Church is where God is.

Grace, Mercy, and Peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The text for today’s sermon comes primarily from our reading in Genesis Chapter 28 as well as Psalm 84.

                These two texts which we just read both talk about the temple of God, the altar of God, and the special significance of these things. The reading about Jacob encountering the ladder to heaven shows us about a connection between heaven and earth; the divine and the mortal while David writes extensively and joyfully about being in God’s presence.

                The title of this sermon is this:

                “Church is where God is.”

                That statement can mean more than one thing. On one hand, as Christians we acknowledge that if we want to be in the presence of God, we go to church. That seems simple enough.

                Another way you may have heard this phrased used is this: “God is everywhere, therefore, Church is anywhere you feel that connection to God.

                This was something some of you may have heard from your friends before. Perhaps your friend used this as a reason why he didn’t go to church regularly.

                He would go out golfing, fishing, shooting guns, or just go spend time out camping in the mountains.

                “I can feel God out here” he would say, “My church is the mountains. This is where I feel closest to God.

                It could very well have been that he spent his entire time alone in the mountains, out in the woods, praying to God, reading the Bible, and meditating on God’s Word. It was equally likely, unfortunately, that he found church boring and unappealing, and he didn’t want to “waste a perfectly good Sunday morning” sitting in a building when he could be out enjoying nature.

                In the reading from Genesis today, we have an example of someone out in the wilderness concluding that this is where God was. Does this support your friend’s conclusions? Let’s go through some of the account again and see if Jacob and your friend decided that God was present there for the same reasons.

                The reading begins when Jacob is on the run from his brother, Esau. You may remember this story, earlier on in the text Jacob on his way to go lie low with Laban so his brother doesn't kill him. He’d just taken the blessing that Isaac had intended to give to his firstborn son, and doesn’t want to stick around to endure Esau’s wrath.

                He’s traveling through the wilderness, and as the sun sets, he lies down to sleep, using a stone for a pillow. He has a vision of a ladder reaching from heaven to earth, with angels going up and down it and the pre-incarnate Christ at the top of the ladder.

                The Second Person of the Trinity speaks again the promise that had been given to Abraham before, and assures Jacob that his offspring will be numerous and their land will extend in all directions.

                At this point Jacob wakes up, and this is what the account in Genesis says:

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 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.”[1]

Think about the title of the sermon again: “Church is where God is”. Which interpretation seems to be enforced here about that?

Does it mean, as your friend believes, that because God is everywhere, anywhere you go, you are just as much in His presence as you would be in church?

Or does it instead seem to say that there are places where God interacts with man in a very direct way, and those places should be considered a “house of God”?

Jacob was on a long journey, he was traveling for a while, why is it that his entire time in the wilderness he wasn’t saying over and over “This is the house of God”? Why is it that it is only this specific place?

Let’s go back to Jacob’s dream, because that’s where you will find the answer for this. In Jacob’s dream he sees a ladder between heaven and earth. The ladder shows that there is some kind of connection between the two, that the realm of heaven isn’t completely removed from us here on earth.

Next, there were angels moving up and down on that ladder. This shows that this is an active connection here. This isn’t something that merely exists without any actual function, but that there is an active and ongoing interaction between heaven and earth.

Finally, who is at the top of the ladder? The account in Genesis uses the 4-letter name for God, “YHWH”, and we see it here in English translated as “LORD”. This is God on the top of the ladder, speaking to Jacob. When we see this physical depiction of God in the Old Testament, we can often draw the conclusion that this is the pre-incarnate Christ. Christ, before he took on a human nature.

Let’s put these pieces together:

                First: There is a ladder; it’s a connection from earth to heaven.

                Second: Angels are moving on the ladder; the connection is active, it’s not just a symbol.

                Third: Christ is on the top of the ladder; Christ is present there.

                It is immediately after this that Jacob declares that this was “the house of God”, the place where Jesus was present, not the general omnipresence of God, not the beauty of God’s creation in nature, but the actual, literal presence of Christ.

