Rebuilding Starts at the Altar
"Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord..." Ezra 3:3
"...they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord's temple had not yet been laid." Ezra 3:6
When the people of Israel returned home to Jerusalem after 70 years in exile, they must have desperately longed to re-enter the presence of God. In Babylonian captivity, they had no access to God's dwelling place, which was the temple. They weren't just physically distanced from it — their captors had actually destroyed the house of God, burning it to ashes.
The exiles were still God's people, and He would not forsake them. But He did allow them to experience a break in their relationship with Him for a time — long enough to ponder the sin that caused it. Not everyone returned from Babylon, however. Many simply became accustomed to living without the Lord and chose to assimilate into the culture around them.
As for the humbled homecoming of those who did journey back, they came with a determination to begin rebuilding the temple, despite opposition from foreigners who had settled in the city during their absence. But first God's people had to address something else — their sin.
Before one stone of the temple's foundation was laid, the people gathered to rebuild the altar on its original foundation. Here they could finally make sacrifices to the Lord to acknowledge and atone for their sin — something they had not been allowed to do in Babylon. Before there could be worship and fellowship with God, there had to be confession and repentance of sin.
I found myself in a similar place last year.
I had been removed from God's presence for so long because, honestly, I had neglected my sin for so long. I suffered many years in "exile," removed from intimacy with the Lord by my own doing. I had done life my way, blending in with the culture, failing to heed His direction and striving to find peace in everything besides Him.
God longed to make things right between us. But instead of coming to the altar to claim the forgiveness and acceptance found in the blood of Jesus, I continued to let sin build up over time into a calloused wall of separation.
"In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it." Isaiah 30:15
Just like the Jewish people, when I neglected the altar, ignored my sin and failed to repent, I was distanced from His presence and my full inheritance as His child. But, like the exiles, He compassionately led me back to Himself when I was ready to deal with my sin. "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ." (Ephesians 2:13)
I had to repent for a lot of things on my journey back to the Lord. For judging myself and others, essentially taking that job away from God. For not forgiving offenses. For seeking wisdom in the wrong sources. For trying to "fix" myself. For not trusting or believing Him. For living my life in response to hurts, or in fear of what people would think. For trying to take control. The list goes on and on!
As Christians today, of course, we don't have to sacrifice burnt offerings on a physical altar, because the Lamb of God shed His blood on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for all who believe in Him. The cross of Jesus is our altar. But we have to follow Him there.
This is what Hebrews 13:10-14 says: "We have an altar from which the priests in the Tabernacle have no right to eat. Under the old system, the high priest brought the blood of animals into the Holy Place as a sacrifice for sin, and the bodies of the animals were burned outside the camp. So also Jesus suffered and died outside the city gates to make his people holy by means of his own blood. So let us go out to Him, outside the camp, and bear the disgrace he bore. For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come."
When I first acknowledged that I am a sinner in need of a Savior (waaay back in 1991), the cross forever secured forgiveness for all my sins. So when I sin as a believer, as we all do, I'm not in danger of losing my salvation. But I am in danger of grieving the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). I am in danger of falling prey to the enemy's attacks. I am in danger of forfeiting the Lord's blessing. I am in danger of distancing myself from God, His will and His voice. When I'm too far from the altar, I can't hear Him at all.
Unconfessed sin blocks fellowship with God. THAT is why it's crucial for us as believers to continually return to the altar and put our sin to death. It's the place where our relationship with Him begins and the place where it is restored. When I lay my sin down at the altar, I can then enter His presence and receive all He wants to give me: acceptance, freedom, security, love, victory and peace.
"...God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1:5-9
If you're feeling far away from God, I would encourage you to start the journey back to your relationship with Him — even if it's currently a pile of rubble — by coming to the altar. That's where rebuilding begins.
"Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience." Hebrews 10:22
"And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified." Acts 20:32