We were sitting in a little house church gathering in Bend, Oregon one evening a few years back and the lady in the front row kept talking about these rockpiles she’d found on some hiking trails in the nearby forest.
“These rocks are intended to be code for the wiccan and occult worshippers so they know where to go to find the altars and stuff. They are all bad.”
Raised eyebrows and confused looks were exchanged between Brian, my husband, and myself while the boys, blissfully unaware of the fog of weird that had just descended on our heads, kept looking at their coloring pages.
That was the last time we went to that little group. Since we’d only been a few times before and it just didn’t seem to be a good “fit” for us, we just moved on.
Here in Israel there are lots of piled rocks but I don’t think they are pointing anyone to anything. There are the ruins of the palace of Agrippa II, the remains of a village on the shoreline of the Mediterranean in the shadow of Mount Carmel, or the soft edges of crumbling gravel stones once the foundation of an elaborate temple to Zeus at the base of Mount Hermon.
Nothing more impressive than a simple pile of rocks without any purpose or meaning to them as time and the elements have eroded them to pebbles and then to sand before mingling them with the ancient dust of this land.
25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.’
An altar was an intentional pile of rocks… Rocks in the shape God intended, lying about, ready to be stacked to support the weight of glory. Just rocks. In a pile.
But the purpose was far greater than just throwing some stones together.
Altars existed to showcase offerings both redemptive and restorative.
From the first altar where Noah shed the blood of the clean animals so his gratitude for a God of Salvation could be witnessed to the red brick square monument at the Temple Institute, which has yet to be used, altars are places of destiny and purpose.
Abraham and Isaac found out what kind of man he really was and God rejoiced in his faith at an altar. Aaron lost his way and made an altar to a giant piece of jewelry shaped like a calf and then children died because of his own proximity to that altar. Jesus walked to the top of a stony outcropping with the macabre grinning face of a skull to be the ultimate sacrifice on the ultimate altar.
All throughout the stories of the Bible we see stone piles being used to demonstrate the acute presence of a focused God determined to restore those who call upon Him and His passion to expose the futility of those who call upon idols and false gods.
Which is why, I suppose, the concept of an altar has become cheapened and degraded to a few feet of carpet in front of a wobbly wooden balustrade where the valiant few weep and cry and offer up all manner of things which cost us so little so we might gain some sort of emotional high without sacrifice.
Friends, without God’s intervention, even the most elegant altar is only a pile of rocks and with His presence a simple pile of rocks can become the most beautiful altar since the time of Noah.
Long ago, on the way to an ugly confrontation, I told the Lord that I would voluntarily climb up on this figurative altar and I wouldn’t climb down, no matter what happened.
Blood was shed that day, friends, and I have walked with a limp ever since. But I didn’t die there. My pride was harmed, my spirit wounded, my faith tested, but I lived.
Climbing off that altar and stomping into an arena of bitterness and self-reliance would have made it only a pile of rocks. Staying there, eyes fixated on the presence of my faithful God, kept me safely within His love, and sanctified a place of hard truth and pain.
He’s the only One who can make the difference in us and offer us an opportunity to become far more than scattered stones.