Faith Under Construction: Build an Altar

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Sunday - 9:15 AM Sunday School, 10:30 AM Worship Service

by: Denise Robinson

05/01/2022

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Under Construction: Build an Altar

Genesis 35:1-3; 1 Pet. 2:4-5

I was sitting in traffic on 465 a couple weeks ago listening to a podcast and did a double take when I heard the podcaster use a phrase I had never heard before: they referred to road construction as the “immaculate congestion.” I’m not sure about the immaculate part, but if you’ve tried to get around the city for the past year it can be difficult. Summer used to be the season for road construction, but now it seems the “season” for it may last a year or more. In fact, it might be more accurate to say it is a never-ending process, one which no longer takes breaks in the colder months the way it once did. But the truth is, our lives follow a similar pattern. We are all “under construction.” Young people are under construction as they go through school, find that first job, and enter into, and out of, relationships. Older people are under construction as they transition in careers, become parents and grandparents, buy a home, plan for retirement, learn to deal with age (whether grumpily or gracefully!). Faith is also a journey, and just like our roads and bridges, and life in general, if it’s not ignored and left to fall apart, it's always "under construction." What advice does the Bible give for filling in the potholes or reinforcing the foundations of our faith? Over the next few weeks, we will be exploring practical advice on how to live a faith under construction. This week: Build an Altar.

You don’t get far into the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, before you start reading about people building altars to God. Genesis 8: as soon as the flood ended, Noah built an altar to the Lord. Genesis 13: as soon as Abraham settled in the land where God had led him, Abraham made an altar to the Lord. In Genesis 26, God appeared to Abraham’s son, Isaac, and at that place he built an altar. As Jim read for us this morning, in Genesis 35, when Isaac’s son, Jacob, returned home he made an altar to the God who answered him in the time of his distress and was with him wherever he went. In the book of Exodus, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments and other laws, he gathered the people together and built an altar to the Lord. He read the words of God’s law and God’s promises to the people, and at the altar they pledged to be faithful. The accounts of altar building continue throughout the Old Testament: Joshua, Elijah, Saul, David, Jeremiah, and the list goes on. 

From the biblical accounts, altars were built for a number of different purposes. Abraham alone built four different kinds of altars. His first was an altar of praise. God had blessed him and Abraham wanted to establish a place he could look to so that he could remember God’s blessings in more difficult days. His next altar was an altar of prayer, a place where he came to “call upon the name of the Lord.” Next, there was the altar of peace and presence. Abraham experienced in his life a time of stress and strife with his nephew, Lot. Words were exchanged, division broke out, the family relationship broke down. Finally, they found a way to reconcile, even though it meant moving apart from one another. When peace was finally restored, Abraham built an altar of thanks to God for God’s presence and peace during a difficult time. Finally, Abraham, in Genesis 22, built his most difficult altar: the altar where he felt God was calling him to sacrifice his son. But God had another plan and purpose – at Mt. Moriah, God rewarded Abraham’s faithfulness and this altar became altar giving thanks to God for God’s provision, for God’s care of Abraham throughout his life. Throughout the Old Testament, they built altars to remember to be faithful to God, they built altars thanking God, they built altars for sacrifice to God. The altars were visible and tangible reminders that they belonged to God and God was faithful to them. So, what lessons are there for us today when it comes to our faith and the practice of building altars?

First: building an altar reminds us to place nothing else in our lives before God. An altar is a place of separation: a place where we separate ourselves from the world and separate ourselves to God. The altar is a physical reminder that our lives here on Earth are meant for God and God alone. It symbolically reminds us that all we have comes from God. 

Second: building an altar reminds us to set aside time to pray, read the Bible, spend time with God. The altar is a place of centering, a reminder that God isn’t limited to the church building and the sanctuary but is with us daily, wherever we are. The altar is a place of listening – a place to sit quietly and listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit. When we’re rushing from one place to another, multi-tasking, taking care of errands, and dealing with the demands of other people, we can’t hear what the Spirit may be trying to tell us.  

