I want to speak this morning, heart to heart, especially to those of you who are new to Abu Dhabi. You have moved here over the summer, and you are in the midst of adjusting to this sometimes odd and difficult place.
Abu Dhabi isn’t the easiest place to get used to. I don’t need to tell you that. There’s the climate of course. It’s hot! But it’s more than that. No matter where you come from, the chances are they do things differently here in Abu Dhabi. The driving is different. “Beware of Road Surprises!” the road signs tell us. People dress differently. They talk differently. Things work differently. I moved to Abu Dhabi a long time ago, but I still remember those feelings; of looking around and saying to myself, “Where am I and how did I get here?”
All of this can be overwhelming, especially as you have to navigate all the issues of settling in: finding a place to live, furnishing it, getting things hooked up, getting the kids into school, adjusting to the job, and just finding your way around the city. It’s tough!
If you’re like most of us, at numerous points during this process you’re tempted to think: “What have I done? Why on earth did I come here? Have I just made one of the biggest mistakes of my life?” And with those feelings, there is a feeling of being very much alone.
If that’s where you are and what you’re feeling this morning, I have one very simple and concise message for you. Listen very carefully. Here it is: Surely the Lord is in this place. Let me say it again. Surely the Lord is in this place. Say it with me: Surely the Lord is in this place. And if the Lord is in this place, then you are not alone.
This phrase, which is the title to my sermon this morning, is taken from Genesis 28:16. It is the story of Jacob. In the story, Jacob has deceived his father, and stolen his brother’s blessing. Now, in fear for his life, he is fleeing from his home. Let’s pick up the story in Genesis 28:10.
10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it 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. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, 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.” 16 Then Jacob awoke 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.”
There is a lot going on in this passage. This is the promised blessing and covenant of God with Abraham being passed on now to the next generation, to Jacob. The Scripture is tracing the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation which began back in Genesis 3 and will continue throughout the rest of Scripture. But I want to look at this passage through a simpler and more personal lens; that of Jacob’s experience. Jacob is alone. He is a fugitive from home and family. He has left all that is familiar and comfortable. He is out in the wilderness, far from any human habitation. He lies down on the ground to sleep with only a stone for a pillow.
It is there, alone under the stars, that God himself appeared to Jacob. What he promised was quite wonderful. In addition to the promises of the covenant, God made some personal promises to Jacob in verse 15: Behold, 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.”
Do you see that? “I am with you.” “I will keep you wherever you go.” “I will bring you back.” “I will not leave you.” These are very personal promises made by God to Jacob. And if you are a child of God and if you have come to Abu Dhabi in obedience to his leading, then I believe God has made these very same promises to you. “I am with you. I will keep you wherever you go. I will not leave you.” Let me read from Psalm 121, a psalm filled with God’s promises to everyone of his children, beginning with verse 5:
5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.
I like that: “The Lord is your keeper.” Isn’t that what God promised Jacob? “I will keep you wherever you go.” It is keeping in the sense of protecting and taking care of. Jacob felt like he was all alone. But he wasn’t all alone. The Lord was with him and the Lord promised to stay with him and look after him.
It was upon waking up from his dream that Jacob spoke these words: “Surely the Lord is in this place.” And then he added these words of self awareness and confession: And I did not know it.
I think there are several levels to what is happening here. First of all, I think this is more than just an acknowledgement of the omnipresence of God. In fact, if anything, I am not sure if Jacob really gets the truth of God’s omnipresence, as he seems intent on memorializing the place by setting up the stone as a pillar and calling it the “gate of heaven.”
On the deeper level, I believe what is happening here is a very significant step in Jacob’s family faith becoming a personal faith. You see, for all of his life, Jacob has lived with his father and his family. It was possible, in a sense, to live off of borrowed faith and trust. But now he is alone. He has left his father and his home behind. And it is here that God appears to him and says: “Yes, Jacob, I am the God of your grandfather Abraham and your father Isaac. And I am your God too. What I have promised them, I am now promising to you.”
It is a significant, milestone event in which Jacob’s family faith is becoming personal faith. We see this in his response. It is almost as though Jacob is groping his way forward, rather tentatively. But he is moving toward personal faith. Look at his words in verse 20:
20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God,
Do you see the personal faith? “The Lord shall be my God.” Not just Abraham’s God anymore. Not just Isaac’s God. Not just the God of my fathers and of my family. “The Lord shall be my God.”
