Sermon: The Altar

I invite you to turn in your Bibles with me to Exodus, chapter 27. Exodus is the second book in the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Exodus 27, beginning in verse 1. This winter, we are looking at the shape of worship and mission by taking a long look at the tabernacle God gave to Israel for their worship. Last week we looked at the courtyard of the tabernacle – how God desires to draw near to his people, how the tent itself displays God’s holiness, and that Jesus is the fulfillment of the tabernacle, God dwelling/tabernacling with us. This morning we turn from the outer courtyard to the altar of sacrifice.

Before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me:

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide, the altar shall be square and it shall be three cubits high. You shall make horns for it on its four corners, its horns shall be of one piece with it and you shall overlay it with bronze. You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and firepans, you shall make all its utensils of bronze. You shall also make for it a grating, a network of bronze, and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. You shall set it under the ledge of the altar so that the net shall extend halfway down the altar. You shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze; the poles shall be put through the rings so that the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. You shall make it hollow, with boards. They shall be made just as you were shown on the mountain.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Have you ever walked out of a worship service different than when you came in? If you are new to church, just getting your toes in the water, today might be that day, that morning for you. Maybe you came in low and discouraged, not even sure if you were up for coming, but when you leave you have so much joy you don’t know how to put it into words. Or maybe you came in happy and chatting with friends, but later you realize that you truly understand why Moses took off his shoes before the burning bush, that you have been treading on holy ground. Or maybe you came in with your mind and heart fixed in one direction and walk out thinking, “I will never look at this the same way again.”

Worship changes us. Not always in ways we control or in ways we expect.

This morning we are take a deep look at the altar of sacrifice. God, in his wisdom, commanded his people to build this altar – seven and half feet square and four and half feet tall covered in bronze. God, in his wisdom, told them to place near the entrance to the tabernacle on the east. It is the first thing you would encounter upon coming into the tabernacle, drawing near to the presence of the Lord and, for anyone not a priest, it was the farthest you would ever get into the tabernacle – the altar of sacrifice.

But before we get too far, we need to deal with the discomfort that some of us may be feeling this morning. The altar of sacrifice is a place where an animal was slaughtered, its blood was drained out, and some or all of it was put on top of the altar and burned so thoroughly the whole things was consumed and turn to smoke and ash. That is what the altar was for. For some of us, just the thought of slaughtering an animal and especially that it would be part of worship makes us a bit queasy.

On one level, I want to tell you that I get it. I am a city boy at heart. Confession: I don’t go fishing in large part because I don’t have the stomach to gut a fish. I just can’t do it. I’ll eat it, but don’t ask me to gut it. Like most of you, I grew up with my meat coming pre-packaged from the store. I knew in my mind that someone killed and butchered the animal, but I never had to think about what that was like and I happened to like that. So one on level, I get the aversion to the talk of blood and slaughter.

But on another level, I want us to think that any uneasiness we might feel probably says more about us and where we live than it does about the sacrifice itself. We live in a particular privileged point in history and in the world that we can live removed the death of the animals we eat. Unlike those with livestock, most of us do not know the name of the animal in our freezer. But in the history of the world and even in our world today, the fact that we do not know where our food comes from and have rarely if ever seen an animal die makes us the weird ones.

So if in our discussion of the altar you feel grossed out at any point, I invite you to take a moment to pause and realize that it probably says more about you and where you live than it does about what the Bible is saying.

So, God told his people to make a courtyard to surround the tabernacle, the place of God’s worship. 150 feet long and 75 feet wide, this rectangular worship space had a large screen door on the east. Coming in from the east, you would see the altar, already piled high with wood and coals for the sacrifices. At each of the four corners of this square altar, there would be what looked like a horn sticking out. Standing next to the altar would be a priest, who would invite you to come, bring the animal, and begin the sacrifice. This was the typical pattern of worship for God’s people. There were different kinds of sacrifices for the different occasions and purposes. The vast majority involved an animal being slaughtered, its blood drained, the animal being cut into pieces. Sometimes the whole animal would be then put on the altar, sometimes a portion of the meat would go to the priest, sometimes a portion would go back with the worshipper. There are variations, but the basic pattern was this. Enter to worship, slaughter an animal, drain the blood, cut it in pieces, and put it on the altar to be turned into smoke that would ascend before the face of God.

