Follow the Ark: Seek God’s Presence

by Mark Batterson

In 1931, America was in the depths of the Great Depression. A businessman by the name of Conrad Hilton was staring foreclosure in the face because people weren’t traveling and his hotels were struggling. Hilton was actually borrowing money from a bellhop to make ends meet. That year, 1931, Conrad Hilton came across a photograph of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. It was the most famous hotel in the world at the time. It had six kitchens, 200 chefs, 500 waiters, 2,000 rooms. It even had its own private railroad and hospital. Conrad Hilton cut that photograph out of the magazine and he wrote five words across it, “The greatest of them all”.

Conrad Hilton placed that photograph on top of his desk so that it would stare him in the face every single day. Every time he walked by the Waldorf Astoria, he would tip his cap in deference to that dream. Fast forward 18 years, in 1949, against all odds, Conrad Hilton acquired the Waldorf Astoria but I want to back up the bus. I want to go back to the genesis of that dream. Looking back at those tough times, Conrad Hilton would say this. “1931 was an outrageous time to dream”. Now, I’m not sure that I can say it any better than Conrad Hilton. 2021 is an outrageous time to dream. Over the last two years, we’ve endured a global pandemic. We’ve witnessed protests and riots, especially here in D.C., because of the racial tension and political polarization that exists in our nation.

In the last few weeks, we have watched the Taliban take control of Afghanistan, another earthquake hit Haiti, another hurricane hit the Gulf Coast. It seems like an outrageous time to start a series called “The Best is Yet to Come”. But this is when and where and why we need this series right now. Lots of people are languishing, and I’ll talk more about it next week, but it feels like we’re fighting so many battles on so many fronts, not to mention mental health. I mean, according to the CDC, one third of Americans struggling with anxiety or depression. That seems like an emotional epidemic to go along with a global pandemic. I want to be careful right here. If you’re grieving, you need to go through all of those stages of grieving, and I’ll say this. Lament is a love language. It’s a biblical language. It’s a biblical response to other people’s pain.

Now, having said that, let me say this. This is what I sense in my spirit. I feel like God is saying it’s time. Well, time for what? For starters, it’s time to dream again. “Without a vision, the people perish”. Proverbs 29:18. That word perish refers to fruit that is starting to rot. Vision is a spiritual preservative. The goal is not surviving. It’s thriving. The goal is not getting back to normal. The goal is getting back to the supernatural, and I want you to hear me. I believe that we’re coming into a series where we’re gonna see signs and wonders, where we’re gonna see a supernatural demonstration of God’s love and power. Why? ‘Cause we need it. It’s time. It’s time to dream big, pray hard, and think long.

And so welcome to National Community Church. This weekend, we kick off a new series, “The Best is Yet to Come,” and I can’t wait to see what God does in life over these next six weeks. This is not some catchy phrase or cute saying. Yes, we own the domain, which I think is kind of fun,, but this is a core belief. The last time I checked the tomb is empty, and the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in us. Now we just need to live like it, so ready or not, here we go. You can meet me at the Jordan River, Joshua chapter three. Let me set the scene. The Israelites had been enslaved for 400 years. Slavery is all they’ve ever known. It’s an outrageous time to dream, but God delivers them out of Egypt with signs and wonders. He makes a side walk through the Red Sea. Remember this? He provides manna every morning for 40 years. He leads them, cloud by day, pillar of fire by night.

Now, their first attempt to enter the Promised Land ends in failure, ’cause of 10 negative people, right? But finally, after 42 stations of the Exodus, 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, they are a stone throw from the Promised Land, and that’s where we pick up the story. I want to talk about four things this weekend. One, get up early, two, follow the ark, three, consecrate yourself, and four, step into the river. You do those four things, and the best is yet to come. Well, Pastor Mark, what do I do after I do those four things? I’ll tell you what you do. You get up early, you follow the ark, you consecrate yourself, and you step into the river. Okay, I got it, I got it, but what do we do after that? You rinse and repeat, because you never arrive. There is no finish line. I kinda like this.

June 13th, 2017, Draymond Green wins NBA Championship as a member of the Golden State Warriors. Anybody want to guess what he did the next day? It’s kind of infamous in sports circles. He didn’t go to Disneyland. He got up early, he went to the gym, and he worked out. Now, why would you do that, when the night before, you proved that you’re the best in the world? ‘Cause that’s how you became the best, right? And so you gotta keep working the plan. Most of us want success without the sacrifice. We want the trophy without the blood, sweat, and tears, but the early bird still gets the worm, and so number one, get up early. It’s right here in the text. “Early in the morning”. When? All right, you’re catching on. “Early in the morning, Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over”.

