INTRODUCTION – Around the end of April of 2015 – our son Joshua called Anne and I and asked if he could come over and sit down with us. That conversation started the ball rolling that eventually (after many hours of meetings with our elders) led us to install Joshua as lead pastor as of June 1st of 2015, and then send Anne and I off on a three month sabbatical for those summer months to get rested up and re – envisioned for the years ahead.
When I jumped back in the saddle in early September of that year – our elders began to process together over many hours the changes that the Holy Spirit — primarily through Joshua was wanting to bring about.
One of the questions we wrestled with in some of those meetings (and I believe Steve Sharp joined us in some of those discussions) was what tag line or motto would best characterize who we are becoming, and what we are most pursuing as a people. Our eventual choice was: “People encountering Jesus.” We knew there were safer more acceptable words to use rather than “encounter” – but we all eventually concluded this was the word that best summed up what God wanted us to pursue, and what God wanted us to expect of Him.
While we have informed you of that in various ways including putting it at the top and on front of our bulletin each week – – we have never devoted a sermon to what we mean by “encountering Jesus”. Our assignment for this morning is to dive into this subject. May the Holy Spirit open our eyes and ears!
So what does it mean to encounter Jesus? And why did we choose that word instead of something like: People knowing Jesus or People loving Jesus or People seeking Jesus or People following Jesus?
Well let me begin by admitting “encountering God or encountering Jesus” is not a biblical term. The words “encountered” and “encounter” do appear in scripture, but never in reference to encountering God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit.
Now don’t let that alarm you. There are many very helpful words that leaders and scholars use to help convey biblical truth or biblical concepts that are not found in the Bible such as “bible”, “trinity” , “rapture”, “missional”, “omniscience”, “omnipotent”, etc.
Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to define “encounter”. From various dictionaries – the word “encounter” both as a noun and as a verb has a variety of usages. Some of its usages are negative as in meeting or confronting an adversary or enemy. But others have to do with the idea of a face to face meeting with someone. Sometimes these meetings or encounters are not planned or scheduled or even expected. The adverb “casually” was used a couple of times I noticed in relationship with an encounter. Perhaps you’ve heard someone speak of a “chance encounter” with someone. But what they all have in common is face to face – personal interaction with a person.
So when we say we – the members of the Well – are a “people encountering Jesus” what we mean is we are a people who are not content to just know a lot about Jesus theologically and intellectually; We are not content to just know and be willing to proclaim that He is the Son of God and Savior; nor are we content to just be a part of a movement that follows after Jesus – rather than Budda or Mohammed or Oprah or Bernie as our inspirational leader from afar; rather we are a people who increasingly expect to encounter Jesus face to face that is – in a real, personal, tangible, supernatural way. We have this expectation because the Jesus we are coming to know and whom the Bible reveals is the living God who speaks and communicates and wants His people to experience Him and know Him intimately, and not just intellectually. He is very much into building a relationship with us – sadly and thankfully far more than we are into building a relationship with Him. He is very much into revealing more and more of His heart and mind and ways and will to His sons and daughters. He is the One who is dead set on making us more like Him in every way. He is the One who initiates a relationship with us; He is the One who made the substitutionary sacrifice necessary for us to be able to have a relationship with a holy and righteous God; He is the One who sustains a relationship with us and guards a relationship with us; He in sum is a highly relational accessible intentional God; nothing like the deist God or muslim God or Indian gods that so many blindly worship or give lip service to – or feel safe from.
Just as Jesus Christ – after staying up all night in prayer – chose His 12 disciples for the express purpose of being with Him as Mark 3:14 states; so He has chosen us to be with Him, to walk with Him, to become like Him; and to serve Him, and thus from day to day – to experience Him in life transforming ways.
But why the term or word “encounter”? Well because in the four gospel accounts – – when Jesus walked the earth and proclaimed the gospel or good news of the kingdom of God – – the people whose lives were changed, were those who went beyond just walking among the crowds who followed Him in kind of a groupie way – to actually engaging Him face to face. Some of these initiated their encounters with Him or postured themselves so that an encounter had the best chance of happening. Some did not – that is He initiated them. But all were powerfully impacted by their encounters with this one whom the Bible reveals as the Light of the World and the Lamb of God and the Bread of Life and the Good Shepherd etc.
