The Lord is in this place

Scriptures: Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24

Guest speaker: Pauline Evans

“Surely the Lord is in this place.” But Jacob said, “I didn’t know it.” Why didn’t he know? Should he have known? And what can we learn from his experience to help us recognize the presence of God in our lives.

First, what was “this place,” and what was Jacob doing there? Well, he was on the run. His brother Esau wanted to kill him. You see, Jacob had tricked their father Isaac into giving him the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau.

It could only be given once. It was irrevocable. So now Jacob, instead of Esau, was going to have great prosperity, and have authority over his brother. And Esau was furious!

He said as soon as Isaac died and they had mourned him, he was going to kill Jacob. So Jacob ran. He traveled light, perhaps afraid that Esau would come sooner. No camel, no servants, not even a tent to sleep in.

So he comes to “this place.” It didn’t seem like a special place to Jacob, kind of out in the middle of nowhere, just a bunch of rocks.

Our translations say he took a rock and put it under his head, but the wording is more like “he took from among the stones of this place to put at his head.” I read that it may mean he took stones and placed them around his head, as a sort of protection.

It may not seem like much protection. But when you haven’t got anything else, I guess a bunch of rocks is better than nothing. And it does make sense, to think that it was a large enough rock that he would put one up for a pillar afterward, instead of one the size of a pillow.

And then he lay down and fell asleep. And he had this famous dream, that we know as “Jacob’s Ladder.” Or, as some translations put it, a stairway. It’s thought that what may have been envisioned was something called a ziggurat.

This was a structure they built in that part of the world, sort of a stepped pyramid, with a temple at the top, and steps up to it. It was how people were trying to reach God. It’s likely that the Tower of Babel was one of these. People were trying to reach into heaven, to get closer to God. And of course it didn’t work.

There is nothing we humans can do by our own efforts to reach God. This dream that Jacob had wasn’t anything that he produced. This ladder, or stairway, that he saw, was of God, as he saw the angels of God ascending and descending.

And God Himself was there. The wording is not precise; it could mean God was at the top of the ladder (or stairway), or it could mean that He was beside Jacob. But both are true, really, if you think about it. When we experience the presence of God, He is near us, and at the same time He is high above us, holy and transcendent.

it was that sense of God’s holiness and transcendence that overwhelmed Jacob as he woke up. And he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” It says he was filled with fear. He said, “This is an awesome place.”

Now, he didn’t mean “awesome” the way people often use the word today: “It’s cool!” The older translations say “This is a dreadful place,” and they don’t mean the opposite of cool. He was filled with awe. Awe is something that in our modern society, we have largely lost the capacity to feel.

With our climate-controlled buildings, we can sit at the internet and look at a beautiful picture of Mount Everest, or an exploding volcano, or outer space, and we feel maybe impressed, but not much in the way of awe. Awe involves a sense of mystery, and fear, and something beyond our control.

But Jacob felt awe when he felt that he was in the presence of God. He said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I didn’t know it.” Well, why didn’t you know it, Jacob? Did you think that God was only in one place, like the gods of the other nations?

Abraham was your grandfather. Didn’t he tell you that God called him when he was far away in Ur, and God was with him all the way on his journey to this land, and down to Egypt and back? Didn’t you know God would be with you every step of your journey?

Well, maybe not. At this point in his life, Jacob was not exactly a spiritual giant. Some people think this may have been the beginning of his walk with God.

Other commentators focus on the Hebrew phrasing, which emphasizes the pronoun “I.” “Surely God was in this place, and I, I did not know it.” They suggest that Jacob was not so much telling what he had learned about God, but what he realized about himself. “God is here, and I didn’t know,” and it implies, he should have. So why didn’t Jacob know?

Maybe he just wasn’t paying attention. I think he had a few things on his mind. Maybe he was replaying his conversation with Isaac. Remembering the fury on Esau’s face. Thinking about the dangers of the journey ahead. Wondering what would Uncle Laban be like.

We go through our lives that way. What am I going to make for dinner tonight? How am I going to pay the bills? What am I going to do about that problem at work – that problem co-worker at work? We’re paying attention to so many other things, we don’t stop to think, Is God in this place?

Or maybe Jacob didn’t think of God because he was just thinking about himself. He’s feeling sorry for himself that he has to leave home. Or justifying himself for what he did, thinking “I deserve that blessing.” Or wondering, will Uncle Laban like him?

