Sermon: The Promise of Bethel

LORD, you come to us even when we are not looking for you. We pray that your word would break through our distraction, our resistance, our indifference. Dig out our ears that we might hear your word, and set our hearts to trust your promises spoken to us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

If you are new to Bethel, we have been studying the life of Jacob together from the book of Genesis. We started a generation earlier with Abraham sending his servant all the way to Haran – hundreds of miles – to find a wife for his son, Isaac, whose name was Rebekah. There are clear echoes of that story in what we will hear this morning. Rebekah and Isaac marry and after twenty years of barrenness, God opens Rebekah’s womb and she has twins. The struggle between the two in her womb is so great she inquires of the LORD what is happening. God reveals that the two boys will become two nations that will struggle against one another, but that the older will serve the younger. Last week, we saw God’s grace in the midst of a disastrous family situation, where Isaac wants to bless the wrong son, his firstborn Esau, and Rebekah and the youngest Jacob plot to deceive Isaac, who is blind at this point. The deception succeeds, Jacob is blessed, and Esau is breathing out murder against his younger twin. Hearing this, Rebekah decides to send Jacob away to safety. It is at this point, in Genesis 27:46 that we pick up the story of Jacob. So listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am weary of my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women such as these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?”

Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women. Go at once to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, so that you may become a company of peoples. May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien – land that God gave to Abraham.” Thus Isaac sent Jacob away; and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.

Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there and that as he blessed him he charged him, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram. So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please his father Isaac, Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahalath, daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael, and sister of Nebiaoth, to be his wife in addition to the wives he had.

Jacob left Beer-sheba 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, eh 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 your 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.” 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, sot hat 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’ shows, 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.

About a third of the way through the story of Jacob is the story of Bethel. The Bethel story is critical for our identity and calling as a congregation. We are Bethel Reformed Church and we are called to live out our name, a name is tied in with this story. At Bethel, Jacob saw a ladder set up between heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending on it. In John 1, Jesus proclaims that Nathaniel will see the angels of God ascending and descending on him. Jesus is the ladder, the way, the bridge between heaven and earth. At Bethel, we proclaim that Jesus is the only way to heaven. At Bethel, we also hear the promises of God for us. Jacob not only sees a vision, but is given the promise. What was once promised to Abraham is now spoken to Jacob as a promise for him. In the same way, at Bethel, we proclaim the promised salvation in Jesus Christ, the promises that is for you, your children, and for all who are far off, for all whom the LORD our God will call. And Bethel is also the place where standing stones are set up to mark the wondrous deeds of God. Jacob sets up a stone so that the generations to come would see and wonder, see and ask why the stone was set up, and the people of God could point and say, “This is what the LORD has done here.” At Bethel, we are set up as standing stones, our lives turned on their sides so that the world may wonder, and we might proclaim, what the LORD has done. 

All of this is true in this passage for us.

However, as we have been studying the life of Jacob, I want us to notice something different. I want to draw your attention to who was looking, what was promised, and how Jacob responds. Who was looking, what was promised, and how Jacob responds.

Who was looking

When Jacob was not looking for God, God met Jacob. At the end of chapter 27, Esau is planning to kill Jacob. All he is waiting for is for his father to die. Rebekah sees the need for Jacob to flee, so she latches on to the legitimate concern that Jacob be married to the right woman. Esau married women of the land and it has made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah, so that Rebekah is weary of her life. So at the prodding of Rebekah, Isaac sends Jacob to her brother Laban to take one of his daughters as his wife. We will get to that story soon enough, but Isaac sends Jacob off with a blessing. Whereas just a short time earlier, Jacob had to sneak and deceive his way to get any blessing at all from his father, Jacob now leaves with the promise of Abraham spoken over him by his father.

But Jacob has to leave. He has to leave to find a wife, but he also has to leave to avoid the deadly wrath of his brother. Jacob heads away from him, heads into exile, to journey hundreds of miles to find a wife in a land he has never seen.

It is when Jacob takes these first steps away from his home that God appears to him. Jacob was not looking for God. He was stepping out on his own. He was running away from something just as much as he was running toward something else. He went with his parent’s love and blessing, but now he was heading somewhere new for him, a place he had never gone. It is here that God appears to him, when Jacob was not looking for him.

Perhaps you have been there – God finding you when you were not even looking. I think of myself at fifteen, doing my best to run away from the anger I felt at the mess of my family life, I found myself by a lake in Northern Michigan, where God said, “you will be a pastor.” God showed up when I was not looking for him. I think of a young Guido, hitchhiking in the Netherlands, only to have just the right vehicle pull up and offer him a ride. God showed up when he was not looking for him.

