On Friday, we took Rick to SIUE to begin a new chapter in his life and ours. We have been preparing for (some of us “dreading”) this day for weeks. We’ve been buying supplies, packing stuff, washing clothes and more. You don’t just “head off to college” you must prepare to do so. In fact, most major events in life demand a time of preparation.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is a wedding. I’ve watched many couples as they prepared: there are invitations to send, flowers to choose, music to secure, a bridal party to select, and of course there are all the preparations that need to be made for the reception. If you are having a good size wedding you wouldn’t dream of going into it without preparation.
We prepare before moving into a new home, we prepare before we start a new job, we prepare before we bring home a new baby. Major events demand preparation. Consequently, it should be no surprise to us that when God prepares to form this rag-tag group of people into a nation by giving them the law of their land, He calls for Israel to get prepared.
From Exodus 19 to the end of the book of Exodus, Israel is camped at Mount Sinai. In the chapters of Exodus that follow, God will lay out the legal system for this new nation. I suppose it would be similar to what the creation of the Constitution was for our country. Every nation needs laws to govern and guide. These laws however are not established through negotiation, they are established through divine decree. Israel needed to learn how best to live as God’s people. Reading these laws is sometimes tedious (much like reading any set of laws), but the laws are still necessary.
Usually when we read this account we imagine Israel coming to Sinai, Moses going up the mountain, getting the ten commandments and then coming back down. But in reality Moses made many visits back and forth before the Lord. The Scripture text tells us that “Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain”. Apparently Moses didn’t go all the way up the mountain until God summoned him to do so. There were many preparations to be made.
I believe it is important that we pay attention to what the Israelites were asked to do, because it will give us clues for how we should prepare to meet with God when we pray and when we worship.
Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Ex. 19:3-6)
The first step in preparing to meet with God is recognizing God as the awesome being that He is. You hear kids at school talking all the time. In our own high school you will hear Seniors talking about the fact that freshman should respect them and being quite indignant if they do not. They should respect their position and their experience. In the same way, a student should respect their teacher. A child should respect their parent. A player should respect his coach. And we should respect God. He is the one who made us, protects us, and has drawn us to Himself.
All the spectacular sights and sounds of this account (the cloud, the thunder, the lightening, the trumpet blasts, the trembling mountain) are all designed to impress upon the people the power and glory of the Lord. Before the Israelites can meet with God, they need to have that appropriate sense of reverence, gratitude and awe. We do not meet with God as equals! He is our superior. In the book of Hebrews we are told,
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28)
AW Tozer writes, “No one can know the true grace of God who has not first known the fear of God.” It seems to me that we have lost some of that reverential fear. Sometimes we are overly and inappropriately familiar with the Almighty. Sometimes we relate to God as the great Gift-giver in the sky. And when we do this, we diminish who He is. Before we meet with God we must remind ourselves that we are about to meet with GOD.
- He is Holy, we are sinners in need of mercy and grace
- He is all-powerful, we are weak
- He is wise and sees all, we think we are wise but we can see only the present
- He is the Creator, we are the created
- He is the standard by which we define and measure our lives, He is not defined by us.
The second step of preparing ourselves spiritually is to make sure that we have the right relationship with His Son, Jesus. When we come to salvation through Christ, His sacrifice covers our sinfulness. We no longer need to be afraid of God’s wrath. It has been poured out on Christ in our place. However, we still must respond to God’s offer of grace. You and I must make a choice: either we will depend on our goodness or His. We must choose whether to rely on ourselves or to rely on Jesus. If we want to meet with God, we must come to Him in the way that He has prescribed. And that way is through the cross of Christ.
Even as believers it is important to remember, every time we come before Him, that we are there by His grace and by His invitation. He is indeed an awesome God of incredible power and might. But it is also true that He loves you and invites you to be His own. When we forget this, worship becomes an empty, meaningless and even disrespectful ritual or it becomes a superficial exercise in emotionalism and instead of moving toward Him, we are actually moving away from Him.
The second way that Israel had to prepare was mentally.
