Experiencing God: Receiving the Good News

Message: Experiencing God: Receiving the Good News

Text: Mark 1:9-15

Time: October 15th, 2005

Every year thousands of couples get married in the United States, but it isn’t just the wedding or marriage ceremony that happens to these couples, it’s preparation for the wedding or marriage ceremony that takes the most time and energy — not to mention any pre-marital counseling or classes needed. And in most cases preparation for the marriage ceremony is a lot more complicated than the wedding itself. In fact, once all the preparation is done, the wedding ceremony itself is fairly straight-forward and easy. I remember when my sister Janet and my brother in law Steve were married, our whole family was involved in the wedding preparation. Because we wanted to keep the whole wedding day within some kind of a budget, my parents cooked and prepared the food ahead of time for the reception and had everything ready for the big day. I remember helping prepare the decorations for the wedding in the reception hall. There was also, of course, the rehearsal where everyone prepared for the wedding itself. It is possible for the bride to begin preparing for the wedding 6 months to a year ahead of time, with the activity intensifying in the months and weeks and days leading up to the actual marriage ceremony. The point is that when the day of the wedding arrives everything has been prepared and the ceremony itself is rather simple and straightforward. That’s the way it should be, and that’s why there is preparation. The better the preparation the smoother the actual wedding event goes. Well, that’s a lot like the Christian spiritual conversion process too. As I outlined last week, John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the way for the Lord. John’s assignment was to get the people ready by preaching confession and repentance from sin. The people spiritually prepared themselves for the Lord by reviewing their lives, confessing and repenting of any and all sins and then receiving John’s baptism. John was the prophet who brought Isaiah’s message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make a straight path for the Lord to travel.” John preached spiritual preparation and the people followed through with that preparation by getting their hearts right with God through repenting of their sins, turning away from sins and then turning towards God. John pointed the way for the people, but it took Jesus Himself to bring the people into an actual experience of God. John could only prepare the people, but Jesus came fulfilling the Good News of salvation. John preached the first half of the Gospel, Jesus came and completed the fulfillment of the Gospel. John got people ready for experiencing God, Jesus came giving people an experience of God. One of the problems in our churches today is that there is such an over-emphasis on receiving the gospel that the preparation for receiving the gospel is neglected. Many people make decisions to receive Christ but they haven’t confessed or repented of their sins. Their hearts are not right with God and so their decisions are hollow. They fall away soon afterwards. In some large evangelism rallies hundreds of people make decisions for Christ, yet only a few continue with spiritual follow-up, and even fewer ever make it into Christian churches. Why is that? Because the heart preparation so important in New Testament times is absent. As a pastor, whenever I try to rush a person into trusting and receiving Christ with a quick prayer before I’ve explained the confession and repentance of sin part of the gospel I almost always see the person fall away shortly thereafter. I’ve finally come to the realization that there must be both parts explained to a person: first, a person must confess and repent of all known sin, and only after that, second, a person must trust and believe in Christ. It’s the only way a person can truly experience God. Since we are working our way through the Gospel of Mark, let me read part of the first chapter to show these two essential parts of the Gospel at work. (read). I’ll review the first part, explain the second part, and talk about what it means to us today.

First, the beginning of the Gospel is repentance of sin. In Mark 1:1 we read, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the son of God.” John the Baptist’s ministry was the beginning of the Gospel, but it wasn’t the whole gospel. John talked about the One to come: “After me will come one more powerful than I . . . I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s ministry emphasis was on preparing the people for the coming of Jesus. He did this by preaching change, preaching repentance of sin for the purification of the heart. John the Baptist’s inspiration came from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah whose prophecy he quotes in Luke 3:4-6, “As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’” Or to summarize John’s message: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” It says that John preached out in the wilderness, which is a symbol of the dry, desert conditions of people’s souls at the time. For years and years no prophetic voice had been heard in Israel. The only voice was of the institutionalized temple priests and religious teachers who taught all law and no Spirit. The religion of the Jews at the time of John the Baptist consisted of mostly learning the law and all the man-made traditions added to the law the scribes and Pharisees had developed. Putting the law of God together with all the laws of man added by the religious leaders, the people were living under a great spiritual burden. There was no inspiration, only obligation. There was no delight in God, only duty to law. Into this spiritually dry situation John came preaching preparation for a fresh new move of God’s Spirit, a new experience of God. John came preaching, “You are burdened with guilt and shame over sin? Confess and repent of that sin and be baptized in preparation for a new experience of God. Don’t just stand there in your sin, guilt, shame, remorse, etc. Come, do something, turn away from sin and turn toward God, He’s ready to give you a new experience of Himself in just a short while. Be ready!” And it says that the people came from all over Judea and Jerusalem to follow John’s instructions. They confessed and repented of their sins, turning from wrong and turning toward right and God — in the hope of a new spiritual experience of God, like John promised.

