Holy Spirit, come with power upon us as we gather here this morning. Open our eyes to see you in this place. Stand beside us and speak your promises to us and give us ears to hear them. Set our feet in the path you have placed before us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Welcome to Bethel. Bethel…Why Bethel? Bethel Reformed Church is the name of this congregation, the designation of this outpost of the kingdom of God on West Street by the 403. But why the name Bethel?
For the next three weeks, we will be listening to the true story of the early church in order to ground ourselves in the work of God as we seek to live into the mission we have discerned as a congregation. We believe that God has called us at Bethel to ‘Share Christ in Community.’ We are called to ‘Share Christ’, to ‘Share Christ as a community’ and to ‘share Christ in our community.’ That is our roadmap over the next few weeks as we root ourselves in God’s word as we are sent out in mission.
But our calling begins a little bit earlier in the story. I want to begin with dwelling on what it means to be called ‘Bethel.’ What identity and calling is given to us as we have been given this name as a congregation?
As we seek to understand this answer to the larger question of who we are, I want to invite each of you to wrestle with one personal question, “Why are you here this morning? Why are you here this morning?”
The true story of our name, of who we are, begins in Genesis 28. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham who had received the covenant promises of God, has been told by his father to leave the family home to find a wife. As Jacob sets out, something happens during the journey.
Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 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. 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 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 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 your 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, and this is the gate of heaven.”
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, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 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 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, 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.”
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The war was over. Though the fighting had ended, the wounds of war would take years, decades to heal. So many began to leave, to board ships and cross oceans to find a new place, a new home. Some left for a fresh start, others for jobs and opportunity, but they came. Some began to settle near Brantford, in places like Burford, Paris, and Mount Pleasant. Some of that group began to gather, united by a stunning conviction, an audacious claim – that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. These ocean-crossers and home-seekers were bonded together by the belief that the good news, the proclamation that “Jesus Christ is Lord” was not something that could be relegated to the realm of opinion or was simply a ‘personal truth’ in a world filled with as many truths as people, but that it was fact, fact of history and reality, fact more sure than that the sun would rise tomorrow, fact that changed the trajectory of creation and every nook and cranny of the lives of those who came to believe it. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. This people who gathered in this place under this Truth with a capital T, were called Bethel.
Who are we? ‘We are Bethel.’
Jacob left his home to head toward the land of his grandfather, Abraham. On the way, he stopped for the night. Placing a stone under his head, he fell into a deep sleep. And he dreamed. He dreamed of a ladder stretching from earth up to heaven with the angels of God going up and down upon the ladder. Jacob slept and he dreamed of the way to heaven, of the way between the dwelling place of men and the dwelling place of God. He slept and dreamed of the way, the path, the ladder into the presence of the LORD himself. When he woke, he named the place ‘Bethel,’ meaning ‘house of God,’ for he said, How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.
Jacob slept and dreamed and saw Jesus Christ, the one way to the Father. Centuries after Jacob slept on the journey between Beersheba and Haran, Jesus Christ stood before a man named Nathaniel. Nathaniel was shocked at what Jesus knew about him even before he met him, but Jesus says, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Nathaniel will see the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man – upon Jesus. Jesus is proclaiming to Nathaniel that when Jacob saw that ladder long ago, he was seeing Jesus Christ. When Jacob saw angels heading up from earth and heaven and coming down from heaven to earth, the ladder upon which they traversed was none other than Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the ladder between heaven and earth. He is the way to heaven. He is the only way from the dwelling place of men to the dwelling place of God.
At Bethel, Jacob saw Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father, even if he didn’t fully realize it at the time. Bethel is the place where we see that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father. He is the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father, except through him. There is but one ladder stretching from earth to heaven, and it is the God-man Jesus Christ who stretched out his arms on the cross.
This is what it means to be Bethel, we see and proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. He is the way to the Father, the way into heaven, the way into eternal life, eternal hope, eternal peace.
Who are we? ‘We are Bethel.’
Bethel is where we see Christ, where he is presented before our eyes as the one who is the only way to heaven. Just as was prefigured to Jacob.
For many who crossed the waters to Canada, the transition was hard. They were strangers in a strange land. In the midst of opportunity was the loss of leaving behind what they had known, the communities they had loved. Communicating was hard, settling in was hard, finding a people with whom they could belong was hard. Would God go with them? Would they be welcomed by the people of God or find themselves alone in their struggle? At Bethel, we know what it is like to be strangers, we know what a gift it is have a people, to have brothers and sisters in Christ. So we welcomed the stranger, we said to those settling in our community, ‘you belong at Bethel. Come and see.’ This is who we were and who we can be again by the grace of God.
Who are we? ‘We are Bethel’
Jacob has been sent away from his home to begin a new phase in his life. He will soon arrive at the house of his relative Laban and fall in love with his daughter Rachel. He will end up marrying both of Laban’s daughters – Rachel and Leah – and spending decades working far from home. Jacob has grown up hearing the promises of God, hearing how God working in the life of his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. He even received God’s blessing from his father, but as he moved out of the land and toward Haran, would God go with him?
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 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 your back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
The same promises he had heard were spoken to his grandfather Abraham are now spoken to him. The faith of his father and grandfather, the covenant promise of God, now come crashing into his life – children, blessing, the abiding presence of God. The very same promises given to Abraham are now given to Jacob. This is not just a promise for your grandfather, it is for you. The promises of God are for you. At Bethel, Jacob hears the promises of God for God’s people and hears that these promises are for him. At Bethel, Jacob hears that wherever he goes, the LORD will go with him because God will never leave him, but always keeps his promises.
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it.”
Bethel is the place where the promise of God are declared and they are declared for you. God’s word is not just for your parents or grandparents, not just for people long ago or in ages past, but for you. Bethel is where we hear the ancient and enduring promises of God spoken afresh for you.
Bethel is also where God promises to be with us. Jacob was to become a stranger in a strange land, but the LORD went with him. He did not leave him or forsake him. Bethel is where we are welcomed into the presence of God, where the LORD goes with us as we head out in homes, schools, workplaces, grocery stores, and shopping malls. Where no matter how much we might feel the stranger, we do not walk in this world alone, but go with God, even when we cannot see it.
Bethel is where we hear the promises of God and walk in this world with the presence of God.
Who are we? ‘We are Bethel.’
I asked you earlier to ponder the question, ‘Why are you here this morning?’ Bethel is the place where we see Christ as the only way to the Father. Bethel is the place where we hear again and again, week after week, the beautiful promise of God for us. Bethel is the place where we behold the presence of God in our midst and learn to see it and welcome others. But why are you here? More specifically, who is the reason you are here today?
In the ancient world, people marked significant events by setting up a stone. In response to what God at Bethel, Jacob sets up a stone as a pillar. If you are a hiker, you might know it as a cairn. We will call them ‘standing stones’ this morning. When God acted in a place or in the lives of his people, we find story after story of stones stacked or set up as pillars. They did this so that as people walked by, they would see the stones and ask, “What in the world happened here?” and the people of God could say, ‘This is what God has done.’ The stone, turned on its side, pointed to what God had done and caused people to question, wonder, and hear the story of God’s actions in the world.
Standing stones point others to what God has done. By looking different, by being turned on their sides, they point others to God.
In our lives, there are often people who serve as standing stones. These are people whose lives ring of the truth and whose words God has used to speak the truth into our lives. Why are you here this morning? I’m guessing that there is someone – whether just yesterday or forty years ago – who was a standing stone in your life. They lived and spoke in such a way that you could see that God had done something, you wanted to know ‘what in the world happened here’ and because of their witness, you are in this room this morning.
I want you to think for a moment of who has been a standing stone in your life. Whose life and witness has pointed you toward God and is one of the reasons you are here this morning. When Jacob saw the presence of God, when he recognized what God had done, he took a stone, set it up on its side and poured oil on it. He named the place Bethel and everyone who walked by would have asked, “I see that stone, what in the world happened here?”
When you walked in this morning, each of you hopefully received a stone. In a moment, you will have the opportunity to place that stone here at the foot of the cross as you think about the person who has been a standing stone in your life, who by their life and word has pointed you to God.
I want to share one of my standing stones with you, then let you mark who has been a standing stone to you, and then I want to close again with what it means to be called ‘Bethel.’
Why am I here this morning? Who has been a standing stone to me? I could tell you about parents who loved me, taught me to trust in Christ and be fed in his word. I could tell you of Michael, Josh, Trygve, and other pastors who God has used to make me into the man I am today. I could tell you of Peter whose words were the instrument through which God called me to ministry. All of them have been standing stones to me – pointing me to Christ. But why am I here this morning in this sanctuary with you? My standing stone is Julie Vlieger. July 8 last year, I was here for the final interview to be your next pastor. I had two small children and a two week old at home. I had flown from another country, spent a whole evening in interviews with the search team, and gotten a pretty poor night’s sleep. I was nervous. We had been hoping and praying about this church for months. Then Dave, Cheri, and Evie came in with Julie – beautiful Julie. Immediately, Lynn Hallema came up and said, “Julie, I am so glad you are here. It is good to see you.” It was then I knew. Julie belongs at Bethel. Julie in her weakness and beauty and all her gifts, belongs at Bethel. If this church embraces her, then this is the place for us, for my family.
I am here today because I saw God at work in Julie. So her witness has been a standing stone to me.
When you are ready and you have a person in mind who has been a standing stone to you, I want you to come forward and place your stone on this pile at the foot of the cross. If you are not able to come forward, ask a friend or neighbor to bring the stone for you. If you are not ready yet, take the stone home and place it here next week before the service. Once you are done, head back to your seat and take a moment to thank God for the standing stones in your life.
(pause for stone placement)
Who are we? ‘We are Bethel’
I don’t know about you, but those stones do not look natural. It looks to me like someone put them there, like something has happened, like God has been seen at work and we must mark it. It looks different.
When people walk by, they should wonder what has happened here. What has been marked by these stones. They should wonder what God has done at Bethel that prompted us to stand stones on end.
The last thing I want us to note about what it means to be Bethel is this: Bethel is where there are standing stones to witness to what God has done. You and I are called to be standing stones. We are called to be turned on our sides and anointed by God to stand apart, to look different, to speak and live in such a way that people wonder and say, ‘What is in the world happened here?’ We are called to be standing stones, to live upright and turned over so that we can proclaim what God has done.
Standing stones are visible witnesses that mark where God has been at work. This is our calling as Bethel. Sharing Christ in Community means being standing stones to others. It will mean, among other things, living marked by the work and presence of God. Why are you here this morning? Someone, at some time, was a standing stone to you. Our calling is to be standing stones to others.
Who are we? ‘We are Bethel.’ So let’s go and be Bethel. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.