Saturday, March 11, 2017
Joshua 22 - The Altar
And when they came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size.
There are places in our lives that are special to us: places where history was made, where lives were changed, or love was born.
Those places are dear to our hearts. Maybe you remember the place where you asked your wife to marry you… or where your parents are buried… or where you were saved. You cherish those places because something important happened there.
Consider the memorials we build in recognition of the lives of extraordinary people, or the parks formed to keep some special battlefield or birthplace open to the public.
These are landmarks that remind us WHO we ARE and where we came FROM as a people.
We are blessed to have landmarks in the Christian Life too.
Over the years, people who are new to the faith have asked me about the significance of many of the things we do in church services. Like, “Why do we have a pulpit?” or “Why is there a cross on our stage?” “Why do we take up an offering?” or “Why do we use musical instruments in worship while others don't?”
The answer to many of these questions really just boils down to preference… for OTHERS, however, there is more significance - something symbolic.
For example, “Why do we have an Altar in our church?” And “why do we encourage people to come to this “altar” at the end of the service?” Does it have have any significance other than it simply being a convenient place to pray???
I think the altar has great significance. And while we might not be able to find altars used in the NT Church, we CAN find passages in the Word of God that give us a picture of what the altar represents.
Today’s text is one such passage. Allow me to set the context:
Joshua had been groomed to be the successor to Moses for 40 years. When Moses died atop Mt. Nebo, Joshua was charged with the responsibility of leading Israel across the Jordan River, to fight for and settle the Promised Land. Once they obtained PEACE - he was to divide the land among the 12 tribes of Israel, where they would build a home and make a life. The Book of Joshua chronicles the many victories and losses of Israel in their quest to subdue the land.
As they prepared to cross over Jordan for war, 2 and a half of the 12 tribes LOVED the Valley on the Wilderness SIDE of the Jordan River. They were herdsmen. This land was particularly suited for grazing their flocks. It was flat and fertile. So they asked permission, before they entered Canaan, if they might come back and inherit this land once all of Canaan was conquered. They promised to fight side by side with the other tribes until the entire land was liberated IF they could go back and raise their families on the other side of Jordan.
By the time we reach our text, the war is over and the land is divided up among the 12 tribes. These 2 and a half tribes are heading back to settle in that lush river valley they had requested of Moses years before.
It is clear that they hadn’t thought through the ramifications of settling on the other side of the Jordan River.
Their leaders began to wonder what would happen to their families years into the future if the other tribes FORGOT about their arrangement with Moses?
What IF they forgot how these 2 and a half tribes had risked their lives fighting shoulder to shoulder for the liberation of Canaan?
What IF the majority FORGOT that these 2 and a half tribes, though separated by the Jordan River, WERE family and SHARED in the worship and rites of all Israel?
Would those other tribes think these people were enemy invaders and ATTACK THEM??
Would their children be destroyed because they didn’t have enough foresight to plan for the future?
I guess you could say - they were kinda like we are prone to be when making plans for the future - they hadn’t thought things through.
So… WHAT was their solution??? Though odd, it made perfect sense:
They would build a HUGE replica of the altar in Israel - a monument - that could be seen from many miles away – that would remind the other tribes that they were indeed brothers.
It was a good plan – excepting the fact that they hadn't told the rest of Israel what they were doing.
In fact, when the other tribes saw them building this altar, they were filled with anger – that – these tribes had no more gotten out of their sight before they started building an altar they assumed would be used for worshiping a false god.
Just a side note here: how many church conflicts TODAY are started by people who jump to conclusions about the motives of others before checking out the facts?!?!
One thing these tribes DID do right ⇒ Instead of letting it go… or telling themselves, “What they do is THEIR business… it doesn’t affect us anyway,” they went immediately to the place where the altar was built to confront their separated brothers. They feared the wrath of God on THEM ALL if such idolatry was tolerated among their brethren. So they did what God tells us to do whenever there is conflict or a misunderstanding in the family of God… go TO them and WORK IT OUT.
This meeting at the altar between the 12 tribes of Israel provides insight into WHY altars are used even today.
The altar is a place where 4 significant things occur:
1. First, the Altar is a place where cleansing is received. In the OT, offerings for sin were made at the altar of God. It was a place that reminded the people of the awfulness of sin. An animal had to shed its blood, had to lose its life, just so their sins might be covered year after year. It was commanded. They offered sacrifices because God required it. And each time they sacrificed an animal, they left with the reminder that God loved them enough to provide a way of forgiveness and acceptance.
The fact that these sacrifices couldn’t truly cleanse, is clearly stated in Hebrews 10, “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” Those sacrifices, however, reminded them that God had a plan for sin. They symbolized the ultimate sacrifice that would one day be made by the Son of God Himself, as the lamb of God would take away our sins.
The altar in any church is only significant in that it is a place where many will call on the name of the Lord and their sins are forgiven. As the word of God is preached and the Spirit of God moves on hearts, the altar is a reminder that God will meet with us – that He has an answer for sin – that Christ died and rose again to make all those who believe in Him FORGIVEN and FREE!
So… When the two and a half tribes built their altar it was symbolic of their cleansing.