People today too are sensing they need a new experience of God because the status quo religion so many are familiar with just isn’t fulfilling their heart’s desire for God. There are many churches talking about God but not many people finding God in them. There are many Bibles in circulation but not many people hearing God’s voice speaking to them personally. There are many prayers said but not many coming from the heart of man and reaching the heart of God. There are many worship activities taking places in churches but not many actual true worship experiences occurring. There are many sermons spoken and heard, but not many that hit home in the heart. There is a sense by many people that we are living in a spiritual wilderness or desert even though there are plenty of churches and Bibles today. There is a feeling that what is a needed is renewal or revival or even reformation to take place within the Christian church and society. The old conventional words and practices are simply not inspiring; they need to have new life breathed into them in order to come alive once again. Even relatively recent expressions and forms are losing their freshness; they are not as inspiring any more. There is a sense we need a new experience of God, a fresh visitation of God’s Spirit upon the church and society in order to revive our hearts and souls. How can this fresh experience of God come about? According to John the Baptist we must be willing to utterly and honestly with all sincerity review our lives and confess any and all sins. Not only that, we must be willing repent of our sins, turning away from wrong, and turning toward what is right. We must be willing to prepare our hearts for a new and fresh experience of God by removing any and all barriers between our soul and God, and we must be willing to add or take on any and all things helpful to get us pointed in the direction of God in life. That is John’s message to the people of the 1st century, and that is John’s message to the people of the 21st century also. Do you desire an experience of the living God in your life? Would you like to meet God in a powerful way? Do you seek an encounter with God? If so, are you willing to make preparations now for such an experience? Are you willing to remove anything in your life that is hindering you from experiencing God? Are you willing to add anything that would help you experience God? In the words of Isaiah the prophet, are you willing to tear down every mountain and hill, that is, remove every size sin in your life? Are you willing to fill in every valley, that is, add anything to your life that would get you pointed God-ward? Are you willing to make every crooked place straight and every rough place smooth, that is, straighten what is out of place and smooth off anything that is rough in your life to prepare for an experience of God? Or in other words, are you willing to take care of anything you need to take care of in order to prepare your soul for a visitation of God? If so, if you’ve done all you can to prepare for God, there’s one last thing required. Jesus explains this part.

Second, the fulfillment of the Gospel is trust in Christ. Mark 1:14-15, “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come, he said, ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.’” Notice Jesus adds something to the message of John the Baptist, “Believe the good news.” John came preaching a preparation for the gospel, now Jesus comes preaching the fulfillment of the gospel — and the thing to do is believe. John’s message was “Repent,” but Jesus’ message is “Believe.” John’s way was preparation, but Jesus’ way is fulfillment. Jesus brings an experience of God and the way to enter into that experience is by faith, to believe. John’s message can’t get us an experience of God; it can only get us prepared for an experience of God. But Jesus’ message gets us the experience of God. Now notice Jesus mentions repentance. He picks up on the message of John the Baptist. In other words, Jesus is saying, “You’ve made preparation, ok, now believe and you’ll have what you seek.” It is only possible to experience God through faith, it can’t be gotten by us removing all sin or by adding all righteousness, because nothing we can do can bring us to God by our own human efforts. That’s the essence of human religion — trying to reach God by human effort. God can only be experienced by faith, but we must have our hearts prepared, that is essential. Christians and churches often neglect the preparation point and rush to the faith part, but that’s bad because it promotes an easy-believism, a distorted gospel, false conversions, and people who think they’ve received salvation but have no desire to repent of sins and follow Jesus. These people are impossible to disciple because they are not true disciples. Many churches report meaningless evangelism statistics, over-inflated numbers of converts, 100s of decisions for Christ, yet few continue in spiritual follow-up, and fewer still become regular ongoing disciples of Jesus Christ. It’s a bogus process. If we look at the true New Testament message, that wouldn’t happen. The true gospel calls for repentance and faith, not just repentance and not just faith, but both repentance and faith. In salvation, one turns from sin and turns to God by faith; that’s the message of Jesus.

Does this mean that we must perfectly remove all sin from our lives before we can turn to God by faith in Jesus Christ? No, but it means that we must be willing to turn from any known sin for the sake of receiving Jesus by faith. It means we must be willing to give up anything and everything that might keep us from fully trusting Jesus for salvation. Does that mean we won’t fall back, slip back into a particular sin? No, but it means if we do fall back into a particular sin we’ve already confessed and repented of that we will quickly confess and repent anew that sin and renounce that sin with all the powers we possess. It means we will not seek to deny our sins, or hide them or tolerate them in our lives, but that we will deal honestly and sincerely with sin whenever we fall into it. It means we will pray strongly to not fall into sin. It means if there are sins that need special attention to remove or keep removed from our life we will seek help either from another Christian, a spiritual leader, or a counselor, and deal with our sins severely in an effort to eliminate them from our daily experience. This is a good illustration of how repentance isn’t just a preparation for an initial experience with God, or salvation, but repentance is important in an ongoing experience with God. Not only do many churches omit any instruction about repentance before Christian conversion but they also omit any talk of confession and repentance afterwards. But both errors are wrong. There must be initial preparation for conversion by repenting of our sins, and there must be ongoing repentance of sin for as long as we live because we will encounter sin tempting us, at times showing up in our lives long after our initial conversion experience with God. In order to maintain a lively and real experience of God we must daily be confessing and repenting of any and all sins that seek to intrude into our lives. If we neglect confession and repentance after conversion, we may find our experience of God fading, leaving us with only memories of past experiences. It’s not that our salvation is any less real, it’s that our daily experience of God can be diminished by our failure to clear out any sin obstacles between our soul and God. Sin can block even a Christian’s experience of God even if it cannot put in jeopardy our very salvation. When a non-Christian repents of sin, turning from disobedience and turning to God by faith, that’s conversion. When a Christian repents of sin and turns back to God by faith, that’s renewal or revival. So this applies to everyone at every level of faith. Anything and everything standing in your soul’s way from God must be removed and anything that needs doing must be done to get us pointed in a God-ward direction. Then, by faith we must commit or recommit, whatever the case may be, our lives anew to God through Jesus Christ. That’s how we can experience God.

