Sermon: The Place of Remembered Blessing
Scripture: Genesis 28:10-19a
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale
Date: July 19, 2020
Have you ever known a family that puts the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional’? You know the families I am talking about, don’t you? There’s sibling rivalry between brothers who are so totally different in every possible way you wonder how they came from the same parents! The younger brother does everything he can to supplant and cheat his older brother. The younger brother manipulates his parents against one another. He steals from the older brother what’s rightfully his. He lies and twists the truth. It finally gets so bad that he has to run away from home because of the turmoil he’s caused; his dad is dying, his mother is beside herself, and his older brother is out to run him down and kill him for all the strife the youngest sibling has caused.
Friends, I have just set up the scripture for this morning. The dysfunctional family I am talking about is Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, and the conniving younger brother, Jacob himself.
In our story, we find Jacob on the run as we know from verses 27:41-45 when Jacob steals his brother’s birthright and is now on the lamb. This is where we pick up.
10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the 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.12And he 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. 13And 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; 14and 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. 15Know that 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.”
16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And 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.” 18So 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. 19He called that place Bethel.
One of my favorite authors, fellow Georgian Barbara Brown Taylor, writes in her book, Altar in the World, about a trip she took to Hawaii. Walking along the beach, she came to a secluded place where there was a little pool. She writes,
Walking around the pool, I came to three stones set upright near the edge where the water was deepest. All three were shaped like fat baguettes, with the tallest one in the middle. The other two were set snug up against it, the same grey color as humpbacked whales. Altogether, they announced that something significant had happened in that place…whoever had come before me had set up an altar, and though I might never know what that person encountered there, I knew the name of the place: Bethel, House of God.”
Years ago a dear friend preached a sermon entitled, “A Place of Remembered Blessing.” Though I cannot remember the specifics of his sermon, I do remember the title and have held onto it for over 30 years. A place of remembered blessing. A place where you are surprised by God’s Presence and are taken aback and you know that you have been surprised by the Almighty, or as C.S. Lewis noted, Surprised by Joy. This is what Jacob discovered. It was all Jacob could do but erect a rock pile, anoint it, and call it, Bethel – the House of God.
This is a Story laced with four incredible strands of grace; it’s woven together with four threads of Good News. First, there’s the Good News that even though Jacob was a scoundrel and a jerk, he is still useable and needed by God. It’s a Story that reminds you and me that God can use anyone, even scoundrels like you and me, to accomplish the task God has set before us. Our text reminds us that there is not a single person our Lord cannot show or reveal himself to if it’s God’s choice to do so. A former professor of mine, Walter Brueggemann, says the remarkable thing is not God’s appearance but that God would show up and appear to such a conniving exiled one!
Second, even though Jacob didn’t know God, God knew Jacob. We often think that a person has to be looking for God before God can be revealed. This is simply not the case. There are many families where one member of the family believes in Jesus and another doesn’t. We are given hope that either in our own or in one of our family member’s recalcitrance God still loves them and will show up when they are able and capable to hear the Divine Word; believe me, friends, I doubt there are many family members or friends of ours whose ways were any worse than Jacob’s!
Third, though Jacob was smack dab in the middle of nowhere – it’s akin to being on some side road off Alligator Alley in the Everglades – God was right there in a place that Jacob would not expect to find anyone. This Good news reminds us that wherever our loved-ones flee to, or, wherever we go and escape the issues or nasty people in our life, God is already waiting there for us.
Fourth, there is the Good News that God shows up and appears to Jacob in a way that matches Jacob’s personality, i.e. in a dream. Remember, Jacob was a master manipulator. Even when he was born he was grasping at his twin Esau’s heal as Esau was moving through Rebekah’s birth canal! Jacob wanted to be first! He wanted to be in control! He lived his entire life that way and God knew that fact. So what does God do? God shows up at a time when Jacob is totally unaware and defenseless. God shows up in a dream. God shows up at a time when Jacob’s guard was down, and as such, it provides Jacob the opportunity to have an alternative course laid out for his life. God does not want to get into a discussion with a controlling Jacob; God waits until Jacob is asleep so that Jacob can’t talk back and give God mouthy lip-service.
This is such a wonderful Good News Story! God takes a no-place and makes it a holy place. God takes a no-good person and makes him a called and vital person. It all happens at Bethel – the place of blessing. Bethel is where God redeems Jacob and sets him on a new course in life. Bethel is the place Jacob becomes a new man who is set on a new path. The old scandalous life of the scoundrel is now set on a life re-oriented towards living life for God and for others. It is the place where God surprised him with bright divine joy!
Beloved, if God can do that with a person like Jacob, God is able to reveal himself to you and me as well. I want you to think for a moment: When and where has God shown up in your life when you least expected it and given you an encounter that changed your life forever? You see, at Bethel, Jacob became a new man. At that desert-sleeping place, he was touched by God and his life was never the same. He called it Bethel and built a rock pile to remember the place. Tell me, where’s your Bethel? Where have you built your rock pile?
The ancient Celts, our Presbyterian forbears, had a name for these places where God makes himself present in powerful ways to us. They call them “thin places” after the notion that the veil that separates heaven and earth is stretched so thin that we are, like Jacob, given the opportunity to experience the profound Presence of the Lord.
New York Times reporter Eric Weiner describes these types of places like this. He writes,
They are places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments (we) loosen (our) death grip on life, and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places…They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine…(these places have the habit to) disorient…confuse (us). We lose our bearings, and find new ones…we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.
I have my own thin place, my own Bethel, and place of remembered blessing. Like the Cherokee, I find the Smoky Mountains to be a place where heaven touches earth. It’s in those mountains forty-five years ago that I, as a young teenaged boy confused by life events, first experienced the graceful, loving power of God. It is there I met Jesus and my life was changed forever. The deep woods of those mountains are my Bethel. I have built a rock pile there. When I am physically, emotionally, or spiritually spent, I know I have to go back to the Smoky Mountains, my Bethel. They are the place of remembered blessing to me. If I cannot go there physically, as has been the case with this virus, I close my eyes in meditation and go there in my mind and Spirit.
Where is that place of remembered blessing for you, beloved? Where is your Bethel? Where is the place you can either physically or mentally go to and re-live, re-experience the soft, deft touch of God’s presence in your life? Where’s your place of remembered blessing?
If you have not encountered a thin place, if you have not discovered your Bethel yet, then be patient. You will. God is eager to reveal himself to each of us. We cannot force it. It’s not that we can make up our own Bethel because Bethel, the place of remembered blessing, is a gift God gives to each of us in God’s own time. You know it when it happens, though. It will be a surprise. It will be a moment or a place that will change the way you see yourself and the world around you. It will be a place where you will all of a sudden catch a scent of the Garden of Heaven.
Where’s your Bethel? Where is your place where you remember the blessing of God? When was the last time you physically or mentally went there? Don’t wait too long to go back! The Spirit add understanding to these words! Amen.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15th Street
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
© 2014, 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 2.
 A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Robbie Carroll at Decatur First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta sometime in the 1980’s.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Interpretation Bible Commentary Series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 242. For those who are interested in biblical commentaries, this is one of the best ones for explanations of the Genesis narratives.
 Genesis 25.24-26.
 Brueggemann, 243.
 Eric Weiner, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” The New York Times, March 9, 2012. See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html?_r=0. Accessed on 7/20/2014. Words in parenthesis were added by me for rhetorical clarity.