Finding God In The WastelandErwin W. Lutzer | May 20, 2012
Selected highlights from this sermon
Jacob wasn’t seeking God when God appeared to him in a dream. Through the story of “Jacob’s Ladder” we see three attributes of God: His faithfulness, His accessibility, and His omnipresence. And as we look a little deeper, we see that “Jacob’s Ladder” is actually Jesus Christ—the only ladder that reaches to heaven.
Today we continue our series of messages titled The Invisible World. It’s the world where God exists, angels and demons. It’s the world where heaven and hell exist, and we’re exploring it through the lives of people who experienced it in one way or another. For example, the next message in this series is going to have to do with witches and fortune-tellers and magical arts. It’s going to deal with knowledge from the dark side as people try to connect with the invisible world.
But today’s message is about a man who encountered God unexpectedly. It was a very normal evening and he was on a journey. He was alone. He was lonely and God showed up without further warning. And I hope that that’s going to happen to you. You’ve perhaps come and you’ve thought to yourself, “This is going to be an ordinary service, an ordinary message, and I’m just going to enjoy it and then go home and everything’s going to be the same.” But open your life to the fact that God may show up in your life today. This might be something very extraordinary. You might be surprised by God as this man was. The man’s name is Jacob. His story is in Genesis 28. I encourage you if you have your Bible to follow along with us.
Let me give you the context of this man’s meeting with God. Do you remember that Isaac was married to Rebecca? They had twins and before the twins were born God says that the elder shall serve the younger. That in itself was enough to create some conflict within the family, but two things happened that made this a very dysfunctional family. First of all, there was favoritism. The old man Isaac really favored Esau, who was the hunter, and he identified with that. Jacob was the one who was the favorite of Rebecca. So that created more problems. But what really exacerbated the situation and made it so far worse was that Jacob tricked Esau into giving him his birthright and so because of that Esau was so angry that there was fear that Esau might kill his twin brother. And so Jacob had to leave home. And that’s what leads us now to Genesis 28, and Jacob’s experience when he left home.
What I’d like us to do is to see how this passage of Scripture introduces us to at least three attributes of God, the last of which is most important. So you have to hang on because at the end you might encounter God like Jacob did.
I’m going to read the text actually to refresh our minds and then we shall be introduced to those attributes. We read starting at verse 10 of Genesis 28: “Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that 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 to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord 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. 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 in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth 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 promised you.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And 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.’”
Wow! What a story! What are those attributes that we want to be introduced to briefly today? First of all, the faithfulness of God! Jacob wasn’t seeking God. The Bible says that we should seek Him with our whole heart but Jacob wasn’t out looking for God. God broke into his life unexpectedly, and made this marvelous promise–the same promise that had been given to Abraham and to Isaac. “I’m going to be with you. Your seed is going to multiply. I’ll be with you wherever you go.”
There are two conclusions that Jacob should have immediately taken from this. Number one, there is no way that Esau could kill him, at least not at this point, because God said that Jacob was going to have seed, and that would multiply and through him, as we know, the Redeemer is going to come. So there was no possibility of that, but there was something else that God was trying to connect with Jacob about and that is that he would inherit the promises. Indeed, he would be the one to receive God’s special blessing and anointing. Isn’t that wonderful of God? God didn’t even bring up Jacob’s past, and the sin that he committed and the deceit that was in his heart, that he enacted in his family, not that this wasn’t important, but that isn’t the first agenda on God’s mind.
You and I can sit back and we can think of what we might have said if we had been God at that point. We could have said, “Jacob, why did you deceive your father into giving you the birthright when it was my intention to give it to you right from the beginning? And if you had trusted me you would have received the birthright without creating all of this dysfunction within the family. Think of what you did. Now you have a brother who is so angry with you. He’d love to kill you. Why did you do that kind of deceit, Jacob?”
