Altar Builders

Isa. 54:9.---' This is as the waters of Noah unto me.'

The early stories of Genesis describe God as talking with men, as sending out angel messengers to examine the world situation, and as giving to Noah the warning whereby he was led to build the ark. Behind these stories there are religious truths of profound value which gain in significance as the centuries pass. Lamech, the son of Cain, standing for the principle of the vendetta, created terror by the threat that he would slay a lad for every scar one of his tribe received. His warlike instincts were encouraged by the new inventions attributed to Tubal-Cain. Man learned how iron and brass, heated in the furnace, could be shaped into arrow-heads, swords, javelins; in that age of invention, humanity chose the wrong direction; its discoveries were turned to unworthy ends, and the result was that God repented that He had made man.

In these days of ours when science has invested man with new powers, he has used his new knowledge often for very noble purposes. The surgeon devoting to the healing of humanity devices unknown to our fathers; the journalist telling in the evening to the peoples of the West the events which have taken place in the Far East in the morning; such workers are equipped as their forefathers were not, but in so many ways we have chosen the wrong direction. Thousands who in an earlier generation would have remained illiterate can now read and write; but is it a gain if many of them read chiefly the sporting news, and write chiefly betting slips? The horse has been supplanted by the automobile in our busy thoroughfares, but is humanity really any further on when tank corps take the place of cavalry? These changes have come upon us; and as the Deluge was a judgment on the ancient world, so there came for our generation the waters of Noah, and we see that we have been following ends which were not the highest.

The prophet, recalling the disastrous years of the Exile, out of the sympathy which he felt for the sufferers declared God's Eternal Gospel of Repentance, and the message of forgiveness, but, nevertheless, he saw that the national tragedy fitted in with God's righteous plan. The Exile years were 'as the waters of Noah,' a fresh declaration that God could not be mocked. Such world judgments purge the heart of humanity, by declaring God's hatred of sin, and by asserting that the spinal column of the Universe is ethical.

Such a declaration is central in the Christian doctrine of the Atonement; God drew near to His sinful people, showing mercy upon them with everlasting kindness, but in His mercy there had to be due recognition of the gravity of human sin. Men and women who had forgotten God would suffer morally if they found that sin could be dealt with easily, that it could be overlooked and wiped out by one word of God. Our natures, so prone to evil, would have failed to give due recognition to the tragedy involved in sin if God had put it from before His face with the ease of an Omnipotence which could condone evil; so there was necessary an experience which would in a moral universe do justice to the tragic nature of human sin, and which, like the waters of Noah, would purge the heart of humanity by its declaration not only of the Divine love but of God's anger against sin. Here is one aspect from which we look upon Calvary with its suffering and shame; sin was being condemned. In the Cross of Jesus God ' condemned sin in the flesh.'

In a certain war two children whose parents had been killed in a bombardment of the town where they lived were in charge of a rough soldier. The little boy in an argument with another lad used an ugly word which was forbidden in the careful home where he had been brought up. He looked fearfully at the soldier to see if he had been overheard. The soldier laughed carelessly and said: "It doesn't matter. Say all of that sort of thing you like." In a sudden revulsion of feeling the boy burst into tears. "If you were my father, you would not say that," he burst out, and then he walked quietly away to play with the other children and to try to forget the sudden thrust of pain. We want to live in a kind universe, but we do not want to live in a universe which is too kind. We do not want to live in a universe which is so kind it is careless. We want the high moral sanctions to be maintained even when it is against ourselves, and yet we want more deeply than we can say to find a peaceful home in a friendly world despite the folly and the failure of our lives.

While others mocked, Noah obeyed the Divine voice, and after the Flood had destroyed the inhabitants of the world that then was, he emerged from the ark to raise an altar to God on the fresh mountain sod of a new world. The old conditions had passed away, but not the ancient faith, and the faith was given the first place in the new world. What about the world in which we are?

One prediction of the coming days have been published. Mr H. G. Wells, by inventing the diary of a certain very enlightened Dr. Raven, traces the story of humanity until the year 2116. It is apparent that Mr. Wells does not believe that we shall for ever remain an unbelieving world, but he says that there will be a time, about 1965, when Christian ministers will no longer be wanted, and slowly, but certainly, organized religion will pass out of existence. There are not a few who seem to regard this as a possible development; if they are right, then any who strive to build an altar are engaged in a hopeless task.

