This is the text of the message I prepared for Sunday 23rd July 2017.
Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24.
Our brief journey through Genesis has brought us, this morning, to the place where God repeats to Jacob the promise made to Abraham. God speaks in Jacob’s sleep and Jacob awakes in awe of the place: he names it Bethel or beit-El which means the house of God in recognition that he has stumbled across consecrated ground. Jacob is wonderfully aware that he is in the place of “Secret God Business”, whose secret is now shared with the descendants of Abraham. The stone pillar he erects and anoints is the rock he had used for a pillow, connecting the real presence of God with the physical geology of the place on earth. So, the point is not primarily the promise, real and secure as that promise is, but that God repeats it to another generation. God continues to speak; the message of God is not a once-only revelation which then belongs to the prophets to repeat.
The story from Bethel tells us that there are places where God speaks to us, and speaks with us, as women and men. I think it’s important that we find and remember those places. As Christians of this expression of Uniting Church, noting the vibe of the room in front of me, we believe that God can and does speak with us anywhere. But the story of Bethel, among others in the scriptures (such as the stories of Sinai) says that there are places where God desires to be found and where our movement toward that place prepares us to listen and respond to what we have heard.
And so, I ask you, where do you hear God? Where has God spoken to you before? Where is your Bethel? Do you even have one? This may be geographical (the prayer chair in the bedroom) or metaphorical (wherever I am at rest). It might have been a one-off place in time and location (that worship service in Rosny on 10th September 1996), or it might be a repeated location. In Genesis God often speaks “in dreams”; we see this here but we also see revelation-by-dream in Genesis 20:3, and Genesis 31:10-11, 24. What is important to know about Bethel is that it is at the frontier of Canaanite territory. God is speaking to Jacob as he is on the edge of leaving the land given to Abraham, the border of what has been promised as home. Does God speak with you at the edges? Perhaps if we want to hear God, or we want God to hear us, we might need to go to the edges.
Jacob is about to depart Canaan in search of a suitable wife, travelling back to Haran as the servant of Abraham had done to find a wife for Isaac. God meets with Jacob and promises him that he will indeed return to the land promised by God to Abraham. Since the promise was to Abraham for his descendants God reminds Jacob that the promise is for him too. As the favoured son of Isaac, the favoured son of Abraham, the promise of a homeland and of nations and generations like the stars in their number for the blessing of the whole world is for Jacob.
What has God promised you? Do you know? Do you remember? Has there ever been a promise just for you? As Christians, we all have the promises of God in Christ, promises Jesus made to the Church or that God made through the Holy Spirit revealed in scripture. I do not believe that the Church has been promised what Abraham was promised, which is to say land, many descendants, and the means to be a blessing to the world, although there are modifications of that if you follow the train of thought that the Church is the new Chosen people. Blessed to be a blessing is certainly true of the Church, whereas an eternal homeland in Palestine, centred on Jerusalem, is not. Christianity is not a land-based religion in that way: there is no Aliyah for us, the Jewish call for home, and we have no Mecca or Amritsar. But, to get back on track, what has God promised you, personally? Would anyone care to name such a promise?
God promised me one time at the edge, when I was homeless and sleeping in a shelter, that I’d never be without a roof; and specifically, that I’d never have to sleep in the two-storey carpark across the road from the shelter. God reminded me many times, at the edge, that this was God’s promise. And so far God has proven faithful to God’s word. I am confident that God will always prove faithful to this promise.
In Psalm 139 we read what is many people’s favourite psalm. It’s not my favourite, although it used to be, and it’s not my favourite only because another psalm has supplanted 139 in my heart as the deepest promise of God to me. But if it’s your favourite then good for you, it’s a gem.
Tradition accords this psalm to the pen of David, and the NRSV has my partial approval in subtitling this poem “The Inescapable God”. God is inescapable, not that God is unable to escape us, but that we are unable to escape God. We cannot escape the inescapable one. Why can’t we escape, well because as the very first words of this poem say, God has searched and has known you who has come to worship. “I cannot outrun you,” says David, “you’ve got me and you always have had. You know every movement of every sinew in my body, and every firing of every synapse in my brain.” Such a God cannot be escaped.
