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 to return to their devastated homeland in and around Jerusalem. King Cyrus’ instructions were to rebuild the temple that decades earlier had been demolished in rage by Nebuchadnezzar’s army (Ezra 1:2).
When the people of Judah arrived in their homeland, they found temple ruins in shambles, scattered and burned. Where should they begin?
Today, builders would likely erect the shell of the temple first with roof and external walls so they could go on working even in bad weather. But that’s not how the leaders of the Jews went about it.
Their first task was to relocate the place where the altar had stood, to clear it of all defilement, and to faithfully reconstruct that sacred spot where the sacrifices could again be offered. Completing the temple itself could come later.
We’re told they “began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it” (Ezra 3:2). Not walls, the court of the priests or the Holy of Holies. First to be reconstructed was the place of atonement between God and his people — the altar.
Every life can benefit by having a symbolic altar. Whenever I write about weddings or baptisms, I refer to the parties involved as meeting at the altar — even when the worship space has no such symbolic furniture.
I think of an altar as the center of worship in a Christian church, the place where worshipers meet God. It is symbolized in many churches with little more than a replica of the cross of Jesus, sometimes on the wall behind the pulpit or set in miniature on a communion table.
That spot 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, the Christian home too should have an altar. In our house, one corner of our family room has a round table draped with blue patterned cloth that matches the valences above a 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 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. It stood in our minds’ eyes as a symbol of the center of our lives together even when I was traveling and we were apart.
We believe that as God’s redeemed children we experience life best when focused on Him. This focus can, as in our case, be facilitated by a mental and / or tangible setting, however simple, where we pause and meet regularly with the Living God — life’s true center.
Photo credit: Richard Matthews (via flickr.com)