“God is There”
September 30, 2007
In the ordinary someplaces of your life, wake up and realize that God is there.
I. We are headed someplace - Genesis 27:41-28:9
II. The place where God breaks in - Genesis 28:10-15
III. Wake up and realize that God is there - Genesis 28:16-22
The stories you are about to hear are true; only the names and some of the details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals. Chuck Miller has worked for various Nasa contractors most of his career and has a significant management position supporting shuttle safety. Sometimes this job gets a little hairy, as during the last flight when the shuttle tiles took that gouge. The press said that thousands of man hours were spent evaluating the dangers and deciding whether to make a fix, and Chuck felt most of those hours were his. It’s easy for Chuck to feel the burden of pressure and responsibility, and to start thinking all depends on him. Day in, day out, he has to make those kind of calls, and it starts to feel awful lonely at times.
Sharon Miller has also been struggling lately. Not with work but with all the needs she sees around her. Sharon’s mom and her children need a tremendous amount of care and help, not to mention transportation and shopping. Sharon swears she could spend her entire day as a chauffeur. Then there are her own commitments, to women’s ministry, to Awana, to Bible study. But the real burdens come from others she wants to care for: the new family at church where the mom is struggling; the family that lost a loved one and needs encouragement; the friend who struggles with a difficult marriage; the neighbor who has been so friendly, but doesn’t have the first clue about Jesus. Sharon often feels like she’s spinning in circles, accomplishing nothing because she’s trying to do everything.
Josh Miller’s problem isn’t too much to do, but in a sense too little. He’s been at college for over a month now, and though he’s too macho to really admit it, he’s homesick - for his friends, for his family, for the freedom of being a senior in high school and not a freshman in college. He’s only starting to make friends at school, only starting to get involved with Inter Varsity on campus; he’s doing pretty well with his course work, but it’s hard, especially one course where he just can’t figure out what the professor is talking about. The combination of homesickness, loneliness and the challenge of academics has him walking through his days with his head down and his eyes on himself. His family and the folks at IV tell him that it’ll pass, that God has a plan for him on this campus, but Josh isn’t really convinced.
The road of life stretches out behind. The road of life stretches out ahead. You and I are someplace in the middle. We’ve left the starting point, we’re not yet at the destination, and sometimes the days are a crushing repetition of responsibility, loneliness and discouragement. We know we’re on a journey, but the speed of that journey, one day at a time, and the slowness of change and the sameness of what we do makes it hard to see any progress. We’re just someplace on the way.
In Genesis 28 we encounter a man in just such a position, a man who is someplace that is neither his journey’s origin, nor it’s destination, just an ordinary someplace on the path. And in that someplace God shows up. The exhortation I want to give you today is a word from God’s word that touches my soul deeply. It’s simply this: in the ordinary someplaces of life, wake up, because God is there.
I. We are headed someplace - Genesis 27:41-28:9
We have to precede our key episode today with a few verses of context. When we last left our story, Jacob and his mother Rebekah had deceived Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob rather than Esau. But that scheme has consequences. Genesis 27:41 Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, "The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob." Jacob schemed shamelessly to steal the blessing from Esau, and Esau is understandably upset. But he overreacts: “all right, the simple answer is to kill off Jacob. As soon as Isaac dies, snick; then I’ll have the birthright and the blessing.” Good plan Esau; God’s blessing is always abundant on murderers.
Esau’s mother, Rebekah, takes this threat seriously. Verse 42: When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, "Your brother Esau is consoling himself with the thought of killing you. 43Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran. 44Stay with him for a while until your brother's fury subsides. 45When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I'll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?" Rebekah essentially gives Jacob his walking papers. She doesn’t admit that her scheme might have gone slightly wrong. She simply points out Esau’s threat and tells Jacob he has to leave.
