Saturday, August 16, 2014

God’s Blueprints For Worship -- Exodus 20:24-26

--> “‘You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you. And if you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it.  And you shall not go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.’” 
 
They are building new houses all around ours.  At various times, I see the foreperson pouring over a set of blueprints that need to be followed.  The construction team takes its directions via the person in charge from the blueprints drawn up by the architect.  Any variation requires architect agreement and then city council approval or the whole project could be shut down.
From this passage, we clearly see that God wants to be worshipped.  But that worship is to be undertaken in a prescribed way.  He gives us the parameters under which we are to worship.  To the Children of Israel in the Old Testament, God gave specific instructions of how to build an altar and what to do with it.
Most of us would agree that today we no longer have to make sacrifices on altars to worship God because His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, was the ultimate sacrifice, and it was made on our behalf.  Fair enough.  However, sometimes in our rush to throw out sacrifices, altars, burnt offerings, and peace offerings, we discard some of the principles God attached to Old Testament worship – principles that were, I believe, intended to transcend the ages.  Let’s look at some of those.
First, there is the principle of parameters themselves.  All behavior may be called worship by the worshipper, but God does not view all behavior as worship.  We need look no further than Genesis 4 where God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s, to support this thinking.  Here in Exodus 20, God tells the Israelites what kind of an altar He prefers and what they are to offer on it.  Today, under the guise of what we call ‘freedom in Christ’ we tend to worship Him in whatever way we feel like.  I am not speaking of modern music as compared to century old hymns.  That is not the point.  The point is that we need to consider how we worship God for while God is a God for all of time, He does not change.  There are things that He will not accept as He did not accept Cain’s worship.  And the Holy Spirit can and does speak to us as to what those things are, if we care to listen and obey.  Having said that, it is then also possible to accept the fact that what we all may not have arrived at the same point of hearing God on this matter, or some of us may well have misunderstood what He has told us when we hear Him with the filters of our own experiences and upbringings.  All that is possible and thus we should be careful not to criticize what others call ‘worship’ for them.  And I think that’s the secret – worship has to be ‘for us’ and it has to be truly perceived as, and believed to be acceptable to God, by the worshipper – no one else.
Second, we need to realize that God causes His “name to be remembered” in some very physical spots.  It may be a chapel pew for you.  It may be a gravesite of a loved one for me.  It may be someone else’s closet for them.  We would do well to keep an eye out for such places.  We would do well to listen to the rhythm of our heartbeats when we approach these special places in our lives.  Try visiting Israel and walk where Jesus walked or suffered, or performed miracles, and take your pulse.  I guarantee you it will be higher than normal.  We need to remember that one of God’s principles in our act of worship is that He causes His name to be remembered.  We may often call on the name of God and remember it, but we need to understand that it is He who brings it to our mind.  Even that we do not do ourselves.
Third, whenever we come across a place where God (not man) causes His name to be remembered, God says about that place, that He will come to us there and bless us.  That’s our God; we can count on that.  Want God to meet with you and bless you?  Make sure you are aware of where He causes you to remember His name; and visit there often.  When I think of what God is saying, promising, and doing here, I am reminded of the classic fast-food commercial that came out in 1978 that goes something like this – “at _________, we do it all for you!”  I’m sure you know the fast-food chain I’m talking about.  You may know them as the ones that build these large golden arches near their stores.  And if you’re still wondering who I’m talking about, check the commercial out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOMJ5nAaS08 .   Yes, God does it all for us – He reminds us of His name at various junctions in our lives; He visits us there; and He blesses us from there.  What more can we really ask for in response to our worship?
Fourth, while God has the right to be a “my way or the highway” God, there are aspects of our relationship with Him in which we are given choices.  Before I personally studied this passage, I would have been the first one to say, “Oh yeah, show me!”.  Well, Exodus 20:24-26 is one such example.  Here God clearly states His preference for an altar made of earth.  But then He goes on to say, “but if you make an altar of stone for Me, here are the specific directions for that.”  Our God is not the no-choice autocrat many of us have made Him out to be.  And of course, the fact that we do have acceptable choices in our positive relationship with Him (and not just with the negative choice to reject Him altogether) is complementary to the notion that we have been created with free will.
But no matter what our choice may be in some things, we still have to implement that choice within God’s parameters for that aspect of the relationship.  In the case of the Children of Israel, God did not want the Israelites to use cut stones that their implements had been applied to, if they were to build altars out of stone.  He wanted them, in that case, to use uncut natural stones.
Bible commentator Chuck Smith has much to say on this verse.  For starters he believes God did not want carved stones because He wanted nothing to distract the worshippers from worshipping Him.  He did not want anyone including those that built the altar to say or think, “my, isn’t that a great masonry job!”   Think for a moment of all the famous cathedrals or synagogues or temples you have visited.  What comes to mind first?  How awesomely you can worship God there or what a marvelous job the architect did?  Be honest.
Smith goes on to say we can glorify man’s handiwork any time we want, since he is using the abilities God Himself gave him, but we are never to regard it at all when we are in the process of worshipping God.  Many unbelievers hear a great preacher and marvel at his or her ability as an orator but they totally miss the point of what God has sent that individual to say to the world and to them.  Eloquent oratory can sometimes be a hindrance to the spreading of the Gospel.  Smith says “God help that man who seeks to bring glory and attention to himself while doing the service of God.
Robert Jamieson suggests that they were not to carve the stones because that may lead to carving images on them and those images may in turn lead to superstitious thinking and behavior.  Perhaps.
But what we do know for sure is that God said if they do use carved stone, they would “profane” the altar.  That is, the altar would become irreverent, disrespectful, wicked, and even sacrilegious.   Our failure to worship God in His way ruins the entire exercise of worship for us.
Finally principle number five from this passage is this: God is concerned about our own showiness or flashiness.  One could argue that He is concerned about that at the best of times, but He certainly does not want any of it during our worship of Him.  Matthew Henry suggests that the Israelites were to make their altars low to the ground so that they would not think that the higher up the altar was built and the closer to the heavens they were, the more acceptable any sacrifice made on it would be to God.  Chuck Smith, however, I believe has a much more relevant explanation for this verse.  He writes:
In other words, don't go up steps and high where people can look up and see your bare legs or something. God just doesn't want attention drawn to anything but Him when we are worshiping God. He wants your heart and your mind to be centered upon Him, not to be distracted.
Then Smith goes on to explain why at his church they try to keep distractions to a minimum and even when dealing with musicians, they discourage “little antics that draw attention to themselves, even a special movement as you're playing the bass, you know. It draws attention to you, and takes the attention of the people off of what you're saying, what you're singing.”  Need we say more about how we dress or how we stand or how we move?  Smith goes on, But the minute I draw attention to me, then the person's attention is taken off of God, and I am robbing God of that which is His. God will hold me accountable for it.”
So there we have it.  Keep the five simple principles for worship in mind, especially when you are leading it.  If you and I do that, then God readily accepts our worship.  And if He does, He will also bless it.  That’s all the success we need. 
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