Set First the Altar

“‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem’… Now people of the province came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town… When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem. Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses. They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening. And they offered the daily burnt offerings, as each day required. From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord. But the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid.” Ezra 1:2-3; 2:1; 3:1-4,6

At the pronouncement and provision of Persia’s king Cyrus, tens of thousands of exiles made their way back to Israel and settled in their towns. The task of rebuilding the temple loomed before them in an uncertain and fearful time, having returned to a land where they were unwelcome. When the priests gathered, their first act was to establish the altar and sacrifice burnt offerings to their LORD according to God’s command.

Cross in stone 5, Turkey

At the start of a new year, or any new calling or untried path, there are unknowns that can bring tentative emotions and fear. We may see the big picture and be overwhelmed at the enormity of a task, and wonder how it can all be done. We may be choked by failing health associated with age, precarious employment, ongoing treatments with unknown results and side effects, significant challenges with children, impenetrable walls in relationships dear to us. Rebuild the whole temple? Impossible! But we can start with first things. We can begin with the altar.

As Elisabeth Elliot would say, “Do the next right thing.” Establishing a regular place and time for worship, laying down our burdens on the altar of Christ’s sufficiency, practicing consistent sacrifice of self-interest and effort, do much to assuage our fears and clarify our perspective. When we set first the altar, the delight it affords fuels our energy and wisdom for next steps.

What fears lurk at present– of what others think, of my loved ones’ choices, of future security? What regrets or failures weigh on my soul? What inordinate responsibilities encumber my mind and mess with my peace?

Sufficient Savior, draw me daily to the altar of Your cross, where You vanquished my burdens forever. Keep me worshiping You first and always. (Hebrews 10:10)


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