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As Christians living under the new covenant, we are extremely privileged. It is second nature for us to recognise that we can commune with God wherever we are. If we are instructed biblically, we know that there is nothing inherently sacred about a church building. From time to time, we have strangers coming to the office asking if they can go into the church building and pray. I often tell them that they don’t need to be in a church building to pray—that there is nothing more effective about prayer in a church building than prayer in any other location.

This was the heart of what Jesus was saying when he addressed the Samaritan woman at the well. She asked him whether Jews or Samaritans were correct in determining where God should be worshipped: Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim. Jesus told her that a time was coming when the location of worship would be a distant priority to the posture of worship (John 4:21–24).

While this truth is broadly understood by new covenant Christians, it was a little more foreign to God’s people under the old covenant. There were times, therefore, when they needed to be reminded that God cannot be confined to any particular space. We see this reminder in the text before us this morning (Ezekiel 1:1–3).

Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem took place in three phases. In his first attack, he took Daniel and his friends back to Babylon, where they ministered in the Babylonian palace. In his second raid, he took Ezekiel back to Babylon, where he ministered among the Jews in the city. After his third siege, he completely destroyed city and temple, leaving only a handful of people, including Jeremiah, in Jerusalem while taking people and plunder back with him to Babylon.

Ezekiel, as I have said, was deported to Babylon during Nebuchadnezzar’s second attack. The temple still stood in Jerusalem, but he found himself 2,700km away. To the average Jewish mind, removal from the temple was removal from God’s presence. But Ezekiel found that that was not the case. While he was in Babylon, “among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened and [he] saw visions of God.” God met him, in other words, where he was. “The hand of the LORD was upon him there.”

While we are taught from the youngest age that God is omnipresent and that we can commune with him wherever we are, the lesson of Ezekiel 1:1–3 is important. We often need to be reminded that God can and does meet us where we are. If God would tear open the heavens and meet his prophet in exile in Babylon, we should be encouraged that God is able to meet us and minister to us where we are. God can come to you in your darkness, and in your depression, and in your sadness, and in your grief, and in your trial, and in your affliction.

Sadly, however, too many Christians have turned the glorious teaching of divine omnipresence into an excuse for isolation. Since God can meet them where they are, they reason that there is no need to prioritise the community of God’s people. It is no coincidence, however, that God appeared to Ezekiel where he was while he was “among the exiles by the Chebar canal.” God appeared to him, in other words, while he was in the community of God’s people.

The Jews in exile quickly learned that, in the absence of temple worship, they needed to prioritise gathering. The Babylonian exile became the time and place where Sabbath and synagogue rose to prominence. By the time we reach the New Testament, we find the religious leaders obsessed with Sabbath and synagogue, and we can only understand that obsession as we consider its roots. God’s people had to prioritise gathering together for worship on the Sabbath because they had been removed from the temple. And while God met with them where they were, he did so in the context of community.

We are privileged beyond measure to meet with God in our personal capacity. Spending time alone with God is a privilege that must never be undermined. But it should also never be embraced to the neglect of “Sabbath and synagogue.” In other words, while we can and may and should meet with God privately, we should never underestimate the opportunities to meet with God when his people gather for worship. It is frequently in that context that God chooses to, as it were, open the heavens and reveal himself to his people.

As you meditate on Ezekiel 1:1–3 this morning, thank God for the privilege of communion with him wherever you are, but commit more than ever to not neglect “Sabbath and synagogue” as you pray for him to reveal himself to you.