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“There’s No Place Like Home”

Genesis 28:10-17 (NRSV)

July 4, 2021   –   By John Gill

Terri and I are so glad to be “home!”  Today, I feel something like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz must have felt as she clicked together the heals of those Ruby Slippers, reciting the mantra “There’s no place like home…” and, voilà!  Here we are, back among our church family – ALMOST as if we had never left. 

But of course, time has marched on.  It’s been ten years since I served as pastor here.  All the Gills are ten years older (and, news-flash, so are you!).  We all are grayer or balder than we were.  For many of us our children have grown and left home.  There are those saints we remember so fondly and loved so much who have gone on to their heavenly reward – it still feels like their spirits bless this space – it will be strange for me not to see them sitting in their usual pews as I look out during my sermons.  The memory of them will always be treasured in our hearts.

But the passage of time is not always so melancholy.  Lot’s of wonderful things have happened in all of our lives, and in this congregation, over the past decade. 

There have been marriages and new careers started, and many have entered retirement.  Our families have grown with daughters and sons in law.  Children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren have blessed our lives. 

In this church, you have had a series of pastors who brought their own unique gifts and passions, and blessed this congregation for a time.  And, since leaving here, I have had a series of wonderful ministry experiences that have been a joy – experiences that have helped me grow as a pastor. 

And of course, since the Gills were last among you, many new sisters and brothers have joined the Tomoka family – and I am excited to get acquainted with all of you very soon!

Yes, in some ways, being here feels like I never left.  But in other ways, it feels like a brand new appointment.  I am a different pastor and Tomoka is a different congregation, with new challenges and opportunities.  I’m excited to see what God has in store for us this time around! 

In thinking about the unusual circumstances that have brought us “home” to Tomoka, God kept drawing me back to the Old Testament character, Jacob.  Jacob’s story is told in the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis – as the writer recounts the origins of God’s People as God saw fit to call a certain family into a covenant relationship.  As you no doubt recall, it all began with Abraham and Sarah, then the Covenant passed on to their son, Isaac and his wife, Rebecca.  But when the Covenant was to pass to the next generation, there was deceit and trickery.  Rebecca gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob.  Esau was born first, and therefore SHOULD have been the heir.  But Jacob and his mother conspired to trick Isaac into placing his blessing on the younger son, Jacob – stealing the birth-right from Esau.  It’s a fascinating story to read, and I encourage you to pull out your bible and read it. 

This sin against his brother haunts Jacob for decades, as he has to flee from his family to escape Esau’s wrath.  His parents decide to send Jacob on a journey back home to their extended family to find a suitable wife, a story that also has its entertaining twists and turns, where Jacob becomes the one who is tricked – and so he ends up with two wives – sisters – who don’t always get along.  Let’s just say: Jacob gets a taste of his own medicine. 

Anyway, that is the setting for this story Elizabeth has read a portion of this morning.  Jacob has tricked Esau, and he has set out on the journey back to his relatives to find a wife, passing through the very land God had sworn to give to Abraham – the land we now refer to as “The Promised Land” where the nation of Israel is today.  On his way, Jacob lies down to sleep with his head on a rock, and has this amazing dream of a ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it.  It’s a very vivid image – one that many people recognize, even if they have never really read the story in scripture.  But the vision is really secondary.  The most significant part of the vision is not the ladder and the angels – it is the voice of God who speaks to Jacob, and Jacob’s response.  We will look at that passage in more detail in a moment.

But before we do, you may be wondering why this passage spoke to me as I was reflecting on my return to Tomoka.  At first, it may seem like an odd passage to choose.  But actually, it is perfect.  Let me explain.

I said at the beginning of my message that I felt a little like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  And here I have said that I feel somewhat like Jacob.  What do they have in common?  Both have a dream, and both are on journeys.  Dorothy was home in her own bed when she had a dream of a fantastic journey seeking adventure, and discovered that all she ever really wanted she already had right at home.  Jacob also was on a journey, but he was estranged from his home.  Sleeping on a rock, he had a dream of a place to call home, but discovered that home is wherever the presence of God is – that life itself is the journey.