As we consider the altar this morning, I want us to think first about what this pattern of worship taught Israel and teaches us, then I want us to think a moment about the horns of the altar, and finally, spend a few moments considering what it might mean for us, as the New Testament commands, to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.

First, what does this pattern of worship teach us? What did it teach Israel?

Something has to die for you to draw near to God. Coming into the presence of God requires sacrifice and sacrifice in the form of something dying in your place.

Again and again, day after day, year after year, when anyone wanted to come into the presence of God, something died so that they could draw near. You want to worship, want to come into God’s presence, then that animal needs to die, its blood poured out so that you can enter in.

Over and over again, you see this and hear this and do this until you know something deep in your bones, death is required for you to enter the presence of God. But it is deeper than that.

In the Bible, animals represent and stand in for people. This is true all over the place, but particularly in the sacrifices. Depending on who you are, you offer a different animal, because different animals stand in and represent different people. A priest, you offer a bull. A leader of the people, a male goat. A common person, a female goat or sheep. A poor person, a dove or pidgeon. But in every case, the animal stand in for the person. So when you came to worship and offered that animal in sacrifice, that animal was standing in your place. Over and over again, when you came to worship, you enacted that something must die in your place for you to come into the presence of God.

But it goes deeper. In those sacrifices where a male animal was used, the actual Hebrew does not just say a ‘male goat’ or ‘male bovine.’ Instead, it says ‘a son of the herd.’ It tells us the sacrifice is male by telling us it is a son.

I’m getting chills just thinking about this, but this is the pattern God gave to Israel all the way back in the wilderness having just led them out of Egypt and up on Mount Sinai. You want to come into my presence, you want to come before me in worship, in order for this to happen, a son must die in your place. A son of the herd, but a son, must die as your representative, only then can you come before me in worship.

But it goes deeper. I mentioned last week that there are parallels between the garden of Eden and the tabernacle. God gave Adam and Eve, our first parents, every fruit tree in the garden to eat from but one. God told them that if they ate of that tree, ‘on the day you eat of it, you will surely die.’ But God in his surprising grace does not kill Adam and Eve that first day. Instead, they are sent out of the garden and on the East a cherubim was placed with a flaming sword to guard the way back to the tree of life. We noted that when God placed the doorway to the tabernacle on the East he was already hinting at how what he would do through the tabernacle would undo the curse of Eden.

So imagine that you enter from the East, symbolically heading back into the garden of Eden, but you encounter a man standing there along with a sword and fire. As you seek to head back into the presence of God, back into Eden, the judgment of the curse will fall upon you. There is flame and sword there barring your way. But the only way you can enter in is if something, someone is willing to die in your place. You have brought the lamb, the son of the herd, and this son dies in your place so that the curse of Eden does not fall on you, so that you can walk again in the presence of the Lord.

This is what God is teaching Israel, is teaching us through the altar of the tabernacle. The curse of Genesis 3 – on the day you eat of it you will die – means that none of us can enter into God’s house, none of us can come on our own into the presence of God. That curse must fall on someone, so God commands them to select a son, an unblemished son of the herd, who will die in their place, die so that they can come to God in worship.

This pattern, day after day, month after month, year after year, century after century pointed ahead to how God would truly undo the curse and allow us to enter into his presence. It would take not a son of the herd, but the perfect, spotless Son, the Son of God, dying in our place so that we could enter in.

The altar was ultimately about the cross. The wooden altar of sacrifice where the blood of the sons of the herd were poured out for centuries was ultimately only a shadow of the wooden altar of the cross when the Son of God pour out his blood for sinners.

This is the good news: Something has to die for you to worship and draw near to God. You no longer need to bring goats or rams or bulls, sons of the herd, because none of those could truly satisfy, but the one true Son of God has offered himself in your place, so that you can enter into the presence of God.

This was already in God’s plan when he first told Moses to instruct the people to build an altar and long before that.

