Many years ago, our family was on its way to the beach. We had the station wagon loaded and had some things tied onto a luggage rack on top of the car. As we were driving south on route 41, a car passed us and motioned for us to lower our window. Dave did that and the folks in the other car told us that some things had fallen off our roof several miles back. So we turned around, headed back a few miles until we saw some familiar looking items scattered by the side of the road. We did our best to retrieve everything and were especially glad to have found Red Baby, one of our daughter’s most treasured dolls. Every time we drive by that spot on Route 41, Dave and I remember it as the place where Red Baby took flight. We all have those places where memorable things happened. And visiting those places continues to help us recall special memories of people or events.
Today’s scripture lesson is a scene in the life story of Jacob. Jacob was on the run. He was on the run because he did a nasty, mean thing to his brother. Basically, Jacob was a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel, a trickster. Jacob conned his very hungry twin brother, Esau, into handing over the family inheritance in exchange for a good bowl of lentil stew and some bread. Then Jacob sank even lower and deceived his almost blind father, Isaac, by pretending to be Esau and asking for the family blessing. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, helped Jacob, her favorite son, with his deception. Well, when Esau found out he had lost the family blessing, he was absolutely furious. He threatened to kill Jacob, and Rebekah knew he meant it. So Rebekah went to Isaac and suggested that they send Jacob out of town. Rebekah and Isaac told Jacob to go back to the place where Rebekah grew up and look for a wife there. Isaac blessed Jacob and sent him on his way.
Jacob left quickly and took with him only as much as he could carry. He walked for a while and when night came, he found a place to camp. He couldn’t carry any bedding, so Jacob slept under the stars and used a flat stone as a pillow. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable that would be! Perhaps that’s why Jacob had a restless night’s sleep. As he tossed and turned during the night, Jacob had a dream. And in the dream a ladder, or more accurately a ramp, extended from earth to heaven. Jacob dreamed that heavenly beings were going up and down the ramp. In the dream God stood beside Jacob and made a number of promises to him. “I will give you this land. I’ll give you lots of descendants who will scatter throughout the world. All families of the earth will be blessed by you and your family. I’ll stay with you. I’ll protect you wherever you go. I’ll bring you back to this land, your home. And I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.” These were generous promises.
Jacob woke up with a start like we would after a really vivid, dramatic dream. “Wow!” Jacob said, “God is definitely in this place. And I didn’t even know it.” Jacob was terrified by this realization. He whispered in awe “Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God’s House and the Gate of Heaven.”
Jacob had gone to bed a scoundrel, a man-on the run who felt totally alone and unsure of his future. But during his dream, Jacob learned that God had plans for him. Plans to bless him and protect him. Walter Brueggemann says “The surprise and the wonder for Jacob was not the appearance of God in the dream, but the sense that God was present in a decisive and transforming way” (242). In Jacob’s dream, Brueggemann continues, God intruded into Jacob’s life (244). Heaven came to earth that night and God spoke a word that made an entirely different future possible for Jacob (244).
As soon as the sun came up, Jacob took the stone he had used as a pillow and stood it upright as a memorial pillar and poured oil over it. He marked the spot where he had encountered God and received God’s blessing. And then Jacob named the place Bethel which means God’s house. It’s not unusual to mark places of significance. Historical markers point to places where important events happened that shaped the future of a town or a country. Along highways we often see crosses or memorials for folks who died in an accident at that spot. In the mountains and along country roads we often see cairns (kerns), mounds of stones that mark some important spot.
Jacob’s dream assures us that the pathway between the earthly and the divine is open; traffic is flowing smoothly. We have five bars on our phones and communication is getting through. God continues to step into our human reality to transform us, to guide us, to strengthen us, to remind us of God’s love. God intrudes into our lives to make a future possible for us even when we’ve been headed down the wrong road. God continues to intrude into the lives of people like us, who like Jacob, have made our share of mistakes.
That place where God steps into our lives to remind us that we are known and loved becomes a sacred place. The spot where God intrudes into our lives becomes a place of significance that we might mark as Jacob did. A place we might mark and name Bethel.
In her sermon, “Dreaming the Truth,” Barbara Brown Taylor asks readers, “Do you know where your Bethel is? The place where the presence of God was so real you can still remember how the air smelled, how your heart beat so hard you thought it might break?” (Taylor 113). I have some places I can call Bethel. I can still smell the air in a place where after a serene and peaceful walk in the woods, I could utter the words Jacob said, “Wow! God is definitely in this place.” Sometimes by the side of one of your hospital beds or talking with you privately, I have found Bethel and had the sense that God was definitely in that place. The day three folks from Un Nuevo Renacer walked into our building to ask about using our space, I walked around awed, aware that God was in this place and had surprises for our future we never imagined.
Do you know where your Bethel is? Maybe your Bethel is a special place at the beach or in the woods. Perhaps it’s even sitting around a campfire something like this. Some of you have told me a visit to the Grand Canyon was a place you might name Bethel. Perhaps your Bethel is the spot where you held your child or grandchild for the first time and uttered, “Wow! God is surely in this place.” Or maybe the path between heaven and earth intersected your life’s path when you were serving others. Or desperately crying out for help and guidance. Taylor advises us, “If you know where your Bethel is, go back there as often as you can. But if you do not know where your Bethel is, don’t be too hard on yourself. You have a lot of company.” (Taylor 113).
Bethel is not an easy place to stumble upon. You can’t look at a map or google it and just go there. And you can’t leave here and decide you’re going to Bethel this afternoon. But we can be alert for Bethel. I suspect we all have traveled right by Bethel and missed it, because we were preoccupied with work, school, or friends. Or because we were rushing so fast to get to the next thing on our to-do list we didn’t even see it. Or because we had our heads buried in technology which has become such an all-consuming part of our lives. Jacob found Bethel only when he was asleep. A time when he was alone, quiet, and vulnerable. A time when he was undistracted by the noise and pace of life. Bethel can be found only when we are alert for the possibility that God will be present. Only when our eyes are open. Only when our hearts are receptive to sensing the presence of God.
We have lots of stones surrounding our fire this year. As we sing our closing hymn, I invite you to come forward and pick up a stone. This week and the week after that and the week after that if necessary, be alert for the presence of God. Oh, you’ll know it when you sense it. God’s intrusion in your life will surprise you and fill you with awe, wonder, or perhaps bring tears to your eyes. And don’t be surprised if your Bethel is a really ordinary place, like the shower, the lunch table at school, your desk at work, or your bedside table. And when you notice the presence of God and feel God very near to you, place your stone there and call that place Bethel. Remember the place where God intruded into your life and reminded you that you are not alone. Remember your Bethel, the place where God reminded you that no matter who you are and what mistakes you have made, you are precious and you are loved.
Benediction: May God bless you with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to sense the places where God is intruding into your life. May the love of Christ surround you and the Spirit encourage you as you seek your Bethel. Amen.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Interpretation Bible Commentary. Atlanta:John Knox Press,
Lose, David. “Learning to See.” Dear Working Preacher, July 10, 2011. Workingpreacher.org.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Dreaming the Truth.” Gospel Medicine. Cambridge, MA:Cowley
Publications, 1995. 110-116.