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Marking the Places Where We See God

Genesis 28:10-19 (CEB)

Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. 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.

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.

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. 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. 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.”

When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The LORD is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven.

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. He named that sacred place Bethel.

July 29-30, 2017
Genesis 28:10-19a
“Marking the Places Where We See God”

We have come to the last Sunday of our July series from the book of Genesis that we have called “Dysfunction Junction,” as we have heard stories from the rather dysfunctional lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, some of our ancestors in the faith. Today, we will hear about the dream Jacob has as he is on the run from his twin brother, Esau.

Let me give us a summary of where we are at in this complicated family story. A lot has happened with this family over the last several weeks and throughout the story we have witnessed the best and worst of human behavior; but also witnessed that God brings good out of the best and the worst.

We began several weeks ago hearing the promise given to Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, that he would have many descendants through which all the nations of the world would be blessed.

Abraham and his wife Sarah had a son named Isaac after years of not being able to have children. As a young boy, Isaac had a near-death experience of almost being sacrificed to God by his father, Abraham. Then we heard about the grown man Isaac marrying Rebekah and they also had trouble conceiving, but eventually had twin boys, Esau and Jacob. We soon learned about Jacob’s deceptive nature as he tricks his brother Esau out of the firstborn birthright with a bowl of stew.

Then last week, Jacob became a two-time double-crosser, with the help of his mother, by tricking his blind and aging father into giving him the verbal firstborn blessing that was also to be Esau’s. When Jacob’s deception is realized, Esau threatens to kill him and again under the direction of his mother, Jacob flees to go live with her brother, Laban in a faraway land called Haran. Rebekah tells Jacob to go find a wife from among her relatives and then she will send for him to return after his brother’s anger subsides.

On the way, Jacob stops to sleep and has a life-changing experience. He has a dream in which God appears and shares the same promise as God had shared with Jacob’s father and grandfather.

It’s interesting to note that Jacob is the one person in the Bible that we know more about than any other character. He is the only person in the Bible we hear about as a child, a young man, a husband and father, and as an old man.

(Read Genesis 28:10-19a)

Jacob’s continued story this week prompts us to consider markers or signs in our life, especially markers or signs that point to God’s presence in those places where we do not immediately recognize the presence of God.

We see many signs or markers on a daily basis, not all of which are going to turn our thoughts to God’s presence. Perhaps this particular type of sign is one we see marking the roadways we travel on this summer (picture of road construction sign).

If we look at other signs or markers we see along streets and roads, could you pick one that best describes your relationship with God at this moment in time? Our relationship with God is a journey, so there are no wrong answers to this question of which sign best describes your current relationship with God; and I won’t make you answer out loud, but it is an interesting question to ponder.

Jacob could have most likely have identified with each of these road signs at some time or another along his life’s journey. Jacob was not necessarily looking for a sign of God’s presence or expecting to mark a place he felt God’s presence as he makes a run for it after his twin brother Esau’s anger burns hot from the two-time double-crossing scheme that steals his firstborn birthright and blessing. At this point in the story, Jacob is a terrified refugee, who is only looking for a safe place to rest.

It seems that Jacob has left his home with no provisions…no tent, no lantern, no donkey to ride. We aren’t even told if his mother packed her favorite son a lunch. He heads off walking or running to live with his uncle’s family. And without mail, or phone, or telegram service, and with no e-mail, text, Twitter or Facebook; there is no way to contact Uncle Laban to tell him that his nephew would be arriving to live with his family.

So, exhausted, Jacob finds a place to rest among some stones and chooses one for a pillow. It is in this exhausted sleep that the dream begins, in which Jacob sees a staircase, or perhaps you learned about it in Sunday school as Jacob’s ladder. Whether a staircase or ladder, one end is on earth and the other end stretches into the sky with angels going up and down on it…an image of heaven touching earth. Then, Jacob senses God standing at the top of the ladder offering him a blessing and reinforcing the promise that had been given to his father, Isaac and his grandfather, Abraham.

We did not necessarily see that coming…The lying, manipulative, deceiving Jacob certainly does not deserve that kind of dream with its blessing and promise. But that’s God’s grace at work, whether we think Jacob deserves it or not. God surprises Jacob with grace. God blesses Jacob and reminds him that the promise given to his father and grandfather also holds true for him…that the land on which he sleeps belongs to him and his descendants, who will fill the earth and that God will be with him and his family.

This is one of the more powerful stories of God’s grace, love and forgiveness that we hear about in Scripture.

