Monday, August 4, 2014

Why did High Places anger the Lord?

My article from this week's newspapers deals with a question about the Old Testament High Places:

Q:  What are the “high places” that are spoken of in the Old Testament?  How were they used, and why was God angered by them?

The high places were large platforms  that we today might say resembled a small, open-air stage.  They were often built on mountains or hilltops, but remains of them have also been found in valleys and on plains as well.  They were originally used as sacrificial altars for the worship of idols by the Canaanite people who inhabited the land before the Israelites returned from Egypt. 

For the Israelites, God had ordained the Tabernacle as the place where He would be present among His people.  This tent of worship housed the Ark of the Covenant, where various significant items of divine activity were stored, as well as other divinely-instituted ritual items and furniture for use in the worship of the Lord. 

Later, the Lord would allow Solomon to build a permanent temple in Israel where the divinely-ordained sacrifices and worship would occur, and which would be the promised location of the Lord’s presence. 

When the Israelites returned to their promised land, the Lord demanded that they abandon all idolatry and allow no worship of false gods in the land.  At times, the Israelites honored this command, but at other times they neglected it, sometimes worshipping idols instead of the Lord and at other times mixing the worship of the True God with that of false gods in various ways – a pattern in which the high places were prominent, especially among Samaritans. 

One way in which these high places were used in false worship would be to place an altar to Baal or an Asherah pole alongside of an altar to the Lord.  Often the worship of these false gods did not only include idolatry, but also divination, acts of sexual immorality like ritual prostitution, and acts of murder such as child sacrifice, further amplifying the repulsiveness of these acts of idolatry. 

At other times, the Israelites were more subtle in their idolatry in that they would imitate the acts of worship of an idol, but direct the worship toward the Lord and His name instead. 

But the Lord is not a god who receives self-appointed worship from man.  Just as God saves by His choice and forgives as a pure gift, so He also specifies the methods by which His grace and forgiveness will be delivered, and thus no humanly-invented worship will suffice. 

So, on a few occasions, the Lord even disciplines the people who offer the right sacrifices to the right God in a place of their own choosing, or He disciplines those who offer the wrong sacrifice to the right God in the right place, or even those who offer the right sacrifice to the right God in the right place, but who are not authorized to make such a sacrifice. 

While these things occurred in the Old Testament, their example still reveals much to us about the worship of Christians in the New Testament.  The clearest of these is that mixing the worship of the Triune God with that of another is expressly forbidden – for example, a Christian pastor praying jointly in a public service with a Muslim Imam, a Jewish Rabbi, or a Native Medicine Man. 

It also remains that the Lord has given promises concerning the ways in which He will become present to us.  The most common of these is through His Word.  So, when God’s Scriptures are preached or studied, He is delivering grace to create faith and forgive sin.  Similarly, the Lord’s promises are expressly attached to the Visible Word of His Sacraments.  So, when Baptism is administered and when the Lord’s Supper is received, the Lord is present in a special and tangible way to apply His grace to individual Christians for the forgiveness of their sins. 

These divinely-instituted methods of delivering His forgiving grace are certain and when we come into contact with Him, we can know that we are receiving Him and His promises.  Common elements such as prayer and song surround these gifts, but it is to the gifts of Word, Baptism, and Supper themselves that the Lord has attached His promises.  Therefore, Christian worship has them at its center, and if we seek to find the Lord elsewhere or by our own methods, we surrender the certainty of having received His Grace and run the risk of finding another spirit rather than the Lord who saves. 

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