Yr A – Pentecost 6 ~ Genesis 28:10-22
Consider a person who would say, “Surely God is in this place—and I did not know it!”
What have they discovered?
What made them come to this realization?
Why did they not know this before?
Where is the place? Is it special? Why?
Will this insight change their life?
Is God where you are? How would you know?
These are just a few of the questions that swirl around this remarkable scene from Jacob’s life, the night of his awakening. And for us it’s one of the most intriguing and instructive biblical stories for awakening to the presence of God. If you are a person of faith then this story of Jacob is your story.
Jacob is not a paragon of virtue (in fact, he’s a pretty rotten guy), and he begins this story utterly alone. He’s fleeing to escape his brother Esau’s wrath after deceiving him twice, finagling for Esau’s birthright (25:29-33) and stealing Esau’s blessing (27:20). Jacob is in liminal, in-between space; and here this nowhere man will encounter God.
The sun has set and it’s night time, a time of danger, vulnerability, and mystery. Jacob has come to ‘a certain place’ that he later names Bethel. To Jacob it’s just a place but in rabbinic tradition the Hebrew word for ‘place’ is also a name for God. Listen to the language: Gen 28:11 “He came to a certain place and stayed there for the 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.” ‘Place’ is important!
So he’s taken a stone for a pillow. In the stories of the patriarchs of Israel when stones are mentioned it’s usually about building an altar. If that connection holds true here Jacob could be seen to be placing his head on an impromptu altar making an inadvertent offering of himself to God.
Then he goes to sleep and has one of the most famous dreams in history. It was the first dream in the bible, perhaps foreshadowing his son Joseph’s many dreams to come.
But why did he dream this dream?
What state of mind or being was he in?
Maybe it’s because it’s only when Jacob is asleep that he’s unguarded enough to be open to a divine encounter?
The NRSV bible diminishes the power of the dream for us by omitting the key Hebrew word hinneh (behold). The dream begins dramatically as we behold in increasing amazement the revelation of God – Hinneh a ramp! Hinneh the angels! Hinneh the Lord! Angels ascend and descend the ramp indicating there’s a constant connection and presence between the two realms. It’s telling us that the spiritual is greatly present in the material. God is present.
God then speaks to Jacob, repeating the blessings and promises of land and progeny given previously to Abrahamand Isaac. These promises are very personal. God promises God’s presence directly and ardently to Jacob saying “Hinneh! Behold! I am with you!” The “I” is very emphatic in the Hebrew.
I hope you have heard God say to you, “Behold! I am with you!”
Jacob more than all his ancestors, the one who was somewhat estranged from God and living a duplicitous life, needed to awaken to God’s presence in a profound way. “The one who is no one and no where, who has no one with him and does not know what his future holds, is assured that the profound existential loneliness that is the lot of all humans will not be his any longer, for God is irrevocably with him.” [D.W.Cotter]
Walter Brueggemann says “(the) miracle is the way this sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive.” Whether Jacob deserves it or not he inherits Abraham’s blessings and receives his own. The question is will he embrace these promises?
Now we get to my favourite part! For me the story’s about awakening to God’s presence and v.16 is the moment it happens. “Surely God is in this place – and I did not know it!”
Rabbi Laurence Kushner said, “The beginning of knowing about God… is simply paying attention, being fully present where you are…waking up.” Here Jacob has a spiritual awakening and encounters God’s omnipresence as an experiential reality for the first time. What was stopping him before?
“God was here all along, and the reason I didn’t know it is because I was too busy paying attention to myself.”
One question that emerges here is if God really is every place why don’t we seem to notice? Surely Jacob would have learned about God’s presence from his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. But as we all know too well, just because someone has been taught this truth, and their grandparents and parents know it, doesn’t mean the person has ever truly understood or experienced God’s presence for themselves.
In fact, prior to his awakening Jacob was pretty antagonistic to the idea of God. When he fooled his father and stole his brother’s blessing he referred to “your God” (27:20).
I wonder if for someone who’s felt far from God, or antagonistic toward God, or never given God a second thought, that they might not even know how to start.
Here’s the thing: it’s not ours to start. It’s God who initiates the embrace and it’s ours to receive or reject. “God was here all along, and the reason I didn’t know it is because I was too busy paying attention to myself.”
There are two main ways God is talked about in the bible: as transcendent and as immanent. The more common one is the transcendent God who’s the maker of heaven and earth. God ‘out there’. But there’s another understanding too. God ‘right here’!
The idea of an immanent and personally knowable God is all through Genesis: God strolls through Eden (3:8), grieves over creation (6:6), delights in pleasing aromas (8:21), and lunches with Abraham (18:1-8). This is the aspect of God that Jacob has never encountered before. He could ignore the ‘out there’ God – but he can no longer ignore the ‘very Present’ God.
Because now he has awoken, literally and figuratively, to a profound paradigm shift and has come to a new understanding of himself and his relationship with God.