“You search out the way for me,” David goes on to say. God goes ahead like a scout and then comes beside as a trail guide to set the best path for where you or I walk next. This verse, Psalm 139:3, is why I’m not enamoured of theologies which speak of Jesus occupying the driver’s seat of someone’s life. Yes, in the “Footprints in the Sand” moments of life we may need a taxi or ambulance, and then it’s all “Jesus Take The Wheel” for me. But for the most part I suggest that Jesus wants us to do our own driving while he sits in the other front seat as map-reader, course-plotter, navigator and companion. Jesus is not a sat-nav, a disembodied voice from the dashboard; neither is he a front-seat passenger, passive as you drive. No, this verse suggests that Jesus is more like the co-driver in a rally car, one who has travelled the road before and who knows where the tricky corners are, which way they curve, and whether there is sloppy mud or oil or ice or cow muck on the racing line. Jesus is the one yelling out pace-notes above the roar of the engine as you throttle through those brief stages of life where you must travel with your foot to the floor, trusting him to tell you what to do in the next three bends. Even in a championship rally, let alone a local car trial, not all the road is competitive: there are cruising stages where you and the navigator sit back a bit and drive to the next timed stage. This is where Jesus sits with you just being and chatting and enjoying the road, and Psalm 139:4 speaks of this moment in the intimacy and trust that you and Jesus have in each other – he knows what you’re about to say, not because he is God omniscient but because he is your partner and he knows you. To extend the metaphor, Jesus as co-driver has placed his life in your hands, he trusts you to keep him safely on the road and not to lose the car he is hurtling along in (with his head down to read the pace-notes) into the adjacent gullies, hillsides, and crowds of spectators. It’s no wonder he is intimately acquainted with your thoughts and actions, he has needs to know you enough to trust you with his life.
That’s certainly not the metaphor David was thinking of, that God needs to know you intimately enough to have life-risking faith in you, but it works for me. It works for me because the idea of Jesus as navigator rather than driver was revealed to me in my Bethel. It works for me because if God in Christ is prepared to go to that extent to survey me, to ask about me, to check my references and my CV, and to look up my criminal record for selecting me for a relationship then I trust the news that God is interested in me and wants to know me. If God knows everything about me and still wants to love me, well that’s amazing, but that’s the story of grace. While I always celebrate the fullness of the gospel message to a hurting, waiting world, including me, I’ve heard that story before. But that God would go to all that effort to find out about me, not just from God’s omniscience, but from God’s pursuit of me and God’s work to woo me just for the purposes of love, well that’s different. Remember from Psalm 139:1 that David specifically says that he was searched and loved, not merely known about and acknowledged. God is active in chasing you just so you can know how much God loves you.
God knows you. God made you and so God knows how you were made and the bits used to make you. We could go on to read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:13-18. God is eternal and without limit and for that reason it is not possible to be where God is not, and we have read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:7-12. But, again, even as wonderful as that message is, hear it with the insight that this loftiness and majesty of God is active, and is actively attending to you for love and to uphold you.
God chose Abraham and no one else, but God still loved the world. Then God chose Isaac and not Ishmael, even as God loved and protected Ishmael. Then God chose Jacob and not Esau, even as God loved and protected Esau (and saw him married to Ishmael’s daughter). And from Jacob, eventually, comes the Jewish people and the story we continue to read of God blessing one group so that they can bring that blessing to the whole world.
God has also chosen you. Don’t worry, God has chosen me as well, it’s not all up to you as it was all up to the Patriarchs. But as God promised to be their God in the hope that they would be God’s people the same promise is made to us. God promises love for you, guidance for you, protection for you, supervision for you, rescue for you, and peace for you. Do you know that? Do you know that because I have told you that, or others before me from behind this and other lecterns? Do you know that because the Bible, or Joyce Meyer, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer told you that in print?
Can I invite you to say yes to those, but can I also invite you to develop and inhabit your own Bethel? Can I encourage you to find a space, place, and time, to be where God is and to watch and learn as God goes about the work of grace right in front of you? Find a chair, or a wardrobe. Find a minute or twenty. Fall asleep and dream if that works for you, (it often does for me). Whatever you do, find God where God is and listen and ask about the promise made to you for your life. Not just for salvation from sin, not just for Heaven when you die, not just for the promises made in Christ to the whole Church (although those too, those too). But listen and ask for God’s personal, timely promise for you. And then, in the confidence that the God who knows you in the Psalm 139 way is also with you in the fresh promise of today, go out and change the world.