Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
July 21, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I remember when I was in high school going to a youth retreat with the Pilgrim Fellowship, the youth program of First Congregational Church in Eugene Oregon at a UCC church camp called Camp Adams. There I experienced church camp songs for the first time. One of those songs was "We Are Climbing Jacobís Ladder." Singing it was fun, probably mostly because of the camp atmosphere; but I had absolutely no idea what Jacobís ladder was or why we were climbing it. The retreat leaders I guess assumed we knew or, more probably they didnít know either and it never occurred to them that it mattered. I canít remember why I didnít ask what Jacobís ladder was or what it meant to say we were climbing it. Probably out of fear of betraying my ignorance. I hadnít yet learned that if I had a question, probably a lot of other people in the group had the same question.
I now know, of course, that the image and phrase "Jacobís ladder" comes from the story we heard this morning from Genesis. Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, is on a journey to Haran, the familyís ancestral home far to the east whence Abraham had migrated to Canaan two generations earlier. Night has fallen, so Jacob lies down on the ground to rest, with a rock for a pillow. Makes Motel 6 look pretty good, doesnít it. While he is asleep, he has a vision--a ladder (the New Revised Standard Version gives alternative translations of stairway or ramp) extending from earth to heaven with angels going up and down it. God--here called the Lord--appears to him. In this vision, God makes the same promise to Jacob that God had earlier made to Jacobís grandfather Abraham, a promise of the land and of a multitude of descendants. When Jacob wakes up he utters one of the more famous lines in the Bible: "Surely the Lord is in this place--and I did not know it!"
Now, it seems to have come as something of a surprise to Jacob that the Lord was in that place. Why was he surprised? Well, I think it was because of the ancient worldís conception of God and of the nature of the universe. The ancient worldís conception of the cosmos was very different from ours. We see that difference in this story about Jacobís vision at Bethel. The ancients thought of heaven as a specific place, not that different from earth. And it wasnít very far away. It was so close that you could reach it from earth by a ladder (or by building a high tower, as in the story of the Tower of Babel that appears earlier in Genesis). Heaven was so close that once the ladder was in place, beings--angels at least--could walk between heaven and earth. To the ancients, God was a particular being--an all-powerful, pre-existent being to be sure, but still a particular being who, like any other being, could be found at any given time in one place and not at that given time in any other place. Thatís why Jacob can be surprised to encounter the Lord in a place where he didnít expect the Lord to be present.
To the ancient mind, a place where God was found was special. A place where a person had an epiphany, an experience of the presence of God, often became a shrine. In our story this morning we see Jacob making the place where he had his vision of the ladder and of Godís promise to him into a shrine and calling it Bethel, which means the House of God. Even more dramatically, at one time the ancient Hebrews believed that God resided in the Ark of the Covenant, which the Hebrews carried with them as they wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus and then kept in what was called the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem. For much of ancient Hebrew history many people believed and taught that the Temple in Jerusalem was therefore the only place where the people could truly worship God. (There is a contrary thread woven throughout Hebrew Scripture. Maybe some day Iíll have my Dad come up and teach us about those differing theologies that have been woven together into the Hebrew Scriptures as we have them today. He knows that stuff a whole lot better than I do.) That may sound silly to us, but we moderns sometimes show that we have vestiges of the same idea. In Catholicism, for example, places where the Virgin Mary (who, for many Catholics, if not strictly speaking a divine figure certainly functions as one) has appeared to people become shrines visited by millions of pilgrims.
