Sermon: Altar in the Wilderness

Today Pastor Choi talks about altar in the church.  3,500 years ago, in the wilderness, while their leader Moses was away, Aaron the priest succumbed to the demand from the people and created a golden calf.  That opened the floodgate of idolatry to Israel for the centuries to come and brought down God’s wrath on the future generations that culminated in the Babylonian Captivity.   Pastor exhorts the congregation to make a wise choice at Manahawkin UMC: worship the LORD God only for the sake of next generations.


     Altar in the Wilderness




Following is a summary of his sermon:
Altar in the wilderness


Acts 7:37-44   NASB

37This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.’38This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. 39Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, 40saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.’ 41At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel? 43 You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.’  44 “Our fathers had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern which he had seen.


I have been doing a sermon series on the “altar.”  I first talked about the individual altar.  All of us have an altar in our hearts built to someone/something we worship and serve.  Build one only to Me and pull down the altars of your idols, God commands us.

Then, I talked about the “family prayer altar.”  We as the family ought to have an altar dedicated only to God not to anything else or to anybody else.  With this altar, we declare to the world that we belong to the Lord God and that we worship/serve Him only.  Every day we gather around this family altar and pray together.  When the family prays together, they stay together.  I encourage you to take up the challenge of the family prayer altar for 30 days.  In fact, I am very pleased to announce that out of my goal of having 100 families, now the number is 51.  Forty nine to go and if you haven’t signed up yet, please do so today before you go home.  The sign-up sheet, daily check-list, and the directions of how to do it are on the table in the Narthex.


I am going to talk about the corporate altar this morning; the altar in the church.

Come and meet the pastor Moses.  You can’t ask for a better leader than him: He was a top-notch leader in every aspect.  First, academically, he was educated in the Egyptian palace as prince.  Next, for practical training in ministry, he spent forty years honing his skills as a shepherd.  Furthermore, look at his impressive references. For instance, for his personality, God vouched for him that Moses was the most humble man in the world: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3, NASB).

What about his accomplishments in ministry?  He was second to none.  God helped him to perform signs and wonders for 40 years (E.g. 10 plagues, parting of the Sea, manna).  God accompanied his congregation day and night: clouds to cover them from the Sun during the day and pillar of fire at night to keep them warm.   Moses directly spoke with God and received the living oracles from God and passed them onto the congregation of Israel.  His encounter with God was so supernatural that, after each meeting with God, his face would glow.  The people of Israel were afraid to see his face that he had to cover his face with a towel. “The sons of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone. So Moses would replace the veil over his face until he went in to speak with Him” (Exodus 34:35, NASB).

He remained their faithful leader for 40 years until he died at the age of 120.

Let’s think about the congregation this time.  Moses’ congregation—the congregation of Israel—had over one million members!  The largest ever in human history!   It was huge.  There were problems and challenges galore.  Here’s one to begin with: there was an ongoing grumble against their leader Moses.  Why?   Because they loathed their journey to the Promised Land.  They hated what they were physically going through such as the same food for forty years (manna), scarce water, and harsh climate in the wilderness.  But, it was on the surface.

The real problem was this: their heart.  Their heart was never right with God.  They never liked what God was doing with them. They missed their old life-style in Egypt where they were slaves.  They missed it so much that they desired to go back.  They didn’t care if they became slaves again.  They preferred food over freedom.  To them, the freedom in the Promised Land wasn’t worth the hardships in the wilderness.  They wanted the old Egypt back.

In the Bible, Egypt means the world.  It is the world where we didn’t know God; where we didn’t know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  The world where we would worship idols and do whatever we desired without God; the world where we were slaves to sin and death.   Exodus means God’s action to bring His people, the Church, out of that world.  As we come out of the world, we become separated from the world.  Going through the Red Sea means baptism.  Baptism is the beginning of our life as a new creation in Christ.  The Wilderness means our life on earth as sojourners.  This world is not our permanent or true home.  The Promised Land means Heaven our eternal destination our true home.   The congregation in the wilderness is us as the believers who are separate from the world; the believers who are baptized for the forgiveness of sins through Jesus; the believers who travel through life’s challenges with endurance and with trust in God.  The believers who never turn their hearts back to the world but keep on pressing onto Heaven our eternal destination no matter how hard the journey is.

