Sunday, January 6, 2019

Encountering God at the Not-Burning Bush

There are only a few people who have actually had a direct encounter with God. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God. Noah had some sort of conversation with God. Moses had this encounter with God. Hagar had a brief encounter with God in the wilderness when she had just about given up on life.

We’ve just finished the Christmas season that reminds us about the encounter with God that Mary had! Not only did she raise the Son of God! She also (along with her husband and cousin) had an encounter with one of God’s angels. Paul encountered God on the road to Damascus. The list of people who have actually had a direct encounter with God is an extremely short list! And every one of those people had one significant thing in common. After they encountered God…They were never
the same again!

Let’s consider Moses. Before Moses encountered God through that non-burning bush that day, Moses was not the hero we all remember him to be. In your Bible classes this morning, you probably covered much of his story. But if you weren’t there, let me give you a quick review.

Moses grew up a “Prince of Egypt." Or, at least, he grew up in Pharaoh’s household. We don’t know much more than that. But, as a member of Pharaoh’s household, he would have had many advantages. A top-notch education. Protection not enjoyed by other Hebrews. Food, housing, luxury! In spite of these many advantages, however, Moses showed himself to be a scared, rash, selfish man. 

He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. He ran for his life instead of facing the consequences of his actions—he let others clean up his mess. He “hid” in the land of Midian for an entire generation! He settled down, married, had a child, and completely abandoned his old way of life.

And in his encounter with God, we see this selfish, cowardly character of Moses shine through. When God told him to go home to Egypt to deliver His people, notice the responses given by Moses. “Who am I to go on this errand?” “Who are you to tell me to go?” “What if they don’t believe me?” “I’m not good at this sort of thing…I don’t speak well.” “Just send someone else.” These are not the words of a biblical hero! But after this moment…after this encounter with God…everything changed.

If you were to ask a Hebrew, “Who is the greatest hero of your faith?” 9 out of 10 would answer Moses…not David or Abraham or Joseph. Moses was the great lawgiver. Moses stood toe to toe with Pharaoh—the most powerful man on earth. Moses led God’s people out of slavery. Moses led God’s people to the Promised Land. But listen carefully: Moses never would have done any of those things if he had not first encountered God in the Midian wilderness. True, real, genuine encounters with God change us forever. 

I said earlier that the list of people who have had a real encounter with God is quite short. That was true…until Jesus. Until God became human, God interacted with only a handful of people throughout history. But, when God became human and dwelt among us, when God’s Spirit followed Jesus into this world…Now, we have occasion to encounter God on a regular basis. God lives in us.

The writer of Hebrews writes: 

“In the former days, God used to speak to us through prophets…” He goes on: “But in these last days, God has spoken to us by His Son.” 

And now, God encounters creation through the Spirit, living through the Church. All of this means that we are in an extremely privileged position! Like Adam and Eve and Paul and Mary and Hagar and Moses, we regularly encounter the Spirit of the living God! And because, we, like them, encounter God, we should be changed!

Paul writes in I Corinthians:

“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the LORD Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” - I Corinthians 6:9-11 (NRSV)

Paul was writing to a group of people who had been changed because of their encounter with God. But the problem was: They weren’t acting like it. They were still acting as if they’d never encountered God at all. They were living like they’d never had a life-changing experience with God.  Paul wrote these words to remind them of who they’d become.

Do you need to be reminded this morning?

Each year in our Glenwood family, we emphasize a different aspect of God’s character or of God’s calling to us. And for that entire year, we come back to that idea again and again. Before we decide which idea to emphasize, we spend a great deal of time in prayer, asking God to reveal to us what we need to hear. What part of God’s character do we need to be reminded of? What part of our Christian calling have we neglected? 

I believe every year that God answers those prayers. This year, after a lot of prayer and conversation, we’ve decided what we need most is to center our thoughts and minds…on God. Yes, that sounds so basic. But sometimes we make all of this so complicated and allow all of this to get us so busy that we forget the most important, basic part of our Christian walk.

The Christian life is all about encountering God. Being with God, leaning into God, being reminded who God is and who God has called us to be. So, this year, we will be speaking a lot about encountering God. 

Along with that emphasis comes a new benediction text. Last year, we emphasized the ways in which God’s Spirit forms us into new people. Each week, I read from Romans 12:

“So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.”

This year, our text I much shorter. Maybe that fits well. We are getting back to the simplicity of this life. Here it is, from Jeremiah 29:13

“When you search for Me, you will find Me; if you seek Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13 (NRSV)

This year I do not want you to forget this: Encounters with God will change you. If you want to be changed, all you have to do is seek God with all of your heart. God will do the rest.

I’ve become convinced of something over the years: One of the best ways to truly experience the love God has for you is to acknowledge how utterly helpless you are without God. One of the reasons so many of us have a difficult time feeling close to God, I think, has a lot to do with the ways in which we try to do life without God! “I can do this on my own.” “My life is all put together.” “My family is great; my marriage is wonderful; my kids are all honor roll students!” Smiles on our faces, masks fully in place!

If you want to truly experience God’s power in your life, if you want to truly experience God’s love for you, be honest about how utterly helpless you are without God. And be honest about how broken you are. Be honest about the messiness of your world! Because when you acknowledge your messiness, you also acknowledge your need for God! 

If there is one thing I hope and pray for us this year: I pray we can be more open and honest about our brokenness with each other. Not because I want us to spend our time together mourning our losses. But because I think we need to honest about our need for God! You need to know I am not perfect; I need to be honest about that with you. You need to be honest with me about your imperfections. And when you are honest with me, I will not judge you. I will not talk about you behind your back. I will not pity you! Instead, I will walk with you in my own brokenness.

Church, if we could be a people, a family, who openly discusses our brokenness and our desperate need for God, we would be a changed people! I really believe that!

I agree with Alister McGrath, the church historian, who once wrote:
“Christianity is not, and never has been, about finding the right combination of words! It is about encountering the living and loving God.”—Alister E. McGrath

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