The story of Jacob in the reading this morning begins with verse 10 of chapter 28 of Genesis and says that “Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran”. Jacob didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, I wonder what’s happening in Haran tonight.” We have to go back a few verses into chapter 27 to see that Jacob was leaving one of the most dysfunctional families in the history of the world! Jacob had conspired with his mother to steal his brother, Esau’s, blessing from their blind father. Esau had threatened to kill Jacob and their mother learned of this. So, she convinced her husband that the women in the area where they lived were not really good “wife material” and suggested that he send Jacob to another land to marry a woman there (one of his cousins I might add.) When his brother heard that his father “didn’t like the women in the area that they lived,” even though he was already married, he went out and got another wife from another country just so his brother would not be one up on him. This family’s story is full of jealousy, deception, manipulation, competition, anger and hatred…and THIS is the family that God chooses to make His covenant with! We should all feel like maybe there is just a bit of hope for us in our relationship with God at this point!
When Jacob deceives his father into giving him the blessing that should have gone to the first-born son, his father is trying to determine if the person in front of him really is his first-born son, Esau, and he asked a question about how the son was able to bring him a meal of wild game so quickly. Jacob, who was pretending to be Esau, said, “Because the Lord, YOUR God granted me success” in my hunting (Gen. 27:20). It seems important to note that in that moment, Jacob does not claim his father’s God as his own. By the use of the word, “Your”, Jacob distances himself from God. For those of us who grew up with religious parents, there seems to be a time when we began to question the reasons for the faith that our parents professed. As a parent of teenagers, I have had the experience of listening to my children as they question the God that we have worshipped as a family.
Jacob’s family was also full of difficulty and struggle. There are times when events in our lives cause us to question the God that we have grown up with. There are times when our difficulty and struggle may cause us to question even God’s existence. There may be times that we don’t know how to reconcile the world around us with the God we thought we knew. God becomes YOUR God or THEIR God. It is another’s God, but we are not sure what God is to us. It seems that it is in this kind of state of mind in which Jacob leaves his house and heads out to his uncle’s house in Haran. This where our reading picks up this morning.
Jacob is traveling by himself towards Haran. As he travels, he has time to think. He could be reflecting where he is going and wondering what he will encounter or who he will encounter. He could be reflecting on where he has been. He may have thought about his brother and his brother’s threats to kill him. He may have thought about his own actions in deceiving his father with the help of his mother. Maybe he felt guilty…or maybe he didn’t. Either way, he was out in the middle of nowhere and all alone.
As he reached the end of the day, he settled in a place called Luz for the evening. He apparently had no tent or such supplies and simply lies down with his head on a rock. The vision that Jacob has is of, what is called, a ladder between earth and heaven. It could be a stairway or a ramp, but it is some connection on which angels are ascending and descending between earth and heaven. The movement of the angels signifies the fact that God is aware of the things of earth and God interacts with the world. The angels take reports and messages up and the angels bring the words and actions of God down. So, it very much could be that Jacob is confronted with his own actions. God certainly demonstrates full knowledge of who Jacob is as he offers to continue the covenant with Jacob that He began with Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham.
Jacob awakens from his dream and I just love what he says. He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Jacob had never really known his father’s God and what he did know seemed to be tied with his family and his father. Jacob had left his family and perhaps believed that he had left his family’s God too. In this strange place, away from his family, and all alone…Jacob met God. Just like there are those times when we find ourselves questioning God, I hope that there have also been those moments when you find God in the most unexpected places. Sometimes we experience God when we are all alone and pondering our life, but we may also find God on a hike in the woods or walk on the beach. We may experience God in a concert hall as a gifted performer demonstrates mastery of her instrument. We may experience God in a coffee shop or restaurant in the presence of a friend with whom we find connection and acceptance. Sometimes we experience God in a regular moment that is suddenly transformed into a holy moment and we realize, “Surely, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”
It is possible that we could even be surprised in this place. Though it is place of God, we sometimes come here with other things on our mind. We come here thinking we know what to expect. It is possible that we might just take for granted the words from the texts and the communion of the saints. Maybe, just maybe, there are times when we experience God here in ways that we have not before and we say, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I didn’t know it.”
When we have those moments, we should do what Jacob does. We should do something to remember that moment and that place. Jacob renamed Luz and called it “Beth-el”. El is one of the names of God and Beth-El means “House of God”. It was Jacob’s way of noting that he encountered God there.
My wife has several containers of Shells and sand that are in various places in our house. They are there to remind her of the many trips we have taken to the beach. It has almost become a family cliché for us, but when we are at the beach…at some time while we are there…my wife will say, “I think God lives at the beach.” For her, the beach is a “Beth-el”. The sand and the seashells in our house are not traditional religious symbols, anymore than the rocks that Jacob used, but they are a reminder that “God is in this place.”
What is your “Beth-El?” Do you have one? What reminds you of the moment or moments when you experience God? Has there been a time when your language changed from “Your God” or “Their God” to “MY God.” Have you had a moment in your life where you have felt close to God, but it wasn’t a place you expect to find God? Or have you ever been surprised to actually find God in place where you took God’s presence for granted? I love those moments in my life when I can say, “Surely the Lord is in this place…and I didn’t know it.” I pray you have you have such moments in your life. Amen.