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Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it

1Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

4 You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.

5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it. (Psalm 139)

When I was growing up, I was sheltered in the love and guidance of wonderful grandparents. I was lucky in that because my mother’s parents were quite young when they married and had my mother and my aunt, I had them as a part of my life for all of my growing up. My grandfather was a jokester and a great story teller. But my grandmother was a serious woman of deep faith. She taught me the Scriptures as a young child. Hymn singing was one of my earliest memories.  And when I was older, she would take me along to her youth group meetings. She made sure that God was a constant part of my life.

So when I went off to college, I continued my discipline of regular prayer, Bible study, and occasional church attendance. I knew that God was someone I could trust and turn to when life was confusing or difficult. I experienced the presence—meaning the goodness—of God in the beauty of creation and alone in my dorm room. God sheltered me in my time away from home just as God had sheltered me as a young child in the enveloping arms of my family.

Then I joined a band. This band played at fraternity parties, wedding receptions, and in bars. When my grandmother learned about this, she was quick to express her disapproval. As a Southern Baptist, dancing was vile enough, but being in a place where alcohol was enjoyed was simply beyond the beyond of evil. I remember to this day a very heated conversation about my decision to sing with this band.

She was not happy and her parting remark that was intended to settle the debate was, “Well God is not in that place.” But being a cheeky young adult, with the full conviction of my extensive experience I retorted, “I disagree. God is with me everywhere!!”

Now, I certainly regretted speaking back to my grandmother! That is never a good idea! But in that moment, my theology came to the fore for me. I believed then as I believe now, that God is always in this place. This place right here—wherever and whenever that place is! God is not limited to a particular building or a specific time. God does not hang out exclusively with people deemed to be “pious and proper.”  God does not shy away from ugly or dirty or what may be considered “inappropriate.”

In fact if you read the Bible and if you look throughout our church history, God does God’s work in the midst of some very problematic people and in the midst of desperately forbidding times. Our colorful history and misdeeds matter not one bit when God decides to come looking for us, even pursuing us, to be in the midst of God’s blessings.  God is present in every aspect, in every moment of Creation.

In our reading today from Genesis, we find Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, fleeing his home for his life. The story of Jacob cannot be interpreted legally. It is not a tale of crime and corresponding punishment. It is not neat and it is not tidy. Jacob is anything but a moral or virtuous character. He is a liar and a cheat. His older brother, Esau, from whom he stole his birthright and tricked out of his father’s blessing, has sworn to kill him. His mother Rebekah has plotted a way for him to escape, sending him to her brother, Laban, in Haran. He finds himself in the wilderness, exhausted and alone. Lying down, finally convinced that he has not been followed, he takes a stone for a pillow and goes to sleep.

Unless we are deep-woods wilderness campers, we have probably never experienced the kind of aloneness Jacob encounters out there in the dark, on the road back to his mother’s homeland. Alone and anxious too, Gene Tucker writes that Jacob “is at great risk from the known behind and the unknown before him.” And Barbara Brown Taylor observes that Jacob, “is on no vision quest; he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry. He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making.”[1]

All alone in this limbo, full of anxiety, and exhausted from his journey, Jacob settles into the vulnerability of sleep. And it is here that God enters his dreams, an encounter totally at the will of God.

The wakeful world of Jacob was filled with grasping, conflict, fear, loneliness, and hopefully, some guilt, but the dream offers an alternative into his life. The dream discloses the active presence of God on earth. There is traffic between heaven and earth. He sees a ladder or tower connecting earth and heaven where angels are going up and down, carrying God’s messages to earth. Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth. Earth may count on the resources of heaven.

Jacob’s dream is not only awe-inspiring and majestic, but also intimate and personal. In the dream, God stands “beside him” (‘alav in the Hebrew), giving him the promise that Jacob already received from his father Isaac, the promise given first to Abraham: land, offspring, and blessing.

And then God goes on to promise Jacob even more:

“Know that I am with you.” God commits Godself to the empty-handed fugitive. Heaven has come to earth;

“I will keep you wherever you go”—as a shepherd, God will protect Jacob—Jacob will not be abandoned. The keeper of Israel watches over the lives of those who are exposed and defenseless.

“I will bring you back to this land”—powerful words for people living in a time of exile or displacement. God’s words in this place initiates a covenant with Jacob, an enduring relationship committed to his well-being and his future.

The promise comes in a dream, but the response of Jacob is when he wakes up (vv.16-22). “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it.” He resolves to embrace the new reality of the dream. He trusts God who stands beside him and speaks personally to him. “The Lord shall be my God.” (v.21) He is an exile, but not an exile without hope. He is lonely, but not alone. Far from home, he can keep going because of this dream and God’s promise. Rising early he builds an altar with his stone pillow and names it “Bethel” the house of God.

Time and again, God comes to ordinary people in places that seem like nowhere for God’s widespread blessing. One of the saddest lines in the early Jacob story is when Esau, recognizing that Jacob has stolen the blessing from their father intended for him says, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!”

In the wilderness, God offers a different vision. Rather than a limited blessing won through the defeat and humiliation of others, God extends an extravagant blessing to all the people of the earth through Jacob and his descendants. Blessing will be as widespread as the “dust.” It will not be limited to a particular place or a part of God’s creation deemed more worthy. Rather throughout creation, all created good, God is present and God’s blessing will be shared.

God shows up in remarkable places and in common places—on mountaintops with a sunset in full view and in grocery store parking lots. God is present everywhere and seeks us out right where we are. Sometimes we don’t notice until we relive the moment in hindsight.

But in ordinary and flawed characters—including ourselves– we encounter God who is stubbornly present—marvelously, terribly there—who invites each one of us into the ongoing work of being a part of the blessings in the world. Madeline L’Engle writes, “Caught up as most of us are in the complexities of daily living, we forget that we are surrounded by the creative power of Love. Every once in a while, we need to step outside our troubles and our pleasures, and take a fresh look, a time to feel and listen to our Source.”[2]

“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it.” God is in every place—even smoky bars and impudent granddaughters. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. We are invited to see that the world is chock full of God–God encountered in unlikely places among unlikely people, in our heights and in our depths–even under rocks.

Jacob’s story reminds us that it is not God who changes. The nature of God does not fluctuate. The One who made us is still the Creator, the Rejoicer, the Celebrator, who looks at what has been made and despite what we see—calls it good.

It is not God who is suddenly present when thought to be absent. We are the very seat of God—a fundamental part of God.  Like Jacob, God is right with us, yet sometimes we do not know it.

These stories help us see how enchanted this world is and how much God delights in us.

The Good News is that God loves us because that is who God is.

We don’t need to wait for heaven, God is everywhere in this place.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. “Dreaming the Truth.” Gospel Medicine. Cambridge. MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p.111.

[2] Madeline L’Engle. A Stone for a pillow: Journeys with Jacob. New York: Convergent, 1986.

 

 

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