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Around the Altar

Around the Altar
Image: Pearl / Lightstock

My Dear Shepherds,

Our congregations are trudging toward a strange, slow homecoming. Thank God! A year ago we were suddenly isolated, distanced, exiled. For a while now, in many places, our people have been trickling back together. Sort of. We’ve been seated well apart, masked into anonymity, bumping elbows, taking Communion elements untouched by other human hands. Most pastors have people who hunkered down in isolation for months.

In 538 BC, God “moved the hearts” of Cyrus and a pioneer contingent of exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem from Persia with the mandate to rebuild God’s temple. After a five-hundred mile trek they reached their homes, abandoned seventy years before to weeds and wild animals. Then …

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, … (Ezra 3:1-2)

Do you see an analogy between their situation and ours?

During their seventy years in Babylon, those Jews could not offer sacrifices to God because they could only be offered at the altar in Jerusalem. I’m sure the devout among them confessed their sins, set aside their freewill offerings, and lifted their praises to the Lord, but they didn’t enjoy the release, the resolution, of sacrifices given and received. Finally, there at that altar they could, and it was their first priority.

As to our flock, there was never a day when they could not draw on the ever-available mercy of Christ. Even though alone, they still presented themselves as living sacrifices to God. They still offered their sacrifices of praise, even when they had to do it by themselves. But there is something sacred about bringing our confessions to him together, about hearing and receiving the assurance of forgiveness together, about celebrating holy days and hope together. As those Jews could testify, you’re not really home till we are together with the Lord.

So, dear pastor, in your eagerness to get church up and running again, or perhaps just to find relief in familiar routines, don’t hurry past bringing your flock to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Sing a little longer when you’re all back together, linger over Communion, preach on Christ’s death and resurrection from the high pedestal of that altar.

Ezra 3:3 explains that there was additional urgency to what they did. “They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples in the land …” (v.3, ESV). Fear has been on us, too: the pandemic, the tumult in our land, the racial injustices laid bare shouting to be set right. So we summon our people to our high tower of Christ where we get our footing and our bearings. We help wrap them in the peace of God, enflame them with the holiness and justice of Christ, and embolden them with our invincible immortality.

Ezra 3:4 tell us that something else happened: “They celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles,” established in Leviticus 23:33-43, “So your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” What an apt homecoming festival for people who’d been in exile for so long! Perhaps we need our own version, the Festival of Sheltering-In, where we remember God’s presence and provision in that dry and weary land through which we’ve come, and how we yearned to be together again around the altar of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Be ye glad!

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He is the author of Feels Like Home: How Rediscovering the Church as Family Changes Everything and Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls (Moody Publishers), as well as being a frequent contributor to Preaching Today and CT Pastors. To learn more about his Pastors' Gatherings visit www.leeeclov.com.

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