Harrowing Of Hell
July 23, 2023

The Lord is in this Place

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

To watch the sermon click here.

How does God bring heaven to earth, and earth to heaven? In our reading from Genesis this morning, we have the famous story of Jacob’s ladder. The context: Isaac and Rebekah have two sons: Esau the elder twin, has been a good kid, but Jacob is a bad boy who’s twice cheated his brother. Badly. So Esau is now contemplating murder, and Jacob is on the run.

One night, Jacob has this strange dream: of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending on it. And the Lord comes and tells him that despite having cheated his way into his father’s blessing, he will indeed be blessed: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

So Jacob’s a bad boy, but he does respect God (sort of), so he wakes up in a state of awe: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-1)

To continue with the question of “who is this God we worship?” of course God is everywhere, all the time. As the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has said, “We cannot attain the presence of God. We’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” God has been teaching humankind this lesson for a really long time. The goal of the lesson is to bring us back to Eden, back to the original plan, where humans live close to God on terms of easy intimacy.

But Jacob lived at a very early point in this lesson, when the “presence” of God was thought to be located in specific places. He doesn’t realize that the divine Presence is actually within him. He’d probably have way too much guilt and shame to accept that.

Even now, there are “thin places” where God seems especially present, powerfully present. Sometimes it’s the altar rail, or it might be a famous site in the Holy Land. But it could be your kitchen sink. But what varies isn’t God’s presence; that’s always with us, as Jesus promised: “Even to the end of the age.” What varies is our awareness.

  • “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

Now, let’s fast-forward from Jacob about 1700+ years. Jesus has called Philip to follow him, and Philip tells Nathanael he’s met the Messiah: Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael rolls his eyes and says, “Nazareth, seriously? Can anything good come from Nazareth?—dumpy little one horse town?” Philip urges Nathanael to “come and see,” and when he does, Jesus indicates that he has mysterious prior knowledge of him, so Nathanael declares that Jesus is “the Son of God, the King of Israel.”

Jesus appears amused that Nathanael so quickly changes his tune, and tells him this: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

How does God bring heaven to earth, and earth to heaven? In lots of ways in the history of Israel. Think of Moses at the bush that burns but is not consumed. Think of Isaiah’s vision of the Lord, “high and exalted, whose train filled the Temple.” Think of Ezekiel’s wild vision of the chariot, with strange creatures who have four faces, four wings, bronze legs and hooves. There’s clouds, and lightning, and jeweled wheels, and if it wasn’t in the Bible, you’d have to wonder what this prophet was smoking.

But all of that is pretty tame compared to what God will do later. When God really joins earth and heaven, it is in God’s own self, in the person of Jesus. Steeped in Torah, no first century Jew like Nathanael would have missed Jesus’ allusion to the story of Jacob’s ladder, or forgotten what Jacob said about it, which Nathanael must have been thinking: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jesus—the Incarnate second Person of the Trinity—is in his own person “the house of God, the gate of heaven.”

The “house of God”: remember when Jesus told his critics that “a greater than the Temple is here”? (Matthew 12:6) The Temple was magnificent, not only in its externals but because it was where the glory of God’s presence—the Shekinah—dwelled. But that Presence was inaccessible, in the Holy of Holies, and even the High Priest could only approach it once a year.

So when Jesus says “a greater than the Temple is here,” he’s saying that the Divine Glory is now walking among them, bringing heaven to earth and earth to heaven. The lesson continues!

Jesus brought the Glory of God’s presence out of the Holy of Holies and among the people, and when he sent the Holy Spirit, he made it possible to be with every one of us, everywhere, all the time—a thing he could not do in his earthly body. Now every single one of us can stand in a “thin place,” where in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, we stand at the intersection of earth and heaven. How awesome is this place!

Now, this is going to look like a radical change in direction, but it really isn’t. Trust me!

In our gospel for today we have the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Jesus seems to be saying: There’s the holy, and there’s the unholy, and eventually the truth will be known about both. “But for now,” the servants are told, “don’t be in such a hurry to root out the unholy from the holy. Because honestly, you’re not that good at telling the difference.” What do we really know about our seemingly “unholy” neighbor? Sometimes what looks unholy to us is just holiness coloring outside the lines.

But let’s press this: What about the distinctions we make about what’s holy and unholy—heavenly and earthy—within ourselves? You may be familiar with the Jungian notion of the “shadow” side, “the thing a person has no wish to be.” It’s the shame-laden part of ourselves that we don’t want others to see, the part we’d like to keep from others and from ourselves. There’s the side of us that’s “holy” enough for public consumption, and then there’s that “unholy” side we want to hide. The problem is, we’re honestly not that good at telling the difference.

What are weeds, after all? Aren’t they just plants where we don’t want them? We don’t appreciate weeds springing up in landscapes we want to control. But lots of plants we don’t appreciate have medicinal benefits, feed bees and butterflies, do other things we really should appreciate.

Jung advocated, not killing off the shadow, but befriending it, integrating it, welcoming it, into the rest of us. Let the wheat and the weeds grow up together, Jesus said, and trust him to sort them out. Because if we try to separate them ourselves and destroy the weeds, we may end up losing something precious—something that looks useless or shameful to us, but is really just the Holy within us coloring outside the lines. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

What does this look like in practice? Think of a woman who’s a real people-pleaser. She’s been socialized to believe that conflict, anger, and asserting her own desires and needs are all inappropriate, so she represses that side of herself and lives by the words, “Yes, dear.” Inside she’s seething with resentment at her spouse and children, but to express any of that would make her a terrible person. So she hides her shadow, from them and from herself, thinking that part of herself is unholy.

But in reality, this “unholy” part of her, this “weed,” this shadow, is the part of herself that wants to advocate for her. And if she could just embrace it, she could find herself in a much healthier family, one that lives by the truth instead of by narrowly defined roles. Maybe the voice she sees as shameful is really a voice of holy protest, even the voice of the ultimate Advocate, the Holy Spirit. If she heeded it, she might come out of her shell and finish her degree, or make some art, or take a dance class. She’ll have her own work to do; you can’t just lean on your shovel and pray for a hole in the ground. But there’s a lot of creativity in the shadow, which is why it’s often a lot holier than it looks at first glance. Lots of things are. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

God is in the business of joining heaven to earth, and earth to heaven. In Jacob’s dream, in the burning bush, in the visions of the prophets, in the Jerusalem Temple, and—ultimately and perfectly—in Christ himself.

There are things that are genuinely unholy, and Jesus isn’t saying that we shouldn’t work hard to bring about justice and healing in the world, including in ourselves. He’s cautioning us not to rush to judgment, but to be careful in our discernment. We do that through prayer, and through consulting with people whose wisdom we trust.

I’ve asked how God brings heaven to earth, and earth to heaven, but in closing, I’d like to ask: why has God worked on this long project of uniting earth and heaven? As I’ve said, it’s to bring us back to the closeness of Eden. God longs to be close to us. Ultimately, to be one with us. God wants to unify, to integrate, to draw together; it’s always the darkness that scatters and divides. God’s desire is to be with us in a relationship of mutual delight, to “thin out” the space until we learn to trust, in our heart of hearts, that “the Lord is in this place.”

When we learn that, we’ll see that the distance those angels travel between earth and heaven is not very far after all. And even if we’ve been as terrible a child as Jacob, we too are invited through the gate of heaven, into a truly awesome place.