Reality Check on the Presence of God

More than a decade ago a freshman at Eagle Rock Junior High won first prize at the greater Idaho Falls Science Fair. He was attempting to show how conditioned we have become to alarmists practicing junk science and spreading fear of everything in our environment. In his project he urged people to sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of the chemical “dihydrogen monoxide.” And for plenty of good reasons, since it:

  1. Can cause excessive sweating and vomiting.
  2. It is a major component in acid rain.
  3. It can cause severe burns in its gaseous state.
  4. Accidental inhalation can kill you.
  5. It decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes.

He asked 50 people if they supported a ban of the chemical. Especially when they heard the words “monoxide” 43 said “yes”, 6 were “undecided”, and only 1 knew that the chemical was H20 (water). Who would ban water?

This is the kind of account that Canadian comics love when they go south of the border and target an audience to embarrass in front of the camera by asking them questions about something that they have absolutely no knowledge about, but want to appear connected to the world and super intelligent. That’s how he got people to

  • sign a petition against the Saskatchewan seal hunt
  • congratulate the Canadian government on building a dome over its “national igloo” (apparently a downsized version of the United States Capitol made out of ice) to protect it from global warming (one of the interview subjects fooled was Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee).
  • congratulate Canada on legalizing insulin (although it was a Canadian who first discovered the substance).
  •  Comment on the controversy around the reconstruction of the historic “Peter Mann’s Bridge”, named after “Prime Minister Peter Mann”
  • ask if Jean Chrétien-Pinochet should be charged with crimes against humanity.
  •  congratulate Prime Minister Tim Horton on getting a double-double (a coffee with two creams and two sugars which apparently meant ‘support on both sides of Congress’).
  • Their knowledge of Canada is “Obama-nable” (pardon the pun).

I want to take you to an episode in the life of Jacob where something important escaped his attention: Genesis 28:10-17 10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “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. 14 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. 15 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.” 16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (NIV)

How many things happen in our lives that take a little time for us to “clue in”? I have walked with a heavy heart towards a home to bring bad news. I was greeted at the door with enthusiasm and a warm welcome. These people had no idea why I had gone to their home or the type of message I was bringing. They were already getting ready to entertain when I’ve had to stop them and tell them I didn’t come to their home for a social visit. You could watch their countenance change when I said they should compose themselves because the news I had was not good. Then came the shock and the grief. They were totally unaware of my mission.

This account of the life of Jacob occurs immediately after he and his mother had deceived Isaac and stolen the birthright of Esau. Jacob’s final piece of advice from his father is to leave home until Esau’s anger cools and finally, not to marry a Canaanite woman. This quip is as good a comparison to Jacob’s life as you will find: Two men were discussing the character of a third. “Let me describe him this way,” said the first (and this is why he reminds me of Jacob). “He’s the kind of guy who follows you into a revolving door and comes out ahead of you.” So Jacob heads to Paddan Aram to the house of his uncle Laban where he was to marry his first cousin. In fact he will marry two of his first cousins, Leah and Rachel. On his way from the mess he created he laid down for the night on a stone pillow near a place called Luz.

During that night Jacob had a marvelous dream: “a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” “Jacob’s ladder” is what we call it even though Jacob didn’t create it nor did he use it himself. More powerful than the dream was the appearance of the Lord to Jacob in the dream and God’s confirmation of the covenant He had originally made with Abraham. But my point is that when he lay down to rest from his flight from deception and family conflict, Jacob had no consciousness or awareness of God’s presence. He arrived in a desolate spot lonely and homeless and lay down to sleep not knowing God was near. We know this because when he awakened in the morning, he said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He went to sleep unaware of God, but when he awakened he know God was present in the night and was still there. It was at this moment that Jacob understood the truth of God that Psalm 139:7-12 would later express: Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, 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 fall on me,” even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You. (NKJ)

I should stop a while at this point and register my surprise that God would visit Jacob in this way. Why does God show up where He’s not expected? He owed Jacob nothing. In fact, if Jacob were to get retribution for his life at that time, he would have earned the wrath of God. He was a lying, deceptive opportunist. The landscape at Luz was barren and bleak. It had none of the attractiveness of Isaac’s home in Beersheba which was fruitful. There was no altar in Luz and not even a tent for Jacob’s shelter. God visited a fugitive and conferred a blessing that his own father could not have given him. That’s grace at work! Let me say that grace is at work in places that are uninviting. Grace works when we are on the run from the disasters of our lives. God is present whether we acknowledge Him or not.

God was present in Belshazzar’s feast in the book of Daniel as an uninvited guest. While his nobles and his officials partied and drank from the sacred vessels of Jerusalem’s temple, God was present. A hand appeared on the wall and the message it wrote spelled the downfall of a kingdom and a king. It caused Belshazzar’s knees to shake. Daniel’s arrival confirmed the fact that God had been near. People assume that God’s apparent invisibility means His detachment and His distance. He sees the corners of life. He stays close to His creation.

Elijah sat forlorn under a tree and cried out for death. He felt he alone was true to God. The rest of the nation clamored after Baal, but he had been faithful, but the burden was too much to bear. He was wrong! In fact, he was 7,000 percent wrong. I don’t mind being wrong by a low margin. Anything in the 90s was the mark I’d settle for, but once I crept close to the 80th percentile, I knew some improvement was necessary. God came to this despondent prophet and shook him with the truth that the effort was not down to one man, but that 7,000 loyal followers of the Lord were in the nation.

