One of the common beliefs that was held by the pagan idolaters of the ancient world, was the idea that certain deities were attached to certain geographical places, and served as special guardians and patrons for the people who lived in those specific geographical places.
So, based on where they were at any given time, these ancient people thought that it was important for them to figure out which particular god or gods were in charge of the place where they were, so that they could pray to and appease those gods, and so that they could avoid offending or angering those gods.
These people were polytheists, in that they believed in the existence of many gods. But they didn’t try to serve or worship all the gods they believed existed.
They were concerned to make sure that they served and worshiped the particular gods who were in charge of where they were, and who were thought to protect and bless the residents of that place. And it was generally assumed that the various gods were aware only of what was going on in their particular territory and were accessible – through prayers and sacrifices – only from within their particular territory.
Those who believed in many gods did not think that any of those gods were omniscient or omnipresent.
Now, Abraham, in his faith in Yahweh or Jehovah, had risen above all that. He knew that the God he served and worshiped was not simply one deity among many, who happened to be attached to the place where he was sojourning.
Abraham knew instead that his God was the only true and real God, and that his God was concerned not just about him and the people who were associated with him, but took an interest in all nations, in all places around the world. When he was, in a sense, “negotiating” with the Lord concerning the fate of the city of Sodom, and of his nephew Lot who lived in Sodom, Abraham asked:
“Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
But Abraham’s grandson Jacob seems not to have fully grasped this deeper truth concerning the God who was worshiped by his family. Instead, he seems to have allowed himself to be influenced by the pagan polytheism that surrounded him in the larger culture.
This is a common problem, which we see in all generations, in all centuries, and in all the millennia of world history. People who have access to the Word and voice of God, often ignore what God is telling them – especially when what he is telling them differs from what the larger culture that surrounds them is telling them – and they listen instead to the larger culture.
It’s not easy to swim against the tide. So, people make compromises, and are selective in their beliefs, so that they can basically float with the tide as far as their spirituality and religious beliefs are concerned.
And when the larger culture becomes hostile to all religion – as is now largely the case in the post-Christian world in which we live – then all religion is abandoned, so that people cease to be even cultural or nominal Christians, and become nothing.
Jacob, in his time, did not become nothing. But he also didn’t adhere strictly to his grandfather’s strong monotheistic faith, either.
He didn’t understand that the God of his grandfather Abraham, and of his father Isaac, was not the same as the false gods of other families and tribes. His family’s God was not a god who was limited to one place so if you left that place, you left that god.
But Jacob did come to a jarring realization of what Jehovah was really like, and of where Jehovah could be found, in the event that is recounted in today’s lesson from the Book of Genesis.
Jacob was fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau because he had received from their father Isaac an irrevocable blessing that Esau had expected to come to him. And so Jacob had traveled far from where his family lived, and from where he thought his family’s God lived. We pick up the story there:
“Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said:”
“‘I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, 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 spoken to you.’”
“Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’”
Now Jacob knew what his grandfather had known: that God – his God – was indeed the Judge of all the earth, and not only of that part of the earth where his family lived. God was where Jacob now was, too. And wherever Jacob might go in the future, God would also be there.
And what Jacob also now knew, was that the God who had blessed and protected his father and grandfather, and who had made promises to them, was going to bless and protect him in the same way. The God of Abraham and Isaac, is and will always be, also the God of Jacob.
Jacob, in his travels, had not removed himself from the watchful eye of this God. And Jacob had not removed himself from the special messianic purpose that God had in mind when he established his covenant with Abraham. Jacob, too, now heard the Lord say to him:
“And in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
St. Paul teaches in the New Testament that in the final and ultimate sense, the Seed of Abraham – and now also the Seed of Jacob – is Jesus Christ.
Through Jesus, the God whose Son he is will be the God of all the families of men, in all places on earth. Through Jesus, all idols will fall: the idols that are erected in temples of false worship, and the idols that are erected in human hearts.