2. But not only is the altar a place where Cleansing is Received, it is also where Consecration is Revealed. I go to the altar, not simply to have my sins forgiven - I go so that I might commit myself - I might OFFER myself to God as a living sacrifice. HERE I will often pray, “Lord take me and use me and get glory from me.”
I have spent a LOT of time at the altar over the years. In the early years of my marriage, I’m sure there were folks in my home church who wondered, “What awful thing has Mike done?” because I would go to the altar so OFTEN. But it wasn’t something in my past that troubled me – it was my future. I knew God had a ministry for me to do - a calling. And I was afraid. Afraid of my OWN inadequacies. Afraid of failure. Afraid I might lead my family into something that God really didn’t want.
Though exciting, it is equally scary to feel God calling you to something you never saw yourself doing. I felt overwhelmed. So I would go again and again to the altar to make SURE it was God’s will and not just my own emotions driving me.
Just a reminder, folks: Not everyone who goes to the altar is there to be saved. In fact, most have already BEEN saved, but come forward because they are burdened for friends or family, or because they want to make themselves available to the Lord, or because they are crushed in spirit over some problem and they want to cast their cares on the Lord.
Think of the prophet Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who was heavyhearted because she couldn’t have a baby. She went to the house of God, knelt at the altar, and poured out her heart in prayer to the Lord. As she emptied her soul before God, the Lord met her there. She made herself available as a servant of God and God blessed her.
Men, women, boys, and girls each week, feel compelled by the Holy Spirit to come to this place of prayer… to offer themselves to God.
So, this altar is a place of consecration.
3. But not only is it a place where Cleansing is Received and where Consecration is Revealed, the Altar is also a place where Covenants are Remembered.
Although the two and a half tribes weren’t expecting such a quick response from the other tribes of Israel, building that altar HAD accomplished its purpose. The other tribes noticed it and came to them immediately.
They were angry. They were filled with zeal for the Lord. They wanted to do whatever was necessary to be sure the other tribes had not so quickly forgotten the Lord.
That altar was built, according to vv. 26 and 27, to remind the rest of Israel that they ALSO served the Lord… that they were family… that they had fought for their brother’s freedom and land, and that NOTHING, not time, not distance, NOTHING should separate them or prevent them from worshiping with the family of God.
The altar is a good place for that – not only for us to be forgiven by the Lord, but for us to forgive one another. It’s a great place for those who have animosity in their heart to come - settle their differences once and for all. Where there is division or wounds… there must be a meeting of the minds. For those times when our relationships are strained … the altar is a good place for us to meet together and pray about those things.
We can rightly say - the altar brings unity to the family. It reminds us WHO we ARE and HOW we BELONG. It reminds us that we have an outside source Who will intervene for us…. That God Himself is committed to our unity and will give us the power to overcome our differences.
I’m glad the two and a half tribes thought to build that altar. And I’m glad the other tribes came to check it out, concerned about their family on the other side of Jordan.
Let this serve as a reminder to us that we have covenant responsibilities to each other… that we belong and that we have promised that no sin, no problem, is so big that it can separate us.
ADDITIONALLY, it was at the altar of my home church 31 years ago that Debbie and I made a promise before God and man that we would be faithful to each other. A commitment that would be challenged a thousand times… but has withstood every test, because we made a covenant to one another ⇒ at the altar.
It's ALSO where each one of our children were offered up to God in the hopes that He would use them to do great things.
See? The altar is special, because it’s where covenants are remembered.
4. But there is one more reason for the existence of this altar according to our text. Not only is it a place where Cleansing is Received, Consecration is Revealed, Covenants are Remembered, it is also a place where Children are Reminded. V. 24 explains that they built the altar out of “fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel?”
The altar is a place where our Children are reminded of some important things:
In THEIR case, they were reminded that they were brothers, that they served the same God, and that each year, when offerings for sin were made on the TRUE altar, they would be allowed to participate in worship with all the rest of Israel.
They remembered that their parents fought, bled, and died in service of the family of God.
The altar reminded young people that their parents had given themselves COMPLETELY to God.
This is a beautiful reason for using the altar TODAY. Listen, we shouldn’t go to the altar for show… I get that.
But how precious is it for a child to see their mom and dad going to the altar, broken, praying, worshiping… you can’t get any better than THAT, folks.
When our children see US using the altar, it will be much more likely for THEM to use it. We are training the next generation to respond, immediately, when God tugs on their heart. We are teaching them the importance of prayer, of commitments, of confession of sin. In a world where so little is sacred, our children are growing up remembering that the altar is a place where they saw their parents doing business with God.
When the 12 tribes of Israel got together at the altar, they hashed out all their concerns and fears, and they all went home GLAD.
The altar is special to us because of what takes place there. We remember how God saved us when we called on Him… how our burdens were lifted… how we surrendered our lives… and how hurt feelings were healed at this place. Our children see God changing our lives there.
THAT’S what the altar means to me.
Given all that the altar means, maybe YOU need to use it today? Maybe you need to be saved this morning, or you have some burden that you want to talk to the Lord about, or maybe you need help forgiving someone who has wounded you, or you want to come as a family and ask God to protect your home and bless it.
Whatever your need, why not take it to the altar right now?