The fundamental issue is always the heart.  The hearts of the Israelites were not in God but always in the world where they used to live.  Their bodies were in the wilderness, yet their hearts never left Egypt.  They were least interested in God’s purpose and destination, and most interested in the comfort and pleasures of the world they left.  They would grumble against God and Moses wondering why they were brought out of Egypt into the wilderness: They said to Moses, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11).  Do you hear in every sentence “Egypt?”  They sure missed Egypt.

They desired Egypt and often tried to go back there.  Well, finally a chance arrived to rebel against their leader Moses and against God.  Moses wasn’t in the camp.  He had gone up into the mountains to receive the 10 commandments.  He didn’t come back in the same day.  He didn’t return the next day, either.  His absence became a week; a week turned into two weeks; the two weeks became 40 days.  After 40 days, they went to Aaron, Moses’ brother the second-in-command.  They asked him to create gods that would lead them back to Egypt.

Instead of rebuking them, Aaron succumbed to their demand.  He asked them to bring him gold.  With the collected gold, he created an image of a golden calf calling it god.   People rejoiced and brought their sacrifices to their idol and worshiped it.  That was the saddest day in the history of Israel because the congregation built an altar not to the Lord God but to the idols.  That was the day when idolatry sneaked in and never left from Israel.  Such idolatry continued in the Promised Land and beyond!  In fact, they worshiped idols and relentlessly provoked the Lord to anger for the next thousand years (Moses: 1,500 B.C.  The Babylonian Captivity: 586 B.C.).  Can anyone blame God who brought wrath upon the future generations—which culminated in the Babylonian Captivity?

The story of the golden calf is very poignant to God’s Church today: Do not build an altar in My church to idols.  Keep your heart with Me, God says.   He warns us this morning, “Remove idols in the church.  Do not turn back to the world and follow its lusts.”

In today’s church, the hearts of many believers are not with God but still in the world.  Many church attendees in America have already gone back to the world (or their hearts never left their spiritual Egypt, the world).  They have been backsliding.  Furthermore, what Aaron (who represents priests) did with the Israelites back then is still happening in the contemporary churches.  E.g.  Among the emerging and popular congregations many messages are crowd-pleasing rather than God-pleasing (Romans 2:29).  Many sermons focus on how to cope with life on earth but fail to equip the saints for eternal life.  Few promote Christ-like life-styles.  Many teach believers to seek the crown without the cross.   Resurrection without crucifixion.

Today people look for churches where preachers preach to their itching ears.  Listen to Paul the Apostle who said, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 KJV).  The scariest thing is this:  when we prefer the world to God, when we love and practice the lusts of the world instead of God’s truth, God gives us over to our idols. “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Romans 1:24, 1:26, NASB).

The Lord asks us to repent today; both clergy and laity.

For clergy:  We must repent of our sins to please the crowd with sugar-coated messages.  Many a time, we succumb to the pressure from the crowd and end up preaching what they love to hear rather than the sound message of God’s Word.  We must repent of our sins of being a peddler of God’s Word (2 Corinthians 2:17).  We must repent of our sins of adulterating God’s Word (2 Corinthians 4:2).   We must stop preaching the prophecy of greed, flattery, and human glory (1 Thessalonians 2:4-6).   Pray for the clergy that they would be a faithful servant of God’s Word.  Pray that they would preach God’s Word without compromise.  Pray that they would be accurate handlers of God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15).

As far as the laity is concerned, we must repent our sins of pressuring the clergy to preach only what we want to hear, not the wholesome truth of God’s Word.  We must repent our sins of loving the world and following its lusts.  Do not be conformed to the pattern of the world, God commands (Romans 12:1).   Listen to John the Apostle who said, “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2:15-16 KJV).

For us all, both clergy and laity, let us follow not the world, but God by renewing our hearts and minds daily (Romans 12:1-2).  Let us love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength (Mark 12:30).  Let us set our minds on things above, not on the things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2).  Let us live out a life worthy of God’s calling (2 Thessalonians 1:11).


               Think of one church: the congregation of Israel.  Think of one clergy: Aaron.  Think of one choice: idolatry.  If they both had resisted the temptation of worshiping idols, they could have avoided God’s wrath on their future generations.  The congregation could’ve chosen freedom over food sticking to the Lord their God.  Aaron could’ve chosen to please God instead of the people.  Neither of them did.  The result?  Centuries of idol worship ensued in Israel and God’s people suffered immensely for years.

Think of one congregation: Manahawkin.  Think of one clergy:  Kyewoon Choi.  Think of one choice we make together: The Lord God only.  The result?  God’s blessings on the next generations in our church.   Amen.              

Let’s pray.