                So that takes care of this place in the wilderness that Jacob marked with his stone pillow, right? We know how something qualifies to be a “house of God” now, so how do we find these places today? Do we go around looking for upturned stones in the wilderness, or were there better indicators given in the story?

                Think about Christ on that ladder again. What if He went down that ladder? What if God Himself climbed down that bridge between heaven and earth, between the divine and the mortal?

                That’s exactly what happened in the incarnation!

                You see, this was Jacob being shown a glimpse of what was to come. When Jacob saw that dream, he saw God, and he saw God about to climb down that ladder!

                In the generations that followed from Jacob, each generation was another step, another rung on the ladder. And from that place in heaven, through the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Christ took on human flesh and was born; fully God, and now fully man here on earth!

                That distance of the ladder from heaven to earth was crossed by Christ Himself when He came down from heaven, just like we say in the creed. And now that God came down from heaven to dwell with us, where can we find Him?

                The Christ, Jesus promised He would be with us, even until the end of the age, and where can we find Him, in physical form?

                On the altar, His body and blood, in with and under the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

                God is God with us, not just in spirit, but in body when we are gathered around the Lord’s Table. At that place where we gather, we are connected not just to one another, and all Christians around the table around the world, but also that ladder extends all the way up to heaven where we are gathered together with all the saints in the Church Triumphant, and all the heavenly hosts.

                Isn’t that amazing?

                Now ask yourself, if you are in the mountains, out by yourself, not gathered with other Christians, Christ, and a pastor in the name of God, but out as an individual in nature. Is God present in that same way?

                Yes, God is everywhere, but is He present in that very same physical, tangible way? Are all the saints and angels and Christians present in that very way?

                What a wonderful blessing we have been given in church. We are free as Christians to come and celebrate Christ’s victorious and life-giving death on the cross, and enjoy the benefits of His holy work here in Baptism, Communion, the reading of His Word, and the congregation of His saints.

                I wish I could wrap things up neatly, regarding someone who tries to replace time in Church with time alone, tell you a happy ending to the story, but that wouldn’t be honest. When it comes to the end of their life, I’m not sure where they will go. They spent so much of their life avoiding church, and all the blessings we receive here. I can’t have the same confidence in theirfaith that I might with someone, like you, who regularly praises God with fellow believers, receives the forgiveness of sin with Absolution and the Lord’s Supper as we do here. The truth is that they miss out on so much by staying out of the House of God.

                Listen to some of the ways David describes being in the presence of God this way:

How lovely is your dwelling place,

O Lord of hosts!

My soul longs, yes, faints

for the courts of the Lord;

my heart and flesh sing for joy

to the living God.[2]

                What a wonderful thing to be in the house of God, in the place where God dwells among us! And when we are absent from this place, as Christians, our soul yearns to be here. When we miss church we miss church; we wish we were here, we desire the blessings God has provided for us here.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house,

ever singing your praise![3]

                Yes, blessed are those who dwell in the house of God! And indeed we are blessed by being here.

For a day in your courts is better

than a thousand elsewhere.[4]

                Being in the presence of God for a single day is better than a thousand days golfing, fishing, shooting, or camping in the most beautiful mountains on earth, better than a thousand days anywhere else in the world doing anything else in the world.

O Lord of hosts,

blessed is the one who trusts in you![5]

                Blessed is the one who trusts in God, and after all, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we go to the house of the Lord. We trust in God, and trust that he is true when He says He is here with us. He is true when He says He will answer our prayers, when He says that in baptism He saves us. He is true when He speaks through your pastor to say “Your sins are forgiven”, when He says that sin was defeated with His victorious death on the cross, and that His victory covers you and brings you safely into His kingdom!

                Church is indeed where God is, and God is here with us in His house; blessed are we who today dwell in His house, ever singing His praise!

And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,

guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Trinity XIX (Historic One-year series)

Psalm 84; Genesis 28:10-17; Ephesians 4:22-28; Matthew 9:1-8

October 10, 2018

Vicar Isaac Wirtz

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Genesis 28:16-17, ESV

[2] Psalm 84:1-2, ESV

[3] Psalm 84:4, ESV

[4] Psalm 84:10a, ESV

[5] Psalm 84:12, ESV