Most of us associate altars with the place at the front of the room in our church where we often see candlesticks and a Bible and sometimes a vase of flowers. There is usually a cloth covering it and everything looks lovely and clean. It is where many of us came to pledge our vows in marriage or dedicated our children to God. We know or sense it is a sacred place that should result in our respect. And from time to time we may pause and recall how often the Israelites built altars, how often Abraham and other heroes did.
Some of us who have seen the Narnia series of movies recall the scene of the stone table altar in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe where Aslan was bound and slain. This scene perhaps gives us a truer reminder of the altar’s place and purpose. It was not nearly so pretty or pristine. The scene is one of anguish that can pierce our hearts.
As we continue to follow Much Afraid in Hinds Feet on High Places, we see altars again. When Much Afraid discovered that the Chief Shepherd would not accompany her in person each step of the journey to the High Places, but rather that Sorrow and Suffering would be the companions chosen she feared he would not fulfill his promises to her. As their trek progressed and took paths which seemed to lead away from the High Places, Much Afraid was more uncertain. Her interaction with the Chief Shepherd brought a question to her from him asking if she trusted him enough to follow him wherever he would lead her.
It would be then that Much Afraid grappled with her fear and pledged to follow the Chief Shepherd wherever he led (even when it appeared to be going in the opposite direction of the High Places). And as she did so, she gathered together a little pile of rocks and made a small altar. What she placed on the altar was “her trembling, rebelling will.” How great a sacrifice that would be for her.
“A little spurt of flame came from somewhere, and in an instant nothing but a heap of ashes was lying on the altar. That is to say, she thought at first there was only ashes, but the Shepherd told her to look closer, and there among the ashes she saw a little stone of some kind, a dark-colored, common-looking pebble.”Hannah Hurnard
And in the story the Shepherd would tell Much Afraid to pick up the pebble and take it with her “as a memorial of the altar which you built, and all that it stands for.”
The poignant scene is one that nudges us to linger and consider the meaning of altars and look at what we may have seen about them in the Old Testament stories. Consider the altar Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac upon and how it gives us testimony of God’s purposes for them even though we may not pause often to consider their meaning or importance.
What would it mean for you, for me, to build an altar upon which to lay our “rebelling will?“
To consider the meaning of altars Jack Hayford wrote:
“Altars are a memorial of the places where God meets us.
Altars represent the occasion and place where we have had a personal encounter with God. We may not always be able to make a physical altar, but there can be one established in our hearts. When we celebrate communion, we are celebrating the grandest altar of all, the Cross of Calvary. The Son of God was the ultimate sacrifice, and His work on the Cross reconciled all humankind to God, made possible for our lives to be infused with meaning, for our sins to be forgiven and to give us the promise of eternal life.”
Hayford goes on to make note of some of the different forms of altars we discover as we read in the Bible. These include: “a place of encounter, a place of forgiveness, a place of worship, a place of covenant, a place of intercession, and a place of ‘altering’ us.” That was certainly evident in the example of the first altar Much Afraid was asked to build.
But it would not be the only time Much Afraid would need to stop on the way to the High Places and build an altar and offer something on it. Despite her promise to follow the Chief Shepherd wherever he would lead, progressing up the slopes would challenge her lame feet, willing heart, and fearful spirit many times over.
“Oh, no! no! No!” Much Afraid almost shrieked. “That path is utterly impossible. The deer may be able to manage it, but no human being could. I could never get up there. I would fall headlong and be broken in pieces on those awful rocks.”Hannah Hurnard
How much are we like Much Afraid when the path before us appears foreboding and treacherous? How often do we commit to follow Christ and then shrink back again when the endurance we need weakens and the courage we must gain seems beyond our reach to attain?
So much was sacrificed for us when we deserved nothing.
“There is a place of ‘altaring’ and a price of altering. Altars have a price–God intends that something be ‘altered’ in us when we come to altars. To receive the promise means we make way for the transformation.”Jack Hayford
What do we, you, and I, need to lay on the altar we are asked to build?
Are we willing to pay the price for the “altaring” to bring transformation, so our life and love look more like God’s?
“At the altar, the price is paid for renewal when we’ve been at a distance, for securing hope we may have thought was lost and for receiving promise, even if it’s in an unpleasant environment.”Jack Hayford