Last Lord’s Day, you heard about the matchmaking that brought Isaac and Rebekah together. You probably all know that they had twin boys – Esau and Jacob – and about the conniving way that Jacob swindled Esau out of both his birthright and his blessing.
Our Hebrew Bible Lesson for today picks up with Jacob running for his life. He was headed for Haran, where his mother’s brother Laban lived.
[READ Genesis 28:10-17]
Jacob was not in a good place emotionally. He had left behind his home, all the material wealth that he had essentially stolen from his brother, and the mother he adored. His father was on his deathbed, his brother wanted him dead, and to stay alive he was taking a journey of about 550 miles through the wilderness.
Haran was located in what is now Turkey.
He was probably sad, scared, and longing for home. But Jacob was about to discover that home was not where he thought it was.
One particular night – while Jacob was near the town of Luz in the land which came to be known as Israel – He pulled up a stone to use as a pillow and fell asleep. He dreamed that he saw a stairway connecting heaven and earth, with angels going up and down it.
That was a remarkable vision – which we will tackle in depth next Lord’s Day – so don’t miss worship next week. But what Jacob heard God tell him was even more remarkable. Let’s look again at verses 13 & 14:
“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.”
Does that sound familiar? It should – it was very similar to the promise God gave to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham: that his descendants would be as plentiful as the dust on the earth, the grains of sand on the seashore, and the stars in the sky – that they would inhabit the land – and that all groups of people on earth would be blessed through him and his descendants.
You can find that in Genesis 12, 13, 15, and 22. So we see here that God is recommitting Himself to His covenant with Abraham by making the same promises to Jacob. Our God is a god who does not change – who does not change His mind – who keeps His promises. Even though it may seem to take forever for the promise to come to pass – it will happen.
And as a sign of this covenant – although it doesn’t happen until four chapters later in the story – God will give Jacob a nickname: Israel – the name of the land that his descendants would inhabit someday. The name means, “He struggles with God” – and there’s a whole sermon in that!
Then God made Jacob another promise, which we find in verse 15:
“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.”
“I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.” God gives Jacob the promise of His presence.
His perpetual presence.
And God’s presence is not just “being there” – although that can be helpful during hard times. What we call “the ministry of presence” is a valuable gift we can give to those who have experienced or are experiencing trauma – like losing a loved one or a home or a job. That must have been comforting for Jacob – who may have been completely alone in his journey from Beersheba to Haran.
But God’s presence is also active – God is doing something while He is present. In this case, He is actively watching over Jacob – all the way to Haran and – years later – back to the land that he promised to Jacob.
One of the daily themes in our Vacation Bible School this year was that “God’s love is always with us.” And it is. Although God didn’t use the word love in Jacob’s dream, God’s promises to bless Jacob and to watch over him are clear evidence of God’s love for him.
It is a love that never changes – a love that never fails – a love that never ends. It is a love that is always caring, always providing, always protecting. And God’s love – like God’s presence – is often active.
Think about times in your life when you felt the presence of God most strongly. Was it God’s simply being with you – or was it God’s actively comforting, providing, strengthening, sustaining, protecting you?
This was a life-changing event for Jacob. Until this point in his life, he lived up to his name – which means in Hebrew, “Grasper.” Although Esau was born first, he came out with Jacob hanging onto his heel. Jacob was always grabbing for the brass ring, trying to get ahead, trying to get the best for himself.
But the first words out of his mouth when he awakened from the dream tell us that he is a different man now: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
Not aware of it before he fell asleep – but keenly aware of it after he woke up.
Now he realizes that he doesn’t have to grasp anymore. God is with him and is watching out for him – and he learns quickly to rest in God. He learns to trust God – instead of looking out for himself.
But what I really want you to take home today is what Jacob says next.
The encounter with God initially left him unsettled, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” That is why the place where this happened is call Bethel – Beth-el – “the house of God.” And he adds to this description by saying it is also “the gate of heaven.
Hang on now – Jacob is in a desolate place – probably not all that different from the wilderness in which Jesus faced His temptations. The “house of God, the gate of heaven”? Isn’t that an overstatement?
No, it is not. Jacob has realized that God was there with him, and would continue to be with him wherever he went. So the house of God was not a specific geographic place, but any place where God chooses to dwell.
The Apostle Paul helps us to understand that more clearly with his speech to the men of Athens, when he told them in Acts 17, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.”
So this beautiful, historic church building is the house of God. But so is your home. So is your garage. Your workplace. Your school. Your grocery store. God does not live here any more than He does in any of those other places.
Because the God who promised to be with Jacob wherever he went is with you wherever you go. So wherever you go, that is His dwelling place. That is the house of God.
And because God is always with you – you have direct access to Him. You don’t have to go to a special building at a special time – although that may be helpful in developing the discipline of worship – but wherever you are is the gate of heaven.
You can turn to God at any time – and He will be there, ready to listen.
As Paul told the men of Athens: “He is not far from each one of us.”
God is watching over you, caring for you, providing for you, protecting you – just as He did for Jacob.
And He is right there for you, to hear your concerns, your joys, your hopes, your fears, your disappointments – just as He did for Jacob.
How will you live your life differently because you know that? Will it be with more trust and less fear?
Will your communication with God be more intimate and less formal? Will you be more careful what you say, do, and think outside the brick of this church building?
This is not said to scare you into behaving. Instead, it’s to encourage you to celebrate God’s active presence in your life. Take advantage of knowing that wherever you are, that is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.