But Rebekah is too much in the habit of manipulating her husband to stop now. Rather than simply telling him of the threat to Jacob, she uses a different motivation to get Isaac to send Jacob off to her brother. Verse 46: 46Then Rebekah said to Isaac, "I'm disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living." Anybody here into emotional blackmail? We talked last week about the temptation wives face to manipulate their husbands. If you want a one verse example, this is it: “I’ll just die if you let him marry one of these Hittites.”
And Isaac’s the perfect target. He proposes exactly Rebekah’s plan. Chapter 28, verse 1: So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him and commanded him: "Do not marry a Canaanite woman. 2Go at once to Paddan Aram, to the house of your mother's father Bethuel. Take a wife for yourself there, from among the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother. 3May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. 4May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham." 5Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, who was the mother of Jacob and Esau.
Isaac was manipulated into this situation, but he still seems to give sincere instructions and a sincere blessing to Jacob. I said last week I thought Isaac had gotten his thinking straightened out when he realized he’d been deceived. At this point he seems to fully recognize that Jacob is the one chosen by God, and he gives the best of the several blessings in this scene: “May God Almighty bless you” by making you fruitful and increasing your numbers and making you a community of peoples. Isaac explicitly calls this ‘the blessing given to Abraham: “So that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien.” Isaac is saying “I know I’m not going to possess the land; I’m an alien and stranger, as you are too, Jacob, a wanderer. But soon God will keep his promise to Abraham, and your descendants will possess this land.” This is a great prayer, the kind of prayer Isaac ought to have prayed as his first blessing; And God will now be pleased to answer.
Before we get to that, one more picture of Esau. 6 to 9: 6Now Esau learned that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him to Paddan Aram to take a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he commanded him, "Do not marry a Canaanite woman," 7and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and had gone to Paddan Aram. 8Esau then realized how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; 9so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had.
Esau is pitiful. Only now, and too late, does he suspect that his marriages to Canaanite women played a role in his loss of blessing. So he clumsily tries to make amends. While Jacob goes of with his father’s prayer to find a wife in Haran, Esau goes off with nobody’s blessing to find a wife from the descendants of Isamael, the dis-inherited older son of Abraham. He does get a wife, apparently a granddaughter of Abraham’s. But it’s too late. He’s already married the Canaanite women and had the first of his children. He can’t change the past or regain what’s been lost.
II. The place where God breaks in - Genesis 28:10-15
Meanwhile, Jacob is on the way, from Beersheba, in southern Israel to Paddan Aram, at the north end of the Red Sea. This is the same journey Abraham’s servant had made on behalf of Isaac, and for the same reason, to find a wife. But Jacob isn’t there yet; in Genesis 28:10-15, we find him someplace on the way: Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "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.
14Your 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. 15I 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’ve promised you."
No matter how ordinary the someplace you are in, God wants you to know he is there. If it’s an ordinary day at a difficult job, an ordinary day with too many needs, an ordinary day on a lonely campus, or whatever similar ordinary you are in, God wants you to know he’s there. Moses, the author of Genesis, describes a random, ordinary place: ‘When he reached a certain place’ he stopped for the night. You might miss it in the translations, but the word ‘place’ occurs three times in this verse, three more times in this scene. In that ordinary someplace Jacob, traveling light, takes an ordinary stone as a pillow and goes to sleep.
During the night he has a dream, but not an ordinary dream: it was the kind that left you no doubt about it’s reality. God steps in, takes the initiative and surprises Jacob, without the need for any kind of scheme on Jacob’s part. And as one commentator says “the dream is not a morbid review of his shameful past. It is rather the presentation of an alternative future with God.” In this unexpected event in a no-place God sovereignly reveals himself to Jacob.
