Last weekend, i received an email inviting people to come to the “alter” to pray on Sunday. My first reaction was – don’t you just love the way that “spell check” often changes a word to something we did not intend? Sometimes that change can be somewhat embarrassing, and sometimes it can change the whole meaning of what we intended to say. In this case, it was a “malapropism” – a word that sounds the same, but has a very different meaning. But as i thought about this one for a moment, i began to become convicted that maybe the words “altar” and “alter” actually have a great similarity in their meaning.
Often in the church world, we talk about coming to the front of the worship gathering – to the “altar” – to pray, or to make some type of life-changing commitment. There is nothing that prevents us from praying or making a commitment right where we are – wherever we are. But the invitation to “come to the altar” is intended to help someone take an outward step that expresses an inward commitment – or an inward change. Granted, coming to the front of the church at a worship gathering can feel very awkward. Some might consider it to be pretentious or showy – that my prayer or commitment is between God and me, so i don’t need to make a spectacle of myself and announce it to everyone in the room by “coming to the altar”. And often there are times of prayer and commitment that need to be expressed only inside your own personal “prayer closet” and not announced to the whole world. But there are times that a life-changing commitment to God requires a first step of obedience – and that first step can be “coming to an altar”.
We see altars being built and used for the presentation of sacrifices and/or offerings to God throughout the Old Testament. The first such altar mentioned in the Bible is the altar that Noah built as an expression of thanksgiving and worship to God for saving he and his family from the flood (Genesis 8:20). But the altar that always immediately comes to my mind, when i hear the word, is the one that Abraham and his son, Isaac, built on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22). Most of you recall the account, God tells Abraham to “’Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you’” (Genesis 22:2). Then “when they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.At that moment the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’‘Yes,’ Abraham replied. ‘Here I am!’‘Don’t lay a hand on the boy!’ the angel said. ‘Do not hurt him in any way, for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son’” (Genesis 22:9-12).
Now, that is what i call “a life-altering moment” for Abraham, as well as for Isaac! i am mindful that Abraham was a very old man. Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, and Isaac is now a young man, somewhere in his teens. Physically, Isaac could have resisted his dad, and he would have prevailed. So, it’s important to understand that both of these men – one very young and one very old – went to this altar willingly. They went out of obedience to God and faith in God. They both demonstrated what it means to surrender your life to the Lord.
Abraham was surrendering his only son – his son of promise. In many ways, Isaac was Abraham’s life – it was through him that God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. And Isaac, out of trust for his dad and out of trust for his God, was literally surrendering his physical life. The time at the “altar” was an outward demonstration of that inward surrender and commitment. And their lives from that point forward would never be the same!
Surrender and sacrifice are not a part of our “natural” state. Our flesh nature does NOT want to surrender and sacrifice; our flesh nature will resist it at every turn. God may not call us to lay down our lives physically – though He may call some of us to do so. But He is calling all of us to lay down our lives in every other way to Him. He created us for relationship with Him. He sent His Son as that baby in the manger to later die on a cross that we might be able to have a relationship with Him. He has given His all – He requires our all. If He is to be our Lord and Savior, He must have complete ownership of our lives. He has invited us to surrender our lives to Him. As we do, our lives will be permanently altered. And we will never be the same!
His invitation stands – come to the “alter”!