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  • Writer's pictureJohn Coleman

The Altar Within Each Heart

Updated: Jan 21

(This year, I am intentionally working my way systematically (again) through Holy Scripture. As a part of that I am writing short rough notes as I journey through Scripture. These are random, fluid thoughts. These are not formal essays or written sermons. There are no citations and I often convey the thoughts of others that I have read or encountered. These have become a part of my own theology and clearly I stand on the shoulders of others to see more clearly.)

Genesis 35:2 (RSVCE): So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments

I have always heard that the root of all sin (separation from God) is idolatry. I discounted the statement when I first heard it, but I have come to see it is true. The worship of something other than God seems to flow into each one of the Ten Commandments and the myriad different ways we separate ourselves from God each day. Desire is the motivation for what separates us from God as we want something other than God. This desire clouds our vision and leads us down a road of justifications for why something is not that bad and how we can balance both God and _________ (fill in the blank with your separation of choice...food, sex, alcohol, success, jealousy, envy, etc.) without it distorting our reality and deforming our being. We point to the good aspects of what causes the separation, not stopping to consider we are missing the best for the good. 


This verse doesn't seem to be that important. It talks about building an altar to God but quickly moves on. It's buried at the beginning of the chapter where God changes Jacob's name to Israel, which means one who struggles with God. At the end of the chapter, Rachel and Isaac die, one in childbirth with Benjamin and the other to old age. 


Why would we highlight these words? Why are they so important?


This one simple verse contains the ingredients of discipleship and union with God. 


God tells Jacob to settle in this land. God eventually gives Jacob the command he presented to Adam and Noah as God worked something new for his people and creation-"be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 35:11). But first, he proves insight and action on how to do that while walking with God.


God first tells him to build an altar, A place of worship. It is the first thing (something we will discuss many more times). It is the first and central thing we do as a people of God. The verse conveys three things to the people to Israel. These three action items are just as crucial for each of us as they were for the people of God in Jacob's time. The items include a call to 1.) put aside foreign gods or anything that runs the risk of taking the place of Yahweh, 2.) purify yourselves, and 3.) change your clothes. St. John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mount Carmel , highlights this verse as the first step toward being a new creation in God. 


The first involves casting aside "strange gods." This is a way of pointing to those things in life we worship, like the affections and attachments of everyday life. It reminds us of the first Commandment where God says, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). When we cast aside and work against the affections and attachments in life, we make space for God not only in our hearts but in the days of our lives. The items of desire eat up so much more time and attention than we realize. If asked, many would claim Jesus as a central part of their lives, and yet the time we spend in worship, prayer, and service is de minimis compared to what we spend on other good but not best things. 


Setting aside the attachments leads to the second call to action, purifying ourselves. This involves discerning our separation and relationships and denying the desires that lead us from God and our neighbor. This is active and this isn't easy. We will fail, and we will succeed all in the span of a single day or even hour. It is a constant struggle. 


The new clothes come from God. As we engage the first two, God moves us from old to new ways of thinking. God infuses "into the soul a new understanding of God in God, the human understanding being set aside, and a new love of God in God" (St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel). We gain new knowledge and delight in God and the ways and character of God. 


We reach a place where our hearts become an altar where we offer a sacrifice of love and praise to God in all we do. The altar of God becomes our lives where God dwells forever



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