by Pastor Doug Stratton — July 19, 2020

Gen 28:10-19; John 1:49-51

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “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. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”  He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

CCI: God’s Presence is not limited to a physical or geographical space, rather Jesus is the rock that leads us into God’s presence, even when we do not recognize it.

Intro: Have you ever used a stone for your pillow? I remember an unusual bus ride over the mountains outside of Esteli, Nicaragua. It was one of two buses that left the village we were visiting to return to Esteli each day. It was hot and the old school bus (it seems that American school buses that die spend their second life in Nicaragua) was so overcrowded that I and about 30 others climbed onto the roof for the ride across the mountains. There were a few rules for the trip: 1. Duck when the person in front of you ducked or the tree might sweep you off the roof. 2. Find a place to sit and stay there. 3. Trust the driver to stay on the road.

We shared the roof with luggage and farm supplies. The place I chose to sit and stay just so happened to be in front of a spool of barbed wire. After taking my extra shirt and using to pad my back, I leaned into the barbed wire. Soon, because of the heat, and the journey and the walking and the work, my head fell back onto that spool and soon I was fast asleep and my pillow was a spool of barbed wire. I can still feel my head being gently (?) poked as I slept. 

That is what exhaustion can do to us. For Jacob, his exhaustion was based in his emotional, spiritual and physical stress. 

Last week we looked the story of his birth and a bit of the rivalry he shared with his brother. After conning Esau out of his inheritance, Jacob continued in his deceitful ways. As his father, Isaac who was blind and losing his hearing, neared death, Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, heard Isaac ask Esau to go hunting and prepare a savory stew for him, after eating Isaac promised to pronounce on him the Father’s blessing. 

Rebecca quickly called Isaac to her side,. since he was her favorite, and sent him into the field to slaughter a sheep. She then made Isaac’s favorite stew, and used the hide to create sleeves for Jacob to wear. While Esau was still in the woods, Jacob put on the wooly sleeves, and went into his father’s tent. Upon entering Isaac was excited, he could smell the stew and he could smell his son (apparently Esau often smelled to recently slaughtered sheep wool). When Jacob spoke, his father was a confused, it sounded like Jacob, but it smelled like Esau, and the hairy arms were clearly those of Esau. So after eating, he placed his hands on Jacob’s head and pronounced over him the blessing of the first born. 

Shortly after that, Esau came to his father with his stew and the lie was revealed. Esau had lost both his inheritance and his blessing to his conniving brother. He was furious, but would not take it out on Jacob while his father was living. 

When Esau learned of the con, he swore he would kill Jacob as soon as the time of mourning for his father came to a close. Now Isaac had not died, and in fact the rumors of his death seemed be greatly exaggerated, he was still living even after Joseph was sold to Egypt and beyond. Still, when Rebecca learned of the plan, she sent Jacob to her brother’s home to find a wife. 

It was on this journey that Jacob encountered the house of God. Jacob was running from his brother, anticipating news of his father’s imminent death, and missing his mother. When he came to a lonely place (which apparently was also a city called Luz), he found no place to lodge. And so he lay down in the open and placed his head on a rock to sleep. 

As he slept he had a vision. He saw the heavens open and he saw a staircase, on the stairway were messengers of God ascending to and descending from God’s presence, carrying out the work of God as they went. The vision was life changing. He then heard God repeat the promise that had been made to Abraham and to Isaac, a promise that God would be with him and protect him and bless him. When Jacob awoke he said, “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” In the city of Luz, a pagan city that did not practice hospitality, Jacob was shocked to discover that God was present in that place. And so he gave the city a new name, Bethel meaning the House of God.

Jacob was surprised by God; he was surprised when God showed up in a place that was godless. But he was only able to see it when he stopped running, when he rested, when he collapsed from his own striving, when he realized he was at the end of his rope. And as he slept with his defenses down, God showed up.

God blessed Jacob, but there can be no question the blessing had anything to do Jacob’s behavior. God blessed Jacob because God chose in grace to bless the conniving Jacob. And I find that to be very good news. I am no better than Jacob, I have taken advantage of People, I have manipulated people, I have looked down on people, but when I stop suddenly I discover that I am in the House of God, the very doorway of heaven. 

Jacob thought he had found the geographic location for the House of God, the people before him had thought much the same, they had called Luz, which may have meant the place of lightening and gleaming. He thought he had found a special place where God would come near. And in fact, he returned to this spot a number of times through his life. 

Many years later, as Jesus was beginning his ministry, he made illusion to this story. Jacob believed he had found the rock that opened the door to the House of God, Jesus told Nathanael, the skeptical disciple that one day he would see “‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” It was Jacob’s vision, but Jesus is now the rock on which Jacob had rested. And Jesus was the One who would open the gates of heaven into the presence of God. 

No longer would Jacob and his spiritual descendants have to journey to Bethel, now they could find God’s presence in the person of Christ who has promised to be with us wherever we go. 

When Jacob awoke, he said, “Wow! God is in this place!” He then stood his pillow stone up and poured oil on it, anointing it as a holy place. Jesus is our anointed One, not a stone in a place, but God in the flesh. And whenever we walk with Him, we will be shocked to find God in places we never imagined. We will meet God in fundamentalist churches and in the liberal alcoves of San Francisco. We will encounter God in the mountains of Denver and gutters of Dehli. When we walk with Jesus we will encounter God in newborns and in those on their deathbeds, in our gay neighbor and the protesting youth. When we walk with Jesus we will be shocked when we see God in the people who are camped on the Parkway in Philadelphia and in the breaking surf on Long Beach Island. At those moments when we will stop, put our heads on the barbed wire and stop striving, we will encounter God, and we will be shocked. 

Are you ready for a surprise? Are you ready to encounter God where you least expect? Jesus is Bethel, the House of God and whenever you serve those who are hungry, or thirsty, or lonely, or afraid, or in prison, or hopeless, you are entering the House of God. If this time of Covid quarantine has taught us nothing else about our faith, it is that God does not need a building, no, all God needs is people, people who are willing to walk with God. 

~ Pastor Doug