Hello! This week is Holy Week - the week after Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and the week preceding Good Friday and Easter, when we remember Christ's death and resurrection. This is always an incredibly meaningful week for me (even if it's a bit co-opted by my story with my husband, who first told me how he felt on a particularly - albiet ironically - lovely Holy Saturday). That said...I wanted to share with you a sermon I recently preached at my partner church, Zion CRC here in Oshawa. It's not particularly Lent or Holy Week focused, but I do think it's a good reminder of one way in which we live into our resurrection identity every day. So - here you go:
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place!This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it; how awesome is this place.
Jacob had a dream.
Jacob - the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. The constantly-referred to Jacob throughout the Old Testament - “the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” That Jacob had a dream.
Jacob had been travelling and fighting and leading God’s people to what he hoped was the promised land. And one night he fell alseep outside - using a rock as his pillow - and had a dream. And in this dream he saw a ladder, reaching all the way from earth into heaven. And God’s angels were walking up and down that ladder - coming down to earth, then back to heaven, then back down and up and down and up.
And as the angels were getting this workout, God speaks. And God promises that he is with Jacob, and that he will deliver Israel to the land he had promised them. God promises that Jacob’s people would become a great nation - numbering more than the stars in the sky.
God reiterates the promise he had made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. God reinstates the covenant. Renews his vows - so to speak.
And when Jacob wakes up from this dream, he was in awe. And a little afraid. And he says - you can almost hear the breath catching in his voice - “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it. How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
I’ve experienced places like this from time to time. I’m willing to bet you have, too. I’ve experienced places that make me stand in awe and see so clearly God’s presence there. I’ve experienced this in Yosemite National Park in California, standing at the base of a massive waterfall, looking across the valley at all the mountain peaks. I’ve experienced this in Alaska, with moose and bears and eagles and whales and mountains like I’ve never seen before. I’ve experienced this in Vancouver, standing at the top of Grouse Mountain looking down over the city bathed in snow. I experienced it in Malaysia, riding on the back of an elephant just before he dumped me over into a river. I experienced it last summer, sitting on the beach in Muskoka, watching my daughter laugh and run with glee in the sand. I experienced it this past fall, in the hospital here in Oshawa, when I held my son for the first time.
There are places, there are times, there are moments throughout our lives that illicit this kind of response. Surely the Lord is in this place; how awesome is this place. Moments that beg us to recognize God’s presence there with us; moment’s we’d have to be blind to miss. If we’re lucky, those moments happen often and throughout our lives.
For Jacob, though - this was not one of those moments.
Jacob was travelling from one place to another. Jacob had just done a terrible thing; he tricked his aging father into giving to Jacob the family blessing that belonged to his older brother. And now he was leaving home, in search of a wife whom his family could approve.
And in the middle of his journey, night falls. And he falls asleep. Making the best of the situation, he puts his head on a rock, because...I guess that’s better than nothing? And he has this crazy dream.
There was nothing particularly beautiful or special about this place. The Bible, in fact, just calls it “a certain place.” The only description we get of this place is that it was..a certain place, which really is no description at all. The Bible gives us no real adjectives, no word pictures...just...a place. A place to sleep. And then in this sleep Jacob has this crazy dream of angels and ladders. I don’t know about you - but I tend not to put a whole lot of stock in dreams when I have them. But there was something different about this dream. Jacob knew he heard God speak. And Jacob couldn’t help but stand in awe of this everyday, ordinary, non-descript place that didn’t even warrant any adjectives. Because God was there.
It’s easy for me to see God’s presence in places that are particularly beautiful, or where good memories or important life events take place. But what difference would it make if we could actively see God’s presence in the ordinary places? The places that don’t really warrant any adjectives? The places that are always right under our nose - the places we live, work, study, and play? How would it change how we do life - how we work, how we engage with our neighbours, how we spend time with our kids our our friends or our kids’ friends - if we looked at every place we find ourselves in and say, “Surely the Lord is in this place; how awesome is this place!”