Jacob dreams of a stairway or ladder - the word is rare and could mean either. The bottom of the ladder is on earth; the top of the ladder reaches up to heaven. The ladder is an obvious symbol of communication between heaven and earth, made even more obvious by the presence of angels, messengers of God who are gathering from earthly places and ascending, while others descend and scatter to do God’s bidding. Our ordinary earth is thus shown to be a place where God’s hand is constantly at work.’ This is an awesome visitation of God in his power and glory to undeserving Jacob. This is a revelation of God’s presence similar to those given to Isaiah, Ezekiel and John. It’s something Isaac never got and Abraham only got a hint of, but here it’s graciously given to a lying, deceiving, fleeing swindler. And if God is gracious enough to make his presence known to Jacob, why would he not grant his presence to us, we who have already been redeemed by His Son?
God’s word’s are full of his grace, verse 13: "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.” God identifies himself as the one who has been at work in Jacob’s line, and then says ‘I will give’. I will give this land, I will give all these promises, I will give not because of how deserving you are, but because of how righteous I am. He repeats the covenant: “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.”
And then he gets to what we have come to regard as a central element of God’s plan for mankind, verse 15: “I am with you”. Most of you can recall how we’ve seen this over and over. But like Jacob, we sometimes go down the road of life needing to hear this: “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." Could it be any more clear? What a promise from what a God!
In the ordinary someplaces of life, I am with you. One day recently, in the middle of a busy day with it’s share of discouragements, Chuck Miller headed toward the elevators to go up to yet another meeting. He’d just pushed the button when Charlie came around the corner. Charlie was one of the janitors in the building, and some time back Charlie had discovered that Chuck was a Christian. He spotted Chuck and a grin split his old face and he called out “Hey brother, praise the Lord, what’s the Lord been up to?” Chuck made some non-committal noise, vaguely thinking that he hadn’t thought about his Lord in hours, maybe days. Charlie looked at the elevator button and said to Chuck: “You know what I always think about when I’m waiting for an elevator?” “No” “Isaiah: They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up on wings as eagles. You oughta be waiting on the Lord today Chuck, mountin’ up on them eagle wings.” The door opened. Chuck went in with a new spring in his step. “Thanks, Charlie, see ya around.”
The one constant in Sharon Miller’s life is her quiet time. More days than not she gets up, goes to her favorite chair, pulls out her Bible and notebook and spends some time in God’s word. One day recently the distractions and needs around her consumed this sacred time, and Sharon cried out “What am I supposed to be doing with my life?” She looked down at the Psalm in front of her, Psalm 46, and heard what she knew ought to be the answer “Be still and know that I am God.” For a moment the verse didn’t comfort her: God you’ve said this to me so many times before; why do I have to keep coming to this. Then she thought of a John Piper devotional she’d read. It was on Lamentations 3: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” With a chuckle Sharon said to herself “Yea, these promises are new every morning because I keep forgetting every day. Tell me again, Lord; just keep telling me again.”
Josh Miller has really been working to try to overcome homesickness, to believe he’s on campus for a reason. Recently as he headed out of a class, he found himself walking with a guy who lives in his dorm. They talked about a couple things, including Josh’s love of kite-boarding. Josh’s chance remark about God’s protection turned the conversation, and Josh found the guy was an agnostic: God might exist, but even if he did, he wasn’t involved in the world in any concrete way. Josh pointed to God’s protection of his kite-boarding. As the conversation went on, Josh was able to cite several times when God’s presence in his life made a huge difference. By the end of their talk, the agnostic wasn’t much convinced, but Josh was.
Chuck, Sharon, Josh and Jacob have all seen God working in their ordinary someplaces on the road of life. And because God is a faithful God, you and I can also sense his presence and receive his promises. You may have even had episodes like these in your life - not the beatific dreams, but the concrete evidences of God’s presence. I know I’ve had them: Tuesday morning as I was thinking and praying about the meaning of this text I felt the presence of God so strongly. If you haven’t had an experience like this, the people in front of you or behind you probably have.
