Jacob’s dream at Bethel
10 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, though Luz was the city’s original name.
Thoughts on the passage:
According to Wikipedia, at least 25 different locations around the world consider themselves to be God’s Country, including Ottertail County, Minnesota. That one was surprising to me because I was under the impression that Crow Wing County was God’s Country. Not surprisingly, is that evidence of a place being God’s Country usually is locally based. People tend to look at the world around them and imagine that this is the sort of place where God would live.
This trend is so ingrained in our understanding of God, that we can forget that this was not the way people used to think that divine beings worked. Ancient beliefs held that the homes of the gods were in fixed locations. Whether it was Mount Olympus for the Greeks, Valhalla for the Norse, or even the Holiest of Holies for the Israelites, people believed that divine beings had a fixed place where they dwelled on Earth.
It is this very idea that gods are bound to one area that that makes this story about Jacob so powerful. Jacob, like those of his day, think in terms of physical locations. Even when God tells Jacob that God will be with him everywhere, Jacob’s instinct is still to build a monument in one spot. The profound vision he has seen and the powerful message he has received are in conflict with his own understanding of the world.
Deep down, I would suspect that most of us are like Jacob. We have heard that God is with us everywhere, and yet we have fixed points we like to go to find God. Maybe it is the quiet lake by our cabin. Maybe it is the church camp we attended growing up. Maybe it is the sanctuary where we attended church for years. The reality is, we have these locations in our hearts where God dwells. Internalizing the message that God is with us everywhere is hard.
This message is the theme of our Vacation Bible School this week, and I thought it would be a good one for us as adults to be reminded of as well. We can intellectually know that God is everywhere and yet at the same time, everything else exists somewhere and so we try and fit God into the same box as everything else.
As the pastor of a church, it is tempting to want to keep God in one location. Every pastor has heard the glib remark that people are with God in the fishing boat, or on the patio, or on the golf course and so they do not need to come to church on Sunday to encounter God. As much as it pains me to say it, they are right. God is with them on the golf course too.
We want to put God in a box. We want to squeeze God into fixed spaces where God will not fit. It is just a part of our nature. Instead we need to resist these urges. Instead, we need to remember that God is with us wherever we are and whatever we are doing. When you are on the golf course, God is with you, so mind your language. It also means that God was with members of our church when they gathered with others in the community to pack food for Somalia. God is with the doctors when they are performing surgery. God is with the teachers when they are helping people learn. God is with the first responders when they rush to the scene of an accident or a tragedy. God is with the cashier at Target too. In the sacred and in the mundane, we will find God.
There is a theological term called panentheism. It is the belief that God is both in the world and transcends the world. It is seen as a rebuttal of the idea that God is located solely in the world but also the idea that God is somehow removed and separate from the world. In God’s promise to Jacob I see connections to panentheism. God promises to be with Jacob in the world, but in the ladder to Heaven, God also reminds Jacob of something more than this world.
We are reminded of this same thing too. God is with us in our daily lives, but God is also bringing us to a better place in in the end. All of the world is God’s Country and yet ultimately we all hope to leave this world for God’s true country. We cannot limit God’s presence here on this earth, nor should we forget that ultimately our hope is in something more than what is here on the earth. In the meanwhile, God is with us, so thanks be to God.
Questions to Ponder:
Where are the sacred places in your life you go to experience God?
When is a time you have felt God’s presence in your life?
What do you do to remind yourself that God is with you each and every day?
God, we give you thanks for your continued presence in our lives. In our joy and in our sorrows, you are with us. Help us to remember that wherever we go, you travel with us. Bless us as we go about our daily lives and help us to reach others that they too may know your presence with them. Amen