Both have been my experience over the past decade.  Way back in 2011, when I stepped out into an unknown future to serve on staff at the Children’s Home, frankly I saw it as the opportunity to have an adventure in ministry.  By then, I had been in local church ministry for a quarter of a century, and I was wondering if there was more God would have me do.  Maybe I was a little bored and had grown stale in my calling – I don’t know.  Like Dorothy, I dreamed of an adventure, and I had one.  Working with Foster Care ministries and families was amazing – but after a few years, I began to long for the local church again.  When the Children’s Home made some staffing adjustments and my position was ended, I was happy to return to my first love – pastoring local congregations.  I had longed for adventure, but then, like Dorothy, I longed for home.

Of course, while I was able to come home to local church ministry, I was not able to come home to Terri!  So for the past seven years, as we have lived in different cities and made countless trips up and down I-95 trying to keep our marriage fresh, I have continued to long for home.  After Jose left and the conversation began about me returning, I realized that coming home wouldn’t just mean reuniting with my family, but the possibility of coming home to our family’s home church, Tomoka, and all of you.  It’s as if I, like Dorothy, had awakened in my own bed after a long dream to see the faces of so many people I love, and realized that this is where I belong.

But I also feel like Jacob.  Jacob had the character-flaw that he thought he could manipulate God and other people to get what he wanted, rather than seeking God’s direction and trusting God’s timing.  Now, I don’t believe that I try to manipulate God or others (at least I hope not!), but in leaving Tomoka ten years ago to go serve at the Children’s Home, I now wonder if I was doing something I had long dreamed of doing, rather than hearing a call to that ministry from God.  Did I jump the gun and try to manipulate the situation – to choose my own path, rather than trust God’s leading?  Was I looking for the proverbial “greener grass” in an appointment beyond the local church?  Was I hungry for an adventure that God was not directing?   As I said, I don’t regret that decision, but I can’t help wondering if the voice I was hearing was my own.

Like Jacob on his journey – a journey that was supposed to be relatively brief, and return home, which turned into many years separated from his family, my journey away from home had seemed to stretch on indefinitely.  Like Jacob, I also dreamed of “home” – and yet on my decade-long journey, I discovered what Jacob discovered – that home is wherever God is.  I have lived in three different communities since leaving Tomoka.  And while I always longed to come “home” to Ormond, I have discovered that, even when I was on my own, I was not alone.  God was with me – he never left me.  He was constantly by my side.

And I think that insight speaks also to us as a congregation as we begin this new chapter in the journey of this family of God.  Let’s now return to the scripture text to see what it might be saying to us as a congregation moving into the future God would desire for us.  As I mentioned, the most important aspect of this story is NOT the imagery of what Jacob dreamed – it is the conversation God and Jacob have, and how Jacob responds.

Let me refresh your memory about that part of the story:

13 And the Lord stood beside (Jacob) 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…

…  15 Know 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.” 

My friends, I believe God is speaking these words, not just to Jacob, but to each of us individually, and to us collectively at Tomoka United Methodist Church.  In these words of God, we hear two promises that God makes to us.  Did you hear them?

First, God says to us: “Know that I am with you.” 

There are times in our lives when we feel God’s presence and providence in a powerful way – when the Holy Spirit is almost palpably near to us.  But then, there are seasons of our lives when we may feel that God is nowhere to be found, and we believe we are facing the challenges of life all alone.  I know that I have felt both ways throughout my life – and I suspect the same is true for you. 

Which is true for you today?  Maybe you are on a spiritual mountaintop.  Or perhaps this morning, like Jacob, you find yourself in a spiritual valley – a desert wilderness, and God seems no where to be found.  If you are feeling abandoned by God right now, this word from God is for you.

And what about us as a congregation?  Where are we on the spiritual continuum?  Do we experience the presence of God in our church – or does it seem that God is distant, or even absent? 

“Know that I am with you.”  That’s a wonderful promise to remember – especially when we feel deserted by God.  But just because we cannot “feel” God’s presence, God assures us that we are not alone – he is always right by our side – if we will only open our spiritual eyes to see him.  The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament says exactly the same thing:  “(God) has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’  So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.’”  (Hebrews 13:5)

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was on his death-bed, one of the last things he is recorded as saying is this, “The best of all is – God is with us.”  I suspect he was referencing the beautiful words of assurance in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…” (Psalm 23) 

So, the first thing God promises us (both individually and as a church) is that he is with us – even when we can’t feel him.  We are never alone.  All we have to do is open our spiritual eyes, like Jacob, to see God standing by our side!

The second promise God makes is:  “I… will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land…”

As I already pointed out – life is a journey.  Jacob was a young man who would spend much of his life separated from his birth family – both geographically and relationally – unable to return home.  He had to mature and learn humility before a reunion would become possible.  It took him many decades to become spiritually wise enough to seek reconciliation with his family, and return home.

