Close Encounters of the First Kind

Delivered May 5, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Sermon Text:
John 6:35-40
and Exodus 20:18-24

Our New Testament lesson is taken from John Chapter 6 and there we will find appropriate and comforting words of our Lord Jesus on this Communion Sunday. As Jerry said the Exodus text will be a preaching text, but listen to God’s word from John Chapter 6, Verses 35 to 40.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him, shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Amen.

When I began to consider interim ministry a number of years ago, I knew I would need some training and equipping, and so four and a half years ago I took the first of two-week long training periods, about 30 hours per training. I went up to Stoney Point, New York and spent time there from Monday to Friday. I met 25 new friends, pastors from around the area, some from large churches, some from small churches, some who were about ready to retire and thinking about doing interims and others like myself exploring the possibility as another stage of ministry. And on the last day Friday, we had a closing communion. It was very simple. We were in a basic meeting room, a small table in the middle of the room, communion elements on the table and we began with a litany. And as we shared together back and forth in this litany, I sense God stirring in my mind and heart. I was stirred in a sweet kind of way. And now among these new friends, I sensed a new presence. I started to fight back tears as we read together from scripture, as I looked at the faces of the group. I could see not just men and women at various ages, I could see Christ it seemed, expressed on each face. It must have been something like the disciples experienced when on the road to Emmaus. They were caught up in their own thoughts, thinking one thing and then all of a sudden, they were apprehended by the Lord Jesus himself. We passed the peace to one another, a few more sniffles, we hugged, we shook hands, a few more sniffles. I was encountering the living God. Now, not everybody encounters the living God through tears. I find that that’s one way that I get a sense. I don’t know, maybe it’s Greek you know, when your happy you cry. Greeks, Italians, all of them. When we are happy we just cry. But many people encounter God in different ways. But there was a supernatural awareness, something that was beyond what just was the mix of all of us as we experienced Christ in the breaking of the bread.

As I share that I wonder if you recall moments of encounter with God. Or I wonder if some of you might be saying you know I really don’t remember encountering God much. If you say that you would be, believe it or not at least in the majority of churchgoers. George Barna survey, at least like 65-70% of people who he interviewed, thousands and thousands of people who go to church regularly said that they hadn’t experienced an encounter with God in the last year, anything that they were aware of. And I thought to myself, well, I wonder why. What’s going on? Why are more people not sensing the reality of the transcendent? And I thought to myself, what does it look like? I mean, again we are so different it could look so different for all of us, but I started to think, well, when has that encounter seem to have happened for me? I thought about sometimes in worship, a memory will just be brought to my mind. It is something that I have committed to and all of a sudden that reminder is brought fast forward to the present moment and all of a sudden I feel God speaking or God present.

Another example would be, you know you come in and you’re not even sure you want to be in worship and all of a sudden your attention just gets arrested, maybe a hymn or a word that is said or a prayer that is uttered and you are just caught up short. It’s like God is speaking right to you. Maybe it’s a quiet resolve. Maybe there is just a deep centering that you keep experiencing. A feeling that you have to go and tell somebody something,a breakdown of defensiveness. You know sometimes people, we come into worship and it’s like we have these walls up, like we want to just control the holy somehow. So, maybe the touch of God in our life is when the walls get lowered and the defensiveness diminishes and we start to hear the spirit speaking to us. Maybe it’s a lack of preoccupation with one self. Maybe there is a lack of self-consciousness or an inner peace, or joy or love, whatever. That I believe is encountering God. Maybe it’s a deep conviction of being forgiven to the very core of our soul. Maybe it’s a conviction to go, an act, whatever it is. But I want to ask you this. Don’t you want to be part of a congregation where encounters with God are expected? I do. When people come in and say with King David, “my soul thirsts for the living God” and they know that it gets quenched. They may come in worried and go out peaceful. They may come in weak and go out strong. They may come in angry and go out settled. Indifferent and then go out with a feeling and a sense of compassion.

On 220 North Main Street in Olny, Texas there are large stone letters carved in a building and it says ENERGY Building. Those letters could be carved over every sanctuary where people expect to experience God. Because the worship with God, the encountering of God is the energy that sustains our daily discipleship. Without encountering God, without experiencing the Holy, our discipleship loses voltage. Just think of it. When we get away from the worship of the people of God, when we get away from the people reading scripture, when we get away from private devotions, we start to wane. In storefronts all over the country there are signs that say, “English spoken here” or “Spanish spoken here.” Above the sanctuary door there ought to be a sign that says, “Encountering God expected here.” Now, I am not suggesting that those encounters be uniform or predictable, because we are all different, but a church alive expects and becomes aware of God’s presence in worship.

