“Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on Your altar and watch for fire to descend” – the Message Bible paraphrase of Psalm 5:3 is a remarkable aid to personal devotion …
1. It speaks of CONSECRATION – ‘I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar …’
We’re drawn into the mysterious imagery of Jewish Tabernacle worship, laid down in early books of the Bible, where we meet with the daily ritual of the burnt offering. Numerous passages in the Book of Leviticus specifically contain regulations concerning this strange procedure.
But as we pass forward into our New Covenant context we discover the Book of Hebrews replete with spiritual counterparts of those OT rituals. Hebrews 13:10, for example, teaches that we have an altar – an unapologetic reference to the Cross of Christ, where the ultimate sacrifice was made for us, once and for all – when the spotless Lamb of God, of His own volition, laid down His life as our ‘substitute’.
By identification in faith we become participants at an inner, spiritual altar. We embrace the Cross as ours, discerning ourselves as crucified with Him, and experiencing resurrection into new life. All this is enacted during the course of baptismal initiation – and subsequently worked out in the rest of our earthly pilgrimage.
Continuing in Hebrews 13:15, 16 we note this practical outworking as we’re encouraged: “through JESUS, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His Name. AND do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased”. This points not to a vague pie-in-the-sky, esoteric spirituality, but one deeply grounded in human community – in the earthy reality of serving others.
2. It speaks of CONSUMMATION – ‘watch for fire to descend’
Fire is one of many symbols used to denote activity of the Holy Spirit (Who is God Himself – a ‘consuming fire’). Often a heaven-sent fire entirely consumed those daily sacrifices, by way of divine response, or affirmation. To illustrate, a rather fascinating passage reads: “Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he came down from offering the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and when they came out they blessed the people, and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face-down.” – Leviticus 9:22-24. Fire is both a purifying and an energizing element. In our walk and work as followers of Christ we definitely need both – purity and energy.
3. It speaks of CONSISTENCY – ‘every morning’
I cannot speak too highly of the need for regular, consistent attention to personal devotion – it’s got to become a habit – ingrained into our lifestyle.
Delving once again into that bygone age, we observe the careful instructions given regarding altar maintenance within the Tabernacle routine. Leviticus captures this: “These are the regulations for the burnt offering: The burnt offering is to remain on the altar hearth throughout the night, till morning, and THE FIRE MUST BE KEPT BURNING ON THE ALTAR. The priest shall then put on his linen clothes, with linen undergarments next to his body, and shall remove the ashes of the burnt offering that the fire has consumed on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he is to take off these clothes and put on others, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a place that is ceremonially clean. THE FIRE ON THE ALTAR MUST BE KEPT BURNING; IT MUST NOT GO OUT. Every morning the priest is to add firewood and arrange the burnt offering on the fire and burn the fat of the fellowship offerings on it. THE FIRE MUST BE KEPT BURNING ON THE ALTAR CONTINUOUSLY; IT MUST NOT GO OUT.” – Leviticus 6:9-13 – note the emphases …
So, there’s a daily obligation (‘every morning’) to:
– remove the ashes – speaking of yesterday’s offering which will not suffice for today. Here’s a reminder to deal with the ashes of our past, otherwise they will certainly hinder our present day offering. We should never permit the despair of our failures or the elation of our achievements to clog up our inner altar, but rather cultivate appropriate contrition and humility.
– add the firewood – for me, adding wood speaks of re-fuelling through meditating on the Cross (our firewood). “Put ‘t wood in ‘t ‘oil” is a wonderful linguistic expression originating in the north of England. It actually means ‘close the door’ – but how necessary it is to add the wood of the Cross to the empty spaces in our heart, providing material for the fire of God, the Holy Spirit – note how the Spirit and the Cross of Christ are intimately connected.
– arrange the offering – rather than a slap-dash, hit and miss approach, this clearly advocates a thorough and thoughtful process in which we carefully and unhurriedly lay out the various pieces of our life – placing each fragment on the altar at His disposal. Interestingly, another designation of this sacrifice was the whole burnt offering – in which nothing is held back.
I believe this powerful imagery is uppermost in St Paul’s mind when exhorting Christians in Rome: “offer your bodies (what is visible & material) as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship” – Romans 12:1. The thought is taken up in the Anglican post-Eucharist prayer: “Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ. Through Him we offer You our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to Your praise and glory”. Further, it is a theme of so many of the church’s great hymns, one example of which follows this image …
O Thou Who camest from above,
The pure celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart.
There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze,
And trembling to its source return,
In humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work and speak and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.
Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thy endless mercies seal,
And make the sacrifice complete.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788)