Experiencing God: Preparing the Way

Title: Experiencing God: Preparing the way

Text: Mark 1:1-3

Time: September 1st, 2005

In the past two or three weeks God has powerfully shown me some truths that will influence my ministry for the rest of my life, and hopefully influence other people as well. The first really big truth that God has shown me dramatically in the past few weeks is that church is for the purpose of helping us experience God. Church is supposed to be a place where people can go to experience the living God, it’s supposed to be a place where people can go to worship and praise and experience the living God, it’s suppose to be a place where people can go to hear the voice of God deep down in their souls through the teaching of God’s Word, it’s supposed to be a place where people can go to experience God through crying out to him in prayer, and it’s supposed to be a place where people can go to experience God through beautiful loving human relationships that help and don’t hinder us in our God relationship. Now why is it that most churches aren’t doing very well in helping people experience God? Because typically there are man-made barriers that exist in churches that block our soul’s relationship with God, and there are also spiritual bridges that need to be built by churches that just aren’t in place but need to be in place to help our souls connect to God. God showed me that as a leader in the church it is my responsibility to remove any man-made barriers in the church that separate the soul from God and also to build any needed spiritual bridges that are necessary for a soul to connect to God. If church leadership can do this, people can likely experience God – maybe. Because the responsibility for connecting a person to God is not solely on the shoulders of the church, it is primarily the responsibility of the individual person. Why? Because the biggest barrier separating a soul from God is not the man-made barriers of church, but the barrier of personal sin. Now it’s the church’s responsibility to take away anything in the church hindering people, and add anything that would help a person experience God. But even if there were a perfect church and did the positive adding and negative subtracting perfectly, people would still not experience God unless they themselves were willing to do their part. Even if a perfect pastor led a perfect church, it would not be enough. Even if there was perfect worship led by a perfect worship leader; even if there were perfect prayers led by a perfect prayer leader; even if there were perfect sermons led by a perfect preacher; and finally, even if there was perfect fellowship in a perfect church, this still wouldn’t be enough for people to experience God — unless and only if they were willing to do what they must do on their end. What is it that a person must do to experience God? Attending a good church can help, a good pastor can help, a good worship leader and a good worship team can help, good prayers at the church help, and good fellowship helps, but all of these aren’t enough to get a person experiencing God. What must a person do to experience God? He or she must be willing to individually remove all personal barriers between their soul and God, and he or she must be willing to build — in as much as possible — any personal spiritual bridges from their soul to God that are needed. And then after this preparation, pray that God visits them with His power and presence. In past messages I focused on what we as a church must do to help people experience God, now today I’d like to turn to what each of us as individuals must do to experience God, either in an initial experience like conversion, or with an on-going experience as in Christian maturity.

Mark 1:1-3 states, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way,’ ‘a voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” John the Baptist’s assignment from God was to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus. John did not bring the whole message of the Gospel or good news, he brought the beginning of the gospel, he brought instructions to the people how to prepare for it. Later, Jesus came bringing the fullness of the good news or Gospel. With Jesus comes the visitation of God in the flesh, the Immanuel or “God with us” of Isaiah 7:14. With John comes a preparation for Jesus, a preparing of the people’s hearts for the good news, a readying souls for receiving salvation when it appears in Jesus. The Jewish leaders sent messengers to John the Baptist asking him whether he was claiming to be Savior. “No,” was John’s reply, “I’m the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord.” John didn’t preach the complete good news, he couldn’t bring it himself, he could only point the way. He could only go so far with people, that is, to prepare the way for the Savior in everyone’s heart, getting people ready to receive the fullness of God in Jesus. How? By calling people to repentance. His call was to change, subtract sin and all barriers of the soul, and add bridges of obedience to God. His goal was for the people to get their hearts set-up for God, to get their hearts ready for Jesus, to have the people fully prepared to experience or encounter God. There were bad things that the people had to stop doing, and there were good things that the people had to start doing in preparation for their experience with God. John’s message of preparation meant bringing change, bringing radical change if necessary, a shaking of things to the core in a person’s life, a disturbing of the status quo life, a reshuffling of life, a willingness to undergo revolutionary change in order to be prepared for an experience of God. Were the people willing? Did they dare follow John’s radical agenda? Evidently the people were ready because it says in Mark 1:5, “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Now if we want to experience God today we must be willing to be like those people who followed John, we must be willing to do what they did — if we truly want to experience God today. It’s as simple as that.

