First of all – I’m back! I didn’t drop off the edge of the world – I moved house, then it took me three weeks to get online (Thanks Talktalk! – great service – even worse than last time I moved house) and then the day after I got connected we went off on holiday. Anyway, here I am, new job is great, and blogging is recommenced.
So – Jacob’s dream. I can remember a church which obviously in the past knew only the Authorised Version bearing proudly across the top of the doorway the verse ‘How dreadful is this place!’ They obviously believed themselves to be the gate of heaven, but in Jacob’s thought the gate of heaven was not located in a parish in London: it was the portal or bottleneck through which all intercourse between heaven and earth had to be channelled. The ‘ladder’, or better ‘ramp’ was not the means by which our prayers ascended, but rather how god’s messengers descended, to guide and give instructions to the people on earth. So the Satan, in Job 1, returns to the heavenly court from ‘going about to and fro on the earth’: he would have returned through what we would now call a ‘thin place’.
The spirituality of places is an inportant yet rarely explored issue: I guess many people will have places which are spiritually significant to them, and there has always been a significant industry of ‘pilgrimage’ to holy sites around the world. indeed, the primary reason for the telling of this story may well have been aetiological: in other words, it was a bit like a ‘Just So’ story: when your kids asked you why Bethel was such a special place, you could tell them this story to explain. but even within this there are a few significant details worthy of our attention.
Note first the totally unexpected nature of the encounter, which came totally from God’s initiative. Jacob is neither a seeking pilgrim nor a penitent sinner: he is on the run, but God chooses to meet him. Then notice how he meets him – not with a telling-off, but simply with reassurance about his security in the future, and safe passage to get there. Jacob wakes up and realises that he happens to have bedded down for the night right near the ‘gate of heaven’, and in response he carries out a simply liturgical action which has the effect of marking and dedicating this special place, which was to become a significant, though not always wholesome, spiritual site.
We live in a time where, as John 1:51 suggests, access to the heavenly realms is not through a bottleneck but through Jesus himself (the Greek construction suggests that the Son of Man is the ladder, not the one descended upon). No doubt there do exist ‘thin places’ of particular holiness, but thank God that access to him is not limited to them. We live in a time where God still supernaturally meets people, and not always holy people, with his grace. A good test of whether a so-called spiritual experience in genuinely from God is to see whether he communicates grace or condemnation: the pattern here is grace and blessing through and through. Should we pray for such encounters with God? I don’t think it hurts, as long as we focus not on experiences but on the God who sometimes graciously gives them.