The Covenants that Culminate in Christ - The Ladder
Where is Bethel?
A sermon based on Genesis 28:10-17
Sunday, March 4, 2012 – Lent 2B
Are you smarter than a fifth grader? In what subjects might you struggle? I think I could take a fifth grader in languages: in spelling and reading, in forensics and public speaking. I think I could take a fifth grader in math and geometry, possibly in science and in physics. But where I have a lot of doubt is in the subject of geography.
I'll admit it. Geography isn't exactly one of my biggest academic strong suits. I struggle with the difference between Iraq and Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and Kotzebue and Chicken. And to make matters more difficult for me, when it comes to Biblical geography the names of the cities and towns have changed multiple times over the centuries. So I really have to rely heavily on my Bible atlas to know where a city is. So when I looked at the text for this morning, I had to check to see where Bethel was. Do you know where Bethel is?
The city of Bethel, where God first gave Abraham the promise that he would be father of many nations, is about 40 miles north of Beersheba, the city from where Jacob left home, running for his life from his murderous brother. From Beersheba to Haran (Jacob's final destination) was about 500 miles. So he wasn't very far into the journey when he had this amazing experience from God.
But when I ask if you know where is Bethel, I don't mean in Israel. And I don't mean Bethel, Alaska either (though I did have to look that one up too). But do you know what the name Bethel means? Anytime you see a Biblical name ending in "el" (Isra-el, Dani-el, Ezeki-el, or Beth-el), know what the "el" part is an abbreviation of Elohim, the Hebrew for God. And Beth means house. So when I ask you where is Bethel, I mean to ask where is the house of God? Where does God live? Where does God make his home?
It's really the same place for us that it was for Jacob. No, not Bethel, Israel. But he lives with us wherever he comes to us in his Word and in his promises. And like he was with Jacob, he promises to be with us wherever we go. That's where we find Bethel. Listen now to the account of Jacob's dream from God given to him at Bethel, recorded for us in Genesis 28:10-17…
10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "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. 14 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. 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."
16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it." 17 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."
I. God Lives in His Promises
Do you remember why Jacob was leaving Beersheba, here in Bethel, on his way to Haran? He was a fugitive. Remember why? Though God had promised before they were even born that Esau would serve Jacob, that Jacob would be blessed, he grew impatient. So, taking advantage of his brother's hunger, he really stole his brother's share of the inheritance. As if that weren't bad enough, he lied to his father with an elaborate scheme in order to steal the blessing that Isaac was to give Esau, his favorite son. Robbed of his share of the estate and robbed of his father's blessings, Esau was enraged. He vowed that the moment his father died, he would murder his brother to exact his revenge. So Jacob ran.
Now, only a few nights away from what had been home, imagine how Jacob must have felt. He lost his family. He lost his father's respect. He lost any chance at having a healthy relationship with his brother. He lost his home. And apparently, he even lost his pillow. He wasn't camping out under the stars that night. No. He was homeless. Alone. Scared. And no doubt full of guilt.
Some suffering we humans face is because of sin in the world. But some suffering is because of our own sin. That suffering isn't, properly speaking, a cross. We call that consequences. And Jacob deserved what he got. He was suffering the consequences of his sinful actions. And I imagine that having lost his relationship with his father, with his mother, with his brother, with his friends, he must have wondered if he hadn't lost his relationship with God too. After all, he knew he deserved the mess he was in.
But man's relationship with God doesn't rest on so fragile a thing as man's behavior. So God came to Jacob in that dream and gave him comfort and assurance.
12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "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. 14 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.
God showed Jacob a vision where God himself would send angels from heaven to condescend to him to give him comfort. Though Jacob deserved to be cut off from God, God would come to visit him. Though he deserved to be homeless, God promised to give Jacob and his descendants the land he traveled on. Though Jacob deserved to be alone, God promised to give him a family—a family so huge it would cover the world like the dust of the earth.
And really, God promised to keep Jacob in his family. Because the best promise came in the second half of verse 14: All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Here God reiterated the promise that he'd made to Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, that the Messiah, the one who would crush the devil's head and restore fallen, sinful mankind to God, would come from his family line. Here God really assured Jacob that his sin was still forgiven by that coming Descendant who would take his sin away.
