In ancient times, the pagan king Cyrus of Persia was moved by “The Lord, the God of heaven” to release the Jews exiled in Babylon so that as many as wished could return to their devastated homeland in and around Jerusalem. His instructions were that they were to rebuild the temple that decades earlier had been destroyed beyond recognition by Nebuchadnezzar’s army (Ezra 1:2).
Today, builders would erect the shell of the temple first with walls and roof together so they could go on finishing the task no matter the state of the weather. But that’s not how the leaders went about it.
We’re told they “began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it” (Ezra 3:2). No walls first. No roof first. First they reconstructed the place of atonement between God and his people – the altar where sacrifices were offered daily.
I visualize the remains of the temple as lying in shambles when the people of Judah arrived back in their homeland. Clearing away the rubble would have been a tedious job. But their first work was to relocate the place where the altar for the offering of sacrifices had earlier stood, to clear it of all defilement, and to begin faithfully to reconstruct that altar where the sacrifices could again be offered. The temple as a structure enclosing the altar could come later.
To worship always requires an altar. Today, whenever I write about weddings or baptisms, I refer to the parties involved as meeting at the altar – even when the architecture of a building has no such symbolic furniture. I like to think of an altar as the center of worship in a Christian church, the place where worshipers meet God.
Today, hanging on the wall behind the pulpit of a church there may be a symbolic cross reminding worshipers of our crucified and risen Lord. Forward of that cross a simple pulpit may stand, representing the authority of the word of God as preached. Nearby there might be a special table, bearing candles and an open Bible. These represent Jesus, the Light of the World as revealed to us in the Scriptures. This table also stands in remembrance of Our Lord’s last supper.
But, binding them all together architecturally, I visualize a simple altar. It represents the place where sinners may kneel and seek God and believers may come to meet God. At the altar, marriage vows are made, babies are dedicated to the Lord, and even caskets rest temporarily as death is acknowledged in the presence of God and believers take comfort from the Gospel even as they say a temporary farewell.
Like the ancient temple, and like the contemporary Christian church, the Christian home too should have a center. Might it be the kitchen where food is prepared three times a day? Or the family room where fellowship is informally enjoyed? Or how about the bedroom where we spend up to one-third of our lives? For nature lovers it might even be the yard where birds flit from branch to branch and squirrels run nimbly along the fence.
In our house, one corner of our family room has a round table draped with blue patterned cloth that matches the valences above the wide window. On the table there is a simple lamp and two brass praying hands. They are bookends holding two Bibles, Kathleen’s and mine. Each morning after breakfast we take the Bibles, read a chapter from them, and discuss briefly the significance of what we’ve read. Then we pray together. This exercise with its simple setting is the center of our home – our family altar.
I recognize that retirement gives us an advantage in this. We remember past times when we were often separated for days on end while I was away traveling. And we remember other time constraints during those working days when sometimes early appointments made the reading and prayer necessarily brief. But we prayed together then and we pray together now.
We believe that as God’s redeemed children we experience life best when life has a center focused on Him. This center does not of necessity require any symbols or place, yet can, as in our case, include a setting, however simple, where we pause and meet regularly with the Living God — life’s true center.