Altars that need to go

Aug 15, 2019 by

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The Old Testament stories are full of kings and priests. There were two differences: the ones who tore down altars and the ones who allowed them to stay.

Several kings did what was right, but most of them didn’t. They were either influenced by their pagan wives, by previous kings, by politics or by the people. Hezekiah was one king who destroyed the high places, shattered sacred pillars, cut down poles and tore down altars that were used to worship false gods.

The hold of previous kings and the people was heavy and strong. Each king had to choose his path. Some kings simply chose to follow the king before them; others chose to follow the way the people wanted it done. A few chose to follow God. When a king followed God, the nation was blessed. God showed favor on his people when they chose to obey his command to have no other gods before him.

Do we have altars?

We’re are faced with the same choice today.

The problem comes when we choose to go our own way and do things like we want them done. Often we are influenced by the attitudes and actions of those who have gone before us or by those closest to us. In loyalty to others or the-way-we’ve-always-done-it, we refuse to tear down idols and quit worshiping what is false.

Instead of encouraging others to find true faith and make new trails, we sabotage their tentative steps by comparison, competition or lack of support. In doing this, we’re climbing back up on the altars of selfishness and pride.

What is it about us that makes us want to make certain others don’t succeed? What is it about us that wants to make sure our kids are better or have better things than others? Why is it that if it’s not our success, we’re not happy — but we expect others to applaud when we’ve done well?

There’s a sense of pride in thinking (not out loud, of course) that my way is better than others; that the way we do it is better than any other family or church’s way in doing it. There’s a sense of pride in being more spiritual or more free than others we observe. That leaves us in a bondage that we can’t even recognize in ourselves.

In doing this, we hoist ourselves onto the altars of pride and selfishness. We thumb our noses at others who do things differently or feel differently about specific priorities than we do. We are all guilty of this — whether we are “conservative” or “liberal.”

Nixing the altars

Many times we decide to quit “worshiping” idols, but fail to take down the altars. When a king of Israel made the decision that idols would no longer be worshiped and the true God would receive worship instead, he tore down the altars. It wasn’t enough to quit worshiping false gods. Those altars had to go.

That is still a challenge for us today. Tearing down the altar makes it harder to return to Baal worship. Tearing down the altar removes the reminder and the temptation. It’s a lesson for us, and a pattern by which we should live.

We have altars. They are called: my family, my money, my church, my friends, my beliefs, my community, my desires, my job, my hobby, my wants and my way of doing things. The root problem of all of these is pride.

When the children of Israel were about to enter the promised land, God gave them these orders:

“Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places” (Deut. 12:2-3).

It wasn’t enough to move into the land that was promised to them. It wasn’t enough that they couldn’t help what was there when they went to possess the land. Nor did it matter to God that there was value in the land and the altars and idols that were there. Permission was not granted to use items since they were already there or because disposing of them would be poor stewardship. God didn’t bless the idea of selling the idols to make a profit. His order was direct: destroy, break, smash, burn, cut down and wipe out. In other words, get rid of it all.

When we want to start new, turn over a new leaf, or begin all over again, we must first get rid of the old. We need to tear down the altars that confine us to our past. Only then can we find true worship.

Gert Slabach is a member of Faith Mennonite Church in South Boston, Va., which is part of Mountain Valley Mennonite Churches. She blogs at My Windowsill, where this post first appeared.

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