Against this forecast we place the much more moving utterance of Professor Nicholas Berdyaev, until 1922 Professor of Philosophy in the University of Moscow. He was expelled from Russia because he would not surrender his allegiance to the faith of Jesus. He also, in his book The End of our Time, suggests that we are witnessing the decline of an epoch. The day is ending and the night awaits us, but may not the night have its own glories? The poet tells us of that first mysterious night in Eden, when the sky, untenanted through the hours of the day, became filled with luminaries when evening came and Creation "widened in man's view." So, this Russian Professor believes, it will be with humanity. The barbarization of World is beginning; the Christianity to which we are accustomed is passing through a very difficult phase. "Christianity has not failed, but the Christianity of Constantine the Great has failed; we are back to the place in which the Christian Church stood before the time of Constantine and we must conquer the world afresh."

Many of us are unwilling to agree that the situation is quite as serious as that, but at any rate we stand, each of us, like Noah of old amid the swirling water; the mountains are slowly emerging, and we must erect our altar. What does it mean in these days to build an altar to God? When the people of Israel, in a later period, were carried away captive to Babylon, many forgot the true faith, but out of a loyal remnant God built afresh a nation to serve Him; and in our day, though the army of God is infinitely larger than many people imagine, yet it is with those who are prepared to acknowledge Him that Jesus is building out of the ruins of the past the nobler structure of the future.

In common with the other nations we have known serious hardship and prolonged disappointment. Hopes have been entertained of improved conditions, only to be disappointed, and it is little wonder that many have lost the resilience of spirit which once they possessed. But God has been very good to our lands: He has given courage to thousands who have had a heavy cross to bear, and has maintained in our time, in a day when revolution and sudden change have destroyed confidence in other countries, a certain quietness and unity which have been the envy of other peoples. These are the gifts of God, and, rejoicing in them, we wish to do all we can to foster the spirit of obedience to God, whereby these great things have remained among us. We must continue to be builders of the faith, supporting amid change the imperishable things which know no change.

In the year 718 there went from England the missionary afterwards to be known as St. Boniface, the apostle to the Germans. In so far as Christianity had been planted in Europe through the Roman occupation, it had been swept away by the barbarians who had come from the north, and all over the land there was the worship of Thor. The missionary, standing alone like Elijah of old, determined to cut down a sacred tree associated for centuries with the pagan worship. The people gathered round in great numbers, believing that some terrible vengeance would descend upon the man who thus threatened the ancient god, but the tree fell, and the missionary remained uninjured, and the people, feeling that their god had shown how powerless he was and that now they had nothing to trust in, listened eagerly to the message of St. Boniface. He sent back to England for helpers, and in a relatively short time the land of Thor had been worshiped became filled with Christian churches. From England went forth the message which changed the heart of Europe.

One difficulty in the Christian Church is that our objective seems to be somehow indefinite; we cannot outline our policy in a short program and set out to work for it. More important than the program of Christianity is the spirit of the Christian; and in order to display the true spirit we must live as those before whose eyes there ever stands the altar we have raised. What does it mean to be altar builders? Life is full of duties which we dare not neglect; our responsibilities as citizens, our commitments in our homes meet us regularly, and if we neglect these, then we lose our self-respect. But, having done what is demanded of us, there remains what we may do in the spirit of the altar builder. In the New Testament Jesus speaks of those who, when compelled to go one mile, go two. The readiness to go the 'extra mile,' to become inventive in discovering fresh avenues of Christian service, to forget the cost when work for Christ requires to be done, will keep us true to the spirit of the altar we are trying to build. And so in all our relationships. Fling in the extra with an eager hand. That is the Christ touch, and our Lord's own way, and what He claims from you and me. 'What do ye more than others?' He expects more, not just duty, but that and something added.

The greater numbers of Christians are striving, often without much to encourage them, to live a life well-pleasing in the eyes of God. At times weary of self-sacrifice, of thinking for others, they forgot their high calling, but usually they are more or less faithful and they wonder if they are achieving much. They are keeping the lights of love and truth burning; they are maintaining every worthy organization which is bringing healing to society and peace among the nations; they are continuing in a world which is too ready to forget God, the abiding remembrance of the covenant in which God draws nearer to His people, a covenant which, though the mountains depart and the hills be removed, will never be forgotten. Therefore let us, like Noah, continue to build our altars unto the Lord.

In Christ, timothy.


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