Now, here’s the big idea, okay? If you want to get out of Shittim, you gotta get up early. What are you laughing at? Last week, I said that geography and spirituality are interconnected. Do you remember this? I would add chronology. There is a chronology of spirituality, and there is a spirituality of chronology. Two observations about time management. One, time is measured in minutes, but life is measured in moments. Now, all of us are given the same amount of time every single day, 1,440 minutes. Now, when it comes to talent and treasure, we kind of have a wide spectrum, right? Some people, a lot of talent, other people, not so much. Some people, a lot of treasure, other people, not so much, but time, time is the great equalizer. No one gets more than 1,440 minutes, and no one gets less. How are you managing the minutes and the moments, the kronos and the kairos? Two, you don’t find time. You make time. You have to identify the time wasters and time multipliers, and I’ll give you the most obvious example.

The average person spends 142 minutes on social media every day. Okay, that’s a staggering statistic, is it not? I have nothing against social media, but is that really how you want to spend 15% of the waking hours of your whole life? Do you know what you could accomplish if you bought back two hours and 22 minutes every day? You could read a book or write a book. You could get a graduate degree. You could volunteer at the DC Dream Center or one of our campuses. You could train for a triathlon. You could learn a language. You could plug into one of our small groups. You can do a lot with 142 minutes, but you won’t find the time. You have to make the time, and in my experience, the best time to make time is early in the morning.

Now, I know that there are larks and owls, but even if you’re a night person, you still need a morning routine, ’cause how you start the day sets the pace, sets the tone, sets the table, and it starts with when you set your alarm and why. And it can’t just be to get up and get out the door just in the nick of time, okay? ‘Cause that’s not gonna get us where we need to go. And so here’s the challenge. You have to set your alarm clock with consistency and intentionality. “Pastor Mark, come on. Where is that in the Bible? Give me chapter and verse”. Okay. Psalm 57:8. “Awake my inner self; awake, harp and lyre. I will awake right early, I will awaken the dawn”.

According to rabbinic tradition, David hung his harp above his bed by an open window. Why? Because it functioned like an alarm clock. When the north wind started blowing, it would make music, and David, according to rabbinic tradition, would get up and study Torah until the break of dawn. Now, I’ll go on record. I am not a morning person by nature. I’m a morning person by discipline, and that’s a very different thing. When I was in college, I could sleep to noon with the best of them. Come on, anybody else? But I made a defining decision to become a morning person for a couple of reasons. One, I watched my father-in-law get up and go to early morning prayer at five a.m. every single day, and I saw the intimacy he had with God. I saw the impact that he had with his life, and I put two and two together, and so I reverse-engineered his morning routine.

It was around that time that I read a biography of DL Moody, and there was a paragraph on page 129 that changed the trajectory of my life. It said that Moody felt a twinge of guilt if he heard the blacksmiths hammering before he was up praying. It said, “Every day of his life, he rose very early in the morning to study the Word of God way down to the close of his life. Mr. Moody would rise about four o’clock in the morning”. And I’ll just say, that is earlier than me, okay? “He would say, ‘If I’m gonna get in any study, I have to get up before the other folks get up.’ And he would shut himself up in a remote room in his house along with his God and his Bible”.

Now, I have no idea what goal you’re going after, but it’s not gonna happen by accident. You have to set your alarm with consistency and intentionality. You know, occasionally someone will ask me, you know, “Pastor Mark, how do you write a book”? And it really has nothing to do with writing. You have to set your alarm clock very early in the morning. How do you bike a century? ‘Cause it’s like a part-time job training for that thing. Gotta set your alarm clock early in the morning. How do you read the Bible cover to cover every year? You set your alarm clock early in the morning and you prioritize the disciplines that you know are the time multipliers.

Now, next week we begin our fall season of Upper Zoom. We’re gonna start climbing those digital stairs again, 7:14 a.m. Eastern time, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Can I just extend an invitation? I mean, it’s a way for you to kinda get into a daily rhythm of prayer, and so One, you gotta get up early. Two, follow the ark. Joshua 1. I’m sorry, Joshua 3, verses two and four. “After three days, the officers went throughout the camp giving orders to the people. ‘When you see the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it.'” There it is. “Then you will know which way to go, since you never been this way before”. I mean, in this fascinating? Like the Ark of the Covenant is their GPS, “But keep a distance of about 2,000 cubits between you and the ark”.

Now, I don’t have time to do this, but it’s just, it’s too much fun. And so last weekend, I biked a century, a hundred miles, made it, but I’m gonna tell you something. Right around mile 93, okay? So we’re about six hours in, we’re keeping a 16-mile-an-hour pace, and my quads start to cramp, and we hit a hill. Well, I’m gonna tell you what I did, ’cause we were biking in a Peloton, and so the race organizer, Jeff Zog, you know, I’m six-three, you know, six-four in Jordans, but Jeff Zog, he’s six-seven. He’s a big boy. He’s a tall drink of water, and so I’m gonna tell you exactly what I did. “Jeff, I’m hurting, I’m hurting”. And so Jeff is like, “Come on, come on, you got this hill. Just draft off of me, stay right on my tire,” and I drafted him all the way up that hill What are the Israelites doing here? They’re drafting the presence of God, the Ark of the Covenant.

