Close Encounters - Jon Fryer
(This sermon owes a debt to How Not To Speak of God by Pete Rollins - check out the book!)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.
The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood, full of grace and truth.
I keep finding myself coming back to the big story, the story of how God throughout all of history has worked out ways to rescue people from the consequences of the serpent’s first deception in the garden of Eden. The story of how God comes down and comes through to rescue his people from their slavery. The story of how God constantly finds ways to meet with people, to hang out with them, to bring them home again. The big story is full of these little stories that echo the big story, little people having close encounters with a big God. Tonight I want to share some of those stories with you. The kingdom of heaven has drawn near to you.
The kingdom of heaven has drawn near to you.
Moses – The Name that is not a Name
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up." When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!"
And Moses said, "Here I am."
"Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob."
At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."
But Moses said to God, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"
And God said, "I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain."
Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?"
God said to Moses, "I am who I am . This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.' "
God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'YHWH, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.
Moses met with God. Or it is more fair to say that God met with Moses. This story tells us a lot about how God wants to relate to the world, but it may not tell us quite what you might have been told it does.
Firstly, I’ve heard lots of preachers say that when Moses asks God his name, God answers with ‘I AM’, and that tells us fundamental things about God. That God just is. That God is immortal, invisible, infinite, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient. And that’s all true. But those are Greek ideas, and they are missing the point.
God answers Moses by refusing to answer him. Moses has been living in Egypt, and he is used to idols with names that describe who they are and what they do. We have Ra the God of the sun, and Bast, Goddess of cats and so on and so forth. Moses wants to get a handle on who God is, and so he asks his name. Moses wants to limit God, to put boundaries around him so that he can be understood, be controlled.
God answers with Moses with the name YHWH. But that isn’t a name. In Hebrew, it is not meant to be said, because it is so sacred, so mysterious, so holy. In English it can’t be said, ‘cos it has no vowels. ‘Yahweh’ is just nonsense sounds made to fill in for a collection of letters. And when you listen to the Hebrew letters ‘Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh’. Its not a word, it’s the sound of someone breathing in and out. Moses doesn’t hear a name, he hears God. He hears God breathing. God is saying to him – I AM, I’m alive, I am living. And in both Hebrew and Greek the word for breath and spirit are the same thing – ruach, pneuma. God is saying to him – I am spirit, not physical, not an idol. God reveals himself to be the true God by hiding himself and refusing to be pinned down.
God answers Moses with a name that isn’t a name, it’s a promise. God’s answer can be understood as the words ‘I AM’, and that’s very important, but it is more properly translated as ‘I WILL BE HOWSOEVER I WILL BE’. God refuses to be pinned down to Moses tiny brain. God says ‘I WILL’. Not your will, MY will. But that’s a promise. When Moses says ‘What shall I tell the people?’, God answers ‘I WILL be with you’. And when you think about it, that’s enough.
So that’s my first challenge to you tonight. Are you trying to limit God to something you can control? Do you want to pin Him down to something you can understand? If you are, God will resist you. The promise of God that I am alive and I will be with you is our foundation, not whatever ideas about God that we can come up with in the fragility of our own intellect. You do not need to understand God, you just need to trust him. And when you trust him, you might find that you actually do start to understand him!
This story tells us a second thing about God. God comes to Moses looking for a pair of hands. God is looking to engage with the world and rescue the oppressed, but he wants to do it through human hands. That hasn’t changed. God still wants to serve the oppressed, and the orphaned and the hungry and the lost, and he wants human hands to do it. God says to Moses ‘Go to pharaoh and bring my people out of Egypt’. Moses isn’t sure. Moses wants proof. Something to cling to. He says ‘But how do I know?’ God says’ When you’ve done it, you will worship me here, and then you will know’. God again refuses to be constrained, refuses to be forced to offer proof. He effectively says ‘you either trust me or you don’t’. It’s a challenge. Jump, and then I’ll catch you. I can’t catch you until you jump. Trust me. That challenge, that invitation, remains with us today. What is God calling you to do? Where is God calling you to serve? What is God asking you to trust him with?