Now it was important that that happened and that’s something for which Jacob had to be forgiven, but God was on another trajectory. God was saying, “Jacob, what I want you to realize is that you inherit the promises.” Now it’s interesting if you know anything about Esau and Jacob, you know that both of them were crooks. There’s no doubt about it. They were both crooks, but God says, “I’m going to use you, Jacob, with all of your faults.” God says in effect, “I am going to use a crooked stick to make a straight line. You are going to be the one through whom all of the promises I made to Abraham and Isaac are going to be fulfilled.”
We see here the faithfulness of God. What God is saying is that no human failure will stop me from accomplishing my goal. I made the promise. I can fulfill it even in the midst of the family that has lost its way, a family where there is so much dysfunction and hatred. God is bigger than all that, and the faithfulness of God is seen through these promises.
Now let’s look briefly at the accessibility of God, if I can put it that way. What do I mean by the accessibility of God? Let’s look at Jacob’s ladder. I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up we used to sing a song, “I am climbing Jacob’s ladder.” Do any of you go back that far when we used to sing that chorus in Sunday school? It looks like I am in good company here, and we used to sing that.
What’s Jacob’s ladder all about? He dreams a dream and this ladder goes all the way up to heaven. First of all, we learned that it is a very high ladder, obviously, and it must be very wide because angels are ascending and descending simultaneously on this ladder. It connects the invisible world with the visible world. The angels are ascending and they are descending and above it is the Lord. We don’t know what kind of a manifestation of God was there but Jacob knew that above it was the Lord. And what God was trying to say is, “This ladder shows that even though I am in heaven, I am connecting with you on earth and I am giving you a ladder that begins with heaven and goes all the way down to earth. Now Jacob couldn’t have known this, but the ladder actually represents Jesus Christ.
In John 1 there’s a very interesting story about Jesus being introduced to Nathanael, and I’m sure that you’ve picked up on this, but this is what the text says. “When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’” Did you know that that word deceit, even though, of course, the New Testament was written in Greek and the Old Testament in Hebrew, was always connected with Jacob? It’s clear that Nathanael was meditating on Jacob, and his ladder, because the father, Isaac, for example, said, “You have been deceitful. You came to me in deceit,” so what Jacob was known for was his deceitfulness. And so immediately Nathanael knows He must know what I’m thinking because notice what Nathanael says. He says to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus said, “Before Philip called you when you were under the fig tree I saw you.” Nathanael answered and said, “Rabbi, you are the son of God. You’re the king of Israel.”
By the way, do you see that? While you are under the fig tree; while you are on the expressway; while you are riding the El; while you are in school; while you are at home, God already sees you, as will become clear.
Nathanael answered, “You are the king of Israel.” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you (catch this now), you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man,” which was exactly what Nathanael was thinking about.
The first thing we should notice about this ladder is that God is the one that initiates it. It is the ladder from heaven to earth. Let me tell you up front that there is no way that you and I can build a ladder that goes from earth to heaven. That was tried at one time. When you look at Genesis 10 and 11, you discover that some men gathered together in Babel and they said, “Let us make a ladder. Let us make this tower that goes to heaven,” and it didn’t work. And that’s why in the Bible it is God who takes the initiative. God gives us the ladder. Jesus said, “There is no man who has gone up into heaven but who has first come down from heaven, even the Son of Man who is in heaven.” Jesus is the ladder, and for reasons that we cannot go into in detail today, He’s the only ladder between earth and heaven, and Jacob is seeing this dream, the fact that heaven is open to him and the invisible world is becoming visible.
But there’s something else in the passage and that perhaps leads us to the heart of what we have to say today. We’ve learned about the fact that God is faithful in the midst of human deception and sin. He still goes on keeping His promises. We’ve learned that heaven is accessible if we are willing to come on God’s ladder, namely Jesus Christ. But we also learn something about the presence of God.
Jacob awakes from his sleep and says these words in Genesis 28:16, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Wow! That’s the state of the Church today. God is here, God is omniscient, and God is omnipresent. That means He is indeed everywhere. He is where you live in your condo. He is everywhere. You can go to the farthest ends of the earth, the most remote place, and there you will find it is full of God.
