How Awesome is This Place?
The word awesome is over-used in my opinion. As with the word ‘legend’ I find it currently being so over-used that it loses much of its meaning. God is awesome. How many things deserve to share that adjective with God? How many things really bring us to a point where we’re literally in awe of them?
I’ve been to some pretty amazing places, both extraordinary buildings like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or the cathedral at Chartres; and heart-achingly beautiful landscapes like canyon country in the American southwest or the roof of the world in the Nepalese Himalaya. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a sense of awe at these places, but it was always an awe of the God who caused them to be, either by ordaining the natural processes that shaped them or by inspiring and enabling the architects who built such wonderful edifices.
Jacob seems to have had a similar reaction in this passage. We’re told that he was awestruck at a place he stopped at by chance shortly after fleeing home. The story of how he used a stone for a pillow and dreamt of a staircase between heaven and earth is well known. In fact I recently hiked a steep section of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim known as Jacob’s Ladder. But what’s less well-known is what God says to Jacob in the dream, and how Jacob responds.
In the dream, God speaks from the top of the staircase.
“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 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. I 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.” (Genesis 28:13-15)
These words are incredible in themselves. In fact, before we go any further I think it’s an awesome idea that the eternal King of Kings should say such things to an insignificant wanderer like Jacob, whose track record so far has hardly covered him in glory.
First of all, God extends to Jacob the promises He made first to Abraham, and then to Isaac. The patriarchs are passing one by one, but the promises remain. Through these guys God will build a nation that will bless the whole world. And God includes Jacob in this promise despite the fact that Jacob is a crafty mummy’s boy who’s currently on the run from his brother having robbed him of his birthright through trickery. This is grace and God’s power of election at work again: God blessing undeservedly those sinful people whom He has chosen for His plans.
Secondly, God not only gives Jacob a purpose, a significance and a future, but He also pledges His presence. His constant, unwavering, unconditional presence. “I 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.”
How wonderful to know that God is watching over you, to know that you can’t forfeit that protective watchfulness by taking a wrong turn, and to know that there’s no time-limit or expiry date on it. More wonderful still is the realisation that this remains true for us today. God is not limited by borders, He doesn’t get bored of looking after you, and He sticks around until all His promises are fulfilled. That’s awesome.
You see, the place that Jacob named Bethel wasn’t awesome in and of itself. Come to think of it, I expect it was as nondescript a bit of ancient Canaan as you could find. What made it awesome was the presence of God. The presence of God makes all the difference. When God shows up, the humblest house-church setting becomes awesome in a way the most beautiful cathedrals could never hope to be on their own.
There are a lot of places around the world that are deemed to be peculiarly holy or sacred, mainly because of significant events that have happened there in the past. Think of Mt Sinai in modern-day Egypt where the Lord descended in fire and smoke to give the Ten Commandments; or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, marking the location of Solomon’s Temple and held in reverence by Jews and Muslims alike. I’m sure they’re responsible for many a profound religious experience, but I don’t believe God is more present there than anywhere else, any more than He is in the Bethel of the twenty-first century. It’s God’s presence that makes a place awesome, not the place itself.
Jacob went away a changed man. Waking up in the morning, he said to himself:
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (28:16-17)
He built an altar to God and pledged to follow Him. There would be many twists and turns ahead, many errors and plenty of foolishness, but from this point on Jacob walked with God. An encounter with the living God transforms you. But we need to be tuned into Him, lest we are unaware of His presence, like Jacob was. The truth is that God is still around, there to be found by anyone who looks, and an encounter with Him is no less life-changing today than it was in the day of Genesis. So let’s be on the lookout, and reserve our awe for Him alone.