July 20, 2014
We just read about Jacob waking from his dream and exclaiming, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Whether from sleep or spiritual stupor, have you ever awakened to discover God was right there with you?”
The last night of a high school mission trip our evening activity was small groups performing brief skits to represent the week. The first one was funny, and without planning, each one was more serious than the previous. The last group reenacted Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and then washed the feet of the whole group. In the quiet that persisted when they were done, one of the guys who projected an “I’m too cool for youth group” attitude and didn’t come often said, “Oh wow! God really is here!”
Close to death and knowing that the covenant promise would be fulfilled through Jacob, Isaac blessed him and sent him to Rebekah’s brother Laban to get a wife from the clan. Esau was planning to kill Jacob when Isaac died. With his mother’s help, Jacob not only obeyed his father’s wishes, but fled for his life from his brother. Seemingly by chance, Jacob came to a certain specific place where he dreamed of a stairway to heaven and woke to the realization the Lord was in this awesome place.
Just like Jacob, on your journey, God is beside you in every place whether you are awake to know it or not.
Do you have some personal sacred spaces you go to where you expect God to meet you?
Ancient Celtic Christians spoke of “thin places” where this world and eternity were so close together you could hear or see from one to the other. Dawn and dusk, when it is neither day nor night, are such holy times every day. The Benedictine hours of Lauds to start the day with praise and Vespers to end the day with prayer reflect this rhythm. Sacred spaces may be adorned with symbols of previous encounters with God, such as this church’s cross walls and the Good Shepherd window in the chapel.
Jacob apparently accidently stumbled into a place that was already recognized as a sanctuary, perhaps a solitary rocky peak. He unwittingly takes a stone for a pillow, which was sometimes done by those desiring an oracle from God. The “ladder” may have been like a stairway up the side of a Mesopotamian ziggurat that Abraham would have been familiar with from Ur. That would have symbolized a sacred connection between earth and heaven. Unlike pagan ziggurats, such as the Tower of Babel that were human efforts to climb to heaven, Jacob’s ladder was God coming to earth to visit a human.
The Elders did some thinking about what makes a sacred space when talking about renovating Fellowship Hall, which had once been this church’s sanctuary, to become a worship center without losing its multi-functionality. The stained glass windows were obviously critical. The arches are being played up for a sacred focus on the chancel. Some of a place’s sacredness comes from the celebration of important events such as baptisms, weddings, funerals and holy days such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. After Jacob’s encounter with God, Bethel continued to be an important sacred place for Israel until the destruction of the Northern Kingdom over 1,000 years later.
Jacob’s journey to a relationship with God poses a haunting question for us. Has your journey taken you from believing in God to an intimate relationship with God?
Several times in the 13 months I’ve been with you, I’ve quoted Father Thomas Hopko, retired Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He told the students preparing for ministry that his mother’s advice applied to them: if you want to grow as a Christian, read your Bible, say your prayers and go to church. These are at the core of all the spiritual disciples of every Christian tradition from every time of Church history. And sometimes as we sleepwalk through them, we wake up and discover that God is standing beside us and we did not know it. We feel the awe of being in the dwelling of God at the very gate of heaven.
When Jacob deceived his father Isaac into giving him the covenant blessing, thinking he was Esau returned quickly from the hunt, Isaac asked how he had been so fast. Jacob answered, “The Lord your God granted me success.” (Genesis 27:20) But now, after being personally encountered by God, Jacob said, “The Lord shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:21) As we shall see in the next two Sundays, God had a long-term plan for reshaping Jacob, but he was a changed man after being encountered by God at Bethel. His journey took a new, though not easy, direction.
Our faith often consists of theological convictions and religious practices. Those are important and can bring us to a sacred space or time when we awaken and discover that God has been beside us all along. Then, like Jacob, our journeys take a new turn toward an intimate relationship with God who is beside us in every place whether we are awake to know it or not. Among everything else, our spiritual disciplines and religious practices are transformed. We get a great picture of this from Brother Lawrence (1614-1691) whose book The Practice of the Presence of God records his spiritual insights while working in the kitchen in the Carmelite Priory in Paris. While the better educated monks did the “important” work of study, meditation, prayer and ministry, he washed pots and pans, and in his later years made sandals. He did recognize that his work enabled the other monks to engage in monastic disciplines from which he was excluded. We have no record of the insights of the higher monks, but we have his little book that records his friendship with Jesus who stood beside him in the kitchen.
What hints and clues let you know that Jesus is standing beside you?
I love one episode in C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, from The Chronicles of Narnia. The Dawn Treader is the ship sailing to the edge of the world with the children who have come to Narnia from England. They arrive at the island of the Duffle Puds, invisible creatures who make a loud thumping noise as they move around. They want to become visible again, and Lucy agrees to go into the magician’s house to find the book of spells and discover and speak the spell for making the invisible, visible. With some trepidation, Lucy searches the house, locates the book, finds the spell and reads it aloud. She can’t see the Duffle Puds from there, but discovers that Aslan, the Christ-figure lion in the Narnia stories has suddenly appeared beside her. A little startled, Lucy asks, “When did you get here?” Aslan answers, “I’ve been with you all along on your whole voyage. You just couldn’t see me.” Lucy asks, “Then how can I see you now?” Aslan answers, “You said the spell for making the invisible, visible. So I appeared.” In astonishment Lucy asks, “Do I have the power to make you visible?” And Aslan answers, “Don’t you think I would follow my own rules?” By the way, yes, the Duffle Puds also became visible: dwarf-like people with one very large foot on which they hop around, thus the thumping noise.
God reiterated the Abrahamic covenant to Jacob. You will have descendants who will inherit this land, through whom God will bless the whole human race. Then God promised Jacob to be with him wherever he went, which must have been wonderfully assuring to him as he was going to be wandering in one way or another the rest of his life. This God without boundaries was dramatically different than the pagan deities who were thought to be tied to specific geographic territories. When people changed locations, they changed gods. This God who had promised to be with Jacob everywhere was God for all people – a radical concept then and even today as our society tends to treat religion as a cultural artifact rather than an intimate, personal relationship with God.During this interim journey between pastors, we have been very aware of being in transition from the way things were to the way things will become. However, I can tell you with great confidence; you will not be going to a settled, static situation. You will be embarking on an ever changing journey into an uncharted future. I can also assure you that God will go with you wherever you go, just as God went with Jacob on his journey. Our personal and family lives are not settled and static either. Children and grandchildren grow up. We retire from careers. Babies are born and old people die. That’s not always easy, but it is inevitable and actually good. Whether you are awake to know it or not, God is beside you at every place on this journey.