Whether it be Nathanael in John ch. 1 whom Jesus saw before He saw Him and whom Jesus knew before He ever got to know Him – much to Nathanael’s shock; or Jesus’s cousin John the baptizer – who probably was around Jesus as a child growing up from time to time, but then saw Him blossom into the obvious Son of God and Lamb of God that He had been from eternity past – and thus whom John increasingly saw His need to humble Himself before and serve as His Lord and Master; or the Samaritan woman in John ch. 4, whose sad life story was lovingly exposed by Jesus so she could finally find in Him that which she had foolishly sought in man after man after man after man after man……; or Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany – Jesus’s dear friends who treasured relational times with Him in their home; or Peter, James and John up on the Mount of Transfiguration seeing Jesus like no one to that point had ever seen Him before; or Zaccheus up in the Sycamore tree; or the two men walking down the Emmaus road whom Jesus appeared to and conversed with after His crucifixion and resurrection; or Saul the persecutor walking down the Damascus road; all of these people had encounters with Jesus that marked them and stopped them in their tracks and caused them to want to forsake all to know and follow and walk with this One whose eyes melted their defenses; whose light revealed their darkness, and whose words stirred up passions in their souls that had never been stirred up before.
We chose the word encounter because we know our human flesh or sin nature is very glad to settle for far less. We chose the word encounter because we know the enemy of our souls is constantly trying to convince us that the pleasures of this world that are so instant and tangible and acceptable in our society can and will satisfy us – – when in reality only ongoing personal encounters with the living risen Christ can truly satisfy us and enable us to reach beyond what most of our neighbors and co-workers and fellow students and perhaps even our relatives are settling for.
Well aren’t we in danger of setting our people up for disappointment and disillusionment by putting so much emphasis on experience? Something that in many ways is beyond our control?
Well let me first of all say that in no way are we saying that the basis of our security and value and worth as believers should be in our subjective experiences with Christ. My standing with the living God of the Universe, who will judge every man and woman at the end of time is based upon my faith and trust in the finished work of Christ on the cross. We agree with the apostle Paul as he stated in Romans 3:24 and following that we have been – and I quote – “….justified (or made right before God) as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation (or substitutionary sacrifice) in His blood through faith. “ My sense of worth and security and value is in the objective fact that I have been created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27); I am intensely loved by this God as best demonstrated by sending His only begotten Son to die on the cross in my place (Rom. 5:8); I have been adopted by Him and placed into His forever family by His grace (Ephesians 1); and nothing can ever separate me from His love – per that great passage in Romans chapter 8. My security and hope lies in these unchangeable objective facts and truths, not in subjective experience.
But my ongoing relationship with God is another matter. God’s full and reasonable expectation of me and you is that we will love Him increasingly with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind per the greatest commandment in Luke 10; His full and reasonable expectation is that we will grow in ever greater devotion to Him as we gaze upon His glory and majesty and splendor – – and that process demands that I go beyond intellectual/cerebral acknowledgment of cold biblical facts and theology to an ongoing experience of this glorious person in my daily life.
I find it interesting that the apostle Paul in his most foundational epistle of all takes all of chapter 1 vs. 18 – ch. 3 vs. 20 to build a case for the absolute sinfulness and lostness of man; then from 3:21-ch. 5 shows how God did the only thing that could be done to bridge the bridge less chasm between man and God by sending His Son to die on the cross – providing redemption and introducing us to the glorious doctrine and reality of justification by faith; then in chapters 6 & 7 he explains how our death and resurrection with Christ enables us to walk in victory over sin; then in chapter 8 introduces us to life in the Spirit; and in that chapter – starting with vs. 14 through vs. 17 contends that our assurance of salvation does indeed have a subjective side to it – – that being our daily relationship with the Holy Spirit who leads us and convinces us that we are indeed adopted and treasured children of Father God.
One of the major reasons in my view why so many young men and women who were born and raised in a local church of some kind and then choose to depart from that when they become an adult is because all they ever knew were the cold cerebral intellectual truths of our faith – – rather than an ongoing ever increasing daily experience of the Truth – who is a person named Jesus.
So what might this look like on a daily basis in the 21st century in California in the life of a simple believer/disciple of Jesus?
Well first of all there will be a drawing power in my spirit to pursue or seek God. The Bible is very clear in Psalm 14 and Romans 3 that on our own we do not seek God. On our own and left to ourselves we are fully self consumed and God resistant. But when we are born again by the Spirit of God, and 24/7 indwelt by this Spirit of Christ – – we will find from time to time an inner desire or compulsion to seek God; to spend time with God; to open His word and respond to what He reveals to us in His word; or to go for a walk and just fellowship with Him; or while on a drive by ourselves to converse with Him and perhaps intercede for those He puts on our heart; or perhaps to worship Him while we listen to a worship CD or worship music on our ipods. We encounter Christ when we submit to His wooing and drawing Spirit; and cast everything else aside – – for the express purpose of listening to His voice and responding to His will and way for us as His disciple.
