February 19, 2016
I think at some point we got confused about altars and idols.
Historically speaking, idols were attributed with powers, characteristics or abilities that belong to God alone and moreso than the attributions, they were treated as divine. They were prayed to (at an altar, one would still pray to God, not to the stack of stones.) They were worshipped. They were sought after in times of desperation and praised in times of abundance. These objects were glorified in various ways, often more and more intense as time went on.
It’s not just a “back then” thing, we still have idols today. I think they may look different, but our devotion to them is what remains constant. Back then or right now, the idol is something of a destination. The altar has always been a window.
Throughout Scripture, altars were built as a remembrance of a specific encounter with God. The altar itself wasn’t worshipped, it was merely a marker, a landmark. There was no divine magical power about it. To the unknown passersby, it had all the significance of a mile marker to a raccoon. To those that knew its significance, it was celebrated, again not as having divine power, but as a place of divine intersection.
But at some point, we stopped. We stopped making altars. We stopped stopping along our journey and building something that reminded us that God met us there. We stopped dedicating a place and time in our lives to the ongoing presence and participation of the divine. Why?
Maybe we got confused about idols and altars. Maybe it suddenly became unnecessary. Maybe it’s a different kind of acknowledgment now. I’ve written before that the altars of the Old Testament weren’t simply a pile of rocks but also the life of the person that built it that served as a reminder of God’s unfolding pattern of being in this world. The pile of rocks served as a “You Are Here” sort of moment.
It’s another post entirely to talk about stopping and smelling the roses. Not slowing down, but stopping completely to come to the same realization as Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Gen. 28:16)
Not only were the altars landmarks for each one who built them, they also served to point out the journey to others. Future generations would see them and know about them. Your children’s children could tell their friends about this one place at this one time that changed a life completely. Altars say…
“This is the place where I learned who God is.”
“This is the camp where God changed my life forever.”
“This is a picture of someone that God used to teach me.”
“This is where I knelt.”
“This is how I prayed.”
“This is who God is.”
Altars tell stories. I think we need more altars.