Third: building an altar reminds us of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. The altar reminds us of God’s love and grace. Altars remind us that no matter how many times we mess up, God forgives. For people of faith in the Old Testament, before Jesus, some altars were altars of remembrance, but many were also altars of sacrifice to God. Animals and crops were burned in offering to God as they prayed for forgiveness of sin. Our altars today are not places of sacrifice, because Jesus took care of that for us once and for all. Our altars should be places of thanks and praise as we remember that through Christ, we are free from sin and death.  

Finally, building an altar reminds us of God’s promises. One of Abraham’s altars represented Abraham’s trust in God: Abraham, in that moment, didn’t really understand how God’s promises for his life were going to come to pass, but the altar showed his acceptance of those promises. The altar was an expression of his belief and trust in God. Just like Abraham, we have our hopes and dreams and expectations – but as God has a plan for each of us that involves living life abundantly. We may not be sure what that looks like, but the altar is where we remember and claim God’s promises for us and say that we are willing to trust God.

So, what does an altar, for us, look like? In the Bible, altars could be anything from a large pile of stones to a pillar made of rock to an elaborate table. The main key seemed to be to mark the place as a place of remembrance, thanks, and commitment to God. The altar was a place to gather, individually, as a family, or as a community, to pause, remember, and pray. An altar for us in our homes would function much the same way – as a gathering place for ourselves and for those who have children or grandchildren as a gathering place for family. I doubt many of us want to put a pile of rocks in our living room, but intentionally creating a scared space in our homes can be an important step in constructing a deeper fair. It may be as simple as a few items gathered in one place that when you see them reminds you to pray, be inspired, give thanks, and remember to put God first. For me, it’s as simple as my Bible, the devotional book I am reading, a candle, music, and my notebook with a running list of the people and things I pray for daily. It’s not always a sacred space, but when I settle down and light the candle or turn on a favorite hymn, it becomes that. 

But an altar, in our context, is about more than setting aside a sacred space. The concept of an altar, in the New Testament context, following the death and resurrection of Christ, is explained in our sermon text for today which comes from 1 Peter 2:4-5: “Come to him (Jesus), a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Part of our “faith under construction” process is to think of ourselves as living stones being built into an altar. In other words, when people look at us, just as when Abraham looked at the pile of stones he made into an altar, they should see God, feel the love of Christ, and get a glimpse of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. As vv. 9-10 remind us, we are “God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” As altars, our task is to draw people to God.

Finally, as we prepare for Holy Communion, I want to share something I found interesting when I was first appointed to IUMC and walked into the sanctuary. Did you know that we are a minority? Very few Protestant churches have an altar – and very, very few Methodist churches. I was surprised when I came in and saw this altar here. Why? Because Christ makes all the difference. One main purpose of the altar was for sacrifice, but Christ, through his death, atoned or paid the price for our sin. Jesus was, as the Gospels proclaim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. With his death on the cross, the work was done, finished, paid in full. We rest our faith on the cross. So, not long after that first week, I went on the prowl for what I assumed had to be somewhere: the Communion table. I found it in the Memorial Lounge, but as soon as I saw the words, “In Remembrance of Me,” there was no question. Methodist churches have communion tables, but the table is emphatically not an altar. If a church, like ours, has both, then the cross goes on the altar because that is the place of sacrifice; the cross never goes on the Communion table. Likewise, when we, like today, prepare to offer the Communion elements of bread and wine, those should never go on the altar. The bread and wine may be, in small part, a remembrance of what Jesus did on the cross, but they are so much more. We call Communion a sacrament, or sacred moment, because in Communion our focus is really on the Resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. In the sacred moment we share in Communion we understand that there is no longer any need for a sacrificial altar and that God, through the Holy Spirit, is with us in this space. We remember Jesus’ promise to his disciples that one day we will share in a Communion supper unlike any other we have experienced, because on that day we will literally be in Christ’s presence. It’s more than a matter of semantics or symbolism: it is part of the process of understanding and constructing a deeper and richer faith.   

