“There are no atheists in the foxholes… You’ll never be able to keep religion out of the schools– as long as there are tests, there will be prayers in school… Many people feel closest to God when they are out in the woods, enjoying God’s creation… Many others feel closest to God when they are alone in their room, reading God’s Word and talking with Him in silent prayer… Still others say that they never felt so close to God as they did in the hospital room or in the wrecked car when they almost died…”
The common theme in all of those statements is that you can reach out to God anywhere. In the foxholes, in the classroom, in the woods, at home or in the hospital; anywhere and everywhere God is there and can hear our prayers. God is everywhere and always with us. Even as he dedicated the magnificent temple he had built in Jerusalem, King Solomon said, “God’s presence is not limited to the confines of the houses of worship we build for him.” Jesus would agree. In his last words to the disciples before returning to heaven, Jesus said, “Certainly, I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.” Jesus did not say I’ll be with you whenever you come to church. He said ALWAYS.
There are many stories in the Bible of God being with people anywhere and everywhere. God spoke to Abraham out under the stars on a clear night, telling him that his descendants will be as numerous as those stars in the sky. God spoke to Joseph in prison, revealing to him the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams. God spoke to Moses in a burning bush, Joshua on the battlefield, and Paul on the road to Damascus. God was with Daniel in the lion’s den, with the three men in the blazing furnace, and with David in the valley of Elah when he challenged the giant Goliath. And, we are told many times in the Gospels how Jesus would go off by himself, into the hills to pray. In fact, the Bible’s best stories tell of God being with people in places outside of the walls of a church building.
But there is in the Bible another stream of thought, also going way back to the very beginning. Even in the earliest chapters of the book of Genesis there is the need to set up special places to worship God. At first, these places were nothing more than rough altars, rocks piled up out in the middle of nowhere, as a reminder that God had been present in a special way in that place. Later, instructions were given to build a tabernacle, a portable place of worship that could be taken down and carried around by a people moving to a new land. Once settled in the new land, that larger, more permanent temple was built by Solomon, which would be the center of worship for the whole nation. Later, synagogues were built in each city and village for weekly worship. Jesus himself went to the synagogue to worship every week, ‘as was his custom’ Luke tells us.
There are those who say they can be a Christian without going to a church. And yes, we are saved by Jesus’ death on the cross and not by going to church. But to live a life of faith without the church is attempting to do something not even Jesus was willing to do. Jesus Himself went to a specific place, every week, to gather with other believers and to worship. God is with us always and everywhere, says the Bible; but we also, says the Bible, need specific places and times to worship. In fact, that inner faith that God is always with us is taught, nurtured, and sustained by that regular worship in a specific place.
This importance of a place to worship was illustrated to me in a cute way one time. My wife and I went with our daughter Amy’s family to a program in another church. As we walked into church, Amy told her daughter, then age three, that this was a church we were going into. Immediately Courtney began to ask, “Well, where’s Jesus? Where’s Jesus?” Amy then explained to me that in their church they would, on the way into church, stop and look at a picture of Jesus that hung on the wall in the entryway. So, if this was a church, Courtney thought, there must be picture of Jesus here somewhere; so we had to find a picture of Jesus to reinforce that connection. That’s interesting, because Courtney could have just as well asked where is Thea or where is Emmett or where is Lucas or where are any of the other kids she would see at church. But she asked, “Where is Jesus?” She was already beginning to make that primary connection between the church building and the one we worship there. Faith is built and sustained in many ways, and one of those ways is by having a specific time and a specific place to remember God by coming together for worship and for fellowship.
The church building is where we gather for worship, and where God speaks to us and we speak to God each week. This is certainly not the only place that can happen. God being with us always and everywhere. But we can, and do, easily forget all about God in our busy lives. The thought of God may not even enter your mind for a whole day, or two or three, or more. But the church building is where we come each week to be reminded of God. This is where we hear those words of Jesus repeated over and over again, “This do in remembrance of me.” Remembering, and not forgetting about God, is a big theme in the Bible. God even made it one of the Ten Commandments that we “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Having a place to come each week is an important part of making sure we remember.
Exodus 33:7 — Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp.
Luke 4:16 — (Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.
Acts 17:2 — As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.
O Almighty God, from whom every good prayer cometh, and who pourest out the Spirit of grace on all who desire it; deliver us, when we draw nigh to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind; that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections, we may worship thee in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
–William Bright (1824-1901)