May 30, 2021

"Mysterious Encounters"

Pastor Scott Landis

Isaiah 6:1-8 & John 3:1-17

I invite you today into a time of personal reflection. Here’s how. I’d like you to think of a time in your life when you felt particularly close to God – when you sensed God’s presence in a very powerful way. You may have to think about that one for a while. And if you spend the rest of my sermon time doing just that and not listening to me – it will very likely be time well spent.

If a moment DOES come to mind, maybe it’s an experience you’ve never never told anyone else about. Maybe you felt no one would believe you – or the moment was so sacred that you wanted to keep it solely to yourself.

Maybe you don’t believe you’ve ever had such a moment. Those are for other – more “holy folks.” Or, perhaps you just never recognized the presence of God – who may have tried to reveal God’s Self to you in a most unusual way. [Pause]

Several years ago, a parishioner gave me a copy of William Young’s novel, The Shack. Generally, not my kind of book, I have to admit this book, and subsequent movie based on the novel, opened my eyes to some very interesting possibilities – possibilities I was reminded of, once again, as I prepared for today – Trinity Sunday. Even though I was a little uncomfortable with some of its theology – like their rather specific, concrete ideas of how heaven and the afterlife were depicted in the movie, I found the portrayal of the Trinity – fascinating.

God, in The Shack, is depicted as joy-filled, middle-aged, African American woman who loves to cook and entertain. A partier, she loves to sing and dance and generally have a good time. She exudes constant love which does not need to be earned NOR accepted. It just keeps flowing and never ceases. Jesus is the more typical good-looking carpenter whose eyes are piercing and whose patience is astounding, while the Spirit is wispy, ethereal, and free.

In The Shack, Mackenzie Phillips – the main character – had an encounter (after the very traumatic death of his young daughter) with this all-loving God who reminds him that she has already forgiven him – even though what happened was not his fault. God’s forgiveness cannot be earned. All Mack needs to do is accept it and never question its origin. Sounds easy, but guilt is a very powerful force in our lives which Mack Phillips knows all too well.

Among other things, the writer and director of The Shack wanted us to think about the presence of God in new and unexpected ways – and they only pale in comparison to what the Bible portrays. [Pause]

Think about the stories we read today. They describe mysterious encounters with Holy Presence. While very different – both elicit powerful and dramatic effects on the lives they touch.

The call story of Isaiah is particularly noteworthy. Isaiah was visited by God at a time that was traumatic as the region was dominated by Assyrian and subsequent Babylonian occupation. They were not a free people. Life was not easy by any means. The leadership was corrupt. King Uzziah had just died. It was then that God appeared sitting on a throne with six-winged seraphim in attendance surrounding. Isaiah was overwhelmed at the Presence of God as the seraphim cry out,

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts;
The whole earth is full God’s glory.

It gets worse. The doorjambs begin to shake at the sound of the voices and the whole house was filled with smoke. It’s the stuff of science-fiction movies – and Isaiah is understandably scared to death as he exclaims,

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.

It’s then that the one of the seraphs approach him with a hot coal from the altar, they touch his lips and declare that he is clean after which he accepts the call of God and agrees to speak on God’s behalf. Quite an encounter! If Isaiah were sitting here today – suffice it to say, he would have no trouble coming up with his recollection of personal experience with God. [Pause]

The New Testament takes a much more subtle approach as Nicodemus, a Pharisee (a learned Jewish scholar) came to Jesus, by night, as he tried and ascertain for himself whether Jesus was the Messiah. Rumors had been circulating that he claimed to be from God, and Nicodemus was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the conversation that ensued left him more puzzled than convinced.