What did they do? They confessed and repented of their sins. They were willing to remove – in as much as they could — any and all barriers between their soul and God, just like John taught in his preaching. Now John’s preaching was coming from the prophet Isaiah, and he preached an abbreviated form of what that prophet actually said. Let me read to you what Isaiah the Old Testament prophet actually said — what John the Baptist was preaching from. Isaiah 40:3-5: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all mankind together will see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” Notice the images of things being torn down and other things being built up. Notice the images of high places brought low and low places being made high. Things being subtracted and things being added. Tearing down and raising up. We get the feeling of reshaping, remaking, recreating, redoing, rearranging, refashioning, reorganizing, etc. Great change taking place, tumultuous change, radical change, almost cataclysmic change. And for what purpose? All with the end result of making a smooth, level highway for God. I’m originally from Michigan, so normally I try to visit once in a while, and in order to do that I take I-90 West. For the past 6 months they’ve been working on the expressway outside of Erie, PA. Now whenever they put in a highway or repair an old one, they have to make sure the foundation is prepared, which means in some places they have to add rock and other materials and in other places they have to take away rock, gravel, and other materials in order to make the road straight and level. Now apply that same thing to what Isaiah is saying and you’ll see that he’s not talking about literal ground and highways, he’s talking symbolically about souls, lives. And John the Baptist isn’t talking about road and dirt either, he too is talking symbolically about making preparation in the heart, in the soul. People are being asked to undergo change of heart, change of life, change of mind – that’s what repentance means, that’s what it’s all about. John is saying that in order to experience God a person must be willing to undergo preparation of the soul, and this preparation means being willing to change – remove any barriers of the heart that separate yourself from God, and be willing to add anything that might help your soul in experiencing God. Let’s look at three key parts to this process of preparing to experience God.

First, we must really, sincerely and genuinely desire an experience with God. Now these people in John the Baptist’s time must have really been hungry for God because it says that they were willing to come way out into the wilderness. And not only that, they were willing to confess and repent of their sins. And not only that they were willing to be baptized by a smelly, raggedy prophet in a muddy old river. I’m guessing they really wanted to experience God. What do you think? Today in churches, leaders make everything so convenient, comfortable and easy for people. Current church growth methodology teaches that churches must have convenient parking, polite greeters at each door, padded seats for comfort, the facility must be impressive, nursery top-notch, children’s ministry exciting, excellent teen age and young adult and singles ministries, and all variety of programs and classes. The church service must not be too long or offensive in any way; the music must be top-notch, contemporary, and up beat. The pastor must be smiling, cheerful, positive, and dynamic. And on and on. Then, maybe, people might experience something of God at the church. But if the church has to work so hard in these kinds of ways to get the people to nibble on a little spiritual food, maybe the people who are coming aren’t really all that spiritually hungry? We must admit that many people who visit churches, who attend churches, really aren’t hungry for God. There are many reasons why people today might attend a church on Sunday, but it doesn’t automatically mean they are spiritually hungry or seeking an experience with God. To experience God one must be genuinely hungry for God, one must really want it, desire it, seek after it, and must be willing to be and do what it takes to experience God. Now to be fair, the Bible says both in Isaiah and in the preaching of John the Baptist, that the prophet’s cry came in the desert, in the wilderness. And that’s not just a description of the physical location of Isaiah or John, but it was a symbolic description of the spiritual state of the people of Israel. People were in a spiritually dry period between the last great prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, and the New Testament Jesus. Spiritually, the people of Israel were starving for bread from heaven, and thirsting for the Spirit of God. John the Baptist came preaching preparation for a new spiritual beginning and people followed. But what about today? Is there a similar hunger for God today? Does anyone desire an experience with God today? Or is everyone so wrapped up in modern living that the things of this world are all that matters? Everyone must make their choice; everyone must decide what is most important for themselves. Are you satisfied or content with an earthly existence? Does a purely earthly, material, human level of living fulfill your deepest needs? If so, John the Baptist offers nothing for you — carry on. But if you are at the point in your life where you long for God, if you long to experience the reality of God in your life, John the Baptist can help you, as he did for those people long ago. Let’s continue.