The only prerequisite in our day is to be one of God’s people now, just as Jacob was then. On this side of the cross, with the full story of Jesus made plain to us in Scripture, God has revealed that the way to become one of his people is to first recognize our sin; willful disobedience to God and hurtful behavior to others. When we recognize that we do not deserve God’s favor, we look to Jesus, who died on the cross to pay the price of our sin. Only through him can we be forgiven and renewed and made part of God’s family. It’s not because we deserve it, but because we don’t. God says to lying, deceitful Jacob ‘I will give; I will be’. And he says to us ‘I will save’. He saves all who throw themselves, by faith, into the loving arms of the risen savior. All who trust Jesus are made God’s people, and Jesus promises them “I am with you always’, the same promise God made to Jacob, and the same promise the real people behind the stories of Chuck and Sharon and Josh have found to be true.
III. Wake up and realize that God is there - Genesis 28:16-22
There is one more thing: So far this is all a dream. Jacob’s still asleep. It’s what happens after he wakes up that determines if the promises make a difference. Verses 16-22. Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." 17He 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." 18So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top. 19He called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz 20Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, 21and I return to my father's house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. 22"This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You."
For most of his life Jacob has been asleep to the presence of God. Sadly, that won’t entirely change. But here, for a moment, Jacob wakes up and responds: ‘surely the presence of God is in this place and I knew it not.’ Chuck, Sharon and Josh Miller might have said the same thing: in my work place; in my daily refuge; on my college campus, God is present; I needed only to see it. The next time you’re in your ordinary someplace, stop and tell yourself: “the presence of God is in this place - I only need to know it.” And Jacob, having waked up to this reality, models for us three appropriate responses. First, fear - that is awe, wonder, and a little bit of trembling. ‘Oh my goodness, the God of the universe has broken in here.’
Verse 17: He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." The ordinary someplace in Jacob’s life has been transformed into a place of awe, a place where God dwells - his house, a place where heaven and earth come together. Jacobs first response is awe-full worship of God, as ours should be.
His second response is memorial: He wants to remember this. Verse 18: “So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top. 19He called the name of that place Bethel.” Just as Joshua would set memorial stones where Israel crossed Jordan, just as Samuel would set up a stone where God defeated the Philistines and name it Ebenezer, the stone of help, so Jacob sets up a stone, perhaps the first stone of a temple, and he called the place beth-el, the house of God. When God shows up, what do you do for a memorial? How do you remember? You can be like Jacob and give a place a name. We sometimes call our house ‘Beth Jireh’ - the house God provided. But even better is to remember by telling these stories of God’s intervention. Stuart and Peggy Milliken were here last week, and Gail and I found ourselves giving them a fairly full version of the story of our foster son Alex. Why? Because we love the story; because in that story God is clearly seen to be at work. It’s a remembrance.
Finally, Jacob responds with commitment. Verse 20: “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, 21and I return to my father's house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. 22"This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You."
Jacob makes a vow, which is a common and accepted thing in the Old Testament. Jesus, of course, cautions us against rashly making vows, but that’s because he desires more commitment from us, not less. In fact this vow is very much a prayer for God to continue to be with Jacob: keep me safe on this journey, provide for me.” I don’t think he’s bargaining with God at this point, as some contend. I think rather he’s recognizing that God is a God who provides and the journey of life he is on will not work without that provision. So Jacob says “Go with me on this journey and when I get back I’ll make this place your temple and give you a tenth of all that you provide for me in the process.” His grandfather Abraham had already established the precedent of giving a tenth of his success back to the one who gave it. Jacob intended to do the same. How about you? Is there some commitment you need to make to God? Some prayer of worship and service that responds to his presence?
This encounter reorients Jacob in a Godward direction. It transforms Jacob’s journey. What had originated as a flight to avoid death and a trip to find a wife becomes a pilgrimage with God. He goes to the same place to accomplish the same goals, but now he travels as a carrier of God’s promises and with a divine assurance of aid.
In the same way Chuck is now looking for God to show up in his work place. Sharon is now looking again for God to speak to her through his word. Josh is looking for God to open doors of opportunity on his campus. And if you and I, in the ordinary someplaces of our lives, will wake up and realize that God is there, we will live not just for him, but with him, in his presence.