Now this text from Exodus, Chapter 20 instructs us a little bit about close encounters of the first kind. My apologies to Steven Spielberg and his movie title, but this is Close Encounter not of the third kind, but of the first kind. And in Exodus Chapter 20 in Verse 18 we see that when the people saw the thunder and lightning, and this is right after the 10 Commandments, when the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance. You know our national propensity is not to want to encounter God. We don’t want to come near to God.

I remember a few years ago, we use to live on a hill in Pennsylvania and an electrical storm came over, and it seemed like it just stopped for about an hour right where we lived. I mean it kept us awake. I am lying in my bed and I am thinking to myself, boy I sure hope that one of these lightning bolts doesn’t hit the tree outside our bedroom. I mean I started to feel some fear and trepidation as I kept hearing this lightning and thunder. That’s what it was like, only worse for them. Many of you know probably that Lee Trevino was struck by lightning on the golf course. He thought is was going to end his career and he was very much affected by it and when he was recovering someone asked, one of the reporters asked him, “Well what have you learned from your experience?” He said, “Well, I learned that if the Almighty wants to play through you better let him.” And yet as these people came and saw this light and sound display, it started to communicate to them that if you are going to encounter the Holy, it has to be done with reverence. You just can’t walk up and say, “Hello”. This is something very, very serious and God gives the reason why he put on this display. Moses said, “Now don’t be afraid. God wants you to come near, but God does this to keep you from sinning.” The fear of the Lord will be in your heart. God will put guardrails in your life so that you won’t go off the road. He wants you to know that he is holy and he can’t be approached so easily.

Two fascinating principles that I understand from Verse 24. It’s the Verse that we even put in the bulletin today that tells us about encounters with God. First in Verse 24:

“Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and cattle.”

The first thing that I sense from this is that the people were, as they traveled in the wilderness, take a framing of wood and put dirt, rocks or whatever in it and there they would worship. And then when God moved them along, they would take the wood frame away and move it along with them. Whatever was in it would eventually crumble and dissipate and maybe a year or two later you would walk by there, and you would never know anything happened. It seems to me that a principle that comes out of this is that encounters with God were expected to be the norm and expected to happen on a regular occurrence. But something else is here too. There needn’t be any monument to any one occurrence. God will bless again and again. Encountering God expected here. And it also speaks to not elevate the place of encounter above the God who is encountered. And so, we have to pray very hard to not turn our place into an idol. And I know that when we associate a space of a place with encountering God and that space or place gets changed in some way, that throws off that encounter.

A couple of weeks ago when I came in and I saw the carving out of the pews over there, I said, “Whoa, that’s different.” And I wondered if people coming in would think, man what’s going on here? And it can kind of upset your equilibrium a little bit. I got to thinking about the hymnbooks and I was thinking that these hymnbooks have been here for so many years, the red ones. Now, we have the blue ones, is that going to throw off anybody’s encounter with God? And yet the Lord’s word is telling us, don’t’ worry about what books you are singing from. You’re trying to get with me. We had a subcommittee of our sanctuary beautification group come together a few months ago. Some of you are sitting right out in front of me. And we had a whale of a time talking about things. We talked about things like where should the baptismal fount go? I am thinking to myself, what kind of a question is that? Baptismal fount goes right there. It’s been there for 50 years. Who would even think of asking such a question? Because we were thinking about on the basis of the consultant, let’s put the baptismal fount and put a nice big top on it and we will stick it right in the middle so that when people come in they know they come into the family of God by God’s grace. And that they belong and we are all gathered around. I couldn’t deal with that. I just could not get it. I said, “No, that can’t be.” And then I look at a text like this and it’s like, what are you talking about? The Lord seems to say to me. What do you care? It’s me who you are encountering. It’s me. I want to come and bless you. It does not matter about the space. This wood frame went boom, the next one, next one, next one. They had all kinds of times and places that they encountered God.

I could even go one better. What is God saying?, “We are all moving.” We’re going to buy 20 acres somewhere north and we are going. That’s a scary thought. But you know what, if God said that and don’t nobody start any rumors, we’re not doing that. But I am just thinking to myself, what if that happened? It’s the encounter with God that’s all-important.

