Christianity 201

November 23, 2017

Sitting on the Altar

by Clarke Dixon

“The priest yelled at me for sitting on the altar and that was the last time I ever went to church”. Thus said a new acquaintance one day. Some may want to scold the priest for handling the situation in an unfriendly manner. Or perhaps the priest knew something the young man did not? The Bible has much to teach about sacred, holy spaces.

It begins with Adam and Eve who, though initially enjoying the presence of God in the garden, sinned and got the boot. God is holy, they were not, and so they no longer belonged in that sacred space.

It continues with Moses and the burning bush. Moses is to take off his sandals for the place upon which he was standing was holy ground. God’s presence was near, an unholy man like Moses must keep his distance. We can note here, how fire is an appropriate image for the presence of God. Unholy people should never think they can give a holy God a hug. The fierce holiness of God commands a respect of space.

It continues with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. God tells Moses that he is going to be present on Mount Sinai and so the people are instructed to wash their clothes and to not “go up the mountain or touch the edge of it” (Exodus 19:12). God is holy, they are not, sacred space is to be respected.

It is taught with the giving of the law and the instructions regarding the tabernacle, the priesthood, and the sacrifices. The incredible attention to detail for clothing, ceremonial washings, and sacrifices offered a reminder that an unholy people cannot dwell with a holy God. If you were a Jew and you were to approach God at the tabernacle or later the temple, then the holiness code must be kept. If you were a non-Jew wanting to approach God at the Temple in Jerusalem, then you had to obey the signs telling Gentiles to go no further. God is holy, and you are not, so stay back.

The young man I quoted at the beginning was told to stay back. Unfortunately, he also stayed away. Whatever lessons the priest and the young man could learn that day, there is an important lesson for us all. Consider these words from the Apostle Paul:

But I have written more boldly to you on some points so as to remind you, because of the grace given to me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. I serve the gospel of God like a priest, so that the Gentiles may become an acceptable offering, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:15-16 (NET emphasis mine)

Paul’s passion, reflecting God’s call on his life, is to reach the non-Jews with the good news about Jesus, with the good news about God. Paul frames this calling as being like a priest who is to bring an offering before God. In Paul’s case, that offering is non-Jewish people. There are two truths that follow from this for us to consider:

First, because of Jesus, people are brought into the presence of God who should not normally be there. Think of the temple and the signs telling the non-Jews to stop and go no further. Now imagine Paul like a priest bringing his offering, the non-Jews, to the temple. He must walk right past the signs! People who were once far from God and who were to keep a distance are now brought into a sacred space. There is a similar line of thought in Ephesians:

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh . . . that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Ephesians 2:11-13 (NET)

Perhaps you feel that you are far from God and should keep a distance. In Christ you are invited to come right up to the altar!

Second, because of Jesus, people become an acceptable offering. Only the best of the best was to be brought as an offering before the Lord. There were to be no blemishes or defects. Do you feel like the best of the best? Probably not and neither do I. However, our perfection as an offering is a reflection of God’s work in us. Paul does not say that he brings the non-Jews to God just as they, as if any old offering will do. What he says is;

I serve the gospel of God like a priest, so that the Gentiles may become an acceptable offering, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:16 (NET emphasis mine)

It is God’s work to make us holy through the blood of Jesus and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our part is to show up. Paul here is continuing a thought he expressed earlier:

Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God. Romans 12:1 (NET)

The emphasis is not “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by your own efforts, to make sure you are good enough, and holy enough, to present your bodies as living sacrifices.” We might prefer it were, for we prefer pedestals to altars, also for then we could boast about our own capacity for holiness. Only, of course, we never could. The main verb focuses us on our part; offering ourselves. It is God’s part to make us “alive, holy, and pleasing to God”, to make us an “acceptable offering, sanctified by the Holy Spirit”.

I am a Dad, not because I spent nine months of painstaking work building a baby piecing together each and every cell in the correct place. I am a Dad because something incredible happened in my wife’s womb. My only accomplishment for nine months was getting a crib together. We are invited to become an acceptable offering, not because we we have the capacity in ourselves to become holy, but because God has done something incredible.

So let us consider again the yelling priest and the young man sitting on the altar. Was the priest right? The real tragedy here is that the young man, when I met him, could only think of religion in terms of priests, churches, religious people, and religious stuff. The question is not “what do you think of religion?” but always “what do you think of Jesus?” Whatever his answer to that is we know what God thinks of him. He wants him to be where He is, to live fully in the presence of God, to live in a sacred space, in fact to become a sacred space. That is what God wants for you also. Are you sitting on the altar?


read more at www.clarkedixon.wordpress.com

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