Ok, here it is: The critical difference in this verse and in Jacob’s life is not that God suddenly became present to Jacob; the difference was Jacob became present to God.
Rabbi Kushner says, “Now Jacob begins to ponder the events of his life in a new way… ‘If God was here, and I didn’t know, then perhaps God has been other places also.’” And boom! The light goes on and your world changes!
Gen 28:16-17 “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place!”
In Hebrew afraid and awesome are the same word – yr’. Both meanings are meant both times. Yr’ is the emotion of fear or being scared, and also a powerful sense of awe and reverence and utterly overwhelming mystery. Encountering God’s Presence is frightening and wonderful at the same time. It’s a kind of fear that’s indistinguishable from joy. That’s what Jacob is experiencing! Is that how you experience God’s presence?
He’s fully awake now, and he realizes that God truly is in this place.
He’s savouring the awesomeness and the scariness of the moment.
He’s revelling in the awakening.
Surely God is in this place!
Ok, now more questions.
Why did Jacob awaken to God in that particular place?
Was it because of its geography?
Would he have had the same dream if he had journeyed one more kilometre, and would Bethel then be a kilometre further than where it is now?
What makes a place holy ground?
Is it that the place is imbued with a particular innate holiness?
Is it like a church that’s accrued a spiritual residue from numerous worshipful experiences that have occurred over time in that place?
Maybe it’s a sacred space because the people in it are sacred and the place is neutral?
Quite simply, a place is holy if God is in it, and since God is every place then every place must be holy. We encounter God in some places (like here, hopefully) in order that we might notice God everywhere.
Again, it’s not about a particular place – the missing piece is our perception, our awareness, our awakening.
There was a fascinating movement that happened in the United States in the 19th century called the Great Awakening. They had camp meetings – passionate preaching, lively new music, big gatherings that people hadn’t experienced before.
(Just as an aside it was also very social. Young people began meeting people they’d never have met on the farm – which led to the joke: at camp meetings more souls were ‘made’ than ‘saved’!)
Camp meetings, or revival meetings, were all about ‘reviving’ people’s lapsed or sleeping faith. True, for some it became cultural and they wanted to be revived over and over again, but it was an undeniable outpouring and movement of the Spirit. These were people who were already churched and knew what they were supposed to be doing but weren’t doing it. It was an awakening from nominal faith to deep and vibrant faith.
So was it the preaching?
Was it the place where they set the tents up?
Was it the collective spirit of all the people who gathered?
What caused the Great Awakening?
All those things may have been a catalyst and created some favourable openings, but I think the difference was the exact same thing that caused Jacob’s great awakening, and causes yours and mine: “God was here all along, and the reason I didn’t know it is because I was too busy paying attention to myself.” By showing up the people got out of their own way, and God, who was there all along, was revealed!
The missing piece is our perception, our awareness, our awakening.
Now, what does one do after one is awakened? Clearly the answer should be to make some sort of response. Did Jacob? Well, not right away.
Astoundingly, Jacob goes back to sleep after his life changing encounter with God. I’m not sure what to make of that. He has a dream, gets promises from God, has a paradigm-shifting experience, awakens to God’s Holy Presence in him, with him, and all around him, and then decides to go back to sleep. Maybe he wanted to see if he lay down for a while the strange feeling might go away!
But it didn’t! When he arises in the morning he responds to God’s presence with an action and a vow. It was a family thing, apparently. Following encounters with God, Abraham made altars and planted trees (21:33), Isaac made altars and dug wells (26:25), and Jacob set up pillars (28:18; 31:45; 35:14, 20) and anoints them – first mention of oil or anointing in the bible, by the way. And Jacob named the place Bethel which means ‘house of God’ (literally Beth-el).
Then Jacob “vowed a vow” (which how the Hebrew reads). He will repeatedly stumble and fail at keeping his vows throughout the remainder of his story, but in this moment, in the afterglow of his awakening to the personal presence of God, I would take him at his word. God is now “my God” (28:21) to Jacob.
Jacob’s awakening teaches us that no matter who we are, or how estranged from God we may feel, or how dark our spirit may be, God is seeking to stand beside us and bless us with God’s abiding presence.
Our task is to lay our head on the altar and become vulnerable enough to allow God through our defences.
(Maybe that’s why you’re here today?)
God may come in dreams/visions, or words, or nudges, or inklings, and we can choose to ignore them and stubbornly stay asleep, or we can choose to awaken to the awesome, fearful, wonderful mystery and have our world rocked. This kind of profound spiritual transformation is a daunting challenge for us logical, rational, traditional mainline church types, but it is the sure path to the heart of God.
Surely God is in every place, but we have not done a good job of helping people learn to perceive that.
It’s time for an awakening – a great awakening!
God is present, in this place and every place, waiting for us, like Jacob, to awaken and be present to God.
Everything else in our faith journey flows from our great awakening.