Periodically in our Halls we have had what we call Altar Services. At such times, and more especially during the Self-Denial and Harvest Festival efforts, Soldiers, friends, and others who are interested in God's work are invited to come forward with gifts of money to lay upon the special table which, for that occasion, serves the purpose of an altar. Those who have been present at these Meetings will not need to be told that the 'gift' is irrevocable. The giver cannot honestly get it back -- it has been deliberately parted with.
That is a very definite thing done, and it illustrates the central idea of the verse which I have read to you.
Some time ago I went with The General to Stockholm, where the Swedish Officers were gathered together for their annual Congress. At the close of the Councils I asked an Officer how he liked the Meetings, and what the result would be. He replied, 'Commissioner, it's just like this. It is as if The General during these days builded an altar, and to-night we all climbed upon that altar offering ourselves a sacrifice unto God, and the fire came down and sanctified the offering.'
The true worship and service of God -- it need not be told -- involves sacrifice. If any one here feels that religion is all a question of how much he can get out of God by saying so many prayers or offering so many donations, he has a totally wrong conception of what it is. I know that there are many who regard their vows to God very lightly. They seem to think they can get through their religion without much self-denial. Religion of that sort, however, is worth nothing either to those who possess it or to the Lord whom they profess to serve. Without self-sacrifice, without self-denial, religion comes to nothing, or, at any rate, amounts to very little.
I do not desire that you should imitate the senseless practices prevailing in some countries, where the people are allowed to build their hopes of Salvation upon penance and self-torture. And yet we are sometimes put to shame by the things we hear and see.
A short time ago I received a letter from a young Officer in India. After describing some pleasing scenes, he said, 'One sees some awful things out here. I saw a man the other day literally walking upon nails. It made me shiver. He imagined that by this he could save his soul. With what passion I wished that man could only understand that other nails were pierced in other feet for him! But you see how in earnest the people here are about their religion, and in all these things they are seeking for Salvation.'
There are not many who are prepared to do what that poor Indian devotee did. They are a long way off that. But unless they are prepared to include sacrifice in their religion, they are not on the lines either of their Lord's example or their Lord's words. The cross, the following, the denial of self, the Calvary path, cannot be excluded from the life of Christ's follower.
Whilst true service must always be a spiritual thing, do not imagine it is something merely 'in the mind'. I have heard it talked about in the same way as a doctor talked to a poor lad who had his thumb crushed in a machine.
'Don't shout, my poor boy', he said. 'Don't you know I feel it as truly as you do?'
'Perhaps so,' replied the boy; 'but you feels it in your mind, and I feels it in my thumb!'
Sacrifice is often talked about by some people who feel it perhaps as much as the doctor felt the crushed thumb, being largely a matter of sympathy, without the actual hurting.
This matter of sacrifice indicates a certain principle, a certain state of mind, which expresses itself in two ways. It is either a giving up of things which are against God's will, or the contribution of something which is valuable, to be surrendered or used in His service. Shall I not say that sacrifice represents the heart saying, on the one hand, 'I will come out, and be separate, and touch not the unclean thing'? and, on the other hand, 'What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?' Not only singing, 'Where He leads I will follow', 'Lord, I make a full surrender', but actually spending and being spent for Him.
I need not dwell at any great length upon the word 'altar'. I referred to the table in our Altar Services as the place of gifts. It is also the place of dedication, and the place of sacrifice. Thank God, it has been so to many, as well as the mercy-seat, where God has sealed the acceptance of the offering presented to Him.
How often have we been reminded of that altar of sacrifice in the shape of the accursed cross, where the Saviour made atonement for our sins! And it is in reality at that altar we bow when we sincerely sing --
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
Not only 'demands' the sacrifice, but 'shall have my soul, my life, my all'.
But what does the binding of the sacrifice to the altar mean? The phrase is very significant.
The horns were the corner posts, and sometimes the worshipper presenting a living creature would tether it with a cord to the altar's horn, so that the gift could be used either for sacrifice or service. In both cases the figure of speech seems to imply the possibility of the consecration being reversed by the withdrawal of the offering, or broken by its loss, the sacrifice slipping off or away from the altar, or being loosened by the person who had presented the offering.
The Psalmist therefore urges those to whom he is speaking to maintain their consecration, and to see to it that their sacrifice is not taken off the altar after being put on. These corner posts were not there for ornament, but for use, and the cords were intended to hold the sacrifice to the altar, so that it could not be snatched away.
Here is my Bible. If I turned away, and anybody were so minded, it would be easy to make off with it while my back was turned. But if I had some cord, and, by crossing it transversely from corner to corner, tied the Book to the table, that would make it secure. It was thus that the sacrifices were bound to the Jewish altar.
What I want to emphasize by this is, that those who come with gifts and dedications should bind themselves in terms of unalterable covenant. They should stand to their consecration when loss or pain or temptation come, as come they will in one form or another. It is just here where so many fail -- they do not really maintain their sacrifice. That is to say, having made a consecration they do not stand to it. The offering has been made, but it has been taken back again; the vow has been registered, but not paid; the promise has been made, but not fulfilled; the consecration has been broken or reversed.
Take that wonderful scene in the life of Abraham. At the command of God he erected an altar, cut the sacrifice in pieces, and laid it there. Then Abraham waited for the coming of the fire. Before the fire came, or anything happened, the vultures, those unclean birds, were circling around his head, and around the altar, trying to defile the sacrifice or snatch it away or devour it. The story says that when the birds came down Abraham drove them away, and he stood to his covenant until the fire came. The vultures of temptation will circle around you. They will try to frighten you, and to remove the sacrifice wholly or partially, or to defile it in some way. Your business then is to drive them away, to bind and rebind the sacrifice to God's altar.
In the days of Queen Mary, a girl-martyr refused, when pressure was brought upon her, to deny her Lord and renounce her faith. She was condemned and taken to the seashore. There she was bound to a stake near the low tide line, and, as the incoming waters gathered round her feet, one of her persecutors rode out and offered to spare her life if she would renounce her faith and turn her back upon her Lord.
The waters rose to her waist, and he rode out again, and, when half unconscious, she was dragged out, and urged to recant. Refusing to do this, the girl was again bound to the stake.
When the waters reached her shoulders the offer was repeated. To one and all she replied something like this: 'No, I will not draw back! I will not deny my Lord!' And as the rising tide came in she bowed her head, and poured her soul out unto death rather than deny her Master. She bound her sacrifice to the altar, and died in the faith.
Some of those who hear my words are disappointed and sad at heart, for they have gone back on Jesus Christ; not perhaps to save their lives, but for a mere trifle. Why these neglected vows? Why these defiled sacrifices? Why these broken consecrations? If they were ever really put on the altar they were not, I am afraid, bound there. Impulse, sentiment, desire, intention may have induced the offering, but it was not bound with 'cords of submission, cords of determination'. Companionships, some secret indulgence, some selfish pleasure, some act of reversal, carried off the sacrifice.
Alas! how many have never seriously and sincerely approached the Divine altar to make the full surrender of themselves to God. The love of sin, the selfish gratifications which are so precious to them, have kept them back, though often convicted about their duty.
But the act of dedication is very simple, and can be made or renewed now. While we bow before God around the altar of consecration, bring yourselves and the sacrifice again and put it on that altar in an unchangeable covenant, and with a simple faith that will bring from God that holy fire which makes it possible to maintain it there for ever.
A willing sacrifice at last
I yield Thee all my hallowed powers,