There's something else we need to consider about all the sacred things we do, all the altars we try to build in our daily lives in the hopes that God will visit them:
That's not how altars work.
Throughout the Old Testament, people were setting up altars all over the place. Abraham built one on the mountain. Moses sketched one into the Tabernacle. Solomon built one in the Temple. When the people crossed the river safely, they set up an altar. When brothers were reconciled to one another, they erected an altar. An altar here, an altar there, an altar everywhere...that God had already shown up.
Altars were not invitations; they were remembrances. They were markers for the people to remember what God had done in a certain place. They were spaces for the people to come back and know that, at least once, at some point in time, God was here. He was right here. They looked at the altar and remembered what God had done for them. They prayed, offered sacrifices, thanked God at the places that had His presence all over them.
The altars didn't make the ground sacred; they were simply made on sacred ground.
And then, there's us. We spend our lives trying to do the sacred things, trying to do the holy things, and hoping that when we do, God will show up. Our churches have become houses of this. We go to church - a sacred thing, we think - hoping that God shows up. That's not what church is for. Church is a place where we come to remember, to acknowledge, to celebrate the God among us. How easily we forget that.
But there is also an altar in the Temple, and this cannot be neglected, either. We have to have altars in our lives; God's plans make that very clear. They wouldn't be littered throughout His story if there wasn't something important about them. That something is the remembering.
It's like making markers throughout our lives, places we can go back to when times get tough or areas we're likely to encounter again and again. The people crossed the River, but they also came back to the River. When they did, they saw an altar - a sign of what God had done in that place. And they worshiped God in that place.
I'm not about to go stacking stones in the middle of the Wal-Mart. I'm not going to build an altar on the side of the road. You can't follow the drips of the blood offering through my house and find any place particularly meaningful. We don't set up a lot of altars in the world any more. Just in our churches, and we've nearly lost those to idol worship (worship of the churches themselves, or of worship itself, or of doctrine or of style or whatever). But we set up altars in our hearts. Or, at least, we should.
We ought to remember that moment when God told us who we are. When He answered our piercing questions and gave us that bit of confidence that we needed. It's locked into our muscle memory, the way we stood a little taller that moment, the way we smiled without knowing we were, the way we breathed a little deeper and slowed down a little bit because it was all okay. We can go back to that moment. We can go back to the way that felt. And we can worship God at that place, at the place where He spoke to us in such a powerful way. And more importantly, we can worship God out of that place like Levites serving at the altar in the Temple. This becomes the place from which we serve Him.
We ought to remember that time that God rescued us. When He snatched us away from whatever was about to destroy us. It's locked into our hearts, the way we trusted a little deeper that day. The way that we fell a little softer. The way that we let ourselves go, knowing His tender hands would hold us. We can go back to the way that felt. And we can worship God at that place, at the place that He rescued us. And more importantly, we can worship God out of that place. This becomes the place from which we serve Him.
Our lives, our stories, are littered with altars, if we've taken the time to build them, just like the stories of the Old Testament. We're full of places that we keep coming back to, places where we know exactly what happened. Places where we understood exactly who God is. It's important to build those places up as places of worship, places both to worship at and to worship out of. Places to remember Him and to serve Him. When we do that, we find that we don't need to keep building altars to bring the presence of God here; we have plenty already to know that He already is.
Our altars don't make our lives sacred. Only God does that. But on our sacred grounds, we make altars.
Lest we forget.