There are likewise personal spiritual considerations where we cannot afford to be wrong. Has a bitter loneliness possessed your soul? Perhaps you serve the Lord in a solitary condition in your family. Perhaps you are misunderstood by everyone you know who is close to you. You are never forsaken. You are never alone. God is present, as He was with Jacob, even in the unexpected places. People can come to church with sin clouding their vision and rotting their soul. People can feel they have been totally abandoned.  You may be in a relationship that is going nowhere. He is here!

We can develop Jacob’s problem. His sensitivity to God had been dulled. God was there when he fled his brother’s wrath. God was there when he stopped for the night and chose a stone for his pillow. God is there when old friends beckon you back to an old life. God is there in the frightful hours of the night when the future is unclear and you agonize in the darkness. Notice what Jacob discovers and please pay attention to the tenses. “Surely the Lord is in this place.” “Is” means now, present tense. He is here now. “And I knew it not,” Jacob concluded. I wasn’t aware of it. He was here all the time. Jacob had tried to manage his life without God and he became a man disassociated from his family, hated by his brother and now on the run. How many people live in the same condition? We struggle and we strive and all the time, God is here.

A few years ago the news reported that J. Clifford Baxter, one of the top executives of the scandalized Enron Corporation in the United States, was found in his car in a suburb of Houston, Texas. He had died of a single gunshot wound to the head and a note lay beside him. Baxter, a native of Amityville, N.Y., received a bachelor’s degree with honors from New York University and in 1987 got an MBA from Columbia University, where he was valedictorian, according to Enron. Baxter was 43 at the time and was survived by his wife and two children. Here’s the point of this: unconsciousness of God shrinks our lives.

It is a mistake to think that God builds a boundary around life. People say, “If I become a Christian, I can’t do this and do that, or go here or there ….” That’s thinking inside the box. It means confining life to here and now. It means setting a horizon very close to us and never looking beyond. Not only one man died on January 25, 2002. A 43-year-old Enron executive lived such a narrow life that he could not look beyond a federal investigation into a business that he was a part of. My diary tells me that a 73-year-old Christian I knew very well passed away on the same day. It was too much of a contrast for me not to record a thought about it. The man who died here in Corner Brook was not involved in the world of high finance, but he could see infinitely further than Mr. Baxter. My friend had a healthy awareness of God, a saving awareness of God’s presence and could see the One who is invisible. Rather than being bound to a world and to things that limited his vision, he was set free from these boundaries. He knew the reality of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill among the philosophers and intelligent elitists of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being.”

When he awakened in the morning Jacob discovered he had not been alone in the night. He rose up realizing something “awesome” had happened there.  He set up a stone pillar and poured oil on it, and renamed the place Bethel or “house of God.” From that point Jacob went onward to his Uncle Laban’s house. Twenty years would pass before Jacob could turn his face towards the land of his fathers. He is older, married twice, and has become prosperous. After two decades he is going back to meet his brother Esau. He’s confronting his past. On his way to do this he has another spiritual experience. This time it is not a mere dream, for you see the angels and the ladder were elements of something that was not real, but this time he is grabbed in the darkness by the Lord in a human form. They wrestled, the Lord mastered him and Jacob hung on for a blessing. This time he is changed, not just his name, but more importantly he is made very aware of the presence of God. Jacob realized that consciousness of God was not something to be feared. Genesis 32:30: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” God does not make Himself known to diminish our lives, but to enlarge our lives. It is fear that keeps us from God. It is doubt that removes Him. In spite of all these things He seeks us and longs to be found.

Let’s bring this home. How sad would it be for someone to come here to this church week after week and year after year and never sense the presence of God in this place? It is like a person who would listen to the message of a fortune cookie, but neglect the Word of God! I suppose if my horizon were short, I would look only as far as I want and see nothing awesome. If I dwelt on faults and failures of others or minor issues or matters of church government, I would never progress beyond where I am and I would never see God beyond it all. God wants to break into our lives and through the power of the Holy Spirit He has opened heavens and not a mere angel has come to communicate with us, but Jesus has come down and wrestled with sin and death and now has given us a new name and a restored relationship. The Holy Spirit has been outpoured and now a divine interchange with heaven is possible.

John’s Gospel features seven signs or miracles that Jesus is the Son of God. I love the first sign – water changed to wine in the town of Cana. Jesus arrives at a wedding and announces His kingdom. Weddings are joyful! He saved the day. Do you know where we find Jesus for the seventh sign? It’s not a wedding. It’s at a grave site of a special friend named Lazarus. Between the wedding in Cana and the funeral in Bethany is all of the range of things a person may face in a lifetime. It is a gospel filled with the reality of human experience. In the end a young couple is blessed by His presence, a boy is healed, Jesus calms a storm, 5,000 are fed and a family broken by death is reunited.

It is the same message that came to Jacob. Approaching God is not obligation, it is celebration. Church is not ritual, it is relationship. Jesus is not a character from history; He is the living God Whom the Holy Spirit comes to reveal. He is the reason why we are here in this place. “God’s presence is in this place.” He is here to be discovered... HE IS HERE! Hallelujah!