Through Jesus, the sins of men from all nations will be washed away in the sacred flood of Holy Baptism. Through Jesus, the famished souls of men from all nations will be fed and nurtured by the Bread of Life from heaven.
Most people today do not believe in the kind of polytheism that the ancient people believed in. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have had enough of an impact on the world, that most people, in most nations, now believe that there is only one God.
Whether that one God, in the way they imagine him, is the one God who actually exists, is another question, of course. The Jews of the first century who rejected and opposed Jesus felt quit sure that the God in whom they believed was the only true God. But Jesus told them, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel:
“If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me.”
So, a belief in God, without a belief in Jesus as the Son of God in human flesh, is not actually a belief in God as he really exists and as he has revealed himself. The “one God” in whom deniers of Jesus believe, is not the God who sent Jesus into the world to save the world. And so their “one God” is a different “one God.”
As your pastor, I have often emphasized the importance of the Lord’s people being in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day, since it is here where the Lord’s Word is proclaimed, where sins are forgiven through that Word, and where that Word instructs us in the ways of godliness.
Jacob, in today’s text, had a sense of this too. After God had revealed himself to Jacob and had spoken to him – in the wilderness, far from his home – we are told that Jacob exclaimed:
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
It is important for us to know that where the gospel is proclaimed to us, and where the sacraments are administered to us, that is the gate of heaven for us, so that we will be there when we are able to be there.
The God whom we know in and through Christ, is here, in a way that is different from his silent presence in other places. He is here to speak to us, to warn and correct us, but even more so to absolve and bless us.
But, God is not only here. We shouldn’t slip into the thinking of the ancient pagans, that God’s presence, and God’s awareness of us, is limited to a specific location, so that when we leave church, we leave God behind.
That might be a convenient belief, though – even though it is a false belief – when we, outside of church, act as if God does not hear us, when we carelessly take his name in vain, or in anger berate or insult other people. That might be a convenient belief when we, outside of church, act as if God does not see us, when we treat others unkindly and disrespectfully, and when we in general conduct ourselves in immoral and unethical ways.
But don’t think that God does not hear and see these things, just because you do not say and do them in church. The God in whom you believe – or claim to believe – is the God of Abraham.
And Abraham’s God was and is “the Judge of all the earth.” He knows what you are saying and doing wherever on earth you may be. And he judges what you are saying and doing.
So, for sinners like us, it is perhaps an unsettling thing to consider that nothing is hidden from God, and that we can never travel so far away from God’s house, that we are out of his sight, and beyond his concern. Let us repent, therefore, of our secret sins, because as far as God is concerned, there are no secret sins.
And then, as penitent sinners, let us believe the heavenly gospel that we hear in this place – which for us is the gate of heaven. Hear and believe the gospel, that through Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for you, your sins – wherever on earth they have been committed – are forgiven.
But being reminded of God’s presence everywhere, and of God’s watchfulness over us in all places, is not only an unsettling thing. As we consider this truth from within our reconciliation with God in Christ, as forgiven and justified sinners, it becomes also a wonderful truth.
God in his providence protects us and watches over us, wherever we may be. He provides for us – through various means – our daily bread, and all that we need for our bodily life.
He directs us in the vocations that he had given to us, and opens before us pathways of service to others, so that we can glorify him in works of love for those in need.
And even outside of the public gatherings of the church, God also opens up for us little gates of heaven, whenever and wherever we take a pause from our other duties, in order to read, study, reflect on, and pray about, God’s Word.
Our congregation recently made available to all the members of the church a new daily devotional book precisely for this purpose, so that God’s instructions and exhortations, his promises and comforts, can be with us on every day of the week, wherever we may be on those other days of the week.
God is present everywhere, and knows what’s going on everywhere. God cares about what’s going on everywhere.
And God cares about you, wherever you may be, and whatever may be going on around you: in every temptation you may be contending with, in every challenge you may be facing, and in every need you may be experiencing. He is with you to sustain you, and to help you.
With Jacob you can therefore say, with hope and confidence, at all times and in all places: “Surely the Lord is in this place.” Amen.