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There are certain places where God seems more real to us.
In the mountains.
In a beautiful cathedral.
Even in our small and picturesque sanctuary. Perhaps when you come here you are able to think more about the Lord.
But what about other places? What about the everyday, ordinary places where we live most of our lives?
The grocery store?
Where we work?
Does God, can God, will God show up in those places?
Jacob is on the run. The son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham is running from his brother Esau. He is running from Esau because Esau has pledged to kill Jacob for stealing his birthright. The birthright involved the inheritance, the prominence, and the blessing of the father. Jacob’s stealing of the birthright is a story in itself, but Jacob was a conniver, a cheat, and a manipulator.
As Jacob leaves his home and is on his journey he comes to a certain place where he decides to spend the night. Jacob assumed he was traveling alone and that the only purpose of his life was survival. He is just trying to make it. Find a place to live. Find a wife. Find employment. God wasn’t his primary concern.
That night Jacob has a dream. He sees a stairway going from the earth up into heaven. (And as much as any fans of the 70’s rock band Led Zeppelin will want us to sing “Stairway to Heaven” this morning I don’t think Bradley has the music.) Some Bibles read that Jacob saw a ladder going from the earth to heaven. (As much as some of you want to sing “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” I don’t think Bradley knows that one either.)
Actually, the word for this ladder signifies what was called a ziggurat. Ziggurats were a form of temple common to the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia. They were in the shape of a pyramid with stone stairs that led up to the top of a large temple where there was a gate leading into the shrine where the gods were believed to dwell. Jacob sees this large stairway in the shape of a pyramid going from where he is up to heaven.
In this dream, Jacob sees the angels of God ascending and descending, going up and coming down. It says “There above it stood the Lord” but that phrase could easily be translated, and the Hebrew phrase really means, that the Lord stood beside Jacob or was near him.
Jacob is in the presence of the Lord.
And the Lord speaks to Jacob. He gives Jacob a promise.
“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
This, by the way, is the promise that God first made to Abraham. A promise to make a great people through him. This people become Israel.
Jacob sees this long stairway in his dream but it wasn’t the stairway that fascinated Jacob. What blew him away was that the Lord was right where he was. God had come down the ramp. God had come down to Jacob in this desolate place.
Jacob says, ““Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” “How awesome is this place.”
“Surely God is in this place…” Is God in a place? Are there places where all of a sudden we feel God is with us? Maybe calling to us? Maybe confronting us? Or maybe the question to ask is are there any places God can’t be?
“…and I was not aware of it.” Jacob confesses his own lack of awareness. Apparently it is possible for God to show up and a person is unaware of it. Are you aware of the Lord in the different places you go?
Here is Jacob, running away from his own trouble, in a place of no importance, not sure what is ahead of him. He is not praying. He is not thinking about God. Yet, he finds God in that place through a dream.
Jacob’s spiritual awareness is heightened on that ground where he slept. Remember, he is in exile from his home and family. He is all alone. He has nothing but a cold piece of ground and a hard stone to rest his head.
Sometimes in some of the hardest, coldest, loneliest places the presence of the Lord can be greatest.
God is not confined to wondrous cathedrals and church sanctuaries. Nor is he only with us when we are in church or having our devotions. He is very much in those places and times, and they are vital. But all of earth and heaven belong to God. He can show up anywhere, anytime, in anyway. Oh, our God travels well.
Faith is having the eyes to see the presence of the Lord with us, wherever we are. Faith allows us to see those moments when he breaks into our realm.
Jacob never expected the Lord to be there. Maybe you don’t expect the Lord to be at your desk, in your car, on aisle 16, at the club, in the waiting room. But he is closer than we think.
Someone said, "There is more of God's glory per square inch in one Manhattan subway car at rush hour than in any solitary experience of nature." Have you ever been in a Manhattan subway? But be careful about limiting the places where God’s presence can be found and known.
The Celts – those ancient people of the British isles - believed that the presence of God filled daily life and could transform any moment or place at any time. They believed that any moment, any object, any job of work can become a place for encounter with God. In everyday happenings and ordinary ways God can be known. So the Celts had prayers for everything. They had prayers for getting up in the morning, for lighting the fire, getting dressed, milking the cow and a host of other daily, ordinary experiences.