So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD. (19:7-8)
You may not see this right away. Before the people could come before the Lord they had to be mentally ready to respond. God had no intention of speaking unless the people were prepared to listen. The Israelites needed to realize (as do we) that God has a right to command His people.
The concepts of law and grace must be kept in proper balance in the Christian life. God has always related to Israel by grace. He chose them to be His own not because of their size, their power, or their goodness. He chose them out of His mercy and love. God told Abraham (Genesis 12) that he would bless him and his descendents. In Genesis 15 God swore “by himself” that He would do what He had promised for Abraham. This was an unconditional promise. God would be gracious to Abraham and his descendents.
Now at Sinai it seems that God is changing the rules. But He really isn’t. God is still committed to Israel. God WILL bless Israel. However, enjoying God’s blessing is contingent on the obedience of the people. God will bless . . . .but the people must obey to enjoy that blessing. It is not enough to say that we love Him, we must really love Him. We must love Him enough to be willing to follow Him. Robert Morgan wrote,
My daughter Hannah and I had a Great Dane named Samson that we dearly loved, and Samson, as it turns out, was well named, for he was big and strong and muscular—and, like his namesake, he also had a penchant for wandering. We built fences, we tried chains and dog runs, we tried everything to keep Samson at home. But he’d dig under the fence or climb over it, and it drove us to distraction.
So we bought the best-selling book on the market on the subject of training dogs. No Bad Dogs was written by the famous British dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse, who raises Great Danes herself. One night when I went upstairs to tuck in Hannah, she had a sad expression on her face, and she said, “Dad, I know now what Samson’s real problem is. Let me read you this paragraph.” This is what she read me out of No Bad Dogs by Barbara Woodhouse:
In a dog’s mind, a master or a mistress to love, honor, and obey is an absolute necessity. The love is dormant in the dog until brought into full bloom by an understanding owner. Thousands of dogs appear to love their owners, they welcome them home with enthusiastic wagging of the tail and jumping up, they follow them about their houses happily and, to the normal person seeing the dog, the affection is true and deep. But to the experienced dog trainer this outward show is not enough. The true test of real love takes place when the dog has got the opportunity to go out on its own as soon as the door is left open by mistake and it goes off and often doesn’t return home for hours. That dog loves only its home comforts and the attention it gets from its family; it doesn’t truly love the master or mistress as they fondly think. True love in dogs is apparent when a door is left open and the dog still stays happily within earshot of its owner. For the owner must be the be-all and end-all of a dog’s life.
The real test of our Christianity isn’t seen in our work or activity, or even in our theological purity. It’s found in this: when we have an opportunity to wander away, to disobey, to leave his presence, do we choose instead to stay close to him, to abide in Christ, to obey? Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations & Quotes, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 2000.
The person who truly loves God, obeys God. The person who knows God, respects Him and adheres to His authority. Every time you and I come into His presence we must be willing to listen and to obey. Some of the things God says may be hard . . .
- He may tell you to forgive
- He may tell you to stop some behavior that is destroying you and your relationship to Him
- He may tell you to do something to help someone else
- He may tell you to change your attitude
- He may tell you to wait for something you really want
- He may tell you to realign your priorities
If we really want to meet with God, if we really love Him and trust Him, we will be willing to obey
The third preparation is the most confusing to us.
And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 19:10-13)
The people are to wash, to abstain from sexual relations, and make sure they are physically not on the mountain of God. Why these odd restrictions? The Lord is once again helping the people be prepared. Not only must we be spiritually ready, and mentally ready, we must also be physically ready.
It’s not much different from sports, education, or doing your job. You can be mentally ready, you can be spiritually focused, but if your are not physically prepared you will fall short. You need to be prepared in all three areas. God has Israel go through this list of things in order to drive home the point that they must prepare to meet God. They should be clean physically and spiritually. They should be undistracted and they should be attentive.
Think about a young guy finally getting to go on his first date with that special girl of his desire. He puts on his coolest clothes and splashes on after shave even though he didn’t need to shave, and drives to her home. He looks in the mirror to make sure his hair doesn’t look like Denise the Menace. Then (if you’re watching carefully) he checks his breath and makes sure his deodorant is working. Just before he rings the doorbell, he checks his zipper. Why? He wants to put His best foot forward.
