By Pastor John J. Pawloski - August 20th, 2023

Genesis 28:10-19 (NRSVue)

Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. He reached a certain place and spent the night there. When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there. He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it. Suddenly the Lord was standing on it and saying, “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. Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”

When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. He was terrified and thought, this sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven. After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. He named that sacred place Bethel.


I am guessing that just about all of us have a special place where they find God.  For me, two places stand out in particular. When I was fourteen years old, I went to Cimmeron, New Mexico to the Philmont Boy Scout camp there.  At the time, I was having a crisis of faith, and wasn’t sure if I still believed in God.  I wrestled with that question for quite some time until on what was our last day of a fourteen day journey of camping from campsite to campsite, we would walk through one of the most beautiful scenes in nature I have ever seen.  It was called the tooth of time.  It was a rock formation built into the side of a mountain shaped like a molar, hence the name. When I saw that site, I knew that God is present in the making of this beautiful scenery. The notion that something so breathtaking could have happened by chance seemed silly to me.  I saw the presence of God in the beauty of my surroundings, and moreover, I felt the presence of God in that majestic place.

My second place for seeing and feeling the presence of God is a little closer to home, La Vista Park in Godfrey. This is essentially a walking park with about a two mile trail that goes down a very steep trail (which impacts the popularity of the park, I am sure). It is a special place for me as I would take my dog for walks off his leash so he could run up and down the hills.  He loved to explore for deer remains left by deer that wandered into the park after being shot by hunters. You would be surprised at how many deer he found. While he was doing that, I would contemplate my life and God’s place in it. La Vista Park was a place of serenity in the midst of some very tumultuous years. I miss that place.

Jacob, in today’s scripture reading, has found such a place.  What is interesting to me about this scripture is the fact that Jacob is fleeing the wrath of Esau, his brother and runs off to his mother’s homeland of Haran (essentially reversing the journey his grandfather Abraham took to Canaan). What I find particularly noteworthy is Jacob is in the middle of nowhere and does not notice anything out of the ordinary until he uses a rock for a pillow (how desperate do you have to be to do that?). Then he dreams about a ladder that now bears his name, stretching from the earth to heaven. God, at the top of the ladder, reinforces the covenant made to Abraham about how God will make Jacob’s ancestors as numerous as grains of sand or dust. It is only when Jacob wakes up that he realizes that God has been in this place all along. 

I think all places are like Bethel, particularly in natural surroundings. God is not limited to a temple, mosque, or cathedral. God is to be found right under our noses if only we have eyes to see the presence of God. God is present in the Spirit of a grandmother caring for a grandchild. God is there in a prison where a kind soul is visiting someone society has deemed irredeemable. God is present among a scout troop as they pick up litter at a park or place flags on the tombstones of fallen soldiers. God is present in the sunrise that wakes you up each morning. God is in the moon that illuminates the night time sky. God is everywhere always. What is missing is our jaundiced view of the presence of God. We are so accustomed to these mini-miracles of God’s presence that we walk right by them without a care.

What separates Jacob from many of the Old Testament patriarchs and characters, is that Jacob gave reverence to his chance encounters with God. Jacob saw the sacred in the ordinary because there is nothing ordinary about the sacred. Jacob was open to the possibilities of God’s revelation right before his eyes. And Jacob praised God for God’s benevolence. And although a trickster, Jacob grew into Israel, a founding father a nation could admire because of his deep and sincere appreciation of how God works in and through the ordinary.

So what can Jacob teach us? For starters, to open our eyes. We are surrounded by good things.  We quickly notice the smell of car exhaust or a gas leak, but what thought do we give to the scent of the flowers that bloom in our bushes? We are all ready to complain to a manager when our restaurant steak is too rare or too well done, but how often have we contemplated the joy of a simple cup of coffee or tea, and how its goodness radiates throughout our bodies. Finding those that let us down makes for a long list indeed, but giving thanks for the kindness of those who came to your aid when you needed it most is a task we do not do nearly enough. God is present in your lives. God is ubiquitous–everywhere always.