In addition to the pattern of sacrifice at the altar which points us to the cross, we should notice something interesting about the shape of the altar itself. Verse 2 says, You shall make horns for it on its four corners, its horns shall be of one piece with it and you shall overlay it with bronze. The altar had four horns on it, one on each corner. What is up with that?

There were two key things we are told were done with the horns. First, the blood from the sacrificed animal was sprinkled on the horns of the altar. Blood is the symbol of life and so the blood of the sacrifice, the life of the one sacrificed is applied to the horns of the altar. But second, when someone was running for refuge, they would run and cling to horns of the altar.

Back when I was younger, we regularly played tag in school. One person would be ‘it’ and their job was to chase and touch all the other people playing and ‘tag’ them. There were lots of variations, but pretty soon the teachers always designated a ‘safe zone’ for playing tag. If you were being chased you could run to this area, usually a fence, touch it and would be safe from getting tagged while you caught your breath. There was usually a time limit on how long you could stay there, twenty seconds or so, but in the safe zone you could not be tagged.

In Israel, if you had committed an accidental murder, it was likely that the family of the person you killed would try to kill you in revenge. In order to avoid this, what you could do would be to flee to the tabernacle and take hold of the horns of the altar. When you took hold of them, God declared that you were free from the just retribution that would have fallen upon you. By clinging to the altar, clinging to the horns covered in the blood of sacrifice, you were freed from the justice and judgment you deserved.

God placed the horns on the altar so that his people would know where to run for refuge. God gave them those blood-soaked horns so that they could cling to them and trust they are safe because of the sacrifices offered there.

In his commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry says that this is what sinners do when we come cling to Christ, cling to his cross. We are like the man clinging to the horns of the altar. Henry says, “Now this brazen altar was a type of Christ dying to make atonement for our sins. To the horns of the altar poor sinners fly for refuge when justice pursues them, and they are safe in virtue of the sacrifice offered there.”

Not only do we need to know that the altar points to the true Son who dies in our place, but we must, like the guilty man clinging to the horns of the altar, cling to Christ and his cross. For it is only in Christ, by the power of his blood and sacrifice, that our sins can be washed away, we can be free from judgment, and we can enter into the presence of God.

Friend, cling to Christ, grab hold of the horns of the cross, where the only sacrifice that can make you whole was made.

We have seen how the altar itself points to the cross of Christ – the true son dying in our place so that we can enter into God’s presence. We have heard the call to cling to the cross like the guilty person would cling to the horns of the altar. But before we close, I want us to think briefly about what it might mean to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.

In Romans 12, Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” What might this mean for us, especially in light of what we know about the altar and about how sacrifice works?

Worship changes us. When someone brought a sacrifice into the tabernacle, the sacrifice did not leave the same as it came in. The sacrifice was cut in pieces by a knife then placed on the altar of God and through fire changed into smoke which rose before God’s face, a pleasing aroma in God’s sight.

It was cut in pieces, changed by fire, and made pleasing in God’s sight.

What might that means for us as living sacrifices?

Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

When a sacrifice was offered to God, it was cut into pieces by the knife of the priest. When we come before God as living sacrifices, part of what that means is letting the word of God cut us to pieces. It should be no surprise that one of the most common ways that the book of Acts describes people’s response to the gospel is that they were ‘cut to the heart.’ God’s word, like a surgical scalpel, cuts away at us, removing the callouses of our hearts and often leaving us in pieces. When we come to God in worship, we are coming willing for God’s word to do some hard, painful, but ultimately good work in us. This is part of what it means to be living sacrifices, letting God cut us into pieces.

But sacrifices were also transformed by fire and made into smoke that was pleasing to God. As living sacrifices, we are not only cut up by the word, but by the fire of the Spirit, we are changed and made pleasing in the sight of God. Our lives, transformed by the work of the fiery Spirit, become a sweet smell in God’s nostrils. Worship changes us. When we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to the Lord we do not leave worship the same way we came in.

The altar of sacrifice points to the cross of Christ. Friend, cling to Christ, cling to the horns of the cross, just as the guilty clung to the horns of the altar, and then come into the sweet presence of God. Then, offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God. Let his word cut you up and his Spirit transform you so that your life and your worship will be pleasing to God.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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