Second, we must repent by removing any and all sin barriers that exist between our soul and God. Do you want to experience God? You can’t just turn on a switch and suddenly God presents himself to your soul. You can’t just push a button and have a God-experience. No. Then what can I do to experience God? What can you do if you really want to experience the reality of God today? If you seek an encounter with the living God, if you want to really find God what do you do? John the Baptist’s answer: make preparation. How? By removing any sin barriers between your soul and God, and by building any spiritual bridges you can between your soul and God. Let’s talk about removing the barriers now and we’ll come back to the bridge building later. According to the Baptist we must be willing to do the prep work. John doesn’t come with salvation, he doesn’t promise that he can give you an experience of God, he simply points the way, he shows us the way, and the way is getting ourselves in a place where God can be experienced. And our biggest barrier to experiencing God is sin. We’ve all heard about sin, and most people today try to avoid talking or thinking about it, but there can be no dodging the issue. The primary reason people can’t experience God today is because they won’t deal with the sins that are separating them from God. The first sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden separated them from God. Sin still separates us from God these many generations later. The first step in preparing to experience God is for us to remove the sin barrier from between us and God, or in other words, to deal honestly with our own sins, confess them, repent of them and receive forgiveness. Confession simply means to agree with God that our sins are wrong. Repentance means turning away from these sins and turning towards God. So for us today it means taking an inventory or review of our life and identifying what is offensive to God. So we take our Bible in one hand and review our lives in the other and find out what we are doing that is sin and confess it. Then we turn away from whatever we are doing that is sin and turn to God. Now it must be a sincere confession and an honest repentance because if it’s not it’s worthless. A lot of people who attend church or call themselves a Christian haven’t really dealt with their sin barriers and therefore are simply playing a religious game. John the Baptist reserved his greatest condemnation to such dishonest and insincere people of his day in Matthew 3:7-8, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” There is no such thing as insincerely repenting. If you truly repent, it is sincere. If it isn’t sincere, you haven’t repented.

