Meeting God in the Wasteland
Today’s message is about a man who encountered God unexpectedly. It was a very normal evening and he was on a journey. He was alone. He was lonely and God showed up without further warning. And I hope that that’s going to happen to you. You’ve perhaps come and you’ve thought to yourself, “This is going to be an ordinary service, an ordinary message, and I’m just going to enjoy it and then go home and everything’s going to be the same.” But open your life to the fact that God may show up in your life today. This might be something very extraordinary. You might be surprised by God as this man was.
Let’s catch up. Isaac, the son of Abraham (whom we see almost being sacrificed by his father last week), marries a girl named Rebekah. They had twins and before the twins were born God says that the elder would serve the younger. That was enough to create some conflict within the family, but two things happened that made things worse. First, there was favoritism. The Isaac favored Esau, who was the hunter, and he identified with that. Jacob was the one who was the favorite of Rebekah. So that created problems. But what really exacerbated the situation was that Jacob tricked Esau into giving him his birthright. The birthright was the portion of the inheritance which was due the eldest son. But, having the birthright wasn’t enough for Jacob. He wanted the family blessing, too. The blessing conferred the leadership of the family. Also, it conferred the blessing which God had promised to Abraham, including becoming the ancestor of the Redeemer.
1When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, "My son." "Here I am," he answered. 2Isaac said, "I am now an old man and don't know the day of my death. 3Now then, get your equipment-your quiver and bow-and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. 4Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die." 5Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau (Gensis 27:1-5).
Isaac probably knew the prophecy that God had given to Rebekah that the older would serve the younger, but he was determined that his favorite, Esau, would receive the blessing contrary to God’s revealed will. So, he plots with Esau to give him the blessing in secret. Rebekah, though overhears the conversation and steps in to “help God out”.
Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. 16She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. 17Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made. 18He went to his father and said, "My father." "Yes, my son," he answered. "Who is it?" 19Jacob said to his father, "I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing." 20Isaac asked his son, "How did you find it so quickly, my son?" "The LORD your God gave me success," he replied. 21Then Isaac said to Jacob, "Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not." 22Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau." 23He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him (Genesis 27:15-23).
Esau is, understandably, angry and vows to kill Jacob. Jacob must run for his life. This is the setting of Genesis 28. Let’s read the story in vss. 10-17.
10Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11When 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. 12He 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. 13There 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. 14Your 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. 15I 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." 16When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." 17He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven" (Genesis 28:10-17).
What I’d like us to see is how this passage of Scripture introduces us to at least three attributes of God, the last of which is most important. So you have to hang on because at the end you might encounter God like Jacob did.
First, the faithfulness of God! Jacob wasn’t seeking God. The Bible says that we should seek Him with our whole heart but Jacob wasn’t out looking for God. God broke into his life unexpectedly, and made this marvelous promise–the same promise that had been given to Abraham and to Isaac. “I’m going to be with you. Your seed is going to multiply. I’ll be with you wherever you go.”
There are two conclusions that Jacob should have immediately taken from this. Number one, there is no way that Esau could kill him, at least not at this point, because God said that Jacob was going to have seed, and that would multiply and through him, as we know, the Redeemer is going to come. So, there was no possibility of that, but there was something else that God was trying to get across to Jacob—that is that he would inherit the promises. Indeed, he would be the one to receive God’s special blessing and anointing. Isn’t that wonderful of God? God didn’t even bring up Jacob’s past, and the sin that he committed and the deceit that was in his heart, that he enacted in his family, not that this wasn’t important, but that isn’t the first agenda on God’s mind.
I can think of a lot of things I would have said if I had been God at that point, “Jacob, why did you deceive your father into giving you the blessing when it was my intention to give it to you right from the beginning? And if you had trusted me you would have received the birthright without creating all of this dysfunction within the family. Think of what you did. Now you have a brother who is so angry with you. He’d love to kill you. Why did you do that kind of deceit, Jacob?”
Now God isn’t overlooking Jacob’s sin, it was something that would be dealt with later, but God was on another trajectory. God was saying, “Jacob, what I want you to realize is that you inherit the promises.” Now, Jacob was a deceitful person, but God says, “I’m going to use you, Jacob, with all of your faults.” God says in effect, “I am going to use a crooked stick to make a straight line. You are going to be the one through whom all of the promises I made to Abraham and Isaac are going to be fulfilled.”
We see here the faithfulness of God. What God is saying is that no human failure will stop me from accomplishing my goal. I made the promise. I can fulfill it even through this family that has lost its way, a family where there is so much dysfunction and hatred. God is bigger than all that, and the faithfulness of God is seen through these promises.
Now let’s look briefly at the accessibility of God. What do I mean by the accessibility of God? Let’s look at Jacob’s ladder. Remember the old Sunday School song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”? What’s Jacob’s ladder all about? He dreams a dream and this ladder (staircase is a better translation, but it makes a lousy song) goes all the way up to heaven. So, it must be a very high ladder, obviously, and it must be very wide because angels are ascending and descending simultaneously on this ladder. It connects heaven and earth. The angels are ascending and they are descending and above it is the Lord. We don’t know what kind of a manifestation of God was there but Jacob knew that above it was the Lord. And what God was trying to say is, “This ladder shows that even though I am in heaven, I am connecting with you on earth and I am giving you a ladder that begins with heaven and goes all the way down to earth. Now Jacob couldn’t have known this, but the ladder represents Jesus Christ.
In John 1 there’s a very interesting story about Jesus being introduced to Nathanael.
“When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47).