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Under Construction: Build an Altar

Genesis 35:1-3; 1 Pet. 2:4-5

I was sitting in traffic on 465 a couple weeks ago listening to a podcast and did a double take when I heard the podcaster use a phrase I had never heard before: they referred to road construction as the “immaculate congestion.” I’m not sure about the immaculate part, but if you’ve tried to get around the city for the past year it can be difficult. Summer used to be the season for road construction, but now it seems the “season” for it may last a year or more. In fact, it might be more accurate to say it is a never-ending process, one which no longer takes breaks in the colder months the way it once did. But the truth is, our lives follow a similar pattern. We are all “under construction.” Young people are under construction as they go through school, find that first job, and enter into, and out of, relationships. Older people are under construction as they transition in careers, become parents and grandparents, buy a home, plan for retirement, learn to deal with age (whether grumpily or gracefully!). Faith is also a journey, and just like our roads and bridges, and life in general, if it’s not ignored and left to fall apart, it's always "under construction." What advice does the Bible give for filling in the potholes or reinforcing the foundations of our faith? Over the next few weeks, we will be exploring practical advice on how to live a faith under construction. This week: Build an Altar.

You don’t get far into the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, before you start reading about people building altars to God. Genesis 8: as soon as the flood ended, Noah built an altar to the Lord. Genesis 13: as soon as Abraham settled in the land where God had led him, Abraham made an altar to the Lord. In Genesis 26, God appeared to Abraham’s son, Isaac, and at that place he built an altar. As Jim read for us this morning, in Genesis 35, when Isaac’s son, Jacob, returned home he made an altar to the God who answered him in the time of his distress and was with him wherever he went. In the book of Exodus, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments and other laws, he gathered the people together and built an altar to the Lord. He read the words of God’s law and God’s promises to the people, and at the altar they pledged to be faithful. The accounts of altar building continue throughout the Old Testament: Joshua, Elijah, Saul, David, Jeremiah, and the list goes on. 

From the biblical accounts, altars were built for a number of different purposes. Abraham alone built four different kinds of altars. His first was an altar of praise. God had blessed him and Abraham wanted to establish a place he could look to so that he could remember God’s blessings in more difficult days. His next altar was an altar of prayer, a place where he came to “call upon the name of the Lord.” Next, there was the altar of peace and presence. Abraham experienced in his life a time of stress and strife with his nephew, Lot. Words were exchanged, division broke out, the family relationship broke down. Finally, they found a way to reconcile, even though it meant moving apart from one another. When peace was finally restored, Abraham built an altar of thanks to God for God’s presence and peace during a difficult time. Finally, Abraham, in Genesis 22, built his most difficult altar: the altar where he felt God was calling him to sacrifice his son. But God had another plan and purpose – at Mt. Moriah, God rewarded Abraham’s faithfulness and this altar became altar giving thanks to God for God’s provision, for God’s care of Abraham throughout his life. Throughout the Old Testament, they built altars to remember to be faithful to God, they built altars thanking God, they built altars for sacrifice to God. The altars were visible and tangible reminders that they belonged to God and God was faithful to them. So, what lessons are there for us today when it comes to our faith and the practice of building altars?

First: building an altar reminds us to place nothing else in our lives before God. An altar is a place of separation: a place where we separate ourselves from the world and separate ourselves to God. The altar is a physical reminder that our lives here on Earth are meant for God and God alone. It symbolically reminds us that all we have comes from God. 

Second: building an altar reminds us to set aside time to pray, read the Bible, spend time with God. The altar is a place of centering, a reminder that God isn’t limited to the church building and the sanctuary but is with us daily, wherever we are. The altar is a place of listening – a place to sit quietly and listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit. When we’re rushing from one place to another, multi-tasking, taking care of errands, and dealing with the demands of other people, we can’t hear what the Spirit may be trying to tell us.  

