For generations, right from the time when Abraham first responded to God’s call, he and his descendants had worshipped the Lord by building altars and offering sacrifices wherever it seemed to be appropriate. But once the Tabernacle and priesthood were fully functioning, all sacrifices had to be offered under the discipline of the sanctuary (Leviticus 17:1-9). Indeed, with the whole Israelite community encamped immediately around the Tabernacle, there was no good reason for anyone to worship elsewhere. Such independent sacrifices might be genuinely offered to Yahweh, but how could anyone be sure? It would be all too easy for pagan symbols and practices to creep into Israel’s worship through the back door, so to speak.
The temptation to ‘hedge one’s bets’, to combine the worship of Yahweh with that of other spiritual powers, is a perennial one. We tend to look down on the Israelites for their inability to resist the pull of idolatry, and yet the Church is no better: we are perpetually in danger of absorbing the spirit of the age. And this danger is bigger than we realise, because our idols (whatever they are) are so integral to our culture that we barely notice their presence. One of them is individualism. It is no accident that the UK’s favourite funeral song is ‘I did it my way’. Independence and personal fulfilment are the principal ambitions of our society, in the spiritual realm as well as in the secular. Mainstream religion has gone out of fashion; although most people insist that they still believe in God, the numbers actually attending church services are steadily falling. The modern ‘believer’ likes to plough his (or her) own furrow, without the constraints of a creed or the discipline of a liturgy.
But there is still only one ‘place’ to meet with God – no longer a geographical location (John 4:21), but in and through His Son. “No-one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) This fact is what unites all who believe in Jesus: as we come to Him, we are also (by necessity) brought together. And there is no good reason (other than distance or physical incapacity) for Christians not to actualise this by meeting together for worship.