Come on, we gotta stay close enough. Because here’s the deal. The Ark of the Covenant symbolizes the presence of God and the power of God. And then they add this little addendum, right? It says, “Keep a distance of 2,000 cubits”. Now, for what it’s worth, that’s the same distance that a Jewish person was allowed to walk on the Sabbath, which I just think is really fascinating. But I think the principle is a two-sided coin. Don’t fall behind, don’t get ahead, okay? Don’t don’t fall behind, but don’t get ahead of God. There is a sin of procrastination, delayed obedience. Is this obedience? And there is a sin of presumption. It’s taking matters into your own hands. I have tried to manufacture a time, a miracle a time or two or 10. Anybody else? Like, you just, okay, it’s not happening, so I’m gonna make it happen. You know what usually happens when you try to make it happen? When you take matters in your own hands? You end up like Moses. “Oh man, I’m gonna expedite the deliverance of the Jewish people”. No, you’re gonna delay things 40 years by trying to take your shortcut.

Question. Are you following the ark or are you following the crowd? It is really hard not to cave in to peer pressure and popular opinion. It is hard to live counter-culture, especially in a cancel culture, but we walk to the beat of a different drum. We follow the ark. In New Testament terms, we are people who are Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. I’m gonna go on record. Anything less than Spirit-filled and Spirit-led is dead religion. At the turn of the 20th century, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, issued a warning. He said, “The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and heaven without hell”.

Okay, it was true then, and it is true now. You gotta get up early. You gotta follow the ark. You gotta consecrate yourself. Joshua 3:5. “Then Joshua said to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.'” We want to do amazing things for God, but that’s not our job. God is the one who does amazing things for us. So what’s our job? Our job is consecration, and if we do our job, God is going to do his job. Now, that Hebrew word for consecrate is qadash. It means to purify, to sanctify, to set something apart. I like to think of it as you are anointed and appointed by God. Pastor Dave said something during our disciple series. Do you remember this? He said we are most free when we are most disciplined.

Now, that’s a little counter-intuitive, but it’s true, and in the same sense, we are most alive when we are most dead to self. Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a group of missionaries who became known as one-way missionaries because they bought one-way tickets to the mission field. They didn’t pack suitcases. They packed all of their earthly belongings into coffins, because they knew they were never coming back. Well, one of those one-way missionaries was a man named AW Milne and he said sail for the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, where a tribe of head hunters had martyred every missionary who’d gone before him. Milne didn’t fear for his life, because he had already died to self. For 35 years, AW Milne incarnated the Gospel. He lived among that tribe. He learned their language. He loved them like Jesus, and when he died, they buried AW Milne right in the middle of the village, and this is the epitaph that they inscribed on his headstone. “When he came there was no light, and when he left there was no darkness”.

Have you packed your coffin? Consecration is death to self. Consecration is dethroning yourself. Consecration is going all-in with God. Consecration is giving the Holy Spirit veto power. Consecration is seeking God first. Consecration is my utmost for his highest. “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you”. Please hear me. Every miracle, every breakthrough, every move of God starts with consecration. Now, you remember DL Moody getting up at four o’clock in the morning to spend time with God. Here’s what he said. “The world has yet to see what God can do through one man who is wholly consecrated to him. By God’s help, I aim to be that man”.

Why not you? Why not now? The question of course, how? How? I think it starts with the complete surrender of your life to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, your time, your talent, your treasure, your past, your present, your future, and that decision has a domino effect, but let me connect the dots. 1 Timothy 4:5 says, “Everything God created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it’s received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by two things”. Here it is. “By the Word of God and prayer”. When we read the Bible, we don’t just read it. It reads us. Hebrews 4:12. “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It penetrates even to the dividing of soul and spirit, joint, and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”. In other words, the Word of God has a consecrating effect. Have you experienced this? It’s the quickening of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it’s conviction. Sometimes it’s revelation, and prayer has the same effect.

Now, prayer changes things, no doubt, but I think sometimes, the circumstances that we’re asking God to change are the circumstances that God is using to change us. The secondary purpose of prayer is to change circumstances. The primary purpose of prayer is to change me, to consecrate myself. I gotta move. I got giddy up. Verse eight. Four, step into the river. “Tell the priests who carry the Ark of the Covenant, when you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river”. And this is where most of us get stuck. We’re waiting for God to part the water while God is waiting for us to get our feet wet. See, I don’t want to get my shoes wet, right? I want God to go first, ’cause then it doesn’t require any faith, but faith is taking the first step before God reveals the second step. If you want God to part the water, you have to step into the river.