In a similar God requires that we do our best to present ourselves physically prepared to meet with Him.
This whole account is nothing but an interesting story unless we apply it to our own relationship with the Lord. I hope you have already caught my point that we must prepare to meet with God. This is true of our daily time with the Lord or our weekly time of worship.
First, we need to spiritually prepare.
- Our first responsibility is to make sure we are spiritually right we God. Our first responsibility is to receive the salvation that God offers in Christ. We must confess Christ as Savior and be willing to follow Him as Lord. If you have never made a definite commitment to trust Christ’s work on your behalf. If you have never placed ALL of your confidence in His work for you . . . please do so today. Take a moment in this quiet place to make your commitment to the Lord. You will never meet God without doing so.
- After we have become His children through God’s grace, we should still prepare spiritually by pausing before our time with the Lord to remember who He is and what He has done in our lives. It’s good to take the first moments in God’s presence to simply be still. We are told in the Bible, “be still and know that He is God.” Ponder His greatness. Personally, this is where I have the most difficulty with some of the new modern approaches to worship. Things are too noisy. It is difficult to be still because there is so much going on. I find that all the activity and noise detracts from worship rather than enhances it.
- Use the Psalms, books of prayers, a hymnal to lead you in worship before the Lord. The goal of worship is not to feel a certain way . . . . it is to honor God.
Second, we need to mentally prepare.
- When we sit down to read God’s Word it is a good idea to begin by reminding yourself that you are about to get instructions from the Almighty . . . and what He says we should be willing to do.
- We must come into our times with God willing and even eager to be shown our sin and shortcomings. We can’t confess or change what we don’t know to be a barrier between us and the Lord.
- We must come near to listen and not just to speak. One of the key lessons of life is learning when to speak and knowing when to be silent. Generally speaking, when you are in the company of a superior it is always a good idea to listen. You may learn something and you may be told something valuable.
Third, we need to physically prepare.
- Obviously, one of the ways we physically prepare for worship on Sunday is by making His house ready for worship. We try to have the heat or air conditioning set, the lights on, the sound working. It is a simple way to be ready for our meeting with God. Incidentally, it probably is also a good idea to treat the Lord’s house with respect and to teach our children to treat this place with respect. If you respect the owner of the house, you will respect the owner’s house.
- We should get enough rest before meeting with God. Too often we come to the Lord at the end of the day when we are exhausted and we simply go through the motions. Or we meet with Him in the morning but we are groggy because we stayed up too late. We make sure we get home in time when we know we have to go to work in the morning . . . why is it that we will stay up late on Saturday before worship? Is it because we consider meeting with the Lord less important than going to work? It takes energy to listen and to be attentive.
- We should come into His presence looking our best. We don’t have to be in a suit and tie. But we should physically present ourselves in such a way as to show that we honor Him. I think the trend toward “less stuffy” is a good thing. Sometimes the more dressed up we get, the more uptight we are. That’s not honoring to God and it is not preparing us for worship. But at the same time I think we need to realize that our meeting with God is an important meeting. We should dress appropriately. It’s not a contest. Only you know what is appropriate. Only you know when you are respecting God by your attire.
- I’ve suggested on other occasions that we can learn something from our Catholic friends. Most devout Catholics will step into a sanctuary and acknowledge God physically in some way. They will cross themselves, they will kneel, they will bow. Meaningless ritual? Possibly. But it could also be a very good way of showing respect. Why not develop some way that you can acknowledge God’s greatness every time you come into His sanctuary.
All these preparations are designed for one purpose: to make us ready to meet the God of the Universe, the Almighty Creator of the world, and the Savior of our souls. These things may seem petty. They may even seem somewhat legalistic. But if you understand His greatness, you will also understand that meeting with God is one of the greatest events of life.
We prepare to head off to school, we prepare for a new job, we prepare for our wedding, we prepare for parties, vacations, and for visitors coming to our home. Shouldn’t we also prepare to meet with God? Preparation helps us to enjoy the special moments of life. And those moments don’t get any more special than having an audience with the Almighty.