I think of a young man heading to Taiwan in a couple months, heading with his parent’s love and blessing, but heading out into a new land. I think of those students who, in a couple weeks, will be stepping out of one school and preparing to step into another, or stepping out of school altogether. I think of the families for whom Jacob’s journey of a few hundred miles seems small compared to how far you have travelled from home.

God shows up when Jacob was not looking for him. Maybe that has been your story. Maybe that is your story right now. Maybe you aren’t really looking for God, but like Jacob, God still shows up. We don’t often get visions of ladders reaching to heaven, but that does not mean God does not still show up in our lives when we are not looking for him, when we are not expecting it, when, as it turns out, it was just when we needed it.

What was promised

For what does God say to Jacob? When Jacob is about to cross the boundary out of the land toward Haran, what does God promise? It’s verse 15: 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.

The LORD promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes. Leaving home does not mean leaving God behind. Leaving the land of his birth does not mean leaving the faith. No matter how long this son spends in the far country, the Father will not abandon him. God promises to be with Jacob, not only in the land of promise, but wherever he goes.

This is the promise of God: I will be with you.

When Jacob is about to leave the promised land, this is God’s promise: I will be with you.

Later, when God called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt, God promised, “I will be with you” (Ex 3:12). And God remained with them and brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness.

When Moses encourages the Israelites to enter the promised land and take possession of it, he says, “Have no fear or dread of them, because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” (Dt 31:6). God was with them throughout their time in the wilderness and brought them into the promised land.

When Moses dies and Joshua is made leader of Israel, God promised: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (Josh 1:5). God was with Joshua and the people conquered the land and were given rest.

When Israel was in exile, God promised through the prophet Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” (Is 43:2). God was with his people and brought them back out of exile.

This is the promise of God: Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. It was the promise to Jacob at Bethel and it was the promise to Israel, God’s people. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.

In the fullness of time, God comes to his people in his Son, Jesus. Jesus is called “Emmanuel” which means, “God with us.” The promise that the LORD will be with his people is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, who sends his Spirit to dwell in his people.

As God promised Israel he would be with them, Jesus promises the church that he will be with them wherever they go. Listen to these words of Jesus: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you, and behold I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Jesus says to the church what the LORD said to Jacob. Go and I will be with you wherever you go.

I don’t know where you are headed this week, this month, this year. But the promise to the church is that wherever we go, Jesus will be with us, just as the LORD was with Jacob.

How Jacob responds

We noticed first that God showed up when Jacob was not looking for him. We noted the same can be true in our lives, that we encounter God when we least expect it, when we are not even looking. We also noticed what was promised to Jacob and how this promises is fulfilled and carried forward all the way to Jesus, who promises to the church that he will be with us always, to the very end of the age.

However, there is one more thing to notice. Jacob does not remain in Bethel. Jacob has had a profound spiritual experience. He went to sleep and the LORD appeared to him in a dream, giving him visions, promising him blessing, and standing right beside him. When Jacob wakes, he is stunned. 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.”

God is here, Jacob says. He knew the LORD’s presence in that place. He experienced the awe that comes from the LORD drawing near to him. Wouldn’t you think that Jacob would want to stay there. I mean, if God is here, if this is where and how he experiences God, why go anywhere else?

I think it is instructive for us that Jacob responds to the experience he has at Bethel by not staying there. He worships, he consecrates himself and the place, and then keeps moving. Jacob does not hunker down in Bethel, to try and recreate the experience. Instead, he keeps going. He moves on changed, but he keeps moving.

There is a temptation for us, whenever we have a deeper experience of God’s presence, to want to stay there and try to recreate it. This is part of the reason why going on mission trips or going to camp can be so important, but can also be difficult when you come back. You experienced God in powerful ways out there and you can’t recapture the same feeling back here. Or a particular experience of worship or prayer or time in the word. The experiences can be powerful gifts from God, but we can be tempted to chase after them. But this is why the promise to Jacob was so important. God will be with him wherever he goes. That promise came with a particular experience, which was good and confirming of Jacob’s faith, but the promise wasn’t that every night he would dream the same dream, that he would feel the same way. Instead, the promise is that God would be with him wherever he went. This promise allowed Jacob to commemorate that place, to set up a stand stone, but also to keep going where God was calling him to go, because he knew God would be with him.

Jacob experiences God at Bethel, he hears God’s promises at Bethel, he gets a vision that points to Christ at Bethel. But Jacob is also sent out from Bethel, sent out with the promise of the presence of God with him, even if that presence does not feel like Bethel experiences every night. Part of the Bethel story, for Jacob and for us, is being sent out from Bethel knowing that God will be with us wherever we go.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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