Saturday, 21 January 2012

Putting God First Part 1: Establishing an Altar

Gen 13.1-4
Then Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, to the South. Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he went on his journey from the South as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place of the altar, which he had made there at first. And there Abram called on the name of the LORD.

This text is very suggestive. It comes on the back of Abram’s journey into Egypt. He went there because he was scared. There was a famine in Canaan. God had called him to inherit this land but now things were difficult, so he left for Egypt. Here he lied about Sarai, calling her his sister, instead of his wife (a half truth). Finally he returned to Canaan. But the text seems to suggest that his return was not just geographic, it was spiritual.

He came back to the altar he had made at first; to the place where his tent had been at the beginning. Finally, in that place, ‘Abram called on the name of the LORD. We know from Rom 10.13 that all those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved, (delivered, healed, kept safe). We also know that it was during the time of Seth’s son, Enosh in Gen 4.26, that men ‘began to call on the name of the Lord’.

In other words there was an entire generation where God was left out of the frame. People lived life without God as their reference point. But then Seth had a son and it all changed. One man can make a huge difference! Men began to call upon the Name of the Lord. They wanted His involvement in their lives. They wanted, healing, deliverance, salvation.

A generation passed were people forgot to involve God but then Enosh and his generation changed all that. Perhaps they saw the consequences of a generation that forgot about God. Perhaps they were inspired by stories from Adam about what it was like to walk with God, (Adam would have been alive at that time). Whatever the reason they called on the name of the Lord.

And that’s what Abram did. He called on God again as he had done in the beginning. He re-established fellowship with God. He drew near to God and God drew near to him. And in that place of fellowship God revealed more of His plan to Abram.

The reality is that we are wired for fellowship. In Gen 3.8 the Lord walked in the garden in the cool of the day. He and Adam had fellowship. They talked. They engaged together in the naming of the animals. Yet that partnership was incomplete. Adam was alone. So God made Eve, taking part of Adam to create a complementary partner. He extended Adam’s capacity for fellowship.

1John 1.3 says: that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.

Notice that. We are wired for fellowship with each other, God’s people and with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Yet life shows us how difficult it is to get on with other people. It is a testament to the reality of the fall. Sin has left its mark in us and in creation. It’s all out of whack!

Just like Adam who disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit, so we too are left wanting to hide, self-conscious, guilty, afraid and wanting to blame others. No wonder we talk about dysfunctional relationships, dysfunctional families and dysfunctional organisations.

Yet there is good news. Jesus died to restore our fellowship to God and each other that was broken by sin. Eph 2.19-20 says:

Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.

The human spirit is made alive through the new birth. We can be reconnected to God and that ensures we can connect to each other. The lines are open! But we are talking about a relationship. It’s not automatic. All relationships need to be cultivated, nurtured, time taken to invest in them. And none is more important than our relationship with God.

Let’s go back to Abram. He came back to the altar he had made at the beginning; the place where he met with God. He was in fact restoring spiritual priorities. He was putting God first. He was seeking fellowship again. The beauty of fellowship with God is that when we give Him devotion He often gives us direction!

God doesn’t want our lives to be directed by fear (of a famine), or guilt, failure, shame or insecurity. He wants to speak words of promise that inspire us to live by faith, trusting in Him. That’s what He did for Abram.

Every believer needs an altar; a place where they meet with God; a place where they invite His intervention in their life; a place where they can worship and pray. This is what the new birth does. It establishes an altar; a place where we can commune with God.

As I was growing up this was called a ‘Quiet Time’. Today it’s often called having a ‘Devotional’. The label is not important, but establishing a regular time with God is. Jesus did this. The gospel of Mark tells us that a great while before dawn Jesus withdrew to a deserted place and there He prayed, Mark 1.35.

In the midst of a busy ministry schedule Jesus took time to talk and listen to His Father. It kept Him focused on God’s priorities rather than the demands of ministry. Notice from Mark 1.38 that Jesus knew He needed to move on to other cities. The demands of ministry remained. Everyone was looking for Him, but He moved on to other cities in obedience to the Father.

This became His pattern right up until His final anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke 5.16; 22.39-44. But even here scripture tells us that the garden was a regular place for Him to visit when in Jerusalem. Like all the other places He withdrew to, it was a place where He had established an altar.

There He found strength - Luke 22.43, direction – Mark 1.35, insight – Luke 22.31 and there He prayed for those He loved – John 17. We are naive to think we can do well as believers and not take time to establish an altar. Jesus did it. He withdrew. And He taught us to do the same.

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly, Matt 6.5-6.

Notice that. We have to shut the door on the world if we are to spend time with the Father. We must withdraw in order to be refreshed. In the OT it took time to build an altar. The rocks could not be shaped with a human instrument. They had to be found and put together.

I have a Jewish friend. He told me that the Rabbi’s believe that this prescription was given for two reasons. The first was that no human effort could be used for shaping the altar where we meet with God. The temptation to take pride in what we have built is ever present.

But secondly the fact that the stones had to fit together to some degree meant that the builder was very purposeful in choosing rocks that had a good fit. It therefore took time and they couldn’t rush the process. I like that. Experience tells me it takes time to find a place where there are no distractions.

John Wesley had a special room in his house. I’ve seen it. The room has a window that overlooks a beautiful garden. In the room is a chair, one that Wesley designed himself. It had a small shelf on the back. There he sat in reverse so he could rest his Bible on the small shelf and read it. Nothing else was in the room; just an empty room with a chair and a Bible. He called it the powerhouse.

All the great men of the Bible and history spent time with God. They knew that this was the true source of their success in ministry. They valued it. They cultivated it. They modelled it to their disciples.

Where are you able to pray and read God’s word without distractions? Jesus spent most of His time outside in places where it was hard to find people and hard for people to find Him. He removed Himself from the demands of ministry and ministered to God instead.

When you find that place, establish a regular time for going there. People are different. Some do it very early while others do it very late. Daniel did it three times a day! What works for you?

This is not to take away from the spontaneous nature of prayer that can happen anywhere, at any time. Rather it is to have a daily point of reference for meeting with God where you take time to listen to Him. Without this altar, putting God first remains little more than rhetoric.

And the beauty of Abraham’s story is that you can always return to an altar. It remains. Starting over again is always a genuine possibility. In fact Abraham’s life is characterised by the fact that every time he moved to a new place he built an altar. He wanted to put God first in every step of his journey. Let me encourage you to do the same!