A Brief Encounter

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A 'Brief Encounter' — Preached on Sunday 31st May 2015 by Revd Keith Underhill

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

Noel Coward's 1945 classic film Brief Encounter stars Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard; shot in atmospheric black and white, it tells the story of how, at a café on a railway station, housewife Laura Jesson meets doctor Alec Harvey.

Although they are both already married, they gradually fall in love with each other. They continue to meet every Thursday in the small café, although they know that their love is impossible. Eventually he gets a job abroad and they agree not to see each other again.

It may have been a brief encounter, in that it was relatively short — but what about the repercussions?

If we were able to eavesdrop on the lives and the conversations of Dr. Harvey and Mrs. Jesson and see how they were getting on some months or years down the line, would the ripples of that brief and short encounter still be moving ever outward, even though they had stopped seeing each other?

Every conversation we take part in, each encounter we have, marks us, changes us and makes a difference to us and to others.

There are repercussions from each and every encounter we experience.

So, long before Nicodemus (a Pharisee and a member of their ruling council the Sanhedrin), skulked along in the darkness of the shadows to meet Jesus at night.......

Long before Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink.....

Long before Jesus looked up into the tree and told Zacchaeus to come down and invited himself to his home for tea.........

Long before the pattern for Christian worship, services and liturgical order became accepted and set........

Long before John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed at a quarter to nine on 24th May 1738.........

In these familiar opening words from Isaiah chapter 6 the prophet shows us the importance, the ramifications and the on-going consequences of encounter; no matter how brief or short time-wise it may have been.

The prophet gives us the wonderfully atmospheric mind picture of being in God's presence — of being enveloped in His holiness.

It is almost as if in straining your ears, you can hear the wing-beats of the seraphs, and feel the breeze they cause washing over you; that if you sniff hard enough, you can smell the aroma of incense and if you open your eyes wide enough you see the glory and beauty of heaven itself!

Writing at a time of spiritual and moral decay, the prophet uses this image to speak of God's holiness, his purity and all that is good, un-tainted and not corrupted or spoilt by the things of this world.

Isaiah is drawn into this vision, into this scene and into this encounter with God himself. There in the midst of all that is going on, he loses himself and becomes fully engrossed and in awe of what is happening around him — at that stage all thoughts of himself and his world are temporarily suspended and lost as he is wrapped up, engulfed in the power, majesty, glory, might, splendour, holiness and praise.

He hears the seraphs calling to each other and praising God in worship as they say; Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is full of His glory". — Words that much, much later are to be heard resounding in our churches and Cathedrals through the use of the Sanctus in formal worship.

The voices of the Seraphs echoed, and the very fabric of that place shook and reverberated with praise and adoration and the temple was filled with smoke.

It was only then, as he found himself immersed in all that was going on, that Isaiah understood and became aware of the truth of who he was in contrast to all that was going on around him.

"Woe is me!" he cries out in despair and anguish. "I am ruined", he goes on to say — for "I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord almighty".

Likewise, for the woman at the well, for Zacchaeus, for John Wesley, for you and me, there comes that moment when an encounter with God, an encounter with all that is divine, brings us to a fuller and deeper realisation of who we are.

That encounter, however short or brief, becomes a reality check and a defining moment when we realise that we can kid ourselves no longer.

When the Samaritan woman (who Jesus finds at the well at the hottest time of the day) says to Him; "I have no husband", and to the rest of the village, "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did", she voices her own Isaiah experience, knowing that she can fool herself and others no longer and it is time to face up to the reality of what has been and what is.

Zacchaeus also has that Isaiah moment as there in the tree he both seeks Jesus out and hides from those around him.

He acknowledges what has been and what is when he seeks to make amends, to put right the wrong he was responsible for and make reparation. For in that moment when Jesus looked up to him, Zacchaeus knew who he was and what he had done.

In the midst of "Woe is me!" Isaiah, aware of his shortcomings and his failings receives not the punishment he feels he deserves, but rather, divine forgiveness.

His lips are touched with the burning coal taken from the altar — and in doing so he is cleansed, or to put it lyrically in the words of the hymns writer, Isaiah found himself, "ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven!'

The woman at the well, Zacchaeus, and the countless others who encountered Jesus, (whose stories we find in the Gospels),find in their moments of self-realisation and desire to change that they are no longer be bound and chained by what was and what is.

They are surprised when they receive forgiveness rather than punishment, welcome rather than rejection and understanding rather than indifference.

But of course that is not the end of the story — for Isaiah, for the woman at the well, for Zacchaeus or for any of us.

For Isaiah shows us, tells us and models us the good news that following that new beginning, that new chance and the new possibilities that come with it, there is the need to respond to what has been given and what has been received.

It is not enough simply to be thankful — for there is an imperative to respond and to do something.

Isaiah immediately responded to God's challenge when the Lord Almighty himself asks, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"

Without hesitation, second thought, or pause for breath Isaiah simply says, "Here I am, send me!"

The woman at the well responds by telling others and encouraging them to come and meet with Jesus, to have their own 'brief' encounter — the repercussions of which will continue to manifest themselves, long after that conversation with Jesus is over.

Zacchaeus, began a new life after his encounter with Jesus, one that promised to be honest and open, the opposite of that which he had lived to date and by which he had become known and identified.

Nicodemus (who fades out of John Chapter three as Jesus continues his teachings), crops up from time to time, 7:50-51

Then, of course, towards the end of John's Gospel, we see Nicodemus responding in chapter 19; Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

John Wesley — well we know only too well what happened next, the founding of the Methodist movement, the miles travelled, the sermons preached, the lives changed, the prisoners visited, the poor helped, personal piety and social action.

That same pattern that is so dramatically shown in our reading from Isaiah, that blueprint that he gives us, is lived out in these lives.

So as we ponder on these words today, the question for us is how do we respond to God as we encounter him now in this service?

As we with stuttering voices and faltering steps once more come into his presence; as we offer him our adoration and praise in this time of worship; as we feel his touch upon us and his arms around us, as we find ourselves lifted up above the ordinary and everyday and as we find ourselves, ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven, what is our response?

What does it mean, what would it mean, for us like Isaiah to say to God, "Here I am, send me!"

Send me, use me to............. (you will need to fill in the rest!

Is God asking us to offer ourselves for a particular task, role or job? Is it to be a Local Preacher, or a Church Steward, or to help with Lighthouse, or Girls' Brigade or Boys' Brigade? Or is it that God is asking you to say "Here I am" for something outside of this building, on the other side of the doors?

Being asked to respond in a way that enables you to be a conduit of God's encounter to those who are yet to know, yet to meet, yet to experience, that which Isaiah points us to?

One thing's for sure:
each encounter that we have with our living God changes us,
each encounter that we have with our living God makes us different,
each encounter that we have with our living God enables us to grow,
and each encounter that we have with our living God needs to illicit a response from us?
What is our response to God this day?

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