Stopped at the Altar (Sept-Oct 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Victor Knowles
September – October, 1997

When we fail to forgive, we destroy the bridge over which we ourselves must inevitably pass.

28Many years ago a man went to church but was stopped at the altar. He was not stopped by the police, a priest, or a pastor. Nor was he stopped by an earthquake that shook the church or a bolt from the blue that blasted the altar to smithereens. The man was stopped by his memory. It wasn’t that his memory wasn’t working. It was working, all right. Working only too well. The man remembered a shadow from the past – a shadow that hindered his worship of God.

The sacred record reads: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Mathew 5:23-24).

Unreconciled differences between believers are a great hindrance to worship. Perhaps no greater hindrance exists today than this one. But, oh, what a joy it is when differences are resolved and our gift of worship is offered – together – on top of the altar! In my biography of Archie Word (Voice of Thunder, Heart of Tears, College Press, 1992) I tell the story of a church in Ceres, California, a congregation which had been “split down the middle” for 12 long years. After four weeks of preaching in a gospel meeting, with no results of repentance, all seemed lost. But as Word testified, “Then one night it happened. When the invitation was given, people began crossing the aisle and taking each other by the hand. Others hugged and kissed in reconciliation. This went on for quite some time. Then people began coming down the aisle to get right with God, as well as getting right with their estranged brothers and sisters. It was one of the most loving services I have ever been in.” The reconciled congregation took out a full-page newspaper advertisement signed by every member in the church, asking the community to forgive them for their past behavior. After that, they experienced “the highest spiritual level” they had enjoyed in years.

Jesus said, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven my forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25). when we fail to forgive, we destroy the bridge over which we ourselves must inevitably cross. The 18th-century English hymnist William Cowper lamented, “Alas! If my best Friend, who laid down his life for me, were to remember all the instances in which I have neglected him, and to plead them against me in judgment, where should I hide my guilty head in the day of recompense? I will pray, therefore, for blessings on my friends, even though they cease to be so, and upon my enemies, though they continue such.”

Unconfessed sin is another barrier to worship. “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord wouldnot have listened; but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer” (Psalm 66:18-19). If you cherish a relationship with God, you will not cherish sin in your heart! God sees the heart. He is greater than our heart. He sees what is in the secret chambers. He is fully aware of every secret of our soul. Only pride or stupidity will keep us from confessing our sins to God. Jesus told a story about two men who went to a church to pray. One man, filled with unbelievable vanity and pride, boasted to God how good he had been that week. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” He also “thanked” God that he was not a sinner like others: “robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.” The poor publican, however, beat his breast and cried seven words that brought salvation to his house: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Worship that does not include confession of all sin precludes all carriers of sin. Those who dare to brazenly invade the presence of God with sin in their heart or on their hands will be stopped cold at the altar.

Who then can worship God? Are we not all sinners? Indeed we are. But there is a world of difference between a contrite sinner and a contriving sinner. God will not despise a broken and contrite sinner. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51: 17). But God will withstand, mightily, successfully, and eternally, those who approach the altar ramrod stiff with pride and arrogance. Christ received penitent prostitutes but rejected proud Pharisees (Matthew 21:31). There are seven things that God hates and the number one sin that offends him is pride (Proverbs 6:17-18). I am impressed with the way believers in Eastern Europe enter a church building. They seat themselves, quickly and quietly. They bow their heads and their lips move in silent prayer. What are they praying? I don’t know, but their humble spirit speaks volumes to me.

Unopened eyes are yet another barrier to worship that enriches and energizes. Have you been going to church more but enjoying it less? If so, perhaps it’s because you need spiritual surgery on your eyes. If our vision is blurred, or worse yet, if we are stone blind to that which is divine, then it is little wonder that we have such little wonder in our worship. One of my greatest thrills was to visit England and sing Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine.” Truly, I was “lost in wonder, love and praise” that unforgettable afternoon.

Thomas Carlyle said, “Worship is transcendent wonder.” A.W. Tozer has observed, “More spiritual progress can be made in one short moment of speechless silence in the awesome presence of God than in years of mere study.” How long has it been since you were staggered by the majesty of God? Have you had an Isaiah experience?

The year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord, “seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the trian of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). The prophet was absolutely transfixed by what he saw. The Lord was surrounded by seraphs who sang as they flew through the air, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). When the seraphs sang, “the doorposts and threshholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:4). Talk about “Holy Smoke!”

In contrast with how Isaiah saw God (high and lifted up), he saw himself as ruined and unclean. Our worship of God, whether private or corporate, is a waste until we see God as He is, and we see ourselves as we really are. God is three-times holy; we are three thousand-times unholy. Yet, in spite of this great disparity, God actually seeks men to worship him (John 4:23). The unknown Italian hymnist had it right: “Come, Thou Almighty King, Help us Thy name to sing, Help us to praise. . . . ” We are helpless before him. Hapless. Hopeless. But even at that his majestic deity causes our mere humanity to cry out, “My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Psalm 84:2).

One Summer Sunday morning, when I was about seven years old, a sparrow flew into our sanctuary. Every eye was on the sparrow as he flitted here and there. Finally he found lodging on a cornice, high in the vaulted ceiling. Years later I cam across this passage of Scripture that reminded me of that incident: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, they are ever praising you” (Psalm 84:3-4).

May our worship of Almighty God never be stopped at the altar – stopped by unreconciled differences, unconfessed sin, or unopened eyes. May we, like the lowly sparrow (and we are of greater value than sparrows), find a home – a place near the altar of our Almighty King and God!Wineskins Magazine

Victor Knowles is Executive Director of Peace on Earth Ministries, Joplin, Missouri.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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