And there’s a third thing. When God turns up he invites Moses to be transformed. Firstly, he changes Moses’ way of looking at the world. The world is suddenly transfigured in Moses sight. He sees it clearly. Moses has been walking this land for 40 years. I mean, it isn’t as if the ground all of a sudden became holy. The ground didn’t just change. It’s just that Moses became aware of it. Which raises the question for us ‘Are we standing on holy ground all the time?’ Passing burning bushes on the left and the right, and because we’re moving too fast and we’re distracted, we miss them. What does do you believe it means to be standing on holy ground? Are we standing on holy ground all of the time but aren’t aware of it? Is the living God always there, breathing quietly in the background? Does the world around us hold the potential to become a voice and a word and a name by which we know ourselves to be spoken to and held in relationship? When we say ‘I don’t feel God to be close to me’, is it just that we’re not seeing properly? Do miracles happen all the time?
Secondly, Moses is moved into action. His behaviour is transformed – he moves from a man running away to a man putting himself into harms way on behalf of others. As we hang out with God, how is our behaviour being transformed? Tonight, what is God asking you to turn your back on?
Thirdly, as the story continues, whenever Moses leaves the presence of God his face shines. By hanging out with God, his character is transformed. As it says in the New Testament, ‘Be transformed by the renewing of your mind’. Moses is transformed as his thinking and heart becomes more like God. Moses is shining because God is shining. The Greek word for God is theos but most places this word is used outside of the Bible it is normally translated as ‘Shining’. God is shiny. God shines. The light shines in the darkness. Do you shine? Are you shining? Jesus said ‘You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’ Jesus is looking for hands in the world to do his good work. Will you answer? If you shine, it will make people wonder. They will want to know what has changed. They will want to know what you have, and how they can get it to. And they will give glory to God.
Jacob – The Blessing Way
One night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man came and wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man, and then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
The man asked him, "What is your name?"
"Jacob," he answered.
Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" and then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, which means ‘the face of God’, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
The sun rose above him and he was limping because of his hip.
In this story we hear of another man who had a close encounter with God, and again we find out more about who God is and how he wants to relate to the world.
Yet again, God refuses to be pinned down in a name. Jacob says, please tell me your name, but God answers ‘Why do you ask my name?’ and then He blesses Him. The important thing here though is that God does answer. The blessing is the answer. Jacob says ‘Who are you?’, and the answer is a blessing. God is found in the act of blessing and in being blessed. Jacob wants to know a fact about God, but God answers him with an experience. With a relationship. With an act of goodness. How are we supposed to share the good news of Jesus with the world this Christmas time? How does God expect us to make him known? I put it to you that we are supposed to behave like God, as the Bible so often exhorts us. And how does God make himself known? Through blessing. Through relationship. Through an act of goodness and grace. Through being shiny. Be shiny, even as your father in heaven is shiny. Make them wonder what you’ve got.
But the other interesting thing with this story is the invitation to wrestle. God doesn’t mind that Jacob fights with him. He even seems to enjoy it, and fights with him all night. He even lets him win for a while, until finally he kicks Jacob in the nuts to make a point and says ‘Come on, enough’s enough.’ God might be playing rough, but he isn’t angry. When the fight is over and they both lay there puffing he gives Jacob a new name, Israel. That isn’t a punishment, it’s a blessing, and it becomes the name that God’s people are known by for the next four thousand years. God doesn’t mind if you wrestle with him. In fact he enjoys it. In fact, he may even want it. It is not bad to have things where you struggle with God. Where you struggle to believe parts of the Bible. Where you struggle to believe that God cares. Where you struggle to trust, or to serve, or to worship. When you wrestle with God, you get to know him and yourself. Its when you walk away without playing that God’s heart is broken. God wants to be in relationship with you, and if that means a little bit of fighting then that’s fine. In fact, the very setup of the Bible invites us to wrestle with God. Many people want to read the Bible as if it all makes sense and want to make it all fit together in a neat little box. It doesn’t work like that. The Bible is the living word of God and refuses to be pinned down like that. The text is full of lots of different stories and viewpoints all bundled up together. In places it does contradict itself, regardless of how desperately some Christians will try to tell you that it doesn’t. And you know what? That’s good. For me, that proves it is the word of God. If the Bible is truly the Word of a God that is bigger than my understanding then it too needs to have bits that I don’t understand. Bits that I trip over. Bits that I wrestle with. You don’t need to understand the whole Bible to be a follower of Jesus, to be a friend of God. You just need to trust it. To trust Him. You don’t need to make sense of God. God doesn’t want to have an intellectual debate with you, he wants to have a play fight on the rug. He wants to be close. To be intimate. God wants to wrestle.
