WHERE DOES GOD LIVE?
Genesis 28:10-19, Psalm 139, Matthew 13:24-30
July 18, 1999 by Tad Mitsui
One Sunday, a Sunday School teacher asked everybody in her class to write a letter to God. So Jimmy wrote: "Dear God, I went to New York last summer and saw St. Patrick”s Cathedral. You live in a big house." But today”s story about Jacob pretty well destroys Jimmy”s theory about the house of God, doesn”t it? The passage means that St. Patrick”s Cathedral is not necessarily God”s house, neither is any church. Jacob named a place where he slept "Bethel". It means the house of God. It was where, in a dream, he saw a staircase leading to God in the desert. Jacob”s experience of God tells us that God meets with us anywhere even in the depth of despair, and that the house of God can be any place where God meets with us.
When Essau realized that his own brother Jacob had tricked him and stole all he was entitled to inherit, he was so angry that he vowed to kill Jacob. Confronted with such anger, neither his mother Rebecca nor his father Isaac could help Jacob. Both of them urged him to run for his life as fast as he could, to their homeland, ten days walking distance away. He was alone. He had nothing, no food nor water. He had only the clothes he had on. He had to run for his life.
The worst thing about it is that Jacob brought all this to himself and by himself. He had nobody else to blame but himself. When he stole blessing from his father and brother, he was thinking only about himself. He thought he was being clever. But he was too conceited see that his wit could destroy him, if he didn”t take others into account. He didn”t even think about God. Blessing comes from God. Blessing means nothing without faith in God. Isaac was only a conduit for the blessing of God. Jacob behaved as though alone he could control everything. He was wrong. Jacob could not blame anybody but himself.
He ran and ran. The sun in that part of the world can be so strong that it can kill you. By the time he laid down his head on a stone to sleep, it was more accurate to say that he just collapsed and fell into unconsciousness. Then he had a dream. He saw the stairs that landed just beside the place where he was sleeping. He saw angels going up and down. On top of the stairs was God. God spoke to Jacob, "I am the God of your grandparents and your parents. I promised to them that their offsprings will be blessed and prosper. I now promise the same to you. Remember, I am with you now and will be with you always." Jacob woke up in the morning and said to himself, "God has always been with me. And I didn”t know that." He picked up the stone which he was using as a pillow, and set it up like a monument and said, "I call this place Bethel – the house of God, because this is where I realized that God had always been with me."
This Jacob”s experience teaches us that God is with us in the darkest of the dark moments in our lives. Psalm 23rd says, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. For thou art with me." Our fundamental code of beliefs, the "Apostle”s Creed" is even more explicit, "(Jesus) was crucified, dead and buried, descended into hell." God meets us in the most desperate situation, even in hell, to be with us.
Once I had a parishioner who became addicted to gambling. He gambled away his family business and the family home. His wife and children kicked him out. When I saw him in a downtown flop house, he said to me he really missed the church. But he said he had no nerve to go to church in his predicament. He promised that he would change, work hard, pay all gambling debts, and then ask his family to take him back. He promised that he would come to church when he could come with his family. Another story: an unemployed woman said to me, "I have no clothes to wear to church." If you take the teaching of the story of Jacob seriously, both of them were wrong. God meets with you at the worst possible moment of your life. The church is the right place for them to be. On the other hand, if the church gave them an impression that they could not come to church if they were not perfect and respectable enough, there was something fundamentally wrong about the church. The house of God should be the place where God meets with anyone who is in a dire straight. If the church gives the impression that one has to be squeaky clean to be allowed in, God does not live that church. If the church is called the house of God, it should be where the sinners meet God.
If you believe that God is with you in the worst possible moment in your life, you will have a courage to endure. Victor Frankl was a psychologist who survived a Nazi death camp, and wrote a book about his whole experience from a psychologist”s point of view. He noticed that people, who knew the meaning of life because of their strong religious conviction, had much better chance of surviving hardship than those who did not see beyond the here-and-now. God meets with us at the worst possible moment of our life.
We run into difficulties because of our mistakes and weaknesses. Also misfortunes strike all of us for no fault of our own. God does not promise to steer all problems away from us. They come, just like rains fall on the good and the bad without discrimination. But God does promise to be with us always. And that belief gives us courage and strength to endure. Jacob had to go through many difficult experiences in his life. But he lived through it all and survived. He had a courage to go back to his brother to ask for forgiveness. He could have been killed by Essau. But he was strong enough to go through all this, not so much because he was without fault, but because he had met with God at the lowest point in his life, at Bethel – in the house of God in the middle of nowhere, in the wilderness. Remember what Jesus said? "I will be with you to the end of time."