Repenting means changing. Stop doing what is wrong. Stop sinning in these areas you identify as sin. We know it is possible to do so because we see Jesus in his ministry often telling people to stop sinning. For example, he told the woman caught in adultery described in John 8:1-11, “Go and sin no more.” In another place, he told a crippled man he healed, “Do not sin again or something worse may happen to you,” John 5:1-15. Jesus tells us today, likewise, stop sinning – whether it be lying, cheating, sexual immorality, unforgiveness, etc. It isn’t enough to confess and repent of sin in general, although we must do this also. Since we are children of Adam and Eve, we all posses a general sin nature that energizes us to sin specifically. We need to confess and repent of this sin nature, and our general self-centered, sinful, rebellion against God. But we must go beyond a mere general confession and repentance of sin in general and get specific. If the goal is to experience the living God, then we must try to tear down all walls of separation between us and God. The prophet Isaiah says, “But your iniquities have separated you from God,” Isaiah 59:2. And so we must confess our specific sins, name them one by one, repent and renounce them in utter honesty and sincerity. This is what Isaiah the prophet refers to when he says, “Every mountain shall be made low.” Every obstacle of sin between our soul and God must be torn down. If we’ve got big mountains of sin, we must be willing to tear these down. If we’ve got small hills of sin, we must be willing to tear these down. The ground must be completely level. That’s what Isaiah means when he says, “The rough places shall become level, and the rugged places a plain.” That’s why we can’t rush this preparation process, as many people are eager to do. Some churches even encourage people to quickly rush through confession and repentance in order to get them to the faith conclusion. But if we are to remove the sin barriers that separate us from God how can we do this in a hurried way? If we don’t sincerely confess or if we sloppily repent there will still be barriers between us and God. We won’t experience God, consequently, but we’ll wonder why. It’s because we didn’t take the time to do a thorough job of confessing and repenting, or removing our sinful barriers blocking us from experiencing God. Plus, this is hard work. In dealing with matters of the heart, there may be tears and pain, sorrow and grief. All along the way the Holy Spirit of God will be convicting us and convincing us of our sins, but it will still be a painful and difficult process to go through. Depending on how far into sin we have gone astray, the process will continue for as long or as short as needed in order to deal honestly with our sins. Are you brave enough to enter into the confession and repentance process? Do you have enough courage to review your life? It will open up long buried sins, secrets kept in your heart from everyone. It will unleash all kinds of raw emotions that may be scary and painful. It may be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, this soul searching, yet it’s the only way to prepare for experiencing God. But there’s another aspect of John’s message of preparation through repentance.

Three, we must repent by building any bridges necessary from our soul to God. Isaiah says, “Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God, every valley shall be raised up.” It’s not just a matter of tearing down sin, it’s also a matter of building up right things, or righteousness, doing the right things. We must deal with the barriers of wrong things that stand between us and God, but we must also build bridges of right things that might help us prepare for experiencing God. However, let’s be clear: it is impossible for us to build a bridge to God. All our right doings cannot bring us directly to God; only Jesus can do that. We’ll talk more about the importance of faith in Christ, and how he and he alone is the bridge that brings us into an experience with God. But the bridges we build in preparation for an experience with God don’t save us, they help prepare us for God when His Spirit moves upon our hearts and we experience His reality. Having removed the barriers of sin that separate us from God, we are now ready to do anything and everything that might help us experience God. John the Baptist teaches us to turn away from sin, but he also teaches us to turn towards God by doing things that point us in the direction of God: “’What shall we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’” Luke 3:10-14. It’s not just a matter of turning away from sin, it’s also a matter of turning towards God, in the direction of God, and doing anything and everything that might make an experience of God possible. Again, a lot of churches omit this part of repenting. Some churches omit true confession and repentance of specific sins, but others omit the doing of concrete things that prepare us in a positive way for experiencing God in our lives. Again, we can’t just push a button and experience God. We can’t throw a switch and expect God to present himself like a genie in a bottle. We do not decide when we will have an experience of God, but we can prepare for experiences with God whether a first time initial experience or an on-going experience. This is where church is particularly helpful.