They also had this belief in something they called “thin places.” Thin places are places where the curtain between heaven and earth seem almost transparent. They are places and moments when you can almost see God. He seems so close, so present, almost as if you can touch him.
A cliff overlooking the ocean, a peaceful forest, a mountain, a prayer room, maybe a place in our own home.
The Celts used to say that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. Maybe you have known times when the Lord seems really close. It’s almost like you can touch him.
When I was in college I earned money cleaning houses. One of my jobs was with an older woman in a church I attended. Here name was Susie and Susie had grown older and was struggling with health. One day I came to clean and she was laying down on her bed. A woman was there caring for her. Susie began talking to me, asking how I was doing, how things were going. Then she asked me to pray for her. She had never done this before and I thought it was a little unusual but of course I did.
As I prayed I had this sense that someone was standing at the foot of the bed. I opened my eyes while praying and saw no one. But I still sensed a presence. I have maybe had that sense one or two other times since then.
After praying we visited a bit more, I cleaned the house and then left.
That night Susie died. I believe it was the presence of God standing at the foot of that bed ready to take her home.
The Lord’s promise to Jacob was to be with him wherever he went. That is the Lord’s promise to us as well. God said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” He is present whether we know it or not. We easily sense him when good happens to us but he is present when hard things strike our lives as well. He is with us when we are confused, disappointed, frustrated, or when we make bad judgments.
The Lord promised to be with Moses. He promised to be with the prophet Jeremiah. He promised to be with us. That is what Emmanuel, one of the names for God and Jesus, means: God with us.
In the Upper Room Jesus gives this promise to his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me” The Lord also told them he would show himself to those who love him. Jesus is actually with us now. He is best noticed by those who love him.
Sometimes we have to put our minds to this. It takes some effort and intentionality. C.S. Lewis spoke about “obstinacy of belief.” To be obstinate is to be determined and stubborn. Obstinacy of belief is a determination against all odds and all evidence that our Lord is actually beside us every moment of every day. We are never alone. How might we change if we really believe that in our lives?
It’s not like being aware of God is for highly religious, mega-moral types who have it all together. Jacob was more than rough around the edges. He made a lot of messes in his life. Jacob has been nothing but a lot of trouble up to this point. But God’s presence is a grace, not something that is earned or necessarily deserved. God will come to Jacob not because of anything Jacob has done. God comes to Jacob, and will be with him and protect and bless him, because he chooses to do so out of his grace. It isn’t deserved. It is given.
There are those who imagine we have to climb up to God in order to know him. We have to pray enough or do enough good things or earn God’s favor before God will make himself known in our lives. Certainly, consciously living in communion with the Lord will make us more aware. But the story of the Bible is God coming down to us. The ladder wasn’t there for Jacob to climb up to God. God came down to where Jacob was.
That is certainly the heart of the Christian gospel. God stepped down and out of eternity in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh. One time Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” He was pointing people to this event in Jacob’s life. Jesus was the Son of Man. Jesus meant that seeing him is like seeing heaven and earth open to each other. Just like Jacob saw the ladder so seeing Jesus is like seeing God’s own presence right beside you.
Jesus is saying that he is the way and the stairway that leads to heaven. He is saying “In me you will find earth and heaven connected. I am your link with heaven.” “Keep your eyes on me, and you will see that surely the presence of the Lord is right here, just as sure as Jacob saw angels ascending and descending.”
In Philippians 4 the Apostle Paul writes,
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
There is a connection between knowing that the Lord is near, and not being anxious and knowing the peace of God.
Yes, the Lord is near. Jacob found that out in an astounding way. Jesus makes it easier for us to see this. Be careful. God may show up in your life in places you never thought were possible.
Prayer: Spirit of God, open our eyes, open our hearts, open our senses to be aware of you. For Lord there is no place where you cannot be. Walk with us wherever we go. Your presence, guiding, leading, helping. For we need you. Amen.
 This quote may have come from Pastor Tim Keller, but I can’t verify it.  http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/articles/celtic-spirituality-a-beginners-guide/  Hebrews 13:5  John 14:18-19  David Roper, Jacob: The Fool God Chooses, p.47  John 1:51  John For Everyone, Part One, Tom Wright, p.19  Dale Bruner, Commentary on John, p.116  Philippians 4:7