Jacob is a biblical character whom you would not characterize as "good." He is not faithful like his grandfather Abraham. He is not a model citizen like his son Joseph. He is, instead, aptly named, for Jacob means "grasper" or "deceiver." He wants what is not his. He schemes. He hurts his brother. He lies, even to his own father. In short, he is like you and me.
Bethel, part one - Stopping for the night to rest, Jacob has a dream. He sees a ladder going to heaven, with angels moving up and down —the literal “stairway to heaven.” He hears, for the first time in his life, God’s recital of his promise to Abram, now repeated to Jacob: “I am God, the God of your father and his father. I will give you this land, and the number of your descendants will be as the dust. Wherever you go, I will bless you.” Awakening, Jacob does a curious—and instructive—thing. He recognizes the presence of God. “Surely the Lord is in this place … . This is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven." Out of the mouth of the deceiver—the liar—comes this truth that faces each of us: God is here, and we need to take notice of it. This place that hours before seemed no more than a place to stretch out and lay our head on a rock is in fact the place where angels tread, where God moves. It is a sanctuary.
So Jacob builds an altar and names the place Bethel, “the house of God.” He promises allegiance to God and offers a tithe. God has chosen him, and Jacob recognizes God is present.
Peniel - Fast forward now to a new place, another stop on a journey seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Jacob wrestles with God. The metaphor here for our own lives is strong. We start out as "Jacob," a deceiver. We become "Israel," one who struggles with God. We humans, who have a deceitful and manipulative nature, will inevitably struggle with God. God blesses us despite our failings, but God does not want us to remain as we were. God meets us on our road and touches us.
Struggling with God is not taboo. Like Jacob, we find ourselves alone with God, and we fight. Like Jacob, we come out of this fight with two marked changes:
• First, we find that our name has been changed. God no longer sees us as the deceiver; God knows we are a struggler. We do not “win” the struggle or change God, but our very nature is changed. God speaks to us differently. We are Israel.
• Second, we find that our walk is changed. Jacob, now Israel, walks with a limp. In struggling with God, Israel has had his body touched. When we struggle with God, we will find that our way of doing things has changed. The more manipulative we have been—the more we embodied the grasping, deceiving “Jacob” within us—the more that change will hurt, at least initially. Changing the ingrained can be painful.
Again, Jacob recognizes the significance of the place and of the presence of God, and he names the place Peniel, for there he has seen the face of God.
Bethel, part two - Israel is in trouble. His sons (the apple does not far fall from this tree) have created havoc, and Israel fears the worst. Life is not going as planned. Suddenly, the word from God comes: it is time to go back to Bethel.
Bethel is the place of Jacob’s ladder, where he had first heard the covenant of God. Bethel reminds Israel not only that God is with him but that God has blessed and protected him. When Jacob arrives again at Bethel, God reminds him of both his name change and the covenant. Jacob’s nature is changed—he is no longer the grasper; he is the struggler. He is Israel. God’s covenant still is sure, and God’s plans are not changed.
In “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean steals silver candlesticks from the bishop, but the bishop forgives the transgression and sets Valjean free, giving him the candlesticks to take with him as a sign the bishop has “bought your soul for God.” In the stage production, the director always makes sure the candlesticks remain prominent for Valjean, and the audience, to see: the reminder of the sacrifice made and the time when Valjean first understood the presence of God is never far away.
We Christians all have markers in our walks, places and times in our journeys that have signified the very presence of God to us. When we are in trouble, we need to find that marker, to look at our candlesticks. We often need to go back to Bethel.
I have gone back to Bethel over the last few weeks. I have not literally traveled there - my travels have taken me far and wide, but not back to a place of importance for my faith. I have been shown no candlesticks. But I have re-discovered that which I already knew - God is planning with me and for me, God is protecting me, God is blessing me, God is using me. I have spent time in what are basics for me - the Roman Road, "the truth shall make you free," what it is to have "been with Jesus" - and I have come away renewed.
I have been back to Bethel.