I just returned from Colorado. Now some of you know that the reason for my trip was to help my brother out, but the beauty of the place still was stunning. I’ve had amazing experiences of God in Colorado.
Thin Places: A recent article in the New York times described these places as “thin places”:
“locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine”… “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”
Spiritual Tourism is a $40 billion industry. That’s as big an industry as laundry, and legalized marijuana. The Mecca, Christian pilgrimages, yoga retreats, etc.
Is there anything to this thin place idea? At first glance, this seems to be an emphasis of the passage: notice how often the place is referred to.
Gen. 28:10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that 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 to sleep.
16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And 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.” 18 So early in the morning Jacob 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. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
There is no doubt that Bethel becomes a significant place in Jacob’s spiritual journey. God refers Jacob back to Bethel on numerous occasions, reminding him of how he met him there:
Gen 31:13 “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.’”
Gen. 35:1 God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”
In the course of Israel’s history, Bethel became a place associated with divine guidance. Deborah, the prophetess and judge, used to set up there and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. It seems the Ark of God was located in Bethel during part of the time of the Judges, and on at least one occasion the entire people of Israel fasted before the Lord there, seeking guidance for the nation.
However, Bethel also became a place of idolatry, boasting a counterfeit temple, intentionally built by King Jeroboam, of Northern Israel, to divert worship away from Jerusalem in the South.
So it seems that at least in Israel, Bethel, was recognized as a place in which God drew near, and that idea that took root, was used both for good and for evil. So is there anything to this Thin Place idea? Are there places? Should you pack your bags and your yoga mat? As much as the text makes a big deal of the place, and as much as that place meant to Jacob and the Jews who came after him, I think that the Bible would drive us away from seeing any certain location as a place that is closer to God.
The Thin Place Is Anywhere God Chooses to Meet With Us
The emphasis on God’s vision to Jacob is not that he will meet him in Bethel, but that he will be with Jacob and his descendants throughout the land, and even as Jacob travels beyond it.
“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. 14 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 in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, 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.”
God promises to Jacob the same promises he had already made to Abraham and to Isaac. I will be with you. Two additional promises specifically made to Jacob that were not made to Abraham or Issac: I will keep you (watch over you). I will not leave you. It doesn’t matter where you are, Jacob, I will be with with. This place, Bethel, is the place I am choosing to reveal myself to you, but when you leave this place, I am not leaving you. I’m going with you. I’m guarding over you.
Thus the significance of this place is not a quality in itself, but that God choose to reveal himself to Jacob there. Notice that this was entirely God’s initiation - this is the first time in Jacob’s life that he’s not being the heel grabber - in fact, Jacob is asleep. Jacob did not go searching as a spiritual tourist - God revealed himself to Jacob there, and then tells him that he’ll be with him everywhere.
Jesus confirms that the thin place is anywhere God chooses to reveal himself. In the gospel of John chapter 1, Jesus is just beginning to reveal himself to his disciples, and he reveals himself to a guy named Philip, who runs to go tell his friend Nathaniel, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And Nathaniel says to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nazareth isn’t one of those places in which you expect God to come near. Nathaniel is thinking like Jacob, that God will more readily be found in certain places. Jesus definitely sees a parallel between Nathaniel and Jacob, for he greets him with a very strange greeting, "“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” It’s the only time in the gospels the word Israelite is used instead of the more common Jew, a call back to the name God later gives to Jacob, but then also, “in whom there is no deceit!” seems also to be a reference to Jacob the deceiver. In other words, Jesus says, Nathaniel, do not be like your Father, deceitful Israel, who does not recognize that God is in this place, but see me for who I am. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” See Nathaniel, you are more blessed than your forefather Jacob, because he only dreamed about an image of me, but you can truly see God come near, in Jesus the messiah, the perfect God-man.
The true thin place is anywhere you can see Jesus. Can be in church, can be in a home, in a driveway, out with friends. Where did you meet Jesus?
The Thin Place Is Not a Point of Destination it is the Pit of Desperation
When you begin to ask about the significance of Bethel, it is not only some point of a map, some destination to which Jacob was making a pilgrimage. Jacob didn’t set out thinking, where is a good place to meet with God? No, Jacob was fleeing. His mother, Rebekah had convinced him to deceive his father, Issac, and manipulate him into given him the blessing instead of his brother, Esau. This so angered Esau that he plotted to kill Jacob, so Rebekah again manipulated her husband into sending Jacob away. And so Jacob leaves his home in Beersheba, and sets out. He has burned bridges with his brother, deceived his father, and he has no one accompanying him on this journey. He is alone. There is a small detail in the text that speaks to his desperation - generally, the Middle East was a place of such hospitality that a wandering stranger would be welcomed in rather than spend the night, yet Jacob finds no such lodging. The ground is his bed and a stone is his pillow. And Jacob is not in need of lodging, he is in need of life. His deceit had led him to this pit of desperation. He is facing the consequences of his own actions.
Perhaps God meets Jacob at Bethel, because for the first time in his life, Jacob is desperate enough to meet him. Notice how God introduces himself to him in the vision: “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. That’s it, notice that he doesn’t say, I am your God. God had been God of his grandad, and God of his father, but he was not yet Jacob’s God. In fact later in the passage Jacob responds to God and says, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God” and he’s right, after this meeting, Jacob’s name is always included when God is referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
And so Bethel is Jacob’s lowest moment, and it is also the place in which Jacob meets God. This is the message I gave the kids - you got to meet God for yourself. But often God meets us in the point of desperation. You don’t have to go to Bethel to have a bethel moment.
That was the word I received in my last trip to Colorado. Desperation. It wasn’t the beauty of the mountains or anything spiritual about the place, it was that i prayed that in desperation, my brother would see the angels ascending and descending on Jesus, the unique mediator