Second there will be a response to our times in His written word – whether alone or in a group or perhaps in listening to a sermon on a Sunday morning wherein we confess and turn from sin that He brings to our attention – a process the Bible calls repentance; or perhaps that response will be praising and thanking Him for specific things we see about His character and works and ways; or that response might be praying for His will to be accomplished in our lives and in the lives of those He puts on our hearts as His will is revealed to us through His word.
Third there will be times of intense temptation and oppression from the evil one where we are wracked with fear or anger or lust or covetousness or worry and in desperation we cry out to God and declare His truth, and maybe 5 minutes or 15 minutes or an hour later all of a sudden we find we’ve been released and delivered from that fear or anger or whatever it was – – and the peace and presence of God is again our portion. Only an encounter with God can break the power of spiritual oppression in our lives.
Fourth there will be times where we wake up in the middle of the night and know God wants us to pray for someone because they are largely on our mind and we just can’t shake it – – and God will give us grace to stand in the gap for them. There will be times in the middle of the night where we awake because we’ve just had a very vivid prophetic dream that we know is from God and that we need to write down so we don’t forget it and so we can pray into it.
Fifth there will be times where we have lost all hope and perspective in God’s goodness, and have resigned ourselves to just throw in the towel; and we find ourselves blaming God and being mad at God – – and after a period of struggle – – all of a sudden the light bulbs turn on, and perspective and hope is restored and like Asaph in Psalm 73 and Job in Job chapter 42 – we are able to quickly repent of our foolishness and fully place our hope and faith back in God and His goodness and faithfulness. Only an encounter with God can change a bitter, sullen, angry, blaming, depressed person into a thankful, grateful, humble, upbeat person. – able to see the good hand of God on our lives regardless of difficult or perplexing circumstances.
Sixth there will be times when you and I gather with the saints – the people of God – – and God will reveal something specific about our personal situation through a prophetic word or a word of knowledge or an interpreted tongue and it will be something that no one knew about you or your situation or it might be something you didn’t even know about yourself…but God knew it and God wanted the person He chose to minister to you to know it so you could be set free, and you could know how intimately God knows and loves you. I thank God for verses in the Bible like John 3:16 & Romans 5:8 and many others that speak in a general way of how much God loves us; but there is nothing like a specific personal in the now word from God to drive that truth home.
Now I want to say at this point that encounters with God are not uniform.
What I mean by that is God deals with and communicates with all of us differently and uniquely.
For instance, God from time to time will choose to speak to my wife through license plates. When she first told me of these experiences some years ago, I was a little skeptical. But now I’ve watched this enough to know He really does do this from time to time. He’s rarely done it with me. But He has many times with my wife.
Some people regularly receive prophetic dreams from God. I rarely do, though I’ve had a few.
Some people have heard God’s audible voice once or several times. I never have that I am aware of. Though I’ve heard His inaudible voice thousands of times.
Dianne sees angels regularly. I’m not sure if I have ever seen an angel.
So the point is: do not compare yourself with others. God will speak to you and appear to you when He needs to in a way that works for you.
Here’s the bottom line folks: The living God who created the known and yet to be known universe with a word is a communicative relational God who can only operate supernaturally. So when such a God seeks to build a relationship with you and me – – it can’t help but be a supernatural, full orbed, unpredictable at times, relationship with some level of mystery to it. Now we can resist that. But I believe what God is seeking to do this morning through this sermon is raise our expectation level for God encounters as a regular course of life.
So if that’s the case – what is our responsibility in all this? While we can’t force or control or make an encounter with Christ happen – how can we so posture ourselves that we are ready and alert and ready to respond when He speaks or acts?
4 Practical steps
1. Always be ready to write things down when He speaks or acts (back of bulletin on Sunday mornings for notes), planner/calendar/journal when having quiet times/reading the Bible/praying, planner in your car. Not all the impressions we get are from the Lord, but we get better and quicker at figuring that out as we mature in the Lord. “Pale ink is better than the most retentive mind” Martin Luther. To Him who has more will be given.
2. Obey the obvious. John 14:21, 23 for that is the condition of more and more revelation and disclosure of God Himself to us.
3. Recognize there is great value in just being with God – whether you receive a lighting bolt or not. Example of my times in MDO and anne’s question.
4. Take advantage of every opportunity for mature disciples of Jesus to pray for you and lay hands on you– so that your spiritual eyes and ears can be opened wider