One of the meanings of the name Jacob is “deceiver”. I think that Nathanael was meditating on Jacob, and his dream, because what Jacob was known for was his deceitfulness. And so immediately Nathanael thinks, he must know what I’m thinking, because notice what Nathanael says.
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:48).
Do you see that? While you are under the fig tree; while you are on the freeway; while you are in school; while you are at home, God already sees you.
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man” (John 1:49-51).
Which was exactly what Nathanael was thinking about.
The first thing we should notice about this ladder is that God is the one that initiates it. It is the ladder from heaven to earth. There is no way that you and I can build a ladder that goes from earth to heaven. That was tried at one time. When you look at Genesis 10 and 11, you discover that some men gathered together in Babel and they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens,” (Genesis 11:4) and it didn’t work. And that’s why in the Bible it is God who takes the initiative. God gives us the ladder. Jesus said, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven--the Son of Man” (John 3:13). Jesus is the ladder. In fact, he’s the only ladder between earth and heaven, and Jacob is seeing this dream, the fact that heaven is open to him and the invisible world is becoming visible.
But there’s something else in the passage and that perhaps leads us to the heart of what we have to say today. We’ve learned about the fact that God is faithful in spite of human deception and sin. He still goes on keeping His promises. We’ve learned that heaven is accessible if we are willing to come to God’s ladder, namely Jesus Christ. But we also learn something about the presence of God.
Jacob awakes from his sleep and says these words in Genesis 28:16, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” That’s the state of the Church today. God is here, God is omniscient, and God is omnipresent. That means He is indeed everywhere. You can go to the farthest ends of the earth, the most remote place, and there you will find it is full of God.
Now this on one level can be very terrifying. You know, it’s one thing for a child to be disobedient to his parents, but if he’s disobedient while the parents are looking on it really shows hardness of heart. And you and I must remember and think of all the times we have grieved the Holy Spirit. We have sinned in the presence of God, and the Bible says that all things are naked and open unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. We cannot escape the fact that God is everywhere, and you today need to know that you cannot hide from him. Wherever you go God is there.
In Psalm 139 the psalmist is contemplating the fact that God is everywhere, and he says,
can I go from your Spirit?
Thieves usually do their work at night. They want to be hidden but God says, “The darkness is the same as light to me.” You cannot escape from God. The Lord is in His universe, and most people do not know that he is there.
Remember that during the television programs you watch, God is on the couch beside you. He’s watching and there is no place to hide. So, it’s fearful. You know, the Bible says that someday the wicked are going to say, “Well, how does God know?” and God will say, “I’ve been watching the whole time and I know everything about you. I’ve got the tapes. Do you want to see them?” At that point we say, “No thanks, I’ll take Your word for it.”
I want to point out the positive side of God’s omniscience. Have you ever had injustice done to you? Have you ever gone through a trial? Have you ever been deeply hurt by others? Aren’t you glad that God knows? We’ve all had to take great encouragement from the fact that amid misunderstanding and false accusations God is there and we trust the omniscience of God and the omnipotence of God, and His omnipresence. God is there, and “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Aren’t you glad that God is going to be there too?
So that’s the omnipresence of God, but there’s something else in this passage and that is the manifest presence of God, the encounter with God that changes everything. Notice what Jacob does. He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” “How awesome is this place!” allow me to rant a bit. Today we use the word “awesome” frequently. There’s even a song, “Everything is Awesome!” I don’t know. I think we should save that word for God and think of something else instead of awesome. Only God is truly awesome.
He says, “How awesome is this place,” and he was afraid. He says, “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 and he says, “If God brings me back here I’ll give him thanks and I’ll always remember this place where I encountered God” (vss. 18-19).
What’s going on there in the text? Here’s an ordinary stone. There’s nothing unique about it at all, and Jacob pours oil on it and says, “I want to remember this place. I want to sanctify this place. This is a sacred place to me.” It was an ordinary stone of course. It could have been any stone. Why this particular piece of real estate–why is it set apart? And the answer is that’s where Jacob encountered the manifest presence of God. It’s one thing, you know, to believe that God is everywhere. We all agree with that, but imagine encountering him and saying, “I had an experience with God.” Then even an ordinary piece of real estate becomes very special.
We come into this place—this church building—week after week, until it becomes an ordinary activity. Just another thing we do. It can all become rather ho-hum. But, look at how people in the Bible responded when they encountered God. Isaiah said,
“Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty" (6:5).
My ears had heard of you
When John the Apostle saw the risen glorified Christ, he said,
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
When people encounter God in the Bible, they respond in different ways, but nowhere do I ever find that when people encountered God that they were bored.
This place, just some wood and stucco and glass, is set apart by God as a place for us to meet him. That’s why it’s so important in this sanctuary that when we come in that we open their lives to God. That’s why we gather. That’s why we sing. That’s why we pray. Because we want to be drawn to God so that when we leave we say, “I encountered God today,” and if you can say that you’ll never be bored.
You say, “Well, yeah, but how do I encounter Him?”
The Bible says this in the book of John. “No one has ever seen God.” Even the Lord that Jacob saw at the top of the ladder was only a manifestation of God. You and I could never see the invisible God with human eyes. If we did, we would be incinerated. We could not take the holiness and the beauty and the greatness of the invisible God, so there are various manifestations, even as in this passage. “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus reveals God, and Jesus went so far as to say, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
So how do we encounter God? Martin Luther said, “You flee to Jesus,” because there we encounter God manifest in the flesh, and there we encounter God. If you are seeking God, this is the end of your search. Come to Christ who reveals the Father. Receive Him as Savior. Accept Him as Lord, and as God, and that’s why He said, “No man can come to the Father but by me,” but through Him we encounter the Almighty. Then we will never be bored.