And Jacob said, ‘How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ … And he called the name of the place Bethel.
Places matter. They can move us, inspire us, and transport us to see things differently. Often that is the value of travel. New vistas are opened up. We see new ways to look at things. We find our world and horizons enlarged. However, when travel is limited and the possibility of visiting new places is removed it can be more challenging to find those new perspectives. We are forced to look in more detail at what has always been around us. In this process, sometimes as we look at the minute details it becomes possible to see clearly the bigger picture. In the microscopic we can begin to lay hold of the macroscopic. Then the panoramic view emerges by considering the small details that constitute the totality.
In our reading from the book of Genesis, we meet Jacob at the beginning of a long journey. Ostensibly he has been sent to find a wife from his own kinship group. However, there is more going on here. The wily younger twin Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, has just defrauded his brother of the birth-right that was his due to primogeniture. By donning the skins of goat kids, Jacob duped his near blind father Isaac into thinking he was blessing his older and hairier son Esau. Perhaps partially as an act of self-preservation, Jacob follows his parents’ advice to travel to Paddan-Aram or Harran to find a wife. Thus the two estranged siblings are kept apart as Jacob agrees to this journey and the period of self-imposed lockdown that it will bring.
While on that journey, Jacob is overtaken by nightfall. Due to the darkness of a night sky unadulterated by light pollution, Jacob is forced to cease his journey and take rest. He sets a few stones as a pillow (admittedly, a poor substitute for duck down if you ask me), and perhaps unsurprisingly he has a restless yet dream-filled night. He sees a vision of a stairway or a ladder leading to heaven, above which he sees the Lord who self-identifies as the God of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. Then the same promises made to Abraham and Isaac – possession of the land and numerous descendants – are reiterated. Here old promises are renewed, and in fact become new. These are promises made first-hand to Jacob, who has had his own personal encounter with the Lord. After this, the one known as the God of Abraham and Isaac, becomes the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as this wayward and wily twin becomes enfolded into the divine plan. Thus, as the home-loving Jacob sets out on a journey of many years that will take him away from his home and the land of his father, he is promised that he would return. Little did he know that that home-coming would take more than twenty years.
However, during his dream Jacob is struck by the significance of his encounter. His journey has permitted him to meet the God who was worshipped in his home. A God in whom Jacob had previously shown little interest. So Jacob the scheming brother, who was determined to shape his own destiny has his vision enlarged when he realises that he has just met the one who truly shapes human destinies. In response to being overwhelmed by his experience of God, Jacob takes the stone on which his head had rested, he sets his stone pillow a pillar. Then he anoints it with oil to dedicate its sacred significance. He renames the place Bethel, or Bet-El, the house of God. It is some twenty years later on his return journey home when Jacob is fearful of confronting his brother Esau and his own past, that he receives another vision of God as on that occasion he wrestled with God through the night. There is another renaming in that story, as the God of transformations tells him, ‘you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.’ So Jacob who used his own means to swindle his brother of his birth-right is confronted by God and given something much bigger. A new name and a new destiny, that signals that the promises of God made to his ancestors begin to find fulfilment in somebody renamed and remade according to God’s destiny.
So Jacob found God in a special place, a location he called ‘the house of God.’ However, the perspective of the New Testament and some of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible is that God is not confined by place. Instead the limitless and uncontainable God can be experienced everywhere. So our story might seem to set up somewhat of a tension between the view that God can be encountered in deeper ways in certain places and alternatively God is accessible everywhere to all people. In the book of Kings, Solomon declares, ‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you’ (1 Kings 8.27). A similar perspective is presented by Stephen in the book of Acts when he boldly declares ‘the Most High does not live in houses made with hands’ (Acts 7.48). Yet rather than play these perspectives off against each other, I believe that both are true. The God who is limitless and who cannot be constrained by place at times choses to meet his finite people in specific places. So places can instil in us a sense of being in a special location to meet God. This was the experience of Jacob, and it is often our experience too. However, perhaps we must remember it is the way that God reaches out to his creatures in the finitude of their being, rather than overwhelming them with the infinitude of the divine mode of being.
Recently most of us have had to find new places and spaces where me can meet God. Locations to conduct our routine of prayer and praise. Certainly many of us have had a certain sense of dislocation or even loss as we have searched for new ways of being the people of God, disciples of Jesus. A couple of Sundays ago I entered the cathedral for the first time in more than three months. The journey away from the regular spiritual home meant discovering new ways of worship and prayer. Yet arriving back, the home coming was quite emotional and overwhelming. The familiar had become a little unfamiliar and I was forced to look with new eyes. It was a bright day full of sunshine and again I marvelled at our Paolozzi windows. I spent some time looking at the colours cast on the stone pillars that are erected around the building to the glory of God. If you look closely at the windows you will see that there are sections that comprise alternating horizontal and vertical rectangles or bars. Together they create a sense of upward movement. However, what I did not know until the Provost told me, is that sense of upward movement is intentional. In fact it is based on a story from the bible. The vertical and horizontal bars that make one look upwards represents a stairway or ladder that leads to divine encounter. Surely you do not need me to tell you the biblical story that is the inspiration for that section of the window.
Like Jacob, not over twenty years but over the last few months, we have journeyed to new places – perhaps places to which would not have chosen to go. Maybe we were worried about what might have been lost. However, hopefully on the ever challenging journey of faith, we have not lost but gained, we have not withered but grown, and we have not been deprived of the presence of God, but rather encountered it in new and unexpected ways. The journey Jacob undertook resulted in him being renamed and remade. I suspect the journey we have been on will be equally transformative. We will never simply go back to doing things precisely in accord with the old ways. As we have encountered God in new ways, we ourselves have been remade, our acts of worship have become more widely accessible and maybe even democratised. It was not a journey that we would have chosen, but we are not the shapers of our destinies. However, in the process we have met the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We have found his dwelling place to be here and everywhere. We also know our journey of discipleship is far from finished. As we look deeply we might see the stairway to God. The story of Jacob points to it, our Paolozzi window is incandescent with it, and in the Gospel of John Jesus declares that the stairway that Jacob saw with angels ascending and descending upon it is actually none other than the Son of Man, that is Jesus himself who gives us access to his heavenly father.
So to the God of journeys, the God of transformations, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of Jesus Christ the ladder upon which the divine meets the human, to that God, the one who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come, the God of Bethel, we render along with Jacob all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power both now in our finitude of being and also in the life to come when we will dwell in the true house of God for evermore and worship God with unbounded and unending praise. Amen.
- Are there any places where you have had a sense of encountering God. What was it about those locations that made them special for you?
- Was the choice of Jacob over his brother Esau fair? What does this say about God’s way of ordering events?
- All of us have been on a journey of sorts over the last four months. What are your new ways of worship and prayer, and are there things that will change permanently for you because of this enforced time away from corporate worship?