O Come To The Altar

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And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when [Jesus] heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matthew 9:10-13)

I really love saying that Jesus came for the broken, the messy, the sinner, the perpetually dependent and needy. I really love singing about that truth, too. But I really, really, REALLY have a hard time being one of those people. I know intellectually that I need Jesus, but the experience of that is rarely in a heart-warming, soul-cleansing, emotionally-gratifying way. Instead, it usually fleshes itself out in rebuke and/or conviction, a grieved heart, confession, repentance, and a lower view of myself and a higher view of Christ. Honestly, there's a large part of me that would really love to find a way to be as "put together" as the Pharisees were, and yet have the humility and neediness Jesus esteemed in the people He regularly had dinner with. But that happy medium doesn't exist, and I certainly hope that God graciously spares me from striving to be the poster child for it.

We see over and over in Scripture that God responds to us in our weakness. Psalm 147 and Isaiah 55 are the first to come to mind, but if you or I devoted five minutes to mining the treasure of the Word for more, we'd soon be wading through a steady, growing river of evidence that a broken heart over our sin is what He desires and delights in.

So why do I have such a hard time embracing that truth? A lot of it is, obviously, pride. That's why it's so important for us to preach the gospel to our own hearts and others as often as we can. We NEED to hear the humbling truth that we can't save ourselves, and be FREED by surrendering to the One who has saved us! I love this song because it reminds us that we can approach Him boldly in all of our mess:

Are you hurting and broken within?
Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin?
Jesus is calling. 
Have you come to the end of yourself?
Do you thirst for a drink from the well?
Jesus is calling.  

Isn't it easier to sing and to lead a church in that verse than to sing it about our own hearts? To assume that the people standing in front of us, with the varied stories and struggles they come in with that day, are way more in need that we are; that they would be more blessed by the opportunity to confess they have come to the end of themselves. But we would be wise to pause and consider this: it serves our local churches and glorifies God all the more when we as worship leaders first and foremost see our own brokenness! We would be well served to take the time to look at our own hearts and realize we need to come to the well to drink; to come to the end ourselves every single day and be completely dependent on God's grace!

Once we have rightly seen ourselves in the place of need, along with every one else in the room who will be singing this song, we then hear the invitation:

O come to the altar...

Can I be honest real quick and say, up until yesterday, every time I heard this chorus I flashed back to my lifelong church-going experience and the infamous, terrifying "altar call"? I don't intend to take away from altar-calls by any means (that's part of the story of how Jesus saved me) -- I think the act of humbling yourself and confessing you need Him is vital in the life of the new and seasoned believer! But I zoomed in a little more yesterday and thought about that word, "altar" ... and I feel like the Lord began to refresh that word for me, especially in this song.

I've been reading the book of Numbers this year (don't knock it till you read it!), and it is staggering to see how central the altar was for Israel. There were burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, Sabbath offerings, daily offerings, monthly offerings, Passover offerings, offerings for the Day of Atonement... need I go on? As you can imagine, costly, intentional, atoning blood on an altar was normative for them. They came to the altar, and they had to keep coming... over and over. And they were coming because of their sin!

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Oh, Beth -- and oh, broken, discouraged, needy, sin-struggling you!-- come to the altar; not the altar of the old covenant where goats and bulls and lambs without blemish were slain to make atonement for sin; not even necessarily to the altar front and center in the sanctuary of your church; but come to THE altar; the cross where the sinless Lamb of God was slain once for all, and see the stains and power of your sin be washed away!

Do we have ears to hear His voice today when He says to our weak, prideful, prone-to-hide hearts: "Come now, let us reason together... though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool." (Isaiah 1:18) And there, may the sweet sound of worship from a humbled, rescued, redeemed heart be heard:

Oh, what a Savior!
Isn't He wonderful?