Thursday, 23 September 2021

Where is God, and where is God not?

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

26 September 2021

Genesis 27.1-4, 15-23; 28.10-17

John 1.45-51

I wonder where you go to meet with God? 

Where is your spiritual, holy place? 

Maybe you’re there now: 

worshipping with the saints in the Sanctuary at Bloomsbury, 

singing the great hymns of faith to the accompaniment of our wonderful pipe organ, 

revelling in the word of God read and expounded, 

upheld by the prayers of the faithful? 

Or maybe you were there earlier this morning, 

as you sat in quiet stillness bringing your life before God 

in dialogue with the scriptures through prayer? 

Or maybe for you it’s somewhere else? 

Maybe you go to meet with God 

as you walk together in the garden of God’s creation, 

finding God in the beauty of nature, on the mountain top, 

along the coast path, at the lakeside or riverside as the sun sets in glory? 

Or maybe you meet God in your family and friends, 

encountering the face of the divine 

in the faces of those you love and who love you? 

Where do you go to meet with God? 

And what does it mean for you when you get there? 

What does the transcendent moment, 

the realisation that there is more to this life 

than just you and your immediate concerns, 

what does that mean for you? 

What does it do to you?

In our evening services, in the before-times, 

we used to pause each week, 

at the end of the day which was also the end of week, 

and ask ourselves this very question: 

Where have you encountered God today? 

And we would also ask ourselves the correlating question: 

Where have you been but have not found God? 

And as we asked ourselves these questions, 

we framed them using two key portions of scripture, 

one from the Psalms 

and the other from our reading today from the book of Genesis. 

Let me share these questions with you now, 

and as I do so, I invite you to try and answer them 

as you reflect back on your life over this last week:

Where, in your experience this week, 

have you wanted to say with Jacob, 

‘Surely the Lord is in this place’?...

Where, in your experience this week, 

have you wanted to say with the Psalmist, 

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’?...

And as you hold these places of connection and disconnection in your mind, 

I invite you to hear, with whatever faith you have, 

the great assertion of the apostle Paul:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Well, if you didn’t already know this, 

what we have just done together is known as an exercise of Ignatian spirituality, 

as developed by Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century Spanish priest. 

What Ignatius taught was a way of discerning 

what he called good and evil ‘spirits’. 

These aren’t conceived of as angels and demons 

external to a person and acting on them, 

but more as moods or aspects of the human soul. 

Sometimes we are drawn towards love, joy and peace, 

and sometimes we are drawn towards confusion and doubt. 

The purpose of intentional reflection on our daily lives, Ignatius said, 

was to learn to pay attention to the goodness 

that God has planted in our souls, 

and to recognise and draw away from the sinfulness 

that would mar God’s goodness within us. 

So a frank recognition of sin is the starting point for godliness; 

and acknowledging where God is not, 

is the beginning of the journey towards discovering where God is.

Where is God? Where is God not? 

These are the Ignatian questions, and I commend them to you.

But there is one more piece of wisdom from Ignatius, 

and it takes us to our reading this morning, 

of Jacob’s vision of God in the wilderness. 

Because Ignatius said that a bad spirit might whisper 

that you deserve to be comfortable and contented, 

to discourage change; 

whilst a good spirit, a godly voice whispering into our lives, 

might take us to the place of desolation, to the moment of crisis, 

to the point of re-examination of all that we hold dear 

and have built our life upon. 

Sometimes, paying attention to the voice of God 

is not all about love, joy and peace. 

Sometimes, it’s about confronting our deepest self in all its unvarnished state. 

That, too, can be the outcome of discernment before God.

And so we come to Jacob in the wilderness.

I think it’s fair to say that Jacob isn’t a particularly likeable person. 

He’s confrontational, conniving, deceptive, and manipulative. 

In everything we are told about him in the book of Genesis, 

from his emergence from the womb 

grasping at the heel of his twin brother Esau (25.23),

he is presented as someone trying to make his way in the world 

whatever the cost to others. 

Maybe we should blame the parents 

as they played favourites with their children, 

with Isaac favouring Esau and Rebecca favouring Jacob (25.28). 

Maybe it’s all an allegorical outworking 

of the tension between nomadic hunter-gatherers represented by Esau 

and the settled agrarian landowners represented by Jacob (25.27). 

Or maybe it’s just that Jacob was one of those people 

who always wanted what he didn’t have, 

which led to him manipulating Esau out of his birthright (25.33). 

Scholars will tell us that the saga of Jacob and Esau, 

which runs over several chapters in the book of Genesis, 

and of which we only got a snapshot today, 

is what is known as an ‘endangered ancestor’ narrative. 

We get these quite a lot through the books of Genesis and Exodus, 

and they are the kind of stories you can imagine people telling 

of an evening, gathered around the fire, once the children are asleep. 

These ‘endangered ancestor’ stories take their tension 

by exploring how things nearly didn’t work out the way that they did. 

So, if your definition of yourself as an ancient Israelite 

is that you are descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 

a story of how Jacob so-nearly wasn’t the chosen vehicle of the covenant 

is a gripping narrative. 

What’s interesting about these stories 

is that they also explore how the revered ancestors of the faith 

were fallible, flawed people. 

There’s no hero-worship here of Jacob, 

if anything is an archetypical anti-hero, 

someone you love to hate. 

We’ve all met people like Jacob, 

who will take what they want by whatever means necessary, 

and we’ve all got aspects of Jacob within ourselves 

if only we can stop, reflect, and recognise them.

The story of Jacob, along with the other ancestors of the faith, 

is in essence a story of what it means to be human. 

Jacob is us, and we are Jacob. 

Jacob messes up his life in a catastrophic way, 

deceiving his father to cheat his brother. 