Now this on one level can be very terrifying. You know, it’s one thing for a child to be disobedient to his parents, but if he’s disobedient while the parents are looking on it really shows hardness of heart. And you and I have to remember and think of all the times we have grieved the Holy Spirit. We have sinned in the presence of God, and the Bible says that all things are naked and open unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. We cannot escape the fact that God is everywhere, and you today need to know that you cannot hide from Him in Chicago. You cannot hide from Him in all the cities of the world, or the most remote regions. Wherever you go God is there.
In Psalm 139 the psalmist is contemplating the fact that God is everywhere, and he says, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for the darkness is as light with you.” Wow! Thieves do all of their work at night. They want to be hid but God says, “The darkness is the same as light to me.” You cannot escape from God. The Lord is in His universe, and multiplied millions do not know that He is there.
Someone wrote, “Nor let your weakened passions dare consent to sin, for God is there.” Will you remember that during the television programs we watch, God is on the couch beside us? He’s watching and there is no place to hide. So it’s fearful. You know, the Bible says that someday the wicked are going to say, “Well, how does God know?” and God will say, “I’ve been watching the whole time and I’ve got all the goods that you could possibly imagine on you. I’ve got the tapes. Do you want to see them?” At that point we say, “No thanks, I’ll take Your word for it.”
So God is everywhere. And by the way I want to point out the positive side. Have you ever had injustice done to you? Have you ever gone through a trial? Have you ever been deeply hurt by others? Aren’t you glad that God knows? We’ve all had to take great encouragement from the fact that in the midst of misunderstanding and false accusations that God is there and we trust the omniscience of God and the omnipotence of God, and His omnipresence. God is there, and even “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” Aren’t you glad that God is going to be there too? Aren’t you glad He’s there? (applause)
So that’s the omnipresence of God, but there’s something else in this passage and that is the manifest presence of God, the encounter with God that changes everything. Notice what Jacob does. He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I didn’t know it. How awesome is his place!” This is a parenthesis. Today we use the word “awesome” frequently. I have sometimes used it and said, “Well you know that’s awesome.” I don’t know. I think we should save that word for God and think of something else instead of awesome. Only God is really awesome.
He says, “How awesome is this place,” and he was even afraid. He says, “This is the house of God. This is the gate of heaven,” so early in the morning, Jacob took the stone he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it, and he called that place Bethel, and he says, “If God brings me back here I’ll give him thanks and I’ll always remember this place where I encountered God.”
What’s going on there in the text? Here’s an ordinary stone. There’s nothing unique about it at all, and Jacob pours oil on it and says, “I want to remember this place. I want to sanctify this place. This is a sacred place to me.” It was an ordinary stone of course. It could have been any stone. Why this particular piece of real estate–why is it set apart? And the answer is that’s where Jacob encountered God, or the manifest presence of God. It’s one thing, you know, to believe that God is everywhere. Yes, we all agree with that, but imagine encountering Him and saying, “I had an experience with God.” Then even an ordinary piece of real estate becomes very special.
R. C. Sproul, in one of his sermons, said that once a young man came to him and said, “You know, I want to evangelize people, and what I want to do is to have a church with a lot of excitement because most people who go to church are bored,” and he said, “I won’t want anybody to ever be bored in my church.” And R. C. Sproul said to him, “You know, when you look through the Bible you discover that people acted in different ways when they met God. Moses, of course, took the shoes from his feet. We don’t know that he fell down. He continued to stand, and he had a discussion with the Lord God that God eventually won, so that’s the way Moses responded. When you get to Isaiah, Isaiah said, ‘Woe is me for I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.’ When you get to Job you know that Job said, ‘I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee, therefore I repent in dust and ashes.’ And when you get to the New Testament, you discover that when John the Apostle saw the risen glorified Christ, he said, ‘I fell at his feet as though I were dead.’” So Sproul said that when people encounter God they respond differently, but nowhere do I ever find that when people encountered God that they were bored.
