02/22/23 (Ash Wednesday) “Close Encounters”

Joel 2:1-2, 2-17; Psalm 51:1-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

I’ve been preparing for Lent for a while now. As I looked ahead to the lectionary passages, I realized that each week includes a story about someone’s encounter with Jesus. As I was thinking about that, the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” popped into my mind. I’m not sure I actually ever saw that movie, but I got to wondering—what exactly is a “close encounter of the third kind”? I discovered that a “close encounter” is a term used in ufology—the study of UFOs. A close encounter is an event in which a person witnesses an unidentified flying object.

In 1972, astronomer and UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek wrote a book in which he introduced a system of classifications for encounters with UFOs. A close encounter of the first kind is a visual sighting of a UFO from less than 500 feet away. In a close encounter of the second kind, there’s some kind of physical effect—like things malfunctioning, animals reacting, a physiological reaction in a witness, or some physical trace like impressions in the ground or scorched vegetation. A close encounter of the third kind involves actual contact between a human being and some kind of living extraterrestrial being.

I got to thinking that Hynek’s classifications could be applied to our encounters with Jesus as well. Lent is a good time for us to think about whether our encounters with Jesus are ones of the first kind, or the second kind, or the third kind. And, no matter what kind of encounter we’re having with Jesus, Lent is a good time to take steps towards having a closer one.

First, we have to ask ourselves, what kind of encounter are we currently having with Jesus? Are you having a close encounter of the first kind? You see Jesus, but from a distance. You read his words in Scripture. You try to follow his commandments. You’ve been taught that he loves you. You’ve been told that he died to save you. But he seems like a more-than-500-feet-away God—a God you can believe exists but who doesn’t feel very close. You know about him, but there’s no real contact, no real connection.

Or, are you having a close encounter of the second kind? Your encounters with Jesus leave traces on your life. Your vision is changed. As Paul says, you no longer see others from a human point of view. Your heart is softened with compassion for others and hardened against injustice. Your faith in him strengthens you in the midst of trouble. Your encounter with Jesus may make a visible impression on you; people can tell that you are a Christian because they see the evidence Jesus leaves behind. But all these changes are a result of what you’ve seen and heard and learned about him. There still isn’t a personal connection.

But then there’s the close encounter of the third kind. You feel Jesus’ presence in your heart. His Spirit testifies to your spirit. You take Communion and truly feel fed by him. You pray without ceasing—not as a chore but because there’s nothing more pleasant than talking with Jesus. You feel as though he’s working, studying, or playing by your side. You go to sleep knowing he is watching over you, and you wake up knowing he is there to say good morning. You sit in a waiting room, or a hospital room, or beside a hospice bed, and you feel him holding your hand. Your heart is joyful, and you know he’s celebrating with you. Your heart is breaking, and you know he feels your pain. Jesus is the friend who is with you every moment.

There are so many things that keep us from having an encounter of the third kind with Jesus. We can get stuck in a first-kind encounter, where we see him, but only from a distance. We may have been brought up with the idea of a stern, judgmental God, who sits on a heavenly throne just waiting for us to mess up. Or, maybe we learned that God is so holy, so majestic, and we are so small, that we don’t feel it’s appropriate to get too close to God, or allow God to get too close to us.

Our sin can stand in our way. Guilt over the actions we know to be sinful can make us feel unworthy of God’s closeness. But, there are also things in our lives that we don’t label as sin but do separate us from God—misplaced priorities, the pressures of daily life, anger at God for a tragedy or loss.

We can get stuck at the second-kind of encounter with Jesus. Ironically, it may be all the good things we do for him that keep us there. We do all the things that we believe he will approve of. We serve. We participate in worship. We pray and study. We even encourage others to come to church with us. The things that we do are satisfying—to us and, we assume, to Jesus. All the things we do make us feel like we’re as close as we need to get. We don’t feel a desire to be closer. We may not even believe we can be closer.

But, the good news is that we can always grow closer to God through our faith in Jesus. Even when we are stuck in our first- or second-kind encounters with God, God wants a close encounter of the third kind with us. God proved it by coming to us in Jesus. The whole point of the incarnation was to make it possible for us to have a closer relationship with God through our relationship with Jesus. The whole point of the gift of the Holy Spirit is to make it possible for our relationship with Jesus to continue and grow. God is never as far away as we might think and wants a relationship with us, if only we would seek it. As Paul said, “God desires that we would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed God is not far from each of us.”

If we desire a closer encounter with God, we can find some help in our Scripture passages for tonight, as we begin this season of Lent. The process begins with repentance—the acknowledgement of our sin and the commitment to move in a different direction. If there was ever a person with a reason to feel he couldn’t come close to God, it was King David when he prayed the prayer in our psalm—the prayer we prayed together. He prayed this prayer after he had kidnapped and assaulted Bathsheba, made her pregnant, arranged a cover-up and then, when that didn’t work, murdered her husband and took her as his own wife. And yet, he comes to God in prayer asking for mercy, asking for a new start. If God accepted David’s repentance, we can trust that God will accept ours. That trust alone leads us into a closer encounter with God.

The passage from Joel, which was our Call to Worship, reminds us that our faith is always personal but never private. Joel doesn’t speak to individuals. He calls us as a community to return God. Our relationship with God is lived out within our relationship with others. When we invite others to help hold us accountable for the changes we wish to make in our lives, we are strengthened and supported. Just as UFO reports are more believable when more than one person experiences them, our faith is made more concrete when it is shared. As we tell our faith story to someone else, they may help us see where God is acting when we can’t see it for ourselves. They help us to see more of God’s action in our lives, and this draws us closer, to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jesus’ words in Matthew are very practical. We typically hear in his words a scolding of the ones he calls hypocrites and a warning not be like them. That seems clear enough. We certainly don’t think of ourselves as hypocrites. But, when Jesus speaks of hypocrites, he doesn’t use that word in the same way we do. Matthew’s Greek word for hypocrite simply means an actor—someone who is wearing a mask. The things that we do for Jesus can be masks for us when we don’t truly know Jesus. IN our close encounters of the second kind, where our encounter with him exists only on the surface, what we do can become the mask that we wear, identifying us as Christians to those who see us, but covering a lack of a relationship with Jesus.

What Jesus looks for instead is an authentic expression of our faith. He’s looking for actions that are a reflection of our relationship with him, not a substitute for it. He’s looking for expressions of our faith that are as at home in a quiet corner or in an anonymous gift or in solitary devotion as they are in community with others. When we are able to do the work of faith without regard for how others will see us, and do them simply out of the joy of pleasing Jesus, knowing that he is with is as we do, we grow closer to him.

Lent is a time set aside by the Church to give us the opportunity to transform repentance, community, and devotional practices into a closer encounter with Jesus. Tonight, we will receive ashes that remind us of our need for repentance. We will share Communion, reminding us that we are in this together, and that Jesus is present with us by the power of the Holy Spirit in the bread and wine. Perhaps a new devotional practice that you take on in the coming weeks will draw you closer to Jesus. In this Lenten season, may our encounters with Jesus of the first and second kind be transformed into close encounters of the third kind, as we experience his real presence with us always. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young