I won’t even try to give examples from our lives, because every one of us knows the ways that self-centeredness shapes our lives. When we’re full of ourselves – whether it’s full of pride, or self-pity, or wanting things – we don’t leave room for God.

Maybe Jacob didn’t know, because he thought that God had to be experienced, not only in a certain place, but in a certain way – some kind of religious ritual. There are people who expect to experience God in church, but they don’t think they’ll find God in the office, or the factory, or a supermarket.

And then there are the people who are sure they’ll find God in the beauties of creation, but the last place they think they’ll find God is in church. But God is in this place. If we think we know where and how we will experience God, we’re going to miss Him in a lot of other places.

Because God has a habit of working in surprising places, in surprising ways, with surprising people. Think of Jacob’s son, that he’s going to have, Joseph. He’s going to be sold as a slave, and thrown into prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Now, the other prisoners were probably not thinking, “Surely God is in this place.” But Joseph knew He was. And God worked in Joseph’s life, and then God raised Joseph out of the prison and made him second only to Pharaoh over the whole land of Egypt. Talk about surprises! And Joseph knew, “God is in this place,” even in the Pharaoh’s palace.

Hundreds of years later, one of Jacob’s descendants was David, the shepherd boy, who loved to praise God while he watched his sheep in the field. Even if a lion or a bear showed up, he knew “the Lord is in this place,” protecting him, and helping him protect his sheep.

And then, surprise! He winds up on the battlefield, without even a shield and a sword, facing a giant with just a slingshot and some stones. But he knew “God is in this place,” and the giant fell.

And then, he had been anointed the next king of Israel, but instead of being able to be in the palace, he was chased by jealous King Saul. But everywhere he went, he knew “God is in this place.” And he may be the one who wrote the psalm we heard this morning, saying that no matter where we go, we’ll find God there.

Throughout history, God has worked in surprising people. In the New Testament, we meet a religious fanatic, Saul of Tarsus, who thought he knew how God worked, and he thought he was doing God’s work when he persecuted the Christians.

Until, one day God met him, on the road to Damascus. And then, there’s this other Christian in the city, Ananias, and God appears to him too. God says, “Go talk to Saul of Tarsus. He’s praying.” Well, I imagine about the last person Ananias ever thought God would be working with was Saul of Tarsus. But he knew God was in this place, and he obeyed.

I recently read a book about two Iranian Christian women who were imprisoned for their faith in Christ. You might remember, a few years ago, it was all over the internet. There was so much attention worldwide, to these women’s case, that the Iranian government was pressured into releasing them. Then they came to this country, and wrote a book about their experiences in that prison.

You know, they had experienced God before that. They loved to share the Gospel. They shared tens of thousands of New Testaments. They had a church in their apartment. But they had to be circumspect. This was dangerous, being a Christian in Iran. They didn’t plan on getting arrested.

But once they were in prison, they found God there in an amazing way, in the prison. They didn’t have to be circumspect. They could share the love of God all day with their fellow prisoners, even with the guards. They could even witness to their interrogators. They knew, “The Lord is in this place,” even in prison.

Where do we see God in our lives? Probably not in such dramatic ways. It may be, sometimes. But often we experience God in little things. Maybe it’s a friend that, well, we just don’t feel like talking to right now … or listening to, and yet that person says something that we needed to hear, because God arranged it.

Maybe it is going out in nature and beholding God in the glories of creation. Maybe it’s God making us realize something we’ve done wrong, that we need to confess, and then apologize to somebody, and then make it right. Maybe it’s when God brings to our attention a need that somebody has, and how we can meet that need.

And, yes, here in church. Surely God is in this place. Because here we hear about how we meet God in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself alluded to this passage in Genesis, one time. He said, “You will see the angels of God ascending and descending” – he doesn’t mention a ladder or stairway. He says “on the Son of Man.” – himself.

He is that stairway, that connection between earth and heaven. He is how we reach God. It is in Jesus that God is present to us. It is in Jesus that we receive God’s promise of eternal life.

God can be found anywhere, anytime. If He most often seems to show up in our most difficult times, perhaps it’s because that’s when we’re paying attention, when we’re not distracted or focuses on ourselves.

God can be found anywhere, anytime. But we can’t take encounters with God for granted. It is always a gift of His grace. Our encounters with God are less the product of our search for God, than because of His determination to pursue us.

So where will we see God in our lives, in this coming week? Let’s go to our homes, to our places of work, or to school, and look for where God is at work, and be open to the surprising ways that God works in our lives. So that wherever we are, we can say, “Surely the Lord is in this place. And I knew it!”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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