That’s the first thing. Don’t make a monument to any one place and expect to encounter God frequently. Secondly, “In every place” God says at the end of Verse 24, “Wherever I cause my name to be honored or remembered, I will come to you and bless you.” This implied that as they moved from place to place, change to change, God would still be there. Ready, ahead of them, meeting them, causing the encounter to take place, initiating the interaction with God’s people. You know some folks come to worship and it’s like, again it’s like this great big huge wall and they can’t get over. This text tells me that God wants not only to initiate the encounter and does, but he wants to fellowship with each us. He wants our experience of worship. Do you think that God has caused his name to be remembered here at Central Church? I know we have said this before, but you know Central was on the ropes. Knocked down, almost counted out. But God caused God’s name to be remembered here, when a few people gathered in the brown manse and there they worshipped and folding chairs and here we are. God did that. And God is doing it today. God is causing us to want to worship. God has drawn you here today. Maybe you woke up today and thought, I don’t think I want to go to church today. But God drew you here anyway. See the word of the Lord is saying that God want’s to encounter us, desires to touch us, loves us, desires to heal us, feed us, be intimate with us. That’s what this table is all about. It’s a reminder of the grace of the Lord Jesus.

Let’s look together at Hebrews, Chapter 10. I just want to refer to one other passage here. Hebrews Chapter 10. This is so different from where we are in Exodus. But in Hebrews Chapter 10, Verse 19 the writer of Hebrews is trying to get across in other words, what I am trying to get across. That God desires our worship. That God initiates our worship.

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscious and having our bodies washed with pure water.”

He goes on to talk about assembling together. But the word I want to share with you here is that the high priest could enter God’s presence only once a year. And the people stood outside wondering if he was going to come out alive. But because of our Lord Jesus Christ who God sent to this world, he stretched out his arms on the cross, took the penalty for our sin and made an entranceway to the presence of God to whoever believes. No more curtain. It’s torn in two. Anybody can come, anytime and have access to God without fear because of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are not limited to certain times. Don’t ever think that God would reject you or not want you to come. He welcomes your worship all of the time.

Last December in the Port Authority Terminal in the middle of Time Square a worker for Campus Crusade for Christ writes of an experience that she had. She was standing to catch a bus to go over to New Jersey. The line was moving like it always did, and she looked around some people and she saw this tall disheveled guy trying to get on the bus. It was obvious that the guy and the bus driver were arguing, because the guy didn’t have the right amount of money and so he had to get back, he came out of the line and stumbled against all these other people who were waiting to get in and he saw this women. Her name was Karen. He said, “Would you please give me some money so that I can get on the bus?” And she kind of hesitated and said, “When I get on the bus I will see.” And the next 30 seconds she said as she walked up the steps to the bus and dropped her $1.25 fare in she had the usual argument that we have. Here is one side, “Why should I help him? Why should he get a free ride? There are so many other people who have greater needs. He just needs to go cash that check, he had a stack of mail with a check on top. Maybe he needs to go cash that welfare check and spend it on something ridiculous. Maybe I don’t have any change.” That was the one side. And then the other side and this is an encounter with God. “Don’t you have any compassion? Where is your Christ-likeness? Okay, Lord what should I do?” And before she knew it she took the $1.25 put it in the box and the bus driver was ready to close the door and she said, “Wait, don’t close the doors. Leave them open and let him in. I will pay for him.” The bus driver opened the doors, the guy ran up the steps, looked at her and smiled and just said, “Thanks.” And then in that moment another encounter with God. She sensed the Lord saying, “Karen, do you see? That’s what I did for you. No, that man didn’t deserve your $1.25. He didn’t do anything to earn that, but you gave it to him as a gift. And you did nothing to deserve my acceptance either. I sent my Son for you. My Son died on the cross saying, Open the door Lord; open the door Father let him in. I will pay for them.” And in that sobering moment she realized again the grace of God in her life. Encountering God Expected Here, because of us now and because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Maybe we should add to the sign, “Encountering God Expected Here 24/7/365 and forever.”

Let us pray. Gracious Lord, we know that there is nothing in us that deserves your coming as you did to us,and yet we know that your grace is beyond measure, beyond comparison, beyond understanding. We ask Lord that even as we gather around this table today that we would remember the core reason for our gathering. To encounter, to remember, to experience union with our Lord Jesus Christ, not only today, but as a sign of future hope. Touch each person here Lord, wherever they are and help them to know that you love them and that you care about them and that you want to meet their needs this day. For we pray it in Christ’s name. Amen.