God's Grace at Bethel
March 17, 2010
Updated August 26, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Genesis 28:10-22
Text: Genesis 28:16-19
Purpose: to show how a sinful person responds when he meets a holy God.
Sermon prepared by Rev. John Kerssies, retired pastor living in Stayner, Ontario
Dear People of God:
Horatius Bonar, a 19th century hymn writer, composed the words of the following song found in many hymnbooks today:
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Come unto me and rest;
Lay down, O weary one, lay down
Your head upon my breast."
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary, worn and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
And he has made me glad.
I wonder how many of us have ever heard the voice of God or of Jesus calling us. Some of the saints of both Old and New Testaments have, the Bible assures us. God spoke audibly to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to Samuel, and to countless Old Testament prophets. In the New Testament the resurrected Jesus spoke to Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus as well as to the apostle John on the Island of Patmos. In our Scripture reading today, we notice that God audibly speaks to a person called Jacob.
Jacob, Slick Jake, we may call him, had become -- through his cunningly sly deception -- the recipient of God's covenant blessing flowing through the hands of his father Isaac. With the help of his mother Rebecca he had made Isaac believe that he was his twin brother Esau, Isaac's favorite son, the hairy outdoorsman, by covering his arms with animal skins.
When his twin bother Esau discovered Jacob's deceptive trickery, he became furiously enraged and was determined to murder his brother Jacob. At the suggestion of his mother Rebecca and this time with the conscious blessing of his father Isaac, Jacob leaves his parental home in Beersheba in order to travel to his mother's brother Laban all the way to Haran, a town located somewhere in modern Iraq. It is on the way to Haran that the Lord meets Jacob in a unique way, as we read earlier.
Let us read the specific Scripture text again: "When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, 'Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.' 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.' Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz." This passage introduces us to 1) Jacob's Confusion, 2) Jacob's Confession, and 3) Jacob's Confidence.
The text says, "When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, 'Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.'" Jacob experienced the Lord's wonderful presence. Jacob had been tired from his day's journey from the southern town of Beersheba to a place that was called Luz at that time. Jacob decided to rest for the night in the open field, with his head resting on one of the fieldstones nearby. And then he had a dream, a strange dream. Before him he saw a staircase coming from heaven and reaching the place where he lay. And he saw angels going up and down the amazingly long staircase. At the top of the staircase was the Lord Himself. The Lord spoke to Jacob and said to him, "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. 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."
From what the Bible tells us about Jacob up till now, we can conclude that Jacob was not what might be called an overly "pious" person. He may have prayed to the Lord occasionally when the situation called for it, but he was not by all appearances "a man of prayer." And here in Luz he hears the voice of God for the very first time in his life. He not only saw the angels of God. He saw and heard God Himself. "The Lord is in this place." Jacob experienced the very presence of God.
However, we also see Jacob's perplexity. He adds, "and I was not aware of it." We may wonder why Jacob was at that time still unaware of the Lord's presence. Perhaps he still saw himself as the old Jacob, the Slick Jake, who was aware of his old deceptive and conniving ways. There was, we might say, still too much of the Slick Jake in him. And here he had met and heard the holy God of heaven and earth. Old Slick Jake and the covenant Lord don't mix very well. How can a holy God ever meet and become friends with a conniving foxy character like Slick Jake? How can sinful flesh merge with a holy God?
Come to think of it, isn't that still the case with God's people, the church, today? One does not have to be a CSI analyst to discover that there is an unholy rottenness in the church today. Sometimes so-called "spiritual battles" are waged with the weapons of the flesh. Jesus fervently prayed for the unity of the church, but we see that this unity is splintered into thousands of pieces. God calls to us, "Be holy, for I am holy" but all too often we are possessed with a spirit of self-righteousness. Jesus calls us to "love one another," but we form little cliques; we gossip; we bad-mouth fellow believers.
Can a holy God live among us? Well, He is and He will. That's the miracle of His grace! A holy God meets a Slick Jake. A holy God meets sinners such as we are!
"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.'" When Jacob is confronted by the holiness of God, fear grips his heart. He suddenly recognizes that he has been in the very presence of God Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth. And he is afraid, for who can be in the presence of a holy God and survive? Jacob is filled with awe and he probably falls with his face on the earth, for the place where he is standing has become holy ground.