So I’ll close with this. It’s 25 years ago this weekend, that God parted the Jordan River in such a fun way for National Community Church. At the time, I wasn’t just preaching. I was leading worship, and the problem with that is this, like the only thing worse than my voice is my rhythm, my rhythm, and we didn’t have a drummer, and so our predominant prayer the first year was, “Lord, send us a drummer,” about a hundred times, “Lord, send us a drummer”. And then one day I hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit say, “Why don’t you go out and buy a drum set”? Well, just as soon as you send us a drummer, then I’ll go buy a drum set. Why? ‘Cause I want God to go first. Now, our income at the time was $2,000 a month. Cost $1600 to rent the D.C. Public School. That left $400 for our salary and all other expenses. But it was one of those “Field of Dream” moments.

If you build it, they will come. It felt like I needed to step into the river, and so long story short, found a used drum set in Silver Spring, Maryland. Cost $400, of course, right? And I’m driving up there and I’m thinking to myself, “This is crazy! I’m buying a drum set with money we don’t have for a drummer who does not exist”. That was a Thursday. That Sunday, a kid named Tony walks into our service. Clean cut. I can tell he’s military. Marine Corps, 8th and I Drum and Bugle Corps. God doesn’t just send us a drummer, he sends us a rock star, and I learned a lesson. Whew! Sometimes you got to take the $400 step of faith. Sometimes you gotta step into the river.

Now, don’t get ahead of God’s Ark, right? Don’t manufacture the miracle. But there comes a moment where you gotta exercise your faith. Final thought, verse 15. “Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during the harvest”. And I love this set up, right, because it’s terrible timing. It’s an outrageous time to cross the Jordan River. “Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho”.

Let me show you a map. The Jordan River flows about 60 miles between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Average width, about a hundred feet, but it was flood stage, so it complicated their crossing. But here’s what I want you to notice. They cross across from Jericho, right? But that isn’t where the miracle happens. The miracle happens 16 miles upstream at a place called Adam, and it always does. We think right here, right now. God is thinking nation and generations. The miracle always happens 16 miles, 16 years ago.

This past weekend, I biked that century in Minnesota. The next day, I preached for a friend, Peter and Carolyn Haas at Substance Church in Minneapolis, and it was just a few miles from some of my earliest memories. My grandparents had a house on the Mississippi River, and so I just, I had to swing by, and it was so fun. The rock, the rock that I used to climb on, there it is. When I was a little kid, it was so big. It was so hard to get up on top of that rock. To me, it’s almost like the 12 stones. You remember this? The 12 stones that they take from the Jordan River and set up as an alter in Gilgal. Do you remember that? And so I’m having all of these flashbacks, and here’s the deal.

My grandfather, Elmer Johnson, got a picture that my cousins gave to me, ’cause I saw ’em this weekend, and man, that’s my grandfather, right in the middle. Oh! First Municipal Judge of Fridley, Minnesota. Loved God, loved his family, and so some of my earliest memories are my grandfather praying. He had a habit. He would kneel next to his bed. He would take off his hearing aid, put it on his bedside. He couldn’t hear himself praying, but everybody else in the house could hear him praying, and so I remember hearing my grandfather praying for me.

Now, my grandpa died when I was six, but his prayers didn’t. There’s no expiration date on prayer. Prayer turns parents and grandparents into prophets who shape the destiny of their children and grandchildren. And listen, there have been moments in my life where I’ve experienced blessings that I knew I did nothing to deserve, and the Holy Spirit has whispered to my spirit and said, “Mark, the prayers of your grandfather are being answered right now”. Prayer is the way we write history before it happens. Prayer is the way we seed the clouds. Prayer is the way we consecrate the future. And guess what? When we do, amazing is on the way. I’m not naive. I’m not naive. I know how tough times are, right? I know bad things happen to good people. I know that we have heartaches and headaches and setbacks. I know that there are things we can’t understand and there are things we can’t control. But I also know that we drink from wells we did not dig, we harvest fields we did not plant, and we live in houses that we did not build.

The miracle always happens 16 miles, 16 years upstream. You are the answer to someone else’s prayer, and you can return that favor. I don’t know what decision you need to make. I don’t know what action you need to take, but it’s time. It’s time. It’s time for what? I don’t know. It’s time to start tithing. Time to start serving. It’s time to start counseling. Time to start writing. Time to start running. I don’t know, but it’s time. There are decades when nothing happens. If you’re Israel, 40 of them, 400 years, but there are days when decades happen, and you can look back on this day 16 years from now, and say it was an outrageous time to dream, but it was a day that decades happened. The best yet to come.

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