Encountering Jesus

Philippians 2:5-8

There is one constant in the Gospels. Nobody walked away from an encounter with Jesus unchanged. Whether it was the Pharisee Nicodemus or Lazarus his friend he raised from the dead, the Samaritan woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus the rich tax collector or blind Bartimaeus, the woman with the flow of blood or the widow whose son’s funeral he halted, Jairus the grieving father or the man who was possessed by a legion of demons. The list fills the pages of the Gospels and every one of them walked away a changed person. Even those who opposed him were changed. Some walked away convinced that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, others walked away convinced he was too dangerous to be allowed to live. Nobody walked away still sitting on the fence.

I’m going to spend the next few weeks telling you stories of those men and women and how their lives were changed forever. And then I’m going to give some of you a chance to tell your story. Every one of you has one. You have encountered Jesus and he has changed you in some way. And I want you to share with us how Jesus has touched your life. And I want all of us to hear how God is still at work changing lives today.

If you were actually to have been one of those individuals that met Jesus in person, what do you suppose that would have been like? I think sometimes we picture Jesus like those renaissance paintings which show Jesus with an other-worldly, faraway look on his face, and a halo glowing around his head. Some of the movies I’ve seen have depicted Jesus as out of touch and unapproachable, aloof and emotionally disconnected. And if that’s your picture of Jesus, we’re thinking of two different people. Because the Jesus I read about in my Bible was someone everybody could relate to. He told stories and ate with his friends. In fact, in the eyes of his enemies, that was a credibility destroying contradiction, that he ate and drank with sinners. The holiest one who ever lived surrounded himself with the most unlikely of followers. They were drawn to him because he treated them with compassion and respect.

And Jesus treated people in ways that were unexpected. Paul described Jesus in this way: Jesus, …being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil 2:6-8)

He came as a humble servant who lived the life of a common man, a carpenter, who not only built furniture but put lives back together.

In a college class I took years ago under Lynn Anderson, Lynn introduced us to a memorable picture of Jesus as a servant. He described Jesus with four words: “available, helpful, sensitive and creative.” Each of those words captured a particular aspect of the way Jesus dealt with people.

Leadership tends to insulate us from people. As responsibilities and demands on our time increase, we become less and less available to people around us and under us. Just try getting through to Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of FedEx. I lived for eight years in the same city as Fred, but we never went out to lunch together. We never bumped into each other at the grocery store. In fact, I went to church with people who had worked at FedEx for twenty years who had never met Fred. From all I have ever heard, Fred is a wonderful, caring man. But he is unavailable except to a very few subordinates who protect his time from the millions of details of running a major corporation.

Yet Jesus, the creator of the universe, allowed a woman with a hemorrhage to delay him from an urgent mission. He stopped for a blind man and asked him what he could do for him. He went to lunch at the home of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. When his disciples attempted to protect his time, he scolded them and told them to let the group of children come to him. His availability made him accessible to anybody with needs. He responded to what might appear to be the most trivial of requests from the most insignificant of people. But what we learn from Jesus is that people did not get in the way of his mission, they were his mission. People mattered to Jesus. All people. And we see it in his availability to everyone from the very important Nicodemus to the very unimportant Samaritan woman at the well. And he treated them all with the same loving compassion.

Jesus went beyond being available. He was sensitive to what the needs of people were. He didn’t always wait for them to come to him, he often went to them. He anticipated their needs, and saw beyond their felt needs to their real needs. When the woman at the well balked at giving him a cup of water, he offered her living water for which she would never have to come to the well to draw. When the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda complained about not being able to get into the water for healing, Jesus offered him real healing. When the adulterous woman was dragged before him, he not only saved her from stoning but offered her genuine forgiveness. When the prostitute intruded on the dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house, Jesus treated her with compassion and respect.

In our attempts to be efficient, we often lose sight of the humanity and individuality of the people we help. They become clients or prospects or projects. We forget to see that their needs come out of real hurts and that regardless of their hardness and selfish demands they are struggling with an enemy that many times we cannot see or fully appreciate. Jesus was sensitive to people where they were at. When the Syro-Phoenician woman persisted in her request for Jesus’ help, he responded with genuine delight that her faith was so strong and healed her daughter. When the Roman Centurion asked him to heal his servant and Jesus said, “Go, he is healed,” the Centurion turned around and went home believing his servant would be well when he arrived, and Jesus said, “I wish my people had that kind of faith.”

He was genuinely helpful to people. His purpose wasn’t simply to speak about God’s love for people, it was to demonstrate it. And he did that in tangible ways that affected the lives of real people. When he interacted with people, they always went away changed by the experience.

And his help was creative in the way it dealt with people’s needs. There was no cookie cutter approach to Jesus’ response to people. He responded to needs in ways that were amazing in their flexibility and insight. When Nicodemus showed up at night, he didn’t turn him away and tell him to come back during office hours. When the thief on the cross appealed to his mercy, he didn’t turn him away by saying “I’ve got my own problems to deal with.” There were times that all it took was a word from afar to heal a person, but at other times it required his personal touch. One blind man was healed by simply a word, while another required a mud salve to restore his sight. Jesus touched lepers and ate with sinners and guided fishermen and stopped funerals and turned water into wine at a wedding. Every need was an opportunity to bring the power and wisdom of God to bear on the life of someone who desperately needed a Savior.

And he calls us to an ongoing commitment to be available and sensitive and creatively helpful in the lives of people that we meet. When Paul wrote that “we live no longer for ourselves, but for him who for our sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15), he was enlisting us as representatives in the lives of the people who still need that same Savior to touch their lives.

I am convinced that what people need more than anything is to personally encounter Jesus. Yes, they need to come to church, but they need to come to church to encounter Jesus. Yes, they need to quit sinning, but only by encountering Jesus will that ever become a possibility. Yes, they need to be more loving, but only by meeting Jesus will they ever know what love really looks like.

When Jesus was in Jerusalem for the last Passover, a group of Greeks came seeking him out, and when they found Philip they asked, “Let us see Jesus.” If there is one thing that will change the course of a person’s life it will be when they meet Jesus and begin to walk with him daily. Until then, all the church attendance, all the best intentions, all of the religious activity in the world won’t change their life.

As long as Jesus remains a mythical figure in an ancient fairy tale, a theological idea of god become man - even if he remains an historical figure who lived, died and rose again, but distant and disconnected, then we will never experience the one-on-one, face-to-face, life-changing transformation that comes with that personal encounter with our Savior.

And I don’t say that in a mystical, mysterious way – that you will have a vision or hear a voice, but that Jesus becomes real in your life. All of those third person stories of Jesus touching, healing, raising, speaking, loving, become your story. He is no longer the impersonal figure from way back then, but a personal companion here and now.

And that encounter is not intended just to enrich your life but to transform it. In that passage we read a few minutes ago from Philippians 2 in which Paul described Jesus emptying himself and becoming a servant, he began the passage by saying, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” You aren’t just supposed to be inspired by Jesus, but to become like Jesus.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some of those stories of people who encountered Jesus up-close and personal and whose lives were forever changed. And then I’m going to ask some of you to share your encounters with Jesus – that moment when he became real to you – when your life was changed because he didn’t just die for the sins of the world, but for you, when you experienced his presence in a storm you were going through, when you had given up hope and he opened the door. I want you to have the opportunity to share your story – your encounter with Jesus.