Transfiguration – A Gracious Encounter
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as dazzling white as the light, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus about the exodus he was about to bring about in Jerusalem.
Peter said to Jesus, "Teacher, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." He did not know what he was saying, he was so frightened.
While he was still speaking, a shining cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!"
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid." When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
Another story of a close encounter with the Lord. And again it is similar. Like Moses, the disciples eyes are opened to see what has always been there. Jesus hasn’t changed – he is still Jesus, he is just transfigured in their sight. Their eyes can suddenly see what has always been true, that when Jesus came to earth as a man, he remained God. He remained shiny. His face shone like the sun, the cloud of God’s presence shines, his clothes are shiny. Like Jacob, the disciples don’t understand. They are afraid and talk nonsense. They don’t understand that God has come to meet with them. They don’t understand that God is gracious. They don’t understand that when God comes to us he always says ‘Get up. Don’t be afraid’. Much later on, when John is an old man, he has begun to understand, and he writes, ‘There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are shiny like him.’
At the time though, the disciples don’t realise that God is gracious, and covers over faults so that he can be with people. They don’t understand yet that their best mate Jesus, who hangs out with prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners, is God’s best answer to the question He has been asked over and over again throughout the centuries: ‘Who are you?’
The transfiguration story is all about grace. Lets go back to Moses’ story. Moses listened to God breathe and God called Moses to lead the Israelites, Jacob the wrestler’s children, out of Egypt and into the promised land. On the journey, Moses sins, and God punishes him by saying that he may not cross over into the promised land. Moses gets to see the land from the mountaintop, and then dies of old age. He never sets foot in the land of Israel.
...Until now. It may be a thousand years later, but Moses is here, standing on the mountain of God, in the promised land. And why? Because Jesus is here. Jesus is here working out a second exodus, to lead people not out of Egypt, but out of slavery to sin and fear and death. Moses is forgiven and his punishment is lifted and he gets to stand in the land that had been promised to him and to breathe the air. How fantastic is that? How many of us come to God like the disciples did here, in fear, babbling away about our bad we are? When God comes to us we stand with Jesus, and all faults are covered over. God visits us with grace, always with grace. Get up. Don’t be afraid.
Which leads us to another story, the story we tell at this time of year.
Nativity – An Invitation to Intimacy
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The shepherds received an invitation from God to come and meet with him in a new way. They encountered God not in a shining cloud or a burning bush or a wrestling angel, but in the form of a normal human baby. God became flesh and blood and moved into our neighbourhood. They saw something new. Something God had never done before. All through the Bible God refuses to be contained, to be pinned down, to be named. Even the Old Testament itself, God’s revelation of himself to men, hides God as much as it reveals Him. God is hidden not because He doesn’t want to get to know us, but because we are too small. God doesn’t stay anonymous – he doesn’t say nothing about himself. Instead, he tells us too much about himself. He shows us so much of his character, his name, his nature that we can’t get our heads around the contradictions. God isn’t anonymous, he is hypernymous. God isn’t hidden in the darkness, he is too bright. Too shiny. And then, in a stable, God does something new. After centuries of wrestling and playing hide and seek, as fun as it was, God decides to make himself small. To relate. To make a bridge. To turn down the shininess for a while. And yet, and this is the real miracle, God doesn’t change. He is not transformed when he becomes a baby, just transfigured – he doesn’t change, he simply gives us a new way of seeing how he has always been. A way that we can look at the shininess without burning ourselves. He finally gives himself a real name. And what is the name he chooses? Jesus. ‘He Saves.’ And what a fantastic name it is. The one that sums up all of the others. ‘I will be with you’ Why? ‘To save those who are oppressed. ‘I bless’ Why? ‘To save you from yourself’. ‘I forgive’ Why? ‘to save everyone from all of the fear and all of the guilt and all of the sin and all of the sickness and all of the death that has haunted this world since Adam first listened to a lying snake.’ Jesus has come to save. To draw near to the people who had cast themselves out. To make them shiny again, so they can, in turn, draw near to the shining one.
