Every experience in life changes us. Every person we meet impacts us.
As much as we like things to stay the same, everything is always changing around us. As much as there are moments where we wish time would stop, the world keeps spinning and life goes on.
There are moments, however, that completely alter the courses of our lives. There are people who forever change the way we are and how we live. These moments, these relationships stay with us for the remainder of our lives and help to define who we are.
As we’ve been talking about Advent for the past couple of weeks we spent time talking about the promise of the Messiah through prophecy and the preparation we undergo in order to not only celebrate the season, but to prepare the way for Jesus’ second coming. This morning we want to take a few moments and gain a better understanding of what happens to us when we finally encounter God.
I daresay that most of us in this room have encountered God in an incredibly powerful way. Whether it was in a prayer room in Brazil, at a Youth Camp, or simply on a random Tuesday, most of us have had an intense moment where we experienced God in a life-changing, paradigm-shifting way. As we open scripture this morning, we’re going to see that encounters with God are never ordinary, nor do they allow us to ever stay the same. When we encounter God, we leave changed.
Throughout scripture, whenever someone had an encounter with God, something significant happened. Many of them had their names changed as a result because they became someone different than they were.
Abram became Abraham because he would be the Father of many. Jacob became Israel because he struggled with God and (as Jacob put it) had seen God face to face. Simon became Peter, one of many stones upon which Jesus built the church.
When we encounter God, we are changed. We’re going to look at several encounters that people had with God and their subsequent changes.
A moment ago I referenced Jacob. He would become the Father to the 12 tribes of Israel. In fact, his name was changed to Israel because he encountered God. The story goes that the night before Jacob was to meet with his estranged brother Esau he sent his wives and children across the Jabbok River and stayed alone by himself contending with God in prayer. A being showed up on the scene and the two wrestled through the night with neither able to overpower the other. When the being saw that Jacob was not going to give in, he “touched his hip socket” and dislocated Jacob’s hip. Jacob still refused to give in until he received a blessing.
Because Jacob wrestled with God his name was changed to Israel and he became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. But something else happened. Jacob did not leave this encounter unchanged. Not only was his name different, but for the rest of his life he walked with a limp. His hip never healed completely. Hebrews 11 says that even in his old age he was leaning on his staff, unable to walk correctly because of his injury. When we encounter God we never leave unchanged.
I love how this night started for Jacob. He was striving with God. Scripture says Jacob actually wrestled with God. We don’t necessarily physically wrestle with God today, but have you ever heard of anyone striving with God or contending with God in prayer? We can do that. When I think of striving, I picture agony. I think about a real struggle, pleading with God over a particular situation or person. How often do we strive with God? How often are we on our knees before the throne of God pleading our case? We usually throw up a prayer or two and then move on, never getting to the real meat of the relationship. Jacob wrestled with God all night long and it left him crippled and with a new name. He was changed. Could it be perhaps that we don’t want to be changed? Could it be that we don’t want to face the struggle?
The children of Israel have been set free from Egypt. They have crossed the Red Sea and are wandering in the desert. The Lord has given them the Ten Commandments and he continues to meet with Moses, his spokesperson to the people. Whenever Moses meets with God, though, something interesting takes place.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying with him the tablets that God had written on. Scripture says, though, that he did not know that his face shone. In fact, Aaron and all the people were afraid to come near him because he face was shining. After this, every time Moses returned from meeting with God, he would put a veil over his head so he wouldn’t look so bizarre to the people.
Whenever Moses met with God his face shone. You see, we don’t wear off on God, he wears off on us. Some of God’s glory wore off on Moses so that whenever he left the presence of God, some of God remained on him. We never change God. He changes us. It’s possible that the reason for striving with God, then, is not that we might change his mind, but that he might change ours. It’s possible that our whole reason for meeting with God is that we might be confronted by his glory and fall flat on our faces. God wants to change us. God wants us to reflect him, to look like him.
This is the setting just before the battle of Jericho, when the Israelites finally come to the place they’re going to stay. Moses has died and has left Joshua in charge of the Israelites and their army. Joshua is left with the task of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land.
One night Joshua was near the city of Jericho and looked up at it, probably wondering how they were ever going to overtake it, when a man appeared next to him holding a drawn sword. When Joshua questioned him about who he was, the man revealed himself to be the commander of the army of the Lord. At this, Joshua “fell on his face to the earth and worshipped.” This wasn’t even God, but because he was sent from God, Joshua worshipped. Our response to God is always adoration.
This encounter didn’t leave Joshua the same, either. Indeed, through this meeting, Joshua received the plan of attack for Jericho and the Israelite army overthrew their first city in the conquest of Canaan. Joshua became the leader he was afraid of being. God saw to it that he was prepared. God saw to it that Joshua would succeed.
We’ve looked at three men in the Old Testament; now let’s turn to a couple in the New.
We all know the story of the Apostle Paul. In fact, we talked about it just a few weeks ago. He was a Pharisee and a zealot. He persecuted followers of The Way because he thought they were blaspheming the name of God. He even had some of Jesus’ followers killed and he stood by while Stephen was stoned to death. On the road to Damascus, however, he had a life-changing experience. The resurrected Jesus appeared to him and he fell to the ground blind. This wasn’t so much a warm, fuzzy God encounter as it was a holy confrontation. Have you ever been confronted by God for something that shouldn’t be in your life? It’s not a pleasant experience. When Jesus gets in your face about something that shouldn’t be a part of your life it doesn’t make you feel good, but it does changes you, which is the point anyway.
So Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus and not only did his name get changed to Paul, but he became one of the most zealous and passionate followers of Jesus the world has ever seen, starting churches all over the region of Asia Minor and whose influence has spread over 2,000 years even to this day because half of the New Testament was written by him. When we come face-to-face with God we can’t remain who we are, something changes. In some cases, we take an entirely different path than we would have before.
That’s not to say that our interests change. Paul was still a zealot; he was simply a zealot with an opposite message to what he was preaching before. He was still passionate, he just developed another passion. People who encounter Jesus don’t magically become preachers and church leaders. Instead, they use the gifts and talents they already have just to accomplish something great for the Kingdom. Teachers don’t necessarily change professions. They still love their kids; they just see them in a different light and want to serve them and their families. Doctors and nurses don’t quit their jobs, they still love what they do, but instead of doing it because it pays well, they do it because it saves people’s lives. They use their abilities to serve people who perhaps couldn’t afford medical care. Athletes don’t quit their sports; they just adjust their thinking so that the people with whom they come in contact know where their true loyalty lies, not in a team or a city, but in a King and a Kingdom.
John wrote the book of Revelation based on a vision the Lord gave him of the end times. In his writing he reveals how he encountered Jesus. He says that while on the Island of Patmos he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” and he heard a voice behind him. When he turned to find the source of the voice, he encountered the resurrected Jesus in all his glory. Now, we only know of two people in the history of the world who have seen the resurrected Jesus. This was not Jesus as he was when he lived on earth, but the Jesus who will one day return in all his glory. Saul fell down in the middle of the road blind. John says that when he saw Jesus, he fell down as if he were dead.
I think that we often don’t take our worship seriously. We come and we expect to sing songs. We want to hear good music. We like to be entertained. If we know the words and we feel like it we may even sing along a bit, but we aren’t always ready to worship. When people in the Bible encountered God, they were changed. I don’t know if we expect to be changed when we worship. I’m not sure that we’re prepared to be changed when we pray. We have the Lord of all Creation available to us in prayer every moment of every day and we often only call upon him at meal times and when we’re faces difficulty. We have the very Spirit of God living within us to guide us through the moments that make up our lives and we don’t avail ourselves of his wisdom.
When we truly encounter God a couple of things happen. First of all, we are drawn into worship. You cannot encounter God without being overwhelmed by his holiness and wanting nothing more than to spend every breath in his presence. An encounter with God inspires adoration and rejoicing. That’s why we sing songs when we come together corporately. That’s why we are inspired to talk about Jesus to those with whom we come in contact. That’s why we do what we do here. We hope to bring you to a place where you recognize both the holiness and the grace of Jesus and want nothing more than to know him better. We hope that’s what you see when you come here. I hope that’s what others see when they look at you.
The second thing that happens when you encounter God is that you are changed. His desires become your desires. His plans become your plans. What you thought you wanted before becomes unimportant and the only things that matter are his desires and goals. The reason you used to go to work doesn’t matter anymore; you recognize why you’re here and what your job is. When you encounter God nothing remains the same.
Two more passages we’re going to look at: Luke 2:13-14 and Matthew 2:1-12. These two passages tie this whole thing back to Advent, to Christmas, the thing for which we’re longing with anticipation. The first deals with praise and worship. At the birth of Jesus, the angels in heaven came to inform the shepherds about what had happened. Their joy was so immense, they couldn’t contain themselves and the skies were filled with choirs of angels singing praises to God. The angels themselves were unable to contain their joy at the birth of Jesus. Why would we think we could contain our joy? Instead, with reckless abandon, let us give ourselves over completely to the worship of our King. King David, when facing the triumph of bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem stripped down to his undergarment and danced before the processional “with all his might.” He wasn’t concerned with his own dignity, but instead with the glory of God.
The second passage is about humility and change. Matthew speaks of magi or wise men that came to Jerusalem from the east. They were astronomers or astrologers, fortune tellers or mystics who looked for signs and prophecies of things to come. They saw a star in the sky and believed its coming foretold of one of great power and authority who deserved honor and worship. They didn’t know who it was that was born, just that he was someone special. They hurried to find the place where he lived so they might worship him. These were grown men of stature. They were known and well thought of themselves, but they came to a child. They bowed before him and presented him kingly gifts. In their humility they recognized his worth.
Encountering God changes us. It brings us to a place of worship. It brings us to a place of humility. It causes us to do things differently than we’ve done them before. An encounter with God makes our lives completely different. We don’t look the same as we did before. We don’t act the same way. We don’t think the same things. An encounter with God always makes more of him and less of us.
As we come into a time of worship this morning my prayer for you is that you will truly seek the face of God. Knowing what it will do to you, my prayer is that you would be forever changed in light of him. My prayer is that your desires would become more like his and your actions become more like what he would do. As you come to this Christmas, I pray that you would seek the one who came to bring new life and new hope to the world. You would recognize his greatness and you would fall on your face before him in worship. I pray that this Christmas would leave you forever changed.
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May his face smile down upon you. May your life be renewed and your passion for his name restored. May this be the moment when you encounter him.