Third: building an altar reminds us of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. The altar reminds us of God’s love and grace. Altars remind us that no matter how many times we mess up, God forgives. For people of faith in the Old Testament, before Jesus, some altars were altars of remembrance, but many were also altars of sacrifice to God. Animals and crops were burned in offering to God as they prayed for forgiveness of sin. Our altars today are not places of sacrifice, because Jesus took care of that for us once and for all. Our altars should be places of thanks and praise as we remember that through Christ, we are free from sin and death.  

Finally, building an altar reminds us of God’s promises. One of Abraham’s altars represented Abraham’s trust in God: Abraham, in that moment, didn’t really understand how God’s promises for his life were going to come to pass, but the altar showed his acceptance of those promises. The altar was an expression of his belief and trust in God. Just like Abraham, we have our hopes and dreams and expectations – but as God has a plan for each of us that involves living life abundantly. We may not be sure what that looks like, but the altar is where we remember and claim God’s promises for us and say that we are willing to trust God.

So, what does an altar, for us, look like? In the Bible, altars could be anything from a large pile of stones to a pillar made of rock to an elaborate table. The main key seemed to be to mark the place as a place of remembrance, thanks, and commitment to God. The altar was a place to gather, individually, as a family, or as a community, to pause, remember, and pray. An altar for us in our homes would function much the same way – as a gathering place for ourselves and for those who have children or grandchildren as a gathering place for family. I doubt many of us want to put a pile of rocks in our living room, but intentionally creating a scared space in our homes can be an important step in constructing a deeper fair. It may be as simple as a few items gathered in one place that when you see them reminds you to pray, be inspired, give thanks, and remember to put God first. For me, it’s as simple as my Bible, the devotional book I am reading, a candle, music, and my notebook with a running list of the people and things I pray for daily. It’s not always a sacred space, but when I settle down and light the candle or turn on a favorite hymn, it becomes that. 

But an altar, in our context, is about more than setting aside a sacred space. The concept of an altar, in the New Testament context, following the death and resurrection of Christ, is explained in our sermon text for today which comes from 1 Peter 2:4-5: “Come to him (Jesus), a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Part of our “faith under construction” process is to think of ourselves as living stones being built into an altar. In other words, when people look at us, just as when Abraham looked at the pile of stones he made into an altar, they should see God, feel the love of Christ, and get a glimpse of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. As vv. 9-10 remind us, we are “God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” As altars, our task is to draw people to God.

Finally, as we prepare for Holy Communion, I want to share something I found interesting when I was first appointed to IUMC and walked into the sanctuary. Did you know that we are a minority? Very few Protestant churches have an altar – and very, very few Methodist churches. I was surprised when I came in and saw this altar here. Why? Because Christ makes all the difference. One main purpose of the altar was for sacrifice, but Christ, through his death, atoned or paid the price for our sin. Jesus was, as the Gospels proclaim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. With his death on the cross, the work was done, finished, paid in full. We rest our faith on the cross. So, not long after that first week, I went on the prowl for what I assumed had to be somewhere: the Communion table. I found it in the Memorial Lounge, but as soon as I saw the words, “In Remembrance of Me,” there was no question. Methodist churches have communion tables, but the table is emphatically not an altar. If a church, like ours, has both, then the cross goes on the altar because that is the place of sacrifice; the cross never goes on the Communion table. Likewise, when we, like today, prepare to offer the Communion elements of bread and wine, those should never go on the altar. The bread and wine may be, in small part, a remembrance of what Jesus did on the cross, but they are so much more. We call Communion a sacrament, or sacred moment, because in Communion our focus is really on the Resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. In the sacred moment we share in Communion we understand that there is no longer any need for a sacrificial altar and that God, through the Holy Spirit, is with us in this space. We remember Jesus’ promise to his disciples that one day we will share in a Communion supper unlike any other we have experienced, because on that day we will literally be in Christ’s presence. It’s more than a matter of semantics or symbolism: it is part of the process of understanding and constructing a deeper and richer faith.   

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