He Called that Place Bethel
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. He called that place Bethel
Do you or did you tell your children stories about things that happened in your life; things that happened when you were young? Or maybe you have those favourite ones you tell your grandchildren. My grandchildren sometimes ask me to tell them stories about their parents when they were children. And as we describe things to them we sometimes are describing a place we knew or visited; like telling your child about a grandparent’s cottage you visited in your childhood, a cottage now long gone from the family.
1. I can easily imagine that Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had described this place to Jacob long before Jacob arrived late on that first evening as he was fleeing from home on his way to his uncle Laban’s home. Abraham had been there years before when he first came to the land God had promised to give to his descendants; Abraham had pitched his tent just to the east of those terraced hills where he built an altar and enquired of the Lord. (Genesis 12:8)
So I can imagine Abraham telling a young Jacob about God’s call and God’s promises. I can hear him describing the beauty of this place and the unusual geological formation with what looks like a natural staircase leading ever higher to that flat top; a stairway surely crafted by the hand of the world’s Creator. So when Jacob arrives here late in that day he can hear Abraham’s description ringing in his ears. Though he hasn’t ever been here before it is almost like he has; it’s exactly like the way his grandfather had described it. So as he climbs the stairway to the top that night and finds a secure place to lay his head down to rest the beauty of this natural stairway he comes to call Bethel is playing in his mind as he falls asleep.
“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. And the Lord stood beside him …. The word translated “ladder” in our text can also mean a stairway. The word “ladder” conjures up images of those devices we use with two side rails and a rungs every 12 inches (31 cm) or so apart. I think it better to imagine the terraced hillside of Bethel as an image for what Jacob sees in his dream. On that stairway/ladder are “the angels of God were ascending and descending.”
I believe that Jacob notes the direction the angels were going because it was not what he expected. Like Jacob, our expectation is that the angels would be first descending from heaven then ascending to heaven—things spiritual should originated in heaven where important things of cosmic significance take place not here in the mundane of life. Yet the direction is not as we might expect. The angels of God are ascending to heaven then descending again as if to take the needs of earth to heaven then return with the needed help. Human life matters to God. This predicament Jacob has behaved himself into is not outside the scope of heaven’s attention and care. Jacob’s actions have shown that he has always assumed that he must make his own way, must climb the ladder in the world, cheating and swindling people if necessary. These angels ascending from the place where he lays and descending to the same place again gives a very different message about the nature of our existence. God is with him and his care of him unrelenting even in this difficult moment.
And the Lord stood beside him; please note that God isn’t at the top of the stairway presiding at a distance. God is beside him speaking to him. God wants him to know that his hand is upon him. “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 of 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.”
As the Lord speaks another memory is being evoked in Jacob’s mind. Some of this that God says sounds so familiar. Yes, he can hear his grandfather’s voice again telling him of the promises God made to his grandfather; promises he now hears God making to him—“and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” Then Jacob wakes up and the vividness of the dream is so firmly planted in his consciousness he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ I am not sure what Jacob understands about God at this point in his life but here he learns that God is in a place he didn’t expect. God accompanies him wherever he goes. Jacob names the place Bethel which means “house of God.”
Yes it is all too true that, like Jacob, many of the difficult places we find ourselves in are ones that we, to some extent, behaved ourselves into. Our Lord’s promise “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” doesn’t contain a behaviour or morals clause rendering his care conditional. This is grace. But not all difficult places are ones of our own making or complicity. Being victimized is devastating and our Lord does not abandon us in these places either. Jacob’s ladder isn’t a one off; angels are ascending and descending to the place of our pain—and our joy, I might add. Today our text of scripture assures us that God is in this place with us as he was with Jacob.
There is a day in every believer’s life when she experiences sufficient vividness of the Lord’s presence that she can say yes, I believe. A point comes when we can respond positively to our Lord’s invitation to “believe in God, believe also in me.” For some faith comes suddenly like an alarm clock waking us up. For others it comes over time when we can now reflect that, “yes, I do believe.” And for all of us there is a growing in faith that occurs over time as the vision of our Lord’s love for us gets enlarged; as we learn more of God and grow in intimacy with him. This is both an awakening day for Jacob and a day when his understanding of God gets enlarged. As for Jacob so too for us, we are all a work in progress.