What comfort! What love! What grace God gave to Jacob! What grace God gives to you…
After all, let's face it. When we face problems in our relationships, when we feel alone, when we've lost the blessings that once were ours, all too often we too can say that we deserve the mess we're in. For our lying and scheming, for doing things our way so we get the things we want when we want them, instead of doing things God's way and accepting with thanks the things he gives when he wants to give them, we, like Jacob deserve to lose our blessings. In fact, we know that for our sins against God, we deserve worse. We deserve hell.
That's what we deserve. But you know that your relationship with God doesn't rest on so fragile a thing as your behavior. So God comes to you to comfort and assure you. Though not necessarily in a dream, God does come to you in his Word.
There he comes to you to assure you that you are blessed through Jacob's offspring. In John 1:51 (which we already studied earlier this year) Jesus told Nathanael that he was fulfillment of this vision that God gave to Jacob. He said, "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."
Jesus is the stairway where God himself descends from heaven to earth to take fallen man from earth to heaven. Through Jesus, you too have seen a magnificent vision! Jesus said if you have seen him you have seen the Father. You know God's love for you. You have seen the cross where your lying and scheming and every sin has been forgiven. You have seen the empty tomb which assures you that what Jesus said (in John 19:30) is true: "It is finished!" You have seen the covenant God made with Jacob fulfilled in Jesus. He is the perfect mediator. He is the ladder that God sent from heaven to bring us up to him. He is the stairway that leads to heaven.
So, where is Bethel? Where is the house of God? Where can one go to have a direct connection with God, where his angels ascend up into heaven to take our needs to God and where God sends his messengers to carry his help and aid to us?
Bethel is right here. Here is God's ladder, at church. Where the Church gathers, God is. Where his Word is preached in its truth and purity with Law and Gospel God condescends to speak to us—and far more clearly than in any dream. Where the Sacrament of Holy Communion is administered God condescends to us to be with us—bodily, physically present. Here at Grace Lutheran Church God lives in his Word, in his promises to you, in this bread and wine. At Grace Lutheran School God feeds his children with the message of his grace. God is here in this place. This is Bethel—the house of God. This is the gate of heaven!
II. God Lives with His People
But is that the only place that God was with Jacob? Was it only at that site where he propped up the rock and made a memorial? Was that sacred space, renamed "Bethel," the only place that God would comfort Jacob? No. Of course not. God himself promised Jacob (in verse 15)…
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."
What comfort that promise would bring Jacob as he continued his long journey from Bethel to Haran (a journey that's about the same distance from Kenai to Bethel, Alaska, by the way—almost 500 miles!). Though he may have been scared and apprehensive of what lay ahead, though he may still have had his doubts, though he may still have felt alone—he wasn't alone. Ever! God was with him. God was watching over him. No matter where he went! God promised that he would never leave him until every promise made to Jacob was fulfilled.
And God has promised the same to you. Though we deserve to be alone for alienating ourselves not just from others, but from God, instead God promises us a family; we are a part of his family through Christ and, in turn, we get a family of believers to comfort and encourage us. Though we deserve to be abandoned, God promises us, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?" (Hebrews 13:5-6) Though we deserve to be homeless, we are promised a home with God in heaven. He will not leave us until he has done everything that he's promised to us.
So it's not just here at Grace or at another church where the Word is taught that God lives. Where is Bethel? Where is the house of God? Wherever you go, God is with you, guarding you, protecting you. That's why he calls himself, "Immanuel, which means "God with us." (Matthew 1:23) That's why he promises in Romans 8(:39) (which we just read last week) that "[Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." How do you know it's all true? Because of the cross. Jesus condescended to come from heaven. He came down to rescue us. He came down to take us to be with him. "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32)
God will keep his promises. He always has. So we know that one day soon he'll keep his promise to bring us to our Promised Land. He will take us up to be with him in heaven. We most certainly will ascend that stairway. In the meantime, no matter where your journey leads, no matter where you go, no matter what you do, rejoice that God is with you. That's where he lives. Wherever you go is Bethel—the house of God. And at Bethel we worship him. For "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." In the name of Jesus, the Ladder sent from heaven, dear friends, amen!