God knows that Jacob is just starting out on a long spiritual journey that will take a lifetime. 

And God knows there will be challenging times ahead.  And so, he assures Jacob that he will be his guide through life – that there is nowhere Jacob can go where God is not. 

Jacob’s descendants will also learn this lesson.  Nearly 500 years later following the Exodus from Egypt, Moses will lead Jacob’s family throughout the Sinai desert as they prepare to enter this very same land on which Jacob’s head rests – the land God had promised would one day be his.  As Jacob’s descendants seek their way, God himself leads them from place to place in the wilderness – by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.  God is fulfilling his promise that, not only are we never alone, but that God will lead us through life toward the destination he would have for us to reach.

How often do we seek God’s guidance?  Think back on your life – times when you failed to seek God’s leading in your life, and set out on your journey in life “doing your own thing.”  How did that turn out for you?  Chances are, not too well.  We often think we know better than God what we should do – or the direction our life should take – or the destination we’d like to reach in life – only to discover, often too late, that we have made a mess of our lives. 

How much better it is when we let God do the leading, and let God set the destination of our lives!  As a young man, I had resisted my call to ministry for years, going to school and receiving degrees for what I thought I wanted to become.  Nothing ever became of my plans.  It wasn’t until I let God take the lead and set my destination that I knew I was doing what God wanted for me.  I entered seminary – and the rest is history.  God had brought me “home” where I belonged.  I know you could tell a similar story from your life. 

What about our church?  Do we try to set our own course as a congregation, doing what we want?  Or, do we let God take the lead to guide us to the destination God would have for us as a church?  What is the “land” God wants to bring us back to?  Have we asked him?  Will we allow him to lead us?  That’s the challenge for us as a congregation moving forward. 

So, God promised Jacob, and promises us, that he is always with us on our journey through life, and will guide us to the destination he would have us reach – our Promised Land, the place we belong.  He will bring us “home.”

That’s amazing news.  But that’s not the end of it.  A Covenant is a two-way street.  God promises amazing things to us – as individuals and as a congregation.  But we have to respond.  We have to claim those promises as our own.  How does the scripture say that Jacob responded? 

16 Then Jacob woke 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.”

Obviously, we can’t claim the promise of God if we don’t acknowledge God’s presence and authority in our lives.  The text says, “Then Jacob awoke from his sleep,” and I’m sure the words are meant literally, that he became awake.  But, I believe Jacob also had a “spiritual awakening.”  It’s as if this is his “conversion experience,” not unlike the Apostle Paul had on the Road to Damascus.  His encounter with God in his dream changed Jacob – he was not the same man when he awoke as he was when he had laid his head on the rock.

How often do you and I fail to recognize the presence of God?  We can’t have a relationship with God until we “know” God.  Once we have encountered God, then we must respond.  How did Jacob respond?  If we had read the next few verses of this story, we would have heard how Jacob marked this holy place and his holy encounter with God by taking the stone on which his head had rested, setting it up on its end like an altar, and anointing it with oil.  And he named the place “Beth-el” which means “the House of God.”

So, here at the conclusion of this amazing story, we as a congregation are confronted with two challenging questions we must answer as we enter into this new chapter of our lives together – questions that will determine how vital Tomoka United Methodist will be in the future.  I will leave them for you to ponder and to pray about this week:

#1:  Do we as a congregation recognize the holy presence of God in this place, or are we often oblivious to the Holy Spirit in our midst? 

God is here – He always has been here, and will always be here.  But that won’t matter if we don’t acknowledge Him.  Tomoka UMC is Beth-el – God’s House, whether or not we perceive God’s presence.  Like Jacob, do we need an “awakening” in order to recognize God in our midst, so that God can do amazing things among us and through us?

#2:  Do we see this House of God as the very “Gate of Heaven” where people come to be transformed, just as Jacob was? – where they encounter the presence of God for themselves? – where they have their own vision of a ladder they can climb to reach heaven itself? 

I suppose the ultimate question to consider is this:  “Are people’s lives transformed because they are in worship at Tomoka UMC?”  Another way to ask the question is, “Do people experience salvation here?”   Yes?  No?  Maybe?  Sometimes?

If not, what would it take, what changes will we need to make, so that more people say of Tomoka what Jacob said of Beth-el: 

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

May it be so.  Amen.