At Ecclesia, we’ve named “place” as one of our guiding ideas - one of our core values. This idea of “place” is central to who we are and who we are becoming as a brand new little baby church here in North Oshawa. At first glance, this may be a strange word to use for a core value of a new church. Why would Place be an important value of any church? Well, because our place has a lot to say about how and why we scatter - how we love our neighbours in real, tangible ways. And because God is already at work in our places.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but where we are matters. When we are, matters. The fact that Ecclesia is being planted in the North Oshawa, Ontario in 2018 has a lot to say about how we “do church.” We can’t engage with Oshawa the way that a church might engage with New York City or Vancouver or Uzbekistan or Uganda. We have to respond to our neighbourhood, to our community - and we have to recognize the beauty and the difficulty of the place where God has put us. And what’s more, the Incarnation is an essential part of our Christian faith. The Incarnation - this moment of God at work, the launching pad into this season of Lent we remember now - this moment is God Himself putting on flesh and coming to live with and among and for people. This is what we base our whole worldview around. The idea of the God of the Universe humbling himself to become human is inconceivable in many other religions, even blasphemous. But this is who Jesus was. And it’s a beautiful example of how we are to live.
Jesus intentionally became a person and rooted himself among us. And now we can follow His example, rooting ourselves among our neighbours right where God has placed us. But this is a difficult undertaking. As Michael Frost wrote in his book, Incarnate, our world has become increasingly disconnected. Technology has changed the way we think and engage with each other. Advances in travel and connectivity has made the world smaller, making it easier to leave our homes and see the world - bringing with it both a beautiful availability of the rest of the world, as well as a lessened connection with our own homes. Our online personas make it all-too-easy to disengage with those who don’t agree with us, to objectify other people and other places, to experiment in virtual realities that don’t connect with our actual lives. Frost calls all of these realities “excarnate living.” The remedy? The incarnation. Recognizing God’s example of John 1:1 (The Message) - “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood” - and finding ways to follow suit. To move into our neighbourhoods in the most profound sense, and truly, deeply connect within our own context. Our own place.
I was listening recently to a podcast called RePlacing Church, put together by my friend Ben Katt, in which he interviewed Ron Ruthruff, author of Closer to the Edge: Walking with Jesus for the World’s Sake. In the interview, Ron had the most beautiful insight on this idea of responding to our place, suggesting that our place informs how we understand our current realities. For example, if I say, “It’s raining,” we can all understand the basic meaning of those words. We all know what rain is. But, our place informs the real meaning of those words. If I’m in Vancouver and say, “It’s raining,” you might say, “So what?” If I’m in New Orleans and I say, “It’s raining,” you might say, “Oh no.” If I’m in the Sudan and say, “It’s raining,” you might say, “Thank God.” Our place makes a huge difference in how we understand the realities around us.
In Ecclesia, we want to respond to our place. We want to get to know the people and the places in North Oshawa, so that we can know what’s good about our place as well as what’s difficult. We want to engage meaningfully with our place - to find where God is already working and to partner with Him in that work. Because God is at work in our places. God was there ahead of Jacob, in this non-description place - and God is here ahead of us. God is already at work in our neighbourhoods, and we have the opportunity to partner with Him in that work. Imagine what a difference it would make in our own lives and in the lives of others if we allowed ourselves to recognize that God is here, already, in this place.
One way in which we feel called to our place at Ecclesia is through a community space. We’re feeling led to open a community space in our neighbourhood - a place that feels like the living room of Oshawa. We’d love this to be a flexible space - something like a storefront in our neighbourhood - and we’d love to fill it with a number of things. This “living room” could include an area for kids (most of our neighbourhood is filled with young families!), study space for students at the local university - along with workspace for local businesspeople, a small kitchen for sharing meals with friends and neighbours. We’d love to use it for everything from yoga classes to budgeting seminars; story time for children to Alpha courses and Bible studies for adults. We see this space as a way to connect with our neighbours who don’t know Christ. We sense a longing throughout Oshawa for a place to belong, and we want our church to step into that gap and offer a space to fill that longing, where all our neighbours - young, old, rich, poor, and everything in between - can gather together to connect with one another and, ultimately, with Christ. We see this space as a way to declare in a real, tangible way that surely the Lord is in North Oshawa - how awesome is this place!
So that’s what we’re up to at Ecclesia - what about you?
Oshawa, Ontario may not be the most grand or picturesque place on the planet. We may not look at King Street or Simcoe or Costco or WalMart and immediately recognize God’s presence there. But God is here in this place - even if we’re not aware of it. How awesome is this place! Oshawa is none other than the house of God; it is the gate of heaven. And the same is true for you and your city, wherever that may be.
What might it look like for you to respond to God’s presence here, wherever "here" is for you? How can you keep your eyes open fo what God is doing ahead of you here and now - especially as we continue to move through Holy Week?
After all, this is part of living into our resurrection identity as children of the Risen Lord. How awesome is this place!