And the invite is to everyone. Shepherds were not seen as holy people in Jesus’ day. They were too busy to go to church – they had sheep to look after, and the sheep always come first. Moses was a shepherd. So was Jacob. Why do you think Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd? The sheep always come first. The shepherds were unclean – they came into contact with dead things all of the time, and God is living so they can not draw near – but with Jesus they can approach him. The bush is burning again and yet is not destroyed – the shining, burning one has drawn near to the fragile and yet the fragile is not burnt up. The shepherds were poor and badly educated, but God doesn’t tell them to understand, he tells them to come and see and touch and hear. And the invite is open to us all. Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you says the Lord. There’s that ‘I will’ again. Jump, and I will catch you. The shepherd’s could have stayed doing what they always did, to refuse to go. But they trusted, and went, and walked away changed. Just as Moses did. Just as Jacob did with his limp. Just as the disciples did.
And that brings us to the last story, your story:
Now – The Ongoing Event
What will you do? There is good news, tidings of great joy. The kingdom of heaven has drawn near to you. You are invited to the birth of a son. You are invited into the presence of God.
But how do I draw near? Trust the stories.
Listen: God feels no need to be understood. You do not have to be clever. You don’t have to understand. You definitely don’t need to pin God down in a box. Come as you are. God prefers shepherds to scientists because they understand what really matters – the sheep always come first. You draw near to God when you feed his sheep.
Listen: You are invited. God has come looking for you. The kingdom of God has drawn near to you, because you were incapable of ever coming near to it. You are desired. You are wanted. Come home. Come close.
Listen: You know you have met with God not by the special effects but by the fact that you walk away changed. Jacob left with a limp. The shepherds left rejoicing. Moses walked away shining. Who is this that appears shining like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, majestic as the stars in procession? That’s you, that is. That’s you when you walk away from a close encounter with Jesus, when he has made you new again, when he has shown you the person that you already were and always have been, and he has stripped away all of the dirt and the mess and the crap that covered up your shininess. How do I know that I have met with God? I can’t show you a cctv clip of me meeting a burning bush or an angel. I probably can’t even prove it from the Bible. But I can tell you this, I have wrestled for years and years an years, and I have walked away changed. My natural tendency is to dislike people. They do my head in. But I met Jesus, and he has taught me, after much wrestling, to try and look after his sheep. And you know what? I’d miss you guys if you weren’t around. I do miss you guys when you are not around. I am not the same as I was, and that is the sure and certain test that you have met with God. You walk away changed.
Listen. God is near to you, not far off. God is present. God is presence. God is willing to meet with you. The kingdom has drawn near to you. Trust that it is so, open your eyes, and see that the bush is burning again. You always stand on holy ground, always, and if you listen carefully you can hear God breathing. Trust. Jump. Hold your breath, and wait for him to breathe...
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The Character of God
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The Authority of Scripture
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The Wise Mans Tragedy
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A Relationship With Jesus
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Heroes, Promises and Trust
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The Heart of the Gospel
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The People of God
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Forgiveness Part One: Forgiven by God
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Prayer Part Two: Receiving From God
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