The Altar: Looking Back and Looking Forward
24 Pentecost; November 12, 2023
Saint David’s Episcopal Church
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Matt 25:1-13
In a few minutes, we will dedicate our new altar in loving memory of Ted Kopyscinski, Herb Carpenter, and Bob Hudson. That is a big deal. To the best of my knowledge, Saint David’s has only had two previous altars in our nearly one hundred years. I’m hoping this one serves us for at least the next century, long after we will be gone.
I say what we all know, but is still worth saying. What happens at our altar defines us as who we are. We are the body of Christ because we gather around the altar to share in the sacrament of the body of Christ. Our altar is the symbolic center of our worship, of our building, and of our community.
So, on this day of the dedication of a new center for our life together, I want to look at the significance of altars in Scripture. From our readings for this morning, that means looking at Joshua.
Our reading comes from the end of Joshua’s life and the end of the book that bears his name.
The book Joshua tells the story of the bloody conquest of the Promised Land. Some of it can be hard reading, especially at a time when the Holy Land is again engulfed in violence. But Joshua also has beautiful passages that have a lot to teach us.
As the book Joshua begins, Moses has just died, after leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt and through the desert for forty years. Now the people were camped on the edge of the Promised Land, just across the Jordan River, looking at the formidable walls of the city of Jericho. It must have been a scary time. The people were following a new and untested leader into hostile territory where they would fight a well-defended enemy.
We don’t have time for the details of the story, which is a shame. For our purposes this morning, all we need to know is that the Hebrews prevail. They conquer Jericho and, after a temporary setback, the nearby, smaller town of Ai.
And what is the first thing that Joshua and his people do, after establishing a foothold in the Promised Land? They built an altar to the Lord, offered sacrifice, and renewed their covenant with God, which included a public reading of the entire law of Moses (8:30-35).
Two really important things were happening on that first day at that first altar in the Promised Land.
One, the people were recommitting themselves to the God who had led them to that place and time. They were saying, in a public and ritualized way, that they remained faithful to the teachings and the tradition that they had inherited from all the people who had gone before them.
Second, and just as important, they were acknowledging that they were living in a new situation, as the ancient promises God had made to their ancestors began to come true. And because the people were living in what was, for them, an unprecedented situation, they would have to live out their faith in new ways, they would have to adapt their tradition to their changed circumstances.
That is to say, when they gathered to dedicate that first altar in the promised Land, they were looking backwards and also forwards.
What that first altar in the Promised Land meant for Joshua and his generation, our altar means for us.
Our altar is a symbol of our commitment to the tradition we have inherited. It is the holy table where we reenact and remember Christ’s Last Supper, where we consume Christ’s body and blood in remembrance of Him. The altar represents for us stability, continuity, and faithfulness.
And the sacraments that we celebrate on this altar nourish us, and unite us, and strengthen us for God’s service in an ever-changing world. But, of course, God’s service today looks different in some important ways than it did fifty or a hundred or a thousand years ago.
And so, we do what Joshua and his people did. We come to the altar to remember the past in faith, to face the present with courage and love, and to live hopefully into God’s future, whatever it may bring.
That first altar in the Promised Land was dedicated at the beginning of Joshua’s term of leadership. Over the next few decades, a lot happened. More wars, but not only war. Joshua’s people made homes for themselves in the Promised Land. The generation of conquest grew old and prosperous. That’s when our reading for this morning picks up.
Joshua himself was coming to the end of his life. So, Joshua calls the people together one more time, this time at Shechem, the nearest town to the altar he had built all those years ago. This is Joshua’s final opportunity to address the people he has led so well for so long.
What Joshua does, here at the end of his life—he dies just three verses later—is another covenant renewal, much like the one he led at that first altar, all those years ago.
Joshua reminds the people that God had called their ancestor Abraham into a special relationship. Joshua encourages the people “to revere the Lord, and serve [God] in sincerity and faithfulness.” Joshua assures the people that he and his family “will serve the Lord.” And then Joshua tells the people to “choose this day whom you will serve,” the pagan gods of the land or the God of their father Abraham, the God.
That last bit may sound strange. At this point, the people have been faithfully serving God for their whole lives. But Joshua asks them to renew their commitment, to once again choose God, in a public and ritualized way.
When, as expected, the people promise to serve the Lord, Joshua reminds them that they are making a serious commitment, that serving God means putting away all foreign gods and doing the will of the Lord their God. The people repeat their promise to serve God.
Finally, Joshua again makes a covenant with them, and once again writes out the statutes and ordinances that should define their relationship with God.
All that is to say, Joshua does again, here at the end of his life, what he did with the people at the beginning of their lives in the Promised Land. He asks them to confirm their commitment to the traditions they have inherited, and he lays out for them the conditions of their lives going forward, in new circumstances, not as a conquering people but now as people living peacefully in the Promised Land.
Today, following Joshua’s example, we dedicate our altar.
But first, also following Joshua’s example, we will renew our baptismal covenant. We will affirm once again, in a public and ritualized way, our commitment to the teachings and lifestyle we have inherited. And we will make that old commitment new, we will commit to living out our baptismal covenant in the world around us as it is today, with all of its problems and with all of its joys.
On this historic morning, I give thanks for all that we have inherited. I give thanks for the gift of a new altar that symbolizes our commitment to our past. And I give thanks for the sustenance we will receive here as we strive to live out our faith in ever-new ways. In Christ’s name. Amen
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan