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“God Is With Us: Although We May Not Know It” sermon from 1/23/11, Genesis 28:10-22

If you recall, sometime ago, back towards the end of July and into august I gave a few messages on the subject of Grace. I first spoke on what’s so amazing about Grace (God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense) and then I went into specific messages on both of our Sacraments that we practice in the Reformed church because John Calvin (a Reformed Church church father) often refered to them as means of Grace. The Belgic Confession (a statement of faith in the Reformed Church) says in Article #33, “We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, has ordained sacraments for us to seal the promises in us, to pledge the good will and grace of God toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith.” These Sacraments are means of grace in that the good will and grace of God is pledged toward us in them. There are both signs and means of participation in them. Both show forth certain promises and are signs of what we have on the part of the grace of God in Jesus Christ His Son, and there is a participatory element in each in that when each is practiced something sacred takes place; something between us and God, through Jesus Christ His Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. This makes them, as the Belgic Confession goes on to say, “Visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works through the power of the Holy Spirit.” I bring this up today because of that last line, “they are visible signs of invisible realities” by means of which we see God. We see that God is with us. We in remembrance recall His works, and see and experience God in a tangible and real way that He has worked before and still works today.

So, this all fits with the current sermon series I introduced last Sunday. I am trying to help us see that God is with us, and I’ve tied that into the season we are in right now, Epiphany. That’s where the word Epiphany comes from, from when people have an experience where they see God unexpectantly, or come into a better understanding of something about God. We celebrate at Christmas time that God came to be with us, Immanuel. Throughout the rest of the year we need to remember that God is STILL with us, and is always. That’s how we are sustained and able to keep faith; being able to continue to know and see God for He is with us, Emmanuel.

So, this morning we are going to look at another passage showing how God is with us. Last week we saw how God is with us in Jesus Christ. We saw how the Wise Men came looking for the Christ child born King of the Jews, only to encounter God Himself and leave a different way from which they came. I said the same can happen for us, what’s needed is for Christ to become who we are starry-eyed over; He needs to become the center of our lives, the source, our King. Today we are going to look at a story from Genesis where God shows up unexpectantly to Jacob, who if you’re familiar to the greater story, comes to be known as Israel and is the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. Turn with me to Genesis 28:10-22 and follow along as I read…

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 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. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him 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 and 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 all the families of the earth shall be blessed  in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that 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 woke 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 (“Bethel”), and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he 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 that place Bethel (House of God); but the name of the city was Luz (cease to exist, lost, departed) 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 surely give one-tenth to you.”

So here we have the common story known as Jacob’s Ladder, or as some of you more rock enthusiasts might know it (myself included) from Led Zeppelin, the Stairway to Heaven. Jacob, as our passage says, was on his way to Haran from Beer-sheba where he left his immediate family. Jacob had recently received a blessing from his father, Isaac which was actually supposed to go to his twin brother, Esau who was the slightly older brother. Rebekah, Isaac’s wife and the boys’ mother basically tricked Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. To this Esau was enraged, and the fact that Isaac was near death only added to it. Esau began to console himself by planning to kill Jacob and to this Rebekah insists that Jacob flee to Haran to her brother, Laban where he is to take a wife for himself from the Canaanite people and remain there until the fury of his brother Esau turns away from him. It is on this journey to Haran that Jacob has this peculiar experience described in this passage.

Before going too much further I’d like to read to you from a children’s book we have that we received as a gift sometime before Carrie Ann was born. It’s not a book that Melanie and I necessarily like completely. It’s ok, but I am not completely satisfied with it totally (I’ll get into why in a little bit). It’s entitled “What Does God look Like?” and it goes like this… (book not available)

I guess what gets me kind of worked-up about this book is that repeated notion in it that says “God looks like nothing because there is nothing to see.” It says, “Everyone and everything gives us clues that God is here. Clues that point to the One we cannot see.” While I can see how you can say that these things are true, it bothers me. To me, it makes God out to be just this invisible force or thing among us and behind everything. While you can say this is true to a point, if this is all God is then quite frankly, I think he falls short. I want no part in and don’t believe in a God who is just in the background and stays there. Seriously, that does nothing for me! And I think the very opposite is what Jacob responds to in this story. God in this story steps out of the background and becomes real to Jacob, part of his very existence, an ever-present reality in his everyday life!

Jacob, on his way to Haran, witnessed something he had never encountered before. He was basically trying to escape his reality as he knew it as he left his family, and in a dream (something that to many of us is an escape from reality in itself) he encounters something more real than anything he has ever seen before. Let’s reread about this dream and Jacob’s initial response to it quick… it says, “And [Jacob] dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him 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; and 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 all the families on the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that 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.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God (Bethel), and this is the gate of heaven.’” Sounds a lot better than the children’s story I just read, huh?

