures with creation that we might experience God’s presence in all that we do. The sacrifice that we make is ourselves. We can offer back only that which God gave us and in our offering we are reminded of our dependence on God alone. There are altars everywhere a sacrifice is made to the living Lord. Sacrifices that are nothing more than offering back that which God has given us, not because we earned it. Rather, we offer back the gifts we received out of God’s love and grace.