Preparing for God in Exodus 19
This weekend at church, we’re talking through Exodus 19. God reveals himself to Israel, no longer as a burning bush, but rather in a burning mountain. There’s smoke and fire, all kinds of pyrotechnics, but all the fanfare is for the ceremony: God is making a covenant with Israel. It’s like a marriage, but a little different. But what really caught my eye is the preparation God required of Israel before this massive event. The three main things that he asked of them follow:
1) Wash your clothes.
2) Fence off the mountain.
3) No sexual relations.
What’s the deal here with this preparation process? There is something about this outward preparation that symbolizes inward consecration. An inward readiness to meet with God. So it makes sense for the Israelites to wash their clothes, signifying that this is not a normal day. “Clean up, dress up, shave, because this is an important event.” Like a wedding, funeral, job interview or important meeting, how we dress often reflects the weightiness of the event. I don’t often where a suit, but when I do, there’s definitely a different mentality. Likewise, fencing off the mountain is another visual, tangible reminder that this place is sacred. God is no teddy bear; if you cross the boundary lines, flippantly touching the mountain, you’re dead. But what’s the deal with no sexual relations for three days? Is this because sex is sinful or gross or unholy? No, not at all. Sex is a good gift from God for the marriage covenant. But before THIS event at Mt. Sinai, God tells the people to separate from normal, everyday, good things, like sex, to reflect on what’s happening here. Again, this day is different from other days. Just like there are times to fast from food for a (short) season, or to abstain from other good things like technology, so God puts a temporary halt (three days) on marital sex for the purpose of reflecting on this covenantal ceremony. (It’s not unlike Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:5, who tells married couples: “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” There’s lots of landmines here that might be fun for another time.) To what extent should the preparations for Israel’s specific covenantal ceremony inform what we do as the church on Sunday morning? At one level, it’s apples and oranges, two totally different things. We believe God accepts us as we are, that what you wear on Sunday isn’t necessarily that important. We don’t fence off the stage (although some people “fence off the communion table). And, there’s a long history of weekend “naps” by our parents on Saturday or Sunday. I always wondered why my parents took naps in the middle of the day. These are all good things.
But on another level, I think there is a principle here, something we might be missing when it comes to preparation. Because we too, like Israel, come to church (and life group and devotional time) to meet with God. In a sense, every church service is a covenant renewal, especially when we take communion. Every gathering is like a renewal of our “marriage” vows with God. In that sense, I think preparing ourselves for our gatherings is really important.
Four Ways to Warm Up. . .For Church.
I’ve never liked warm ups and cool downs in athletics. And stretching, ugh. It’s all so tedious and time-consuming, sometimes taking longer than the actual workout itself. And yet, we know these rituals prevent injuries and improve performance. They get us ready for the workout or contest or event. In the same way, there are ways we can and should prepare ourselves for our meetings with God and his people. (Yes, God is always with us, but there is a special sense when we gather with other believers in formal settings where God is especially active in us.)
1) Get Enough Sleep the Night Before.
If on Saturday night, I’m up late watching a movie or show or scrolling through my twitter feed, I’m going to be tired the next day. I may sleep in and miss church altogether. Or I may fall asleep during Tyler’s message (it’s happened; the worst is when someone starts snoring). But even if I don’t skip or sleep or snore, I still won’t be in the right frame of mind if I’m super tired. I’ll be grumpy and glazed over, and by the time the caffeine gets to my brain, the service is over.
2) Have Some Margin in Your Schedule.
I know it’s super hard, especially if you have kids, to not feel like you’re rushing everywhere. So for young parents, don’t feel guilty or beat up by this; this is all an ideal. But if we do our best to schedule a little more margin in our schedules, to not pack everything so tight, we might not feel so frazzled when we get to church or life group. We’ll be able to drive a little more safely and slowly, in prayer or cranking the praise music. We might get to have better conversations before and after the event. As my friend Zach said yesterday, sometimes the best ministry happens in the non-structured times before and after. These conversations only happen when we’re not rushing to and from places.
3) Pray and Read the Scripture & LG Questions Beforehand.
This is more directed at River Valley readers of this post, but can probably apply to other churches as well. River Valley is going through a series in Exodus, and have a great team of people who create Life Group questions. We typically go chapter by chapter through the book. You can review the upcoming questions here: https://www.rivervalleycc.org/life-groups/ or at the bottom of your church program. Even if you’re not in a life group, you can go through these questions yourself or with a family member (and then you’re basically a life group!)
Also, we can pray for ourselves, for group members, church members, curious non-believers, and church leaders before we meet together. A couple at my campus, Faith and David, pray for me every Sunday morning. I so appreciate that and need it! When we pray for the gatherings and the people there, we’re more invested in the outcome of them. We’re “warmed up” for what God wants to do in us (transformation) and through us (ministry). We may be more prone to see the things that only God normally sees: a first-time visitor, wide-eyed and intimidated by church, a struggling single-mom, a quiet group member who is carrying a burden, a discouraged pastor who needs some encouragement.
4) Put Your Phone on DO NOT DISTURB, or Leave it in the Car.
I think many of us miss out on what God wants to do in our lives because of the constant buzzing happening in our pockets or in our hands. God is speaking to us and we’re not fully listening, like someone on a date constantly checking their texts. I absolutely love the iPhone DO NOT DISTURB feature. It’s like little moon icon next to the flashlight. Silence that thing, put it in your pocket or better yet, your car, and let God speak to you through the Word, worship music, and other people. Be radical, use a hard-copy of the Bible!
Critical Tyler Rebuked at a Charismatic Church
I remember walking into a huge charismatic church one time, maybe a couple thousand people in attendance. And like many Bible college students, I was there to critique: to analyze, to scrutinize, and criticize. But when the first note was played, and the band started, I think probably 75% of the hands in the room were lifted high. And my hard heart broke. I was softened, more than that, I was rebuked. I went there to critique, but instead got critiqued. Deservedly. I felt God impress on my heart: “These people come here to worship Me. To really worship.” They people showed up to meet with God. The best word for this is anticipation, people anticipate that they are going to encounter God. Now raising our hands isn’t special or magical in and of itself, the same thing could’ve happened at a Coldplay concert. But this particular worship service was an outward demonstration of inward realities. People anticipated God’s action. But let’s not let Coldplay off so quickly. Maybe one of the reasons some of these concerts are so moving and powerful, even transcendent, is because they’re so much anticipation and investment built up beforehand. You’ve gotta get there, usually a involving a long road trip. You need to buy tickets, maybe hotel rooms, eat unhealthy food, wait in long lines, and listen to annoying warm up bands. And so often, the experience is so profound because of all we have invested into it. I wonder what might happen if we prepared more and anticipated more for our gatherings together as believers. What might happen if we consecrated these places and times for God to do something amazing?
Thanks for reading! What are some ways that you’ve been able to prepare before various church gatherings?
– Pastor Tyler