Today we have lost a sense of the holiness of God. For many people today, even for many Christians, God has become a pal, a buddy, a good friend with whom they are on a first-name basis. On one of her shows, the American diva Oprah said that she had lost her evangelical faith when her Baptist pastor had mentioned that God is a "jealous God." That was it for her. She did not want to serve that kind of a god, for she would rather have a god she would be able to manipulate, a god who would jump to her wishes and not demand anything from her. However, the Bible reminds us in Hebrews 12:29 that "our God is a consuming fire."
When Jacob senses that he has met the holy God of heaven and earth, he exclaims, "This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." What does the word "this" refer to? It obviously does not refer to a building or even a place on a map. "This" is the place where the holy God meets His sinful and guilt-ridden child. "This" is the place where the God of the universe meets all the slick, sick, and sin-infested Jakes. "This" is the church, the Body of Christ, Bethel, the house and temple of the living God. It's the place where dirty, filthy and unworthy sinners are welcomed into the arms of a God, who is indeed holy and at the same time "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love" and who "does not treat us as our sins deserve"(Psalm 103:8-10).
This is the place where God unilaterally declares, "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.... I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go." Notice the key words repeated twice, "I am." These two words remind us of Jesus' seven-fold declaration in John's Gospel, where He says, "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35), "I am the Light of the world" (John 8:12, 9:5), "I am the gate of the sheep" (John 10:7,9), "I am the Good Shepherd" (John 10:11,14), "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25), "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), and "I am the true vine" (John15:1,5). "Let's pray that these "I am" words of Jesus may also lead us to the confession that in Jesus we can experience the very presence of God. Jesus is indeed Bethel, the house of God and the gateway to heaven.
"Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz." Jacob does two things. First he erects a monument. The stone, upon which Jacob had rested his head while he had seen that mighty vision of the stairway, the angels, and of God Himself, now becomes a monument, a holy monument at that, one that he anoints with oil. Perhaps this stone serves as a reminder to Jacob and perhaps even to God that Slick Jake wants to make a new beginning, turn over a new leaf, and write a new chapter in his life. After all, he had met the God of the covenant, the God who had given him such undeserved promises.
Secondly, Jacob enacts a name change. As the old Slick Jake will be changed one day into Israel, the God-wrestler who overcame, so Jacob himself changes the old name Luz (literally "almond," perhaps where almond trees blossom) to Bethel, the house of God. Jacob is still Jacob. Although he was in the presence of God, he has not yet wrestled with God. By erecting this monument and by enacting a name change, Jacob attempts to make a new beginning. But we see that at times the old Jacob still emerges; he still has some of his old tricks up his sleeve, so to speak. But he has met the Lord and is en route to a God-enriched future. He is like a pilgrim whom the Lord will mold from a fearful Jacob into a broken Israel.
This is unlike Mickey Cohen, about whom Charles Colson writes in his book Loving God. Mickey Cohen was a drug-dealing gangster who was "converted" (in quotation marks) at a Billy Graham crusade. However, Mickey thought that he could be a Christian and at the same time retain his position as a gangster. If one can be a Christian carpenter, so Mickey argued, why cannot one be a Christian gangster?
Jacob, unlike Mickey Cohen, had met the living God and wanted to make a new beginning, but he was not yet able completely to get rid of all the old comfortable clothes of trickery and deceit. After traveling through the wilderness, he was yet to meet the Lord at Pinel, where Jacob becomes a broken and humbled man, where Jacob becomes Israel who wrestled with God and overcame. However, at Bethel, Jacob is still the pilgrim, yearning for completion and renewal.
Like Jacob, the church of Jesus Christ, is in many ways still a pilgrim church. The spirit of the old Slick Jakes in the church now and then still emerges its ugly head. Nevertheless, the church, like Jacob, is on her way to becoming Israel, restored and renewed because Lord has placed His sovereign and powerful grip on her. The Lord will not release His grip until the Bride of Christ will be ushered to her heavenly Bridegroom and join Him at the heavenly banquet. Today this pilgrim church too, like Jacob, is to some degree still in the wilderness, but she is already now en route to the city "with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." Amen.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
This Is the Day PsH # 241
GOD REMINDS US OF HIS GRACE
GOD SHAPES US THROUGH HIS WORD
WE RESPOND TO GOD'S SHAPING
GOD SENDS US OUT INTO HIS WORLD
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