At least when Jacob wakes up he does not just write the whole thing off as a crazy dream because of something he ate. He recognizes it as a sign of God’s presence with him and says, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” And then Jacob has the good sense to mark that place as a place he met God. He takes the stone that had been his pillow and sets it up to mark the spot. He pours oil over the stone as a way of making it a sacred altar and he names the place Bethel, which literally means, ‘House of God.’

This portion of the Jacob story reminds me that the Bible is really a collection of God sightings. Each of the biblical writers shares in some way how they have seen God. And as we become familiar in picking out these God’s sightings in Scripture, we start to recognize the signs of God in our daily life and in our world. We begin to get glimpses of what it looks like when God gets involved in our lives and in life around us.

Most likely we are not going to see God in the same way as our ancestors in the faith did, but if we are paying attention, we may still come to recognize God’s presence and activity in life. We may not have a dream about angels going up and down a ladder or see a burning bush, but maybe we recognize the presence of God in the mountain surroundings of a peaceful setting; or at church camp; or at the kitchen table talking to a friend; or as we wait in the delays of road construction; or in the hospital waiting room; or in a Hospice room as we sit with a dying loved one.

Or, have you seen places that others have marked as sacred? If you are a hiker, there are many times along a path that you can come across a small pile of rocks or sticks or other markings. Sometimes they seem to mark the way or seem to call attention to a beautiful spot. At other times, we see markers that are set up as memorials along the street or roadside or at a site of tragedy as a way to mark that place as holy for a special person or persons who have lost their lives there. Those places can be someone’s ‘Bethel.’

Our ‘Bethel’ can be anywhere and everywhere in this world. Certainly, our return to this sanctuary to worship each week is our ‘Bethel’…our House of God, where we journey from our daily lives to the place where we have a good chance to encounter God more fully through worship, word and sacrament.

Other times, our ‘Bethel’ may come in hindsight. When we can take time to think back over our journey of life, many times we can see where we were surprised by God’s grace or where we can now see God’s presence when we once thought we were only enduring the night alone.

The place Jacob literally marked with a rock and called Bethel was his sanctuary. And even though he continued on his journey to Haran where he will experience more ups and downs as he tries to climb the ladder of life, he does not forget his Bethel and will eventually return there with his family and extended family to offer worship and gratitude.

If you have a place you name as ‘Bethel’ in your life, go back there as often as you can, literally or in your mind, to recharge, renew, and remember the presence of God. Or, if that has not been your experience or you cannot find your way back to that place, do not despair…we all have different experiences of God and your Bethel may be yet to come in the most unexpected place at the most unexpected time…keep dreaming, even if it’s daydreaming…keep allowing your mind to rest long enough to think freely and to hope extravagantly.

And don’t forget the markers…mark the place literally or in your mind or heart, in such a way that you can keep coming back to that place as frequently as you want or need.

Author and Pastor Fred Craddock tells a beautiful story about being in the backyard on a summer evening with his father, laying in the grass, looking up at the sky. Fred describes the experience this way: “My father said to me, ‘Son, how far can you think?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘How far can you think?’ ‘Well, I don’t know what you mean,’ ‘Just think as far as you can think up toward the stars,’ he said. I screwed my imagination down, and I said, ‘I’m thinking…I’m thinking.’ He said, ‘Think as far as you can think.’ ‘I’m thinking as far as I can think.’ He said, ‘Well, drive down a stake out there now. In your mind, drive down a stake. Have you driven down the stake? That’s how far you can think.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Now what’s on the other side of your stake?’ I said, ‘Well, there’s more sky.’ He said, ‘Move your stake.’ And we spent the evening moving my stake out there. It was a crazy thing to do, but I will never thank him enough for doing it.”

We could take Fred Craddock’s story and along with today’s Jacob story and ask, “How far can we think…how far can we dream…how far can we hope?” And then put a stake or a marker there and know that God is there. Then, keep thinking and dreaming and hoping, and keep marking the next place…because the next place is where God is also…and the next place, and the next place.

This week, can you take a stone or other object and place it somewhere during the week where you sense the presence of God. Maybe it’s somewhere at home or at work or a place of volunteering. It may be a place of joy or sorrow, but a place you sense that surely God is in this place and perhaps you did not know it before. The presence of God can be anywhere we sense God at work and we should not be surprised if it is somewhere pretty ordinary…somewhere that maybe we have not thought God would be.

May we be inspired to use the ordinary signs in life to seek God’s presence…Then, may we mark and celebrate our ‘Bethel’ experiences as the places where we see God. Amen