When you encounter God you’ll never be bored, and let me say that here at The Moody Church, built with ordinary bricks and built with ordinary steel and whatever else went into this marvelous structure, today when you leave LaSalle Street or Clark Street and you are leaving what used to be called the profane, that is to say the world, and you are coming here into this place, and this place is set apart by God for you to meet Him here, that’s why this place is sacred. (applause) It’s because you have encountered the living God, and as you have heard me say a number of different times, when people walk into this sanctuary, they should say, “Surely God is in this place.” May that be our prayer because the Bible says they should say that, because the truth of their heart is revealed. In other words, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has shown their sinfulness and the first thing you see when you encounter God almost always is that I’m a sinner who needs redemption, and you encounter the Almighty because God is in this place in a special way among His people. Everywhere, yes, but especially here where the encounter took place and so “I set up the stone and I put oil on it,” says Jacob. God is with us.
That’s why it’s so important in this sanctuary that when people come in that they open their lives to God. That’s why we have a call to worship. That’s why we sing and have such beautiful music. It’s because we want the soul drawn to God so that when people leave they say, “I encountered God today,” and if you can say that you’ll never be bored.
You say, “Well, yeah, but how do I encounter Him?” You know it’s one thing to hear this message and you may be sitting there, or maybe you are hearing it through a different means and you may be listening in an office or driving a car, and you say, “Well, you know, it’s one thing, sure, but how do I get to Him?” Thank you so much for asking that question.
The Bible says this in the book of John. “No man has seen God at any time.” Even the Lord that Jacob saw at the top of the ladder was simply a manifestation of God. You and I could never see the invisible God with human eyes. If we did, we would be incinerated. We could not take the holiness and the beauty and the greatness of the invisible God, so there are various manifestations, even as in this passage. “No man has seen God at any time but the only begotten son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.” Jesus declares God, and Jesus went so far as to say, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Wow! That statement takes your breath away. Imagine Jesus saying that to the disciples!
So how do we encounter God? By the way, Luther even said that when you are confronted with a hidden God, you flee to the visible God, not because there are two Gods, of course, but Luther says, “You flee to Jesus.” What he meant was the mystery of God where there are all kinds of questions about God that we don’t understand. There are things that I will not share with you today that I struggle with in terms of what God does and the way in which He runs His world, but He never asks me so I just kind of let him do it. Luther said, “You flee to Jesus,” because there we encounter the God, Logos, God manifest in the flesh, and there we encounter God.
Some of you have never encountered Him in that way. The truth is that to some of you today Jesus is a teacher, He’s a prophet, and He’s a good man, but He isn’t your personal savior. You have no intimate relationship with Him, and if you seek for intimacy, if you seek for that encounter, I encourage you to come to Jesus because He makes the invisible God visible. And not only that, because He is the ladder from heaven to earth, He’s the only one who is able to take you and connect you with the Almighty.
That’s why I like stories of conversion that we frequently have here at church. I enjoy them. I am blessed by every one because every one is a miracle of Jesus Christ reaching down and saying, “Here I am,” and then giving us the ability to receive Him, because it is through Him that we can connect. And then after we have done that, we spend the rest of our life learning to enjoy God in His manifest presence, encountering Him, loving Him, trusting Him and yes, as I’ve mentioned, even enjoying Him, because the invisible God has been made visible to us and tangible to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.
If you are seeking God, this is the end of your search. Come to Christ who reveals the Father. Receive Him as Savior. Accept Him as Lord, and as God, and that’s why He said, “No man can come to the Father but by me,” but through Him we encounter the Almighty. And as I’ve already emphasized, then we are never bored.
May we pray together!
Our Father, we pray that this church might be Bethel, the House of God. May this place ever be sacred because it is here that we have set it apart to say, “This is where we worship. This is where we connect with God. Here’s where we encounter Him,” and we say to all of our visitors, and all those who have come through as members and friends and associates, “In this place God is honored.” May we come back to it repeatedly, we pray, to give You thanks and praise! In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.