The Practice of Waking Up to God

Genesis 28:10-22
May 31, 2020
Matt Goodale

Our scripture passage today is from Genesis 28:10-22. Hear the word of the Lord:

10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that 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 to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder[b] set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it[c] 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. 14 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 in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, 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.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 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.”

18 So early in the morning Jacob 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. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel,[d] but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”

Jacob is on the run from his twin brother’s murderous rage. Jacob, the con artist and cheat who ripped off his brother’s birth right and deceived his blind and elderly father into giving him his brother’s blessing is now fleeing from his home, his family and his land to escape with his life. Jacob is a fugitive now outside all the protections of conventional meanings and social guarantees. He travels alone, trying to retrace the steps of his grandfather, Abraham, back to the land of Haran in Mesopotamia. Vulnerable to the possibility of all kinds of misfortunes and sleeping under the stars each night with no roof, Jacob essentially finds himself in exile. He is exiled from his family, his home, his country.

This passage does not quite capture the desperation that is present in Jacob’s banishment and journey away from home. But Shakespeare has offered an impassioned, eloquent testimony to the dread of such banishment that should express for us the direness of Jacob’s situation:

“Ha, banishment! Be merciful, say ‘death;’

For exile hath more terror in his look,

Much more than death. Do not say ‘banishment.’…

There is no world without Verona walls,

            But purgatory, torture, hell itself.

Hence banished is banish’d from the world,

            And world’s exile is death. Then ‘banished’

Is death mis-term’d; calling death ‘banished,’

            Thou cut’st my head off with a golden axe,

And smilest upon the stroke that murders me” (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene III)

Shakespeare articulates in sharp detail the experience of exile as one that is worse than death itself. Jacob is cut off from everything he has ever known. All the places, people and routines that carried great meaning for him are now a memory. He finds himself in a place between places. No longer at home, but not yet at his destination. In “no-man’s land,” he arrives at “a certain place” (v. 11) to spend the night. This place has no name. Only places of significance have a name.

And so it is that this exiled man, Jacob, who has waved good-bye to his former way of life and all that is familiar to him, finds himself in an unimportant, unnamed place for the night. Thinking nothing of this insignificantly ordinary place, Jacob finds a rock for a pillow (because that sounds comfortable!) and lies down to sleep for the night. And as Jacob nods off into the sweet respite of unconsciousness, this unfamiliar wilderness road is the last place Jacob would expect to encounter God.

We have much in common with Jacob (not necessarily with the con-artist bit, though perhaps for some of us). We currently find ourselves traveling on an unfamiliar wilderness road at a place in between places. Life doesn’t look like what it did three months ago. We’re exiled from our old routines, our old way of doing things; we’re separated from family, from friends, from the relationships that give our life so much meaning and purpose. Like Frodo and Samwise Gamgee from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, we find ourselves cast from the Shire without warning and without preparation.

But the hardest part about this unfamiliar wilderness road we travel is not just mourning what we’ve had to leave behind, but it’s the uncertainty of where this road will take us. Who knows how much longer we’ll be on this road? The uncertainty of what life might look like in the aftermath of COVID-19 is difficult to dwell on. Two months ago most of us expected our lives to be back to normal by May or June at the latest, but now there does not seem to be a clear end in sight when life will be “normal” once again.

Life has brought us to this unfamiliar and unnamed place – a place in between places. And each night as we nod off into the sweet respite of unconsciousness (hopefully on something more comfortable than a rock for a pillow), this unfamiliar wilderness road is the last place we would expect to encounter God.

While we expect little from these seasons and places in life that are in between where we were and where we want to be, it is here, in the “in-between-ness” of things where the God of Jacob works most surprisingly and most spectacularly. Because it is in this unnamed wilderness place where Jacob has laid down his head for the night that heaven touches earth.

As Jacob slips into unconsciousness, relinquishing control of his own destiny, an encounter takes place. It is an encounter that Jacob is unable to conjure himself. It is the sort of encounter that you happen upon by accident. It is purely divine initiative. Heaven comes down to earth, God comes to meet Jacob. Not the other way around.

A ladder is dropped from heaven and cracks the crusty worn ground in this unnamed wilderness place, forever leaving its mark. Angels are ascending and descending upon it. As it turns out, this insignificantly ordinary place is bustling with divine activity. And as Jacob’s eyes trace the ladder up to its origin he sees the LORD standing there, regarding him of all people, a runaway con artist and a cheat. And the words that the LORD speaks are not what Jacob expected. They are not words of judgment or condemnation as one might expect when encountering a god in Jacob’s time. But this is no ordinary god. This is the God of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. This is the God who offers promises – promises of blessing. The LORD who stands at the opening between heaven and earth is a God who wishes to see life where there was previously brokenness, and blessing where there used to be cursing. This God promises to be with Jacob and to bless Jacob and his offspring so that they will in turn be a blessing for the whole world. The LORD’s blessings are not the type of blessings meant to be kept all to yourself.

“Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land,” says the LORD, “For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (v. 15). And as quickly as Jacob’s glimpse into the heavenly reality came, it was gone. He wakes up and realizes that this unnamed, insignificantly ordinary place is actually not so ordinary. “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” And on this patch of land that in reality looks no different from the other patches of land surrounding it, Jacob builds an altar to dedicate this place to the LORD. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jacob names this unnamed place “Bethel”, meaning “house of God”.

Jacob meets God in an unexpected place and the ordinary ground he found himself on could no longer be considered ordinary. God was in that place, just as God is in every place. As Jacob came to realize, God doesn’t categorize things and places in the same way we like to. We label places as ordinary or extraordinary, holy or unholy, sacred or secular. God knows no such categories. The whole earth is God’s temple and each “ordinary” patch of land is as teeming with divine activity as the next one.

In her book An Altar in the World, pastor and theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, wonders out loud whether we lost something when we decided to build a house for God. And she’s not talking about the temple in Jerusalem, she’s talking about the church building where we meet to say our prayers together, because saying them together reminds us of who we are better than saying them alone. She does not question whether meeting in a church building together is a good thing. It is indeed. But she wonders if we lose something when we insist that this building of all places is more sacred, more set apart, more capable of conjuring an encounter with God than all the “ordinary” places where our feet touch the ground throughout the rest of the week.

Taylor writes, “Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls—even four gorgeous walls—cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in our houses of God?” (Altar in the World, 9).

Her point is particular stressed during this season of COVID-19 when we are no longer able to gather together in our church building. Is this building, with its doors now closed, the only house of God we know?…the only place we can expect a ladder to drop from heaven? Or, like Jacob on this unnamed wilderness road we travel are we ready to exclaim, “Surely God is in this place and I didn’t know it.”

When Meghan and I lived in New Jersey I expected to find God at church; I expected to find God at seminary. I was startled when I found God in a state psychiatric hospital where I was a chaplain. I was startled to find so many ladders stretching all the way from heaven to earth. I rarely noticed them at the time, because as with Jacob, most of my glimpses of God have happened while I’ve been busy doing something else.

Each Wednesday afternoon at 2pm I held a small worship service on one of the more challenging units. It was usually a disaster. So we stopped trying to hold an organized service and instead just brought crayons and paper to color on. We decided that perhaps the women on that unit didn’t need an organized service but just needed a quiet place to find rest. And who knew that God could do more through some crayons and paper than through organized hymns and shortened sermons? Each Wednesday at 2pm, in the middle of the Raycroft West 1 unit, in a small back room, ladders crashed to the ground and heaven touched earth. God was surely already in that place, but we never had the eyes to see it.

Far too often we make assumptions about where God is and where God isn’t. We make distinctions between earth and heaven, between the sacred and the secular, between a church building and the rest of the world, between a Sunday morning worship service and the rest of life. Jacob’s story reminds us that God doesn’t recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Jacob does nothing to conjure up an encounter with God. He simply wakes up and finds that the ordinary ground he is sleeping on is actually teeming with divine activity.

Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on ladders (Taylor). Heaven and earth meet all around us.

It is no doubt difficult and frustrating that we can’t meet together in the comfort of our sanctuary each Sunday morning. It’s difficult that we’ve lost so many of our old routines, our old ways of life. But what if we were able to see all these changes not as a loss, but as a unique opportunity? What if we have been so blinded by our insistence to just get back to “normal” that we have missed God in this space, in this season of life? What if God is beckoning us to wake up to divine realities all around us? What if it’s a blessing that our church buildings are closed for a time so that we might learn to see God everywhere else?

Church is not a building, it is a people. And we don’t only encounter God in an old building, but we primarily encounter God on the turf where our feet hit the floorboards each morning. Life would be much simpler and much more boring if we knew exactly when and where an encounter with God could occur. But as Jacob came to find, this life is more exciting, more meaningful, more adventurous than we ever guessed. As Samwise Gamgee would say, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to” (Tolkien).

Each day we wake up and get out of bed is a new day chalked full of divine possibilities. It’s risky business indeed, because who knows when and where we’ll get tripped by a ladder connecting heaven to earth. There is no longer a distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the ordinary, between church and the rest of life. God has woven them all together and like a little kid on Christmas morning, is giddy as he waits for us to wake up to the surprise. Surely God is in this place and we didn’t even realize it. Amen.