2. We’ve been thinking about this event at Bethel from below, so to speak; that is from Jacob’s perspective and his experience. The greater part of this story is, of course, what it tells us of what God is up to in Jacob’s life. As we reflect on that for a few moments I invite you to think with me about the promise of God. God’s promises are not like our promises. We promise to do something and have good intentions to keep that promise. Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, we are prevented from fulfilling promise because of circumstance or distraction or failed memory. There is no such weakness or limitation with God.
Power, biblically speaking, is the ability to achieve purpose. And there is nothing that can ever thwart God in achieving his purposes. So when a promise of God is uttered its fulfilment is not in doubt. God will not leave Jacob until he has done what he promised. Notice that the promise is not dependent on Jacob but on God. So too are the promises of Jesus Christ to us; the good our Lord purposes for us will be fulfilled—even if they look rather iffy from our perspective as they looked for Jacob in his flight from home.
I want to probe for a moment God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob. Consider God’s promise that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” Thomas Cahill is a talented historian who has written a series of books called The Hinges of History in which he means to retell the story of the Western world as the story of great gift-givers. One of those books is titled The Gift Of The Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. In that book Cahill makes the point that, historically speaking, the religious thought of most of the world held a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. For example, in the Greek world “no event is unique, nothing is enacted but once …; every event has been enacted, is enacted, and will be enacted perpetually; the same individuals have appeared, appear, and will appear at every turn of the circle.” This tends toward a very fatalistic view of life.
Cahill writes, “The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world.” (p.5) Cahill’s observation is worth reflecting upon. He correctly notes that Jewish thought rejects the fatalism of a cyclical view of the cosmos. The idea that there is a future to be anticipated, that time is linear, is imbedded in the promise of God—I will do (the following). The fulfilment isn’t now but will come in the future. This cosmic understanding of promised future by God is the idea out of which we do forward looking strategic planning (for example). We are not stuck in a repetitive circle; a future can be conceived and worked toward. This idea that a future can be reached for is implied in the promises of God. And, I believe this has been a great blessing to many families of the earth who live in culture shaped by this understanding.
I have invited you to consider one small aspect of the profound way God fulfils promise to bless the families of the earth in this promise to Jacob by considering the linear view of life embedded in God’s promise. And of course the greatest blessing comes through Jacob’s descendent, Israel’s greater Son, Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus came into the world, is present with us now, and will come again. Living now out of this Christian conviction, inherited from our Jewish forbearers, of linear time blesses people around us in ways we don’t imagine but God is using to fulfil his purposes to bless the families of the earth.
3. We have thought a little today of the impression that God has imprinted on Jacob’s heart here at Bethel. We have reflected further on the promise God made here at Bethel. I invite you to think with me a little about the place Jacob calls Bethel. When Jacob awoke from his dream he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” He rose early in the morning, and took a stone that he put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of is. He called that place Bethel.
Jacob follows an instinct here when he set up as a monument that stone which had served as his pillow while he dreamt and saw this vision of God now stamped indelibly on heart. He knows that, as vivid as the impression on his mind might be, it would tend to fade so he erected this stone that in days after he might have a witness that would testify to this incursion of God in his life. I know we have to be careful with this kind of thing; cautious that we don’t start to worship the object. At the same time remember that spiritual life isn’t merely an inward thing. We mustn’t despise the aid of all external helps. There is a place in our spiritual life for places that inspire and remind and point and promote our faith life.
And in like manner the church has set aside a building to meet for worship. We have set hours for public worship, and study time and stained glass image (point our ladder), etc. And one monument that stands above many is the Lord’s Supper where we cherish the memory of known truth, and deepen our spiritual life. We remember in the Hebrew sense of remembering, living now in the truth of what happened back then—we know that it is Jesus giving us himself as he gives the bread and wine. And each time you take it you proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes—see how it has us looking forward.
At the Lord’s Table God’s people gather to eat what looks like very common bread as well as drink what seems like quite ordinary wine or juice. (Jacob’s stone was quite ordinary) None of it actually looks all that different from what we buy at a store or bakery and then eat and drink at home. (Jacob’s stone looked quite like other stones in that place.) And yet we profess that God makes himself present to us and in these common elements. (Jacob professed that here God met him.)
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. He called that place Bethel.