“Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. 11 He reached a certain place and spent the night there. When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there. 12 He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it. 13 Suddenly the Lord was standing on it and saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. 15 I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”
16 When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. 17 He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven. 18 After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He named that sacred place Bethel, … .”
So, do you remember Jacob from the Old Testament? On one hand, his name is part of the big three – “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” If you look to Exodus 3:6 his name is involved by Moses. “He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Then, in Luke 20:37 the big three are referred to by Jesus. “Even Moses demonstrated that the dead are raised—in the passage about the burning bush, when he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Jacob is now the 3rd Generation in the lineage of God’s people. But how about the other side of Jacob. Genesis 25:19 tells that Jacob was the second born of a set of twins, along with his brother Esau. A mere ten verses later, in Genesis 25:29, we have the picture of Jacob and Esau as adults. Esau is a rugged outdoorsman. Jacob prefers to stay at home. Esau comes home hungry, and Jacob offers him stew in exchange for his birthright as the first born. Later, when Isaac is ready to confer the blessing on his first born, Jacob pretended to be Esau in an elaborate ruse to gain his father’s blessing. This Jacob “ain’t no saint!” Somewhere between cheating Esau and Moses time he became a true follower of God.
It is in the midst of dire distress that Jacob truly “meets” God. He is running for his life. Esau has sworn to kill his brother and sets out to do just that. Jacob flees, and that is where we find Jacob in our passage today. His mother Rebekah, his mother, helps him escape, and his father blesses him and sends him on his way. He sets out for Haran, and at a “certain place” he spends the night there. Jacob has a dream. His dream is not the imaginings of a person trying to work out possibilities in their sleep, but God revealing himself. Note that Jacob never refers to his dream. He refers to the reality of what God said. There was a ladder ascending to heaven (Jacob’s ladder). This was a common image in the day that spoke of the connection between the divine and the earth. There were angels ascending and descending the ladder, but not as messengers, as was usually the case. Instead, there is a “suddenly” in verse 13. “Suddenly the Lord was standing on it, … .” That is the translation in the Common English Bible- standing on it. In the New International Version it says, “there above it (the ladder). And in the New Revised Standard Version it says, “stood beside him.” All these are pointing to the experience of God with him. Present! In Person! The God of his lineage became real to him. Abraham and Isaac had both had their “moments with God” where God revealed himself to them. Now it was Jacobs turn. His reaction upon seeing and hearing God was, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” His “hand-me-down” faith had just gotten real! Right there, in the midst of turmoil, God’s promises became real.
It is significant what Jacob does next. He names the place (vs. 19a) after proclaiming it awesome. He names it “The house of God, the entrance of heaven.” Given the details of his preparation for his night’s sleep (“… he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there.”) He is probably sleeping outside. Later, in the promise God makes to him, there is the reference to the “land on which you lie.” So, this “house of God” is not a house at all. The house of God, that gateway of heaven, is where God meets us in our troubles.” It is by naming it Bethel, the House of God, that Jacob makes his commitment to remember what God did for him.
The Psalmist paints an interesting picture. The question posed is, “Where can I go to get away from your Spirit?” Psalm 139:7-12
“Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
8 If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave,[a] you would be there too!
9 If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean--
10 even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
11 If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
the light will become night around me,”
12 even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
because darkness is the same as light to you!”
Even in the darkest places – even those created by my own hand – God is there. The Psalmist realizes that awesome presence of God – everywhere!
The awesome-ness of Jacob’s encounter is because God is there. In our Tuesday Bible Study we just looked at Jesus’ essential message in the Gospel of Mark. It consists of only 17 words – “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” It is a game changer when we experience God coming near.
The first thing we need to do is name our dark paces. This is not rehearsing them but naming them. There is a big difference. When we rehearse our dark places, we dwell on them. We pile them up and concentrate on how bad things look. We name them and almost cling to the pain they bring. Jacob was acutely aware of his dark place. He was aware of what he’d done to his brother Esau (Even though Esau has to take some responsibility in this matter. He showed no respect for his birthright by trading it for dinner!). Jacob is well aware that he is running for his life. The image of dream to me is ‘resting, and God speaks into the resting.’ If I am constantly rehearsing and running, God has no room in my life to speak. Instead, we name where we are. “Lord, in the midst of this, I am weighed down and I can’t see forward.” And then we rest in the knowledge that God has heard. We rest in the knowledge that God will, in some way, make the connection between heaven and earth. That is the hardest thing I have to do in any given day. Let me repeat that. That is the hardest thing I have to do in any given day. Give God room to speak. As I mentioned last week, when I was speaking about our prayer life, we have to be still and let God enter into conversation with us.
Look at the disciples. The ultimate of scary, dark places was right after Jesus’ crucifixion. They were so afraid and so disheartened. They locked themselves in a room. But, all were encouraged when they once again saw Jesus. Remember that Thomas missed the first encounter, and had a hard time believing. Then, when he finally saw him, his response was clear and emphatic, “My Lord, and My God!” In his dark place he experienced the risen Christ. We will never “see” Jesus as Thomas did. Jesus has ascended. But Jesus revealing himself in our dark places has not ended and never will.
Second, remember the movement of God in our past and take hope for the present and the future ahead. Eight more times Bethel is mentioned in Genesis. The first two are mentioned by God – reminding Jacob of the promise God made to him. Then it is Jacob causing himself to remember what God has done. In several places we see Jacob setting up “monuments” to those guiding events where he encounters God. We remember those times God has met us in the midst of life - those places where God was so real to us. For me it is often a Piano Keyboard – lost in the music, and having God speak to me. For me it was a Christmas Tree and staring into the lights until the wee hours of the morning after God called me into ministry. I can’t pass a Christmas Tree without thinking of that amazing night that changed my life forever. My experiences in the midst of a youth group, n a heart-to-heart with a good friend. Even in a passing comment from my father who passed away only two weeks later. God revealed himself in every one of those events – and I took courage for next steps.
Many of you are facing difficult times, either personally or with family members or friends. It may seem like you are running as fast as you can just to keep up with them. Maybe your strength is at an end and you just can’t imagine what is next. I urge you to name where you are as a place where God will meet you, “God’s house and the entrance to heaven.” Call to mind all those times that God has intervened in life, and rest in the sure knowledge that the Kingdom of God has come near. Gods appearing may not be dramatic. It may be subtle. But rest assured, God will show up and offer his promise to you.
“14 All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. 15 You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children.” [Ro. 8:14-15 CEB]
Each time we encounter God may we name that “place” the house of God, and may we take courage for this and every time of need – My Lord and My God! Amen!
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Pastor Paul Grossman