Now, I certainly do not mean to criticize people who find religious meaning in these kinds of shrines. They arenít so much part of our Protestant tradition, but I do not doubt that they function as powerful religious symbols for many, many people. I have no problem with Jacob creating a shrine at Bethel after his powerful vision of God. The problem comes when we think that the presence of God is limited to those kinds of places. Iíve said here before that we often misunderstand things about God because our conception of God is too small. Jacobís surprise at discovering God in the place that he then called Bethel suggests to me that his conception of God was too small. Because, you see, that place where Jacob saw God is not in fact unique. Now, none of us can be in more than one place at a time. Iíve often wished there were classes in law school and in seminary on how to be in two places at once, but I never saw one offered. Maybe I was just in the wrong law school, or the wrong seminary, but I donít think so. We humans are finite, limited creatures. We exist in three spatial dimensions and in time. Therefore, we canít be in more than one place at any one time. Itís different with God. God is not a finite, limited creature. God does not exist in three spatial dimensions and in time. As the Gospel of John tells us, God is Spirit. God is of a different order of reality from us. Iíve quoted this before, but the poet Brian Wren says in his great hymn "Bring Many Names" that God is "joyful darkness far beyond our seeing." We cannot limit God to our finite conceptions of what it means to be, to exist. God transcends all of that.
Yet at the same time God is present in all of creation. Wrenís next line is: "Closer yet than breathing." God permeates creation. God transcends any place and yet is present in every place. Every place. Thatís hard to get our minds around, isnít it? Oh, itís easy enough to sense Godís presence in the good times, in the splendor of the mountains and the sea, in the glory of a desert sunset, in a magnificent piece of music, a powerful worship service, in the love of friends and family. When our souls are at rest, when we are at peace with ourselves and others, it isnít too hard to feel Godís presence with us.
But what about the bad times, the really bad times? To cite perhaps the most extreme example, people have asked for decades now: Where was God when Godís chosen people were being slaughtered in their millions in the Nazi death camps? Iíve heard only one good answer to that. God was in the gas chambers and the ovens with them, suffering with them, dying with them, being born to new life in the realm beyond this realm with them. None of us has experienced that kind of horror; but we have all had our own times of suffering and anguish. We have all been ill. Most if not all of us have suffered the loss of loved ones. Some of us have sat with our spouses, parents, friends, maybe even our children, as they passed from this world to the next. Where was God then? Had God abandoned us? I suspect that all of us have had times when we, like Jacob, would have been surprised to find that God was in our place with us.
And yet Iím here to tell you that the problem is not that God is not in the places of our lives, all of the places of our lives. The problem is that, like Jacob, we just donít know it. Some of you may have seen the great television series in which Bill Moyers conducts a many hours long interview with Joseph Campbell. Campbell is a scholar who has studied the mythology of cultures around the world. He is convinced that the realm of Spirit, the realm of what we in our tradition call God, is very real and that it is indeed present everywhere. He says the problem is that we just donít see it. One of his metaphors for this blindness is that we have scales over our eyes, scales that need to fall away so that we can see the Spiritual reality that is in fact all around us. Hereís another way to look at it: Our modern, supposedly enlightened, rationalistic, and scientific culture has installed filters in our minds, filters that block the rays of the Spirit that are always present, always flooding us with divine love, mercy, compassion, and grace. In order to experience the universal presence of God, we donít need to gain something, we need to lose something. We need to lose those filters. Those filters are stronger in some of us than in others. For example, my dad, whom some of you have met, has a particularly strong set of them that he has never quite been able to lose. I think I inherited a pretty good set of them myself. How about you? How efficient are your God filters? Can you perceive the presence of God in every time, place, and circumstance? I hope so. If you can your are truly blessed.
In the end, Jacob was right. Surely God was in that place. But what is that to us? Nothing. We donít live in Bethel--there are towns in this country called Bethel, but theyíre not the same place. And we certainly donít live in Canaan four thousand years ago like Jacob did. Jacobís story isnít important to us because God was in that place. It is important to us because it reminds us that God is also in this place, wherever this place might be. God was with every one of us when we arose this morning. God is in this special place now as we worship. God will be with us when we leave here, wherever we may go. God was with us in the place of our birth, and God will be with us at the place of our death, and beyond our death. Yes, my friends, in the end Jacob got it right. Surely, God is in this place. Amen.