“Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.”
Have you ever felt like you’re “on cloud nine”? “Full of the joys of spring”? There are so many phrases we use for the joyful and uplifting experiences in life. Have you ever called yourself “a happy camper,” or “happy as a flea in a doghouse”? “Over the moon,” “pleased as punch,” or “in seventh heaven”? “Having the time of your life,” “on top of the world,” or “walking on air” are also great expressions of the sudden, unexpected lifts we often get in life, when things fall into place and we feel like all’s well.
Just as suddenly, though, we can feel like our world is falling to pieces, like “the rug has been pulled out from under our feet.” When faced with disappointment, heartache, immeasurable challenges, other phrases come to mind. How about “coming apart at the seams”? “Going stir-crazy,” “going to pieces” or “going off the deep end”? Have you ever felt “at your wit’s end”?
I find these latter idioms are increasingly apt metaphors for what we and our world are going through right now.
In our scripture reading for today, we encounter Jacob at a point in his life when he’s coming apart at the seams. His plans have fallen apart. He’s being chased by his brother Esau, whom he has wronged. Jacob is a vagabond running somewhere between a conflict-ridden past and an uncertain future. Along his stumbling journey, he comes to what scripture calls “a certain place” and stops there simply because the sun is setting – there’s a sense of randomness to why he ended up there. Here Jacob takes one of the stones of the place, puts it under his head and goes to sleep.
He dreams of a ladder that reaches to heaven with angels – God’s messengers – going up and down on it. According to Biblical scholars, it was more like a ramp – most likely a ziggurat. At that time, the Mesopotamian ziggurat was seen as a divine sanctuary, a point of connection between God and humanity. Jacob envisions God standing above this ladder, assuring him of divine presence and safety: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
Jacob dreams of a safe and reassuring place at a time when he is being chased by his past. He’s lost. Jacob awakes from his dream. And he finds that this place that he stumbled upon – it could be anywhere – has been changed. He doesn’t know how, but he knows that this random place has been changed by God’s presence. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!” he says. So Jacob – recognizing God’s presence in this rather ordinary place – Jacob builds an altar. He converts his “pillow” – a simple stone – into a pillar that marks his life-altering encounter with God. Jacob calls this place without a name “Bethel,” meaning “house of God.” God is there, right where Jacob finds himself. God promises Jacob that God will be with him always. God is with Jacob as he’s entering an unknown future in an unknown land.
There are times for us all when we feel like we’re entering an unknown future in an unknown land – whether figuratively or literally. Examples that come to my mind are a move to a new town, a new house, a new church (as Rev. Jen has recently experienced). Maybe it’s a change in career, a new relationship, a new school. I know another one: a PANDEMIC! Talk about an unknown future in an unknown land. Who among us hasn’t experienced stress and fear these last several months? How many of us have wandered from bewilderment to anxiety to utter panic and back again?
During this unprecedented time, how much we desperately want to be reassured. We long for a sense of safety and security. We’re looking for a sense of “home.”
During these uncertain times, where do you look for guidance? Maybe to Dr. Anthony Fauci. Maybe to President Trump. In New England, many look to Governor Charlie Baker. Where do you long to be? In your own house or apartment? Although you might be getting a little tired of that by now.
What is your place of safety and security? Where do you find haven and comfort? Where is your sense of “home”?
We all need our own particular area where we feel safe, serene, secure – where we feel “at home.” Maybe it’s in the company of our family, or friends – if we’re able to see them at all. Or maybe it’s within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty or the American flag. Perhaps in our church sanctuary – or this Parish Hall, courtesy of Zoom, Facebook and YouTube. (Someday we WILL get back upstairs – we’re working on it!) Maybe you feel most safe, serene and secure with an open Bible in your hands. Or simply praying, sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Our desire for security is part of being human. Everyone wants to be secure – socially, psychologically, financially. And as long as life runs smoothly and history smiles favorably, we feel safe. But let the COVID-19 test read “positive,” or we hear the words “furloughed” or “laid-off,” or someone says “there are no more unemployment funds available to you,” the ground we’re standing on begins to shake and we’re looking down an abyss.
Wherever we are – in all the ups and downs of life – God is with us, always. Jacob’s vision speaks to the core beliefs of biblical faith. The God of creation is ever-present. The God of the covenant is not a God who abandons or ignores us. The ancient Israelites, in their own places of abandonment and exile, write of this conviction even along with their lamentations. Amidst their trials and uncertainty, the Israelites express their faith that God is somehow, someway, somewhere still present and at work. They believe that God’s promise still holds, even in the darkest times of life.
Jacob stumbled upon a random place, and God was with him. The image of God standing beside Jacob is one that God gives to Jacob to take with him – wherever he goes – for comfort. Words of protection burst from the mouth of God towards Jacob: “Know that I will be with you…will keep you…will bring you back…I will not leave you.”
Jacob’s eyes are opened to the wider workings of God. In this grace-filled encounter, we see how God can transform an ordinary place and an ordinary stone into something special; a place where God’s presence has made a home in the world, even in the most dire of circumstances.
The journey of faith is often filled with these Bethel moments, moments of loneliness and fear and despair that are transformed by the presence of God standing beside us. Today, our journeys are especially fraught. But sometimes it’s only after we emerge on the other side of the trouble that we see where God was at work.
The 19th century Scottish author George MacDonald once wrote in a classic children’s storybook: “The lightning and thunder, / They go and they come / But the stars and the stillness / Are always at home.” Sometimes it’s only after we make it through the darkness that we look back and we can say with Jacob that “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”
Hear the words of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
Refuge is a good Biblical word – “to be sheltered from danger or trouble.” It has a safe feeling to it. But our refuge isn’t just where we live – it’s a place of the heart, of the soul. It’s a place with God that keeps us through all the storms of life, through all the ups and downs. The Bible speaks often of God’s dwelling place for us, our refuge, the place where we know God’s presence. And that dwelling place with God will always be the safest refuge in the world. Amen.