“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Reflections on the nature of the Spiritual Journey
Sermon for Michaelmas presented by the Right Reverend Dennis Drainville
In Genesis 28:10-17 we read:
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. 11He 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. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder stairway or ramp’);”* set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13And the Lord stood beside him stood above it’);” 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; 14and 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 shall bless themselves)* in you and in your offspring. 15Know 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.’ 16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ 17And 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.’
There is in this passage a great reliance on the concept of PLACE. In Genesis we see that Isaac blesses his son and sends him to find a wife of their own people in the land of Padan-Aram. On the long journey there, Jacob stops to rest for the night and finds that the place where he is, becomes the focal point for an encounter with God. He thought it was merely a stopping place, but it proved to be the place where God chose to meet Jacob. It was also the very land that God was going to give to Jacob and all the successors of Abraham and Isaac.
However, in this case equally important to the promise to bless the descendants of Jacob is the fact that God chose to reveal himself. The place, although it looked ordinary, was a holy place. It became so because a righteous man was in the process of righteous action. He was seeking to fulfill the covenantal promises vows and commitments that had been made by Abraham and Isaac before him. That righteous action oriented his life and faith and led him to encounter the God of his ancestors.
What is most striking is the transformation of Jacob’s spiritual sight before the dream/vision and after, before the encounter with God and after. In a sense his spiritual maturity in following his Father’s advice and traveling back to the land of his family was crucial. Paran-aram was not a brisk walk down the road, it was many weeks journey over rough terrain. His willingness to choose the right road brought him to the right place where he was capable of entering the divine encounter. On waking up he found that the place looked different. But truly, it was Jacob who was changed or altered, not the place.
In Psalm 103:19-22 we read:
13 As a father cares for his children, *
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
14 For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
15 Our days are like the grass; *
we flourish like a flower of the field;
16 When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *
and its place shall know it no more.
17 But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever
on those who fear him, *
and his righteousness on children’s children;
18 On those who keep his covenant *
and remember his commandments and do them.
19 The Lord has set his throne in heaven, *
and his kingship has dominion over all.
20 Bless the Lord, you angels of his,
you mighty ones who do his bidding, *
and hearken to the voice of his word.
21 Bless the Lord, all you his hosts, *
you ministers of his who do his will.
22 Bless the Lord, all you works of his,
in all places of his dominion; *
bless the Lord, O my soul.
The picture of the Psalmist is of the omnipresence of God who rules and directs the heavens and the earth and all that is therein. In this picture God is everywhere and is in control. We are exhorted to bless the Lord. We like the angels, God’s hosts and ministers and all the created order wherever they exist are to bless the Lord and do his bidding in the world. By living out God’s commandments and keeping his covenant we are guided to see and experience the fullness of the created order. In fact it is only by living righteous lives that the true nature of the universe reveals itself.
In John 1:43-51 we read:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And 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.’
Jacob did not know that he was on Holy ground until his righteous action brought forth an encounter with God. The psalmist portrays the revelation of how the universe is structured for those who live a righteous life and seek to know God. In John’s Gospel knowing Jesus, the Son of God, means knowing the Father and therefore living in communion with the divine presence. In that relationship or state, we are drawn into the universal experience of seeing the world as it really is. It is as if we put on pair of glasses through which we can see clearly the spiritual dimension of things. You will see greater things than these.’ 51And 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.’
The question of “what is reality”? or “What do I really know?”, is as fundamental to theology and faith as it is to philosophy and science. The answers may not be precisely the same. But the importance of asking the question is equally vital to both. Since the very mists of time, humans have sought to understand the universe of which they were a part. And the asking of these fundamental questions has led some toward encounters with the divine.
In our own day we still have seekers who yearn to pose the eternal questions and assess the world that they observe and experience. But it takes more than the five senses to plumb the depths of spiritual reality. It takes what I describe as “inner vision”. Inner vision as differentiated from outer vision is necessary for humans in their quest to understand the fullness of reality. The poet William Blake in the late 18th and early 19th centuries captured this capacity to see spiritual reality in the first four lines of his poem “Auguries of Innocence”
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour
Voir le monde dans un grain de sable,
Et les cieux dans une fleur sauvage,
Tenir l’infini dans la paume de la main,
Et l’eternite dans une heure du temps qui passe…
The lessons we have heard tonight, exhort us to choose the spiritual journey or quest. In other words we are challenged: to seek, to ask questions, and to open ourselves in this journey of discovery to the experience of encountering and knowing God. May we be blessed with courage and perseverance as we take up this exciting challenge. AMEN.