7th Sunday after Pentecost
July 23 2017
JR Atkins, United Methodist Church
I awoke from my sleep the other morning, refreshed and ready for the day. I was well rested, my mind free of troubles, eager to approach the day, my heart full of love for the opportunities of a new day. Could this be what Jacob felt in our scripture reading?
“Then Jacob woke 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.”“
What is the context of Jacob?
For Jacob, this is one of many nights and mornings he will have on his trip to Haran, which is in modern day Turkey. According to Google Maps, it’s about a 14-hour drive by car from Beersheba to Haran. If Jacob was walking, it was more like a 2-week journey through the wilderness.
If you have been out in the desert of this land, you can imagine walking up and down the terrain or around the curves of the hills. Can you imagine traveling by caravan in the heat we have this summer? As I left the Jordan Valley last week, it was 44° Celsius, or 111° Fahrenheit? It was very hot.
Yet, as day turns to night, and the sun is setting, Jacob prepares to rest for the night. Taking a rock to support his head, he lays himself down and goes to sleep.
Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven, and God speaks to him about the land. God tells Jacob that he will be with him until he has done what he promised. When Jacob awakes and says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” What an experience! As I reflected on this passage and its meaning, I began to wonder how often we might have a similar experience to Jacob. When might we say, “Surely the Lord is in this place”?
What it means to rest
What is it like for you when you awake fully rested for the day ahead? How do we get this kind of rest so that we too might wake up as Jacob did? Is there any action on our part that would lead us to have a similar experience as Jacob? This summer, I have been watching the pace and activity of the people near me: my friends in ministry, people volunteering and working at non-governmental organizations, shop owners, farmers, business people, university faculty, staff and students. On the surface, it does not look like we are waking up saying “How awesome is this place!” Too often, it seems like we are tired, over worked, and barely surviving under the stress of daily existence. Is this what God intended for our life? Or is there another path? I can identify at least three keys to being more like Jacob and waking with an attitude of “Surely the Lord is in this place.”
Let me first suggest that we can pause for a moment of intentional rest during the day. A time when we set aside the world to rest in the love of the Lord. Some people can do this anywhere, they simply let go of the issues and thoughts of the day, clear their mind, and rest in the presence of the Lord. Others, like me, may need a crutch or an aid, something to help remove ourselves from the world and connect with God. This could be a place, inside or outside, at the foot of the cross of Jesus, or setting outside with plants and nature. Others may recite a prayer such as the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Some people say this over and over, as a way to clear their mind and connect to God. When I first learned this prayer, I did not appreciate the last part claiming I was “a sinner.” But over time I felt less guilt and more humbleness in this phrase.
I think of daily rest as the daily prayers of the brothers and sisters of monastic life, the quiet prayers of Mother Teresa throughout her day and the prayers offered up daily by my local friends in Israel and Palestine as they deal with pressure and conflict. Some may call these daily moments of rest: mediations, prayers, deep breathing or simply a mental vacation. Whatever you call it, moments of daily rest can give you peace, patience, lower stresses, a healthier outlook, and a closer relationship with God. When you “awake” from your moment of rest, maybe you can claim “Surely the Lord is in this place.”
Another key to awaking like Jacob is get a good night of rest. Jacob awoke from an evening of rest filled with dreams of God. How might we adjust our lives that we too have a restful evening and dreams of God. My very good friend Rich, who started out as a colleague at work and became one of the most influential men in my life, reads the Bible each evening before he goes to bed so that he will have scripture in his subconscious mind as he sleeps. He tells me that he often awakes from dreams containing the presence of God. Yet, sometimes I am so tired and drained from the day, I collapse in bed, pressed down from the burdens of the day, too tired to read. If I do read, I fall asleep in the middle of scripture then feel guilty. I don’t think God wants us to feel guilty for falling asleep in scripture.
Perhaps, when we are this tired and drained, we can say a short prayer of surrender such as “God, thank you for this day. Be with me in rest that I might feel your presence and awake refreshed.” Or, if you do read, select a short passage or a few key words or one word and reflect on it as you drift off to sleep. Another approach to try, if you can, is to lie down for bed before you get so tired. Select a verse and repeat it or contemplate it as you prepare for a night of sleep. My friend Greg, a long time Bible study partner, wakes up often during the night, so he reads the Bible until he is ready to go back to sleep. He tells me that he often dreams about God and the stories of the Bible.
A third idea is the practice of pulling away from life and the world like the Desert Mothers and Fathers did. To seek a mountain top experience, or listen to the waves of the ocean, or any place that allows you to hear God speak to you. My spiritual friend Glenna, who lives in Colorado and works with Native Americans, schedules some kind of retreat weekend once or more times a year for this purpose. She tells me that time away from home, in a place that speaks to her soul, has a renewing effect on her outlook. By disengaging with the world, spending time in silence, listen to God; she can then reengage in a more meaningful way with others. She says that she can awake like Jacob, feeling God with her, in her quiet cell, cabin, tent, hotel room or guest room.
Rest and silence often precede an encounter with God. In our busy life, we are actively pursuing life. In our still quiet moments, we can reflect on life, and God is present with us. When Jacob awoke, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place.” Does this mean that God was not in that place before or that God was not with Jacob always? No. God is with us always. One of my favourite texts is Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46.1-3, NIV) What Jacob is identifying for me is that I miss the presence of God though my own ego and activities. I get so busy that I neglect God.
Life is not a mountain top
To pull away for rest and renewal is good, whether it is 10 to 20 minutes of meditation, a good night’s sleep or a weekend retreat. But we do not live in these moments. We do not live on the mountain but in the valley, not in the calm waves but in the storm, not in a quiet day but a day of noise and chaos. God is with us throughout it all. I am best when I surrender to God and let God direct, use and guide me. When I am under stress, I say things that offend others. I make decisions that I later regret. I am not my best. But, when I recognize my limitations and turn the day over to God, I am able to cope in a way that shows others the love of Christ. Some might call it “grace under fire.” I call it the grace of the Lord.
As I close this sermon I ask that you join me in saying out loud the word of Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”
I pray that you will repeat this sometime in the next few days as a reminder of what is possible when we rest in God, as an affirmation that you are claiming the rest of Jacob, or because you see the new day as awesome and that the Lord is in this place. Amen.