Third, both repentance and faith must be a part of both our initial and ongoing experience of God. Jesus preaches, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.” Mark 1:15. What is the good news? It is Jesus and what Jesus represents. The whole context goes back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve lived in a perfect world — that is until they disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit. When they sinned they became separated from God and passed that separation on to their children and all the way down to us today. We are all born in a state of separation from God, which is why down through the years religions have developed trying in some way to bring man back to God. All these man-made religions fail. Only God sending Jesus Christ to earth achieved success. By dying on the cross, Christ made atonement for our sins, which opened a way for our soul to relate to God without barriers. We can experience God by turning from our sins and turning to God through faith in Jesus Christ. We trust that Christ has forgiven us of sin, we trust that Christ has provided a way for our soul to relate with God directly, we trust that none of our sins, past, present and future, will ever again prevent us from access to God, and we trust that we will be able to experience God from now and forever more. Now if this is true, how come Christians must repent of sins and turn back to God by faith from time to time? It’s because while Christ has brought us to God spiritually, we don’t always experience that because of our human weaknesses in life. If I truly repent of my sins, turning from disobedience to God through faith in Jesus, I am given a salvation experience with God that will last forever. But that doesn’t mean that I will always be able to experience God every moment, every day, unless I keep my life and mind and spirit free from the sins and distractions that can block my experience of God. Sin can cause me to forget God, it can cause me to be unaware of God, and it can block my consciousness of God. That’s why I need to confess my sins daily and repent of them daily and turn anew every day to God in recommitment of my life. That keeps my heart, mind, and soul fresh to an experience of God. If I’m not experiencing God does that mean that I’m lost, I’m not converted, I’m not saved, I’ve lost my salvation? No. But it means that I’ve lost awareness or consciousness of God in my life because of un-confessed, unrepentant sin, or some other distraction that is blocking my relationship with God. I’ve seen people “lose” their glasses all the while the glasses are sitting on top of their heads. They may panic, they may undergo stress, and they may feel frustration and all kinds of other negative emotions. It may bother them a lot; all the while their glasses are right there with them. That’s the way it is with God and how sin and distraction can cause us to temporarily lose touch with God. We need to confess and repent of sin to get back in touch with God.

Do you seek an experience with God today? Are you sensing the need to feel that God is near and with you? Let me ask you a few questions? Can you think of anything that might be keeping you from experiencing God today? Can you think of anything that might help you experience God today? If you are involved in sin today, that is something that is keeping you from experiencing God. You must confess and repent of that sin, and any other sin you can think of. Are there things that you know you could do today that would help you experience God but you haven’t bothered to do them? If so, begin to do some of the things you know would help you experience God. Things like praying, things like reading from the Bible, things like attending church every week, things like reflecting on God and life – and how they fit together, etc. You may need to visit a spiritual counselor, or talk with another Christian. Whatever you can think to do to help you experience God, do it. And then having done all you can think of, are you willing to simply place your trust and confidence in Jesus Christ to open up an experience of God in your life? Jesus brings the good news, but Jesus also is the good news. He opens up a way for us to experience God in this life and then in the next life experience the fullness of God. The key to experiencing God is experiencing Jesus. Fortunately we have four Gospel Books, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that describe the life of Jesus. The more we learn about Jesus the more we learn about God. His words are the words of God, His life is the life of God. By opening up our hearts to Jesus we experience God. What a sad situation it is when people let sin and disobedience interrupt their experience with God. What a tragedy it is when people who have experienced God through Jesus allow the world, their own sinful flesh, or evil spirits lead them away from experiencing God every day. How intense an experience of God can we expect? There should always be a strong conviction that God is and is near, but from time to time there should be powerful experiences that stir our hearts and souls, maybe flooding our hearts with joy, or bringing tears to our eyes. We should experience God during our private prayer times as well as our times of Bible reading. There should be a quiet confidence when we go about our day knowing that we are not alone, that God is nearby and close. And then during crisis times, we should feel the strong presence of God giving us strength and courage. All of these are part of experiencing God.

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