Even though Jesus reminded him that he was loved by God, that he was forgiven – like Mackenzie Phillips – this was very difficult to accept. As translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message,

God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending Jesus to point an accusing finger,
telling the world how bad it was.
No! God sent Jesus to help put the world right again. [Pause]

Are you catching a theme here? Whether it’s Isaiah, or Nicodemus, or Mackenzie Phillips, or you or me – each mysterious encounter seems to underscore a critical promise of God – reassurance that we are not alone – that God is with us – and God will see us through. Whether our need is comfort, or grace, forgiveness, or peace – our God will show up and visit us to reassure us with whatever we need because God is by our side. [Pause]

We enjoy the most fascinating discussions in our Wednesday Zoom Room chats. If you haven’t given it a try, join us next week. This past week I asked those gathered about some of their “mysterious encounters” and I received some very interesting responses. One spoke of God showing up as an older Hawaiian woman who brought much needed comfort – a visitation that no one else saw. Another told of sensing God in her grandmother’s perfume – the aroma of which she distinctly smelled when she visited her grave. Still another spoke of a profound sense of Holy Presence following two family deaths.

It's important to talk story about these encounters with one another – not to flaunt any special or closer connection to God, but to help others realize that God continues to show up in our lives – and quite often does so when we most need to sense God’s presence.

I want to share with you a story of how this happened to me. It’s a story about how God showed up powerfully in my life when I really needed to sense God’s comforting presence.

It happened following the death of my former partner. Brennen and I were only together a little over 5 years when he died very suddenly of acute leukemia. He talked constantly of one day making a trip to Hawai`i for vacation. Neither one of us had ever been here – only seen pictures and heard many stories from friends who assured us it was well worth the trip.

Not long after Brennen died, some of these friends invited me to travel with them to Kaua`i. The minute I got off the plane, received my first lei, and began the short drive to Poipu I felt like I had come home. Astounded at the beauty, the warmth, and the aroma, I had to pinch myself to determine whether I was in a dream. In a way – I was.

Shortly after we arrived at the house where we were staying, I made my way over to the beach. It was one of those lovely days – sunny with a few small rain clouds passing overheard – every now and then a light sprinkle followed by a rainbow or two – you know, Hawai`i.

As I gazed skyward, astounded at all the beauty, I was suddenly filled with surprisingly intense amount of grief and an equally strong feeling of anger toward God. I realized this arose as I missed Brennen and was really mad at the fact that he never got to receive this beautiful gift he wanted so badly. So, I did what I do when I need to work out frustration. I cried, and I prayed, and I felt sorry for myself, and then decided to go for a swim. I swam out into the cove and marveled at all the beautiful fish, coral, and crystal-clear water. I felt like I was swimming in a salt water fish tank – the kind I would see in Doctor’s office back on the continent.

Still sad, I swam further hoping stroke after stroke would relieve my anger and sorrow. Soon I noticed a huge sea turtle beneath me – something I had never seen before in my life. Initially frighted, I quickly relaxed as I noticed its gentleness, its peacefulness, and its seeming invitation to follow. Intrigued, I continued to swim with him. We swam for some distance and, for some unexplainable reason, I felt an incredible connection to this new friend. And then it dawned on me – and you may think I’m crazy – but I wondered whether this might be Brennen. And so, I asked, (as best you can when underwater) are you Brennen? At that point, the turtle turned his head and looked up at me – and just like that – swam away.

Was it Brennen? Was it God? Or was it both? I don’t know. What I do know is I felt an unbelievable sense of comfort in that moment – and I still get chicken skin when I tell you this story today.

Friends, God is showing up all around us. There are mysterious encounters occurring in our lives each day. It’s God’s way of reminding us – we are not alone. God is always the great Emmanuel.

Isaiah realized that as he prophesied to those in who needed to hear a word from God. Nicodemus realized that as he was the one to purchase the expensive perfumes to embalm Jesus’ body. Mackenzie Phillips realized that as he told his story to anyone who would listen.

Open your eyes, clean out your ears, notice the aromas, feel the vibrations. God’s mysterious encounters can happen at any time – sometimes even in the smile of a turtle.

Mahalo ke Akua – Thanks be to God,


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