God here basically pulls back the backdrop and lets Jacob see what’s behind the scenes; what’s really going on, that more than meets the eye reality I’ve been talking about lately. This has happened to me before. When I was in college in my first year, before I knew God and all He has for me in Jesus Christ I had a crazy encounter. I happened to be attending a campus ministry movie night with a girl I was dating at the time and something pretty awesome happened. Someone spoke towards the end of the event and proceeded to lead us in prayer. He encouraged all of us present to give over everything on our minds and hearts to God, whatever was burdening us, hard-pressing us, lift it up in prayer to God. I happened to be struggling with quite bit coming there that evening. I was still living the party lifestyle in college and just during the week prior I fell into some scary circumstances two different times with good friends of mine while we were drunk. These experiences scared me and had me re-thinking life and all there is, and also the hardships from my past and childhood were budding up against all of it as well. This is what I carried with me to that campus ministry gathering that evening. It was quite the heavy load. And as it came time to follow the instructions of the speaker I took him up on his offer and laid all of this on God giving it to Him. What happened next was crazy. I basically felt this presence come over me, swoop through me, and it seems as if I was lifted up in the air being held in this humongous set of hands and this sense of a whisper telling me “everything’s alright. I am here and always have been; I am with you… I am fully aware of everything, and I will take care of you.”

Now, I didn’t have quite the same response to this experience that Jacob appears to have had in his. This experience frightened me, and for the rest of the night I couldn’t help but keep looking into the sky wondering what had hit me, passed through me. Our story of Jacob says that “he was afraid”, but I believe this means in more of a reverent/worshipful way for he declares “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” That was not my response at all. We were both awe-struck, but I was flat out scared, and I also felt secure in it though too. I just didn’t understand and what had happened fully. But I’ve definitely never forgot it, and it led me sometime afterwards to worship God and want to follow and know Him more.

What happened in both of these instances (both Jacob’s and my own) is that God peals back the layers and shows that Him and His angels are right here with us, among us; they are real! Jacob has this dream and he sees this structure connecting heaven to earth and angels ascending and descending upon it and it showed him some of what is really happening, and is here all around us. You see, I think it’s very common for us to think of ourselves as us down here and God and His angels and all that short of stuff up there, somewhere off in the distance, disconnected. But Jacob’s dream shows that this is not what it’s like at all. God and His angels are right here among us, with us. They are real; Interacting with us, and nature, and everything! So, in a sense I can agree with what the children’s book says, that God and His angels are in the background, behind the scenes and we can’t necessarily see Him/them. But what gets me is that line, “there is nothing to see”, THERE IS PLENTY TO SEE among us and in us and this world! God is everywhere and in everything and when you actually see that, it’s amazing; you can’t help but be awe-struck.

And there’s at least one more thing I want to point out to you here. This is something I discovered, that God showed to me, this past week in my studying for this message. The story says that Jacob rises early in the morning and takes his stone-pillow and sets it up as a pillar in that place and pours oil over it, anointing it. It then says that “He called that place Bethel (meaning, “House of God”), but the name of the city was Luz at first.” I read that line and it struck me as odd. “Why would it tell me that the name of the city was Luz at first”? Well, I looked up the Hebrew word “Luz” and the verb form of the word means “cease in existence, be lost, departed or left.” That place where Jacob laid his head went from being known as really nothing imparticular to being renamed and discovered to be the “House of God and very gate of heaven.” It’s almost as if to say that God came into existence in that very place and therefore that place couldn’t be known for nothing and as nothing anymore. God became something real to Jacob that day. He broke into his existence; made Himself known, and knowable. Those are words I used to describe the Advent season and what Advent meant in December. God may be very much invisible, but He definitely makes Himself, and is, visible too. God is with us… May He become real to you!… Show you He is here, and may you respond with worship towards Him!

This part of Jacob’s story ends with Jacob pledging himself to God declaring that if God would be with him, keep him in his way and give him bread to eat and clothing to wear and return him safely home, he would worship and serve Him always; the Lord would be his God! That’s basically the same pledge God made to him in his dream as He said “Know that 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.” This is God’s pledge to all of us and all creation. This is what He is and has been working on, keeping to… Being with us, keeping us and creation wherever we go and whatever happens, and making sure we get safely back home. I pray that He would make Himself real to you and you would pledge yourself to Him, making Him your God and giving what you have been blessed with over to Him.

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