He is on the run for his life, 

and has abandoned his dysfunctional family for the wilderness. 

He’s taken nothing with him, no tent, no provisions, 

and when he finally lies down to sleep in exhaustion at the end of the day, 

he simply uses a stone as a pillow. 

This is a person at rock bottom. 

Like his grandfather Abraham before him, 

Jacob has become a sojourner, 

a person who exists in isolation from the family systems 

that sustained ancient societies (Gen 15.13; 23.4). 

It’s all gone wrong, and it’s all Jacob’s fault. 

Finally his life has caught up with him, 

and all his questing for birthright and inheritance 

and status and value 

have led him to isolation and dispossession. 

He’s gone to the wilderness to die alone.

And then he has this dream. Listen to those verses again:

[Jacob] dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, 

the top of it reaching to heaven; 

and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

 13 And the LORD stood beside him 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;

 14 and 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 in you and in your offspring.

Jacob’s journey away from the spirit of comfortable contentment, 

towards the spirit of desolation and crisis, 

has led him straight into the faithful arms 

of the God who will not let him go. 

At the place of Jacob’s deepest suffering, God has shown up. 

And at that moment, Jacob is challenged 

to re-evaluate his entire worldview. 

He had been seeking a birthright for himself. 

His efforts to manipulate and deceive Esau and Isaac 

were all focussed on him securing his own place in God’s covenant promises. 

But what he found was that, at the very moment he gave up 

on all his dreams and aspirations, 

God came to him, to give him the very thing 

he had been trying all those years to take for himself. 

But there is a twist. 

Jacob wanted an inheritance for himself, 

but God is very clear that the covenant promises 

are for the blessing not just of Jacob and his descendants, 

but of all the families of the earth (28.14). 

So imagine now with me 

that you’re sat around a camp fire in ancient Israel. 

Imagine that you are one of those 

who sees yourself as the descendant of Jacob, 

the heir to the promises of God given through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

What do you hear? 

This story is a challenge to nationalism, 

it is a challenge to exceptionalism. 

If we are Jacob, and Jacob is us, 

then we too need to learn that God’s promises, God’s blessing, 

is far wider, far more expansive, than we had previously realised.

The invitation here, is for all those who encounter this story, 

whether in ancient Israel or contemporary London 

or anywhere in between, 

to realise that God’s covenant cannot be controlled, 

God cannot be contained, 

and none of us deserve the love of God 

that God nonetheless extends to us 

in our moments of deepest need.

Jacob had gone to the wilderness to die, 

he had run from everything 

he thought represented his status as the heir to God’s promises. 

And yet he encountered God in the very place 

he had thought God would be absent. 

And so he woke from his sleep and said, 

"Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!" (28.16).

So I ask again: 

Where for you is God? 

And where for you is God not?

John’s gospel picks up on the story of Jacob’s dream 

to describe what it understands of the significance of Jesus. 

It says that those who, like Nathaniel, seek a revelation of God, 

will discover that Jesus is for them Jacob’s ladder, 

the point of connection between heaven and earth, 

with the angels ascending and descending upon him. 

Those who daily take up their cross, 

and follow the costly path of Christian discipleship, 

will discover that God is a God who shows up in suffering, 

that God’s redemptive work of new life is revealed in death. 

Those who follow Jesus into the wilderness of temptation 

and confront their unvarnished selves 

will find that God is revealed 

in the moment of deepest self-knowledge. 

Those who leave their security to become sojourners in this world 

will meet God in the loss 

and discover an inheritance that goes beyond all human containment.

Because God is not just the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

God is not just the God of Israel, any more than God is an Englishman. 

God is not just the God of Bloomsbury or the Baptists. 

God is not owned by those who call themselves Christian.

God is the God of all, 

and those whom God calls are called not for their own sake, 

but for the blessing of all nations and all peoples.

Which brings me to my challenge to us, this morning.

If we had read on a couple of verses further in our reading, 

we would have heard what Jacob did next:

And Jacob 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." 

So Jacob rose early in the morning, 

and he took the stone that he had put under his head 

and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 

He called that place Bethel [which means, ‘house of God’]. (Gen. 28:17-19)

And so Bethel became a shrine, a sanctuary, 

a dwelling place for God. 

It was where later pilgrims went to meet with God, 

in the hope that they too would encounter there 

an echo of the glory of Jacob’s vision.

God was revealed to Jacob in the wilderness, 

the place with no walls, no boundaries, 

no security, no stability. 

And Jacob’s response was to build walls, 

define the boundaries, establish security, and seek stability. 

Jacob sought to once again contain God, 

to control the blessings of the covenant.

And Jacob is us, and we are Jacob.

Too easily we too seek to contain God. 

What does it mean for us to discover in our lives, in our community of faith, 

that God’s blessing and promises 

are only ever given for the blessing of all. 

Can we, once again, make the journey to the wilderness of God’s absence, 

to discover that God is unexpectedly present, 

coming to us by grace at the point of our deepest need. 

And can we resist the temptation 

to then try and keep that blessing for ourselves?

As we come towards our time of reflection together on what we have heard, 

I’d like to share a photo with you that I took a few years ago 

at the Marc Chagall gallery in Nice. 

Chagall was Russian-French artist of Jewish origin, 

and his interpretation of Jacob’s dream was painted in 1963. 

It’s huge - nearly 2 metres by 3 metres - 

and you can see on the left side the image of a sleeping man 

seated next to a ladder held by two supernatural beings with wings, 

and on the right side another supernatural being 

with a bigger body and larger wings. 

As we spend a couple of minutes with this picture now, 

I’d like to invite you to think what it means for you to encounter God.

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