We must be willing to pursue all the ways God has provided through the full riches of the church. For three years Jesus trained his 12 disciples for leadership after he returned to heaven. On the day of Pentecost the Christian church was born. Ever since that day the church has been in existence to help people experience God in their lives. Throughout all the twists and turns of history, through the good and the bad, through all the ups and downs, the Christian church in its many forms has carried with it the spiritual resources necessary for people to find and experience God, when we sincerely and honestly seek God, when we search for God’s reality, we can do no better than turn to the church in its many ways, shapes and forms. There are some people who have been hurt by the church or local churches who now think they don’t need it. They say, “All I need is my Bible, that’s all I need.” But where did the Bible come from? Who collected its books, preserved its writings down through the ages? The church. Yes. There is no getting away from it, nor is it helpful to try. The Christian church was founded by Jesus through the Apostles, and is intended today, as in all ages, to help people experience God in their lives. So we need to take advantage of as many church resources and helps as possible in order to build as many bridges to God as we can. What are some of these resources? Some big helpful ways of getting us pointed in the right direction with God are church participation, Bible reading, and prayer. What is church participation? It can mean many things, but for starters it means going to church, attending a church service, which is usually on Sunday morning. What’s so odd about going to church to find God? Yes, people may be skeptical about finding God in church because they’ve gone so many times to church and not found God there, but that just means something was blocking the way between their soul and God. Maybe it was their own fault, their own sin; maybe it was the particular church’s fault. There are many factors involved. Here at CrossPointe church we are trying our best, not perfectly, but our best, to remove any man-made barriers that could hinder you experiencing God. Also, we are building any bridges that could help you experience God. We pray and work that you might experience God during worship, during prayers, during the message, during fellowship. Our goal is to help you experience God at least in some way in your life, and also during some part of the church service. If you don’t experience God in some way at CrossPointe yet sincerely want to, we consider that a failure on our part. If you experience something of God we consider that a success. We are not the only church but we are one church that is trying consciously to not put up any barriers between your soul and God, and we are trying consciously to build any helpful bridges between your soul and God. We don’t always succeed but we are trying. And we are confident that if you come to CrossPointe church seeking an experience with the living God and if you are willing to prepare your soul in the ways we’ve been talking about today, you will experience God, not just one time, but for the rest of your life. So church is the place to start in seeking an experience with God.

Next, there are things you can do on your own or outside of a church service. Bible reading is a great place to get yourself pointed towards God. The Bible is the #1 tool for finding God. Now the church is the #1 place to find God, but the Bible is the #1 tool to use to find God. Why? Because you can study it on your own as often as you can. For many years Bibles were not available for most people to read. For a long time, over one thousand years, the only Bibles were found in churches, chained there so they couldn’t be removed from the church. At least each church was able to have a copy of the Bible for teaching and preaching. But the average person couldn’t own one for himself because most people couldn’t read, but neither were there many copies of the Bible found before the invention of the printing press. Today, everyone can own his or her own Bible. Some people who have been hurt by the church say that all they need is their Bible and that is enough. Now the Bible is a great tool, but we still need the church to help us understand the Bible and help us live according to its teachings. Prayer is another great way to get pointed in the direct of God. We can learn a lot about prayer by learning from other mature Christians and hearing how they pray. There are other things that help us build bridges toward God, such as volunteer ministry participation, spiritual conversation, Christian counseling, reading Christian books, etc. In fact, there are so many Christian resources available today it’s hard to imagine how a person who sincerely and honestly wanted to experience God could not do so. This bridge-building towards God aspect of repentance is the natural and logical consequence of turning away from sin and disobedience. If we are headed in the sin direction, away from God, if we turn around we are now headed in the right direction, towards God. And once we are headed in the right direction, chances are we will experience God if we keep going in the right direction. What is the result of doing what John the Baptist says to do? “And all mankind will see God’s salvation.” Luke 3:6. We will experience God. Isaiah says the same only a little differently, “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.” Isaiah 40:5. If we get ourselves prepared for experiencing God, we will experience God. Here’s what another Old Testament prophet John the Baptist drew inspiration from says: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty.” Malachi 3:1. If we prepare ourselves for an experience of God in our lives, we have God’s promise that we will experience God. Amen.

“God, we long to experience you. We long to know of your reality in our world that has practically forgotten and ignored you in daily life. Please remove any and all barriers of sin we have in our hearts and lives that prevent us from experiencing you. Please remove any distractions we have in our lives that keep us from knowing you. Please help us to do the things necessary to get ourselves prepared in our spirit to know and experience you. We seek you God, we want you in our lives. We come through Jesus Christ who opens the way to you. We sing the words of the praise song from our hearts, “Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus. To reach out and touch him and say that we love him. Open our ears Lord and help us to listen. Open our eyes Lord, We want to see Jesus.” Amen.

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