Genesis 28:10-18 10. Meanwhile Jacob, having departed from Beersheba, continued on to Haran. 11. And when he had arrived at a certain place, where he would rest after the setting of the sun, he took some of the stones that lay there, and placing them under his head, he slept in the same place. 12. And he saw in his sleep: a ladder standing upon the earth, with its top touching heaven, also, the Angels of God ascending and descending by it, 13. and the Lord, leaning upon the ladder, saying to him: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The land, in which you sleep, I will give to you and to your offspring. 14. And your offspring will be like the dust of the earth. You will spread abroad to the West, and to the East, and to the North, and to the Meridian. And in you and in your offspring, all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed. 15. And I will be your guardian wherever you will journey, and I will bring you back into this land. Neither will I dismiss you, until I have accomplished all that I have said.” 16. And when Jacob had awakened from sleep, he said, “Truly, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17. And being terrified, he said: “How awsome this place is! This is nothing other than the house of God and the gateway of heaven.” 18. Therefore, Jacob, arising in the morning, took the stone which he had placed under his head, and he set it up as monument, pouring oil over it.
Our reading from the Hebrew Bible really caught my attention this week. The story of Jacob’s ladder is probably among the first Bible stories most of us learned. And of course the important part of the whole story is the revelation of God to Jacob and the transfer of the promise from Abraham to Jacob. The promise to bless all families of the earth through his offspring.
This time, though, here is the part that stood out to me as I read this scripture, “”Surely the Lord is in this place–and I did not know it!” And “How awesome is this place!” It made me wonder – how many times have we been in one of God’s special places – and not known it? This place was so special to Jacob that he built an altar to God on this holy ground and named it Bethel. That is Beth-El, two words with a hyphen. It means House of God
We need to understand the “why” and the “what” of and altar.
- Here is the WHY: The Old Testament altar is used as a physical representation of God. So that, what was placed on the altar, was symbolically given to God. We most often think of the blood sacrifices – offering goats, sheep, cattle, and birds to be killed and burned on the altar. However, there were also sacrifices of grain, fruits and vegetables, as well as offerings of wine and oil such as Jacob used on his altar. Our modern altars are much more symbolic (and a lot less messy) We are to be the living sacrifice that is given at the modern altar.
- Now the “WHAT”. The types of ancient Hebrew altars are divided into two main types of altars. The Layman’s and the Priestly.
- The Priestly altar was what you would have found in the Tabernacle in the desert and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was an ornately decorated altar used by the priests to perform their rituals.
- The Layman’s altar was vastly different. Anyone could erect a layman’s altar. They were used for a specific one-time purpose. Such as Jacob’s revelation of the ladder between earth and heaven. The practice was common for a long time before it became codified into the Mosaic Law as found in Exodus 20:24&25. It reads: “You must build an altar for me made out of dirt. Sacrifice your burnt offerings and your fellowship offerings, your sheep, goats, and cattle on it. Wherever I choose to have my name remembered, I will come to you and bless you. If you build an altar for me made out of stones, never make it with cut stone blocks. If you use a chisel on it, you will make it unacceptable to me.”
Lots of “layman’s Altars” are listed in the bible. I am going to go through these fairly quickly, so rather than have you try and look them up as I go, I will be glad to give a list of the scripture references later, to anyone who wants them.
Genesis 8:20 (after the flood) Noah built an altar to the Lord. On it he made a burnt offering of each type of clean animal and clean bird.
Genesis 12:7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I’m going to give this land to your descendants.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
Genesis 22:9 When they came to the place that God had told him about, Abraham built the altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied up his son Isaac and laid him on top of the wood on the altar.
Genesis 26:24-25 That night the Lord appeared to Isaac, and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Don’t be afraid, because I am with you. I will bless you and increase the number of your descendants for my servant Abraham’s sake.” So Isaac built an altar there and worshiped the Lord.
Genesis 33:18-22 Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem in Canaan. He camped within sight of the city. Then he bought the piece of land on which he had put up his tents. He bought it from the sons of Hamor, father of Shechem, for 100 pieces of silver. He set up an altar there and named it El-elohe- God Is the God of Israel.
Genesis 35:1-3 Then God said to Jacob, “Go to Bethel and live there. Make an altar there. I am the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his family and those who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods which you have, wash yourselves until you are ritually clean, and change your clothes. Then let’s go to Bethel. I will make an altar there to God, who answered me when I was troubled and who has been with me wherever I’ve gone.”
Exodus 17:10-15 Joshua did as Moses told him and fought the Amalekites, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, Israel would win, but as soon as he put his hands down, the Amalekites would start to win. Eventually, Moses’ hands felt heavy. So Aaron and Hur took a rock, put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron held up one hand, and Hur held up the other. His hands remained steady until sunset. So Joshua defeated the Amalekite army in battle. The Lord said to Moses, “Write this reminder on a scroll, and make sure that Joshua hears it, too: I will completely erase any memory of the Amalekites from the earth.” Moses built an altar and called it Adonai-nissi, The Lord Is My Banner.
Notice the common thread that runs through this scriptures? These were places marked by a significant meeting with God. These were places of “holy ground”.
I’m going to do something here that you are not supposed to do in preaching. You are not supposed to use “I” or “You”. Sermons are supposed to be about “Us” and “We”. However, I’m going to relate a personal example of an experience I had with “holy ground” and then I’m going to ask you to tell me your experience of finding a “holy ground”.
Some forty years ago I was working in a food production facility. Things were going well for the company and they had just added a new production line and storage freezer capacity. Neither the production line or the freezer were in operation yet.
The freezer was huge. It seemed like about a half a football field. As it was not in operation, it was used for storing 100 pound bags of flour. The place was dimly lit with only the emergency lights. When the big freezer doors were closed it was completely silent in there.
The first time I went into that room, I felt I was on holy ground. An industrial setting may seem like an unlikely place for holy ground. But that was the feeling that I had. I often took my lunch break in there. I could talk out loud to God and listen and meditate in the silence.
I knew that the owners were Christians, so one day I mention to him what I felt in that room. He said that he was not surprised. That a lot of prayer had gone into the planning and the building of the addition.
Over the years I have found other places that just seemed to be special “God places” or as Jacob called them gateways to God’s house.
It is your turn. Where have you had that “holy ground” experience?
These stories can help to build up the body of believers. I know and believe that God is ALWAYS with us. That He never leaves us alone. However, I thank God that He has made us aware of His presence in special places and special ways; so that we can say with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place–and I did not know it!” And “How awesome is this place!”
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