Maybe that’s where you find yourself. You come from a Christian family, or you’ve been part of a church and vibrant church community back home. Being a Christian there was relatively easy. It was possible to coast, to just go along with the crowd; to live on borrowed faith. But now you have moved to Abu Dhabi. You have left your family and your faith community behind. You are in a strange place, far from all that is familiar. It feels very lonely. But I would like to present it to you as an opportunity; an opportunity for you to make another step in making your faith personal as you recognize, just as Jacob did: Surely the Lord is in this place. And to say, with new conviction and new purpose: “The Lord is my God.”
Like Jacob, I grew up in a believing family. My parents were missionaries. I was surrounded by faith and Christian teaching from my earliest memory. I have four brothers. Last March, the five of us got together in Kenya for a “brothers’ reunion” and spent four days together, reminiscing and catching up. All five of us have spent our lives in various forms of Christian ministry. As part of our time together, each evening we took turns bringing a devotional.
For my turn, I came to this story of Jacob and how his family faith became personal faith. I prompted each of my brothers to think back to some of the personal experiences in which this took place. Interestingly, all five of us traced the beginning of our faith journey to trusting Christ as Savior when we were very young, through the gentle teaching of our mother. But there were other significant steps as well.
For my part, I shared three significant moments of realization from my college years. The first one came shortly after I left home. I had said good bye to my parents, and boarded a plane in Nairobi to fly alone half way around the world to enroll in a Christian university in California. I still remember that first week of orientation. I was homesick, lonely and afraid. During the week, there was campfire service for the new students. We were sitting around the fire, singing Christian songs and students were given the opportunity to give testimonies. As I sat there and sang and listened to the testimonies, I remember this very strong and comforting realization: Surely the Lord is in this place. Yes, I was far from and home and family. But I wasn’t far from God. The Lord was here, with me, in this new place. The God who had been with me in Africa was with me in America.
The second experience happened the following summer. I had accepted an invitation from a classmate to participate in an inner city ministry in Newark, New Jersey. My friend Randy was from Newark and we traveled together, arriving late one evening. We spent the night at his apartment in the projects. The next morning we came out together to catch the bus to the evangelistic center where we’d be working. Suddenly, Randy said, “Oh, I forgot something. Wait right here. I’ll be right back.” I remember standing there in the street, alone, and looking up at all these 14 story brick apartment buildings that looked exactly alike. Now, I was a kid from the African bush. Cities scared me. I realized that I didn’t even know which building we’d come out of – and if Randy didn’t come back, I had no idea where to go or who to call or what to do. I had this moment of blind panic. And then the reassurance came: Surely the Lord is in this place. The God who had taken care of me in rural Africa was able to take care of me in the city.
The third experience came that September. I had decided to transfer to a state university in Washington State. When I arrived on campus, I didn’t know a soul. I registered for class and checked into my dorm. This was in the 60’s and the height of the hippie movement, free love and anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Coming from a conservative Christian college, I now moved into a co-ed dormitory with open hours in all the rooms. As I met my three roommates, not one of them had any Christian background. Once again, I felt totally alone. But that first night, as we got acquainted with each other, I was able to share my testimony with each of them. They looked at me like I had two heads, but God gave me the courage to share anyway. Once again, as I fell asleep that night, I remember this strong and awesome reality: Surely the Lord is in this place. The God who had been with me and taken care of me in Africa and in a Christian college in California, and in the inner city was also with me and would take care of me in this strange and turbulent new environment. And truly, my personal faith grew during those next three years more than in any other comparable time in my life.
I shared those three experiences with my brothers last March and then asked them to share of times and events when they sensed their family faith becoming a personal faith. It was fascinating to hear their stories. For one it was walking on a beach in Mexico, after walking through a very painful and personal tragedy. For another it was in Amsterdam after missing a connecting flight and then having his wallet stolen while he was asleep in a youth hostel. In every case they were times and places where we were alone and the normal props of life and sources of support were taken away. These were the times when, like Jacob, we discovered the Lord in new ways and trusted him, and family faith, community faith became personal faith.
To you who are new to Abu Dhabi, I would like to suggest that this time of adjustment is an opportunity for you; a time to make new discoveries, to take a new stand or maybe even make a fresh start. A time to experience God in new ways, to stand on your own faith feet. And it begins with this affirmation and this realization: Surely the Lord is in this place. He has not left you. Nor have you left him behind. He is your keeper. He will never forsake you. Say it again with me: Surely the Lord is in this place.
I recognize that not everyone in the congregation today is new. So I’d like to address some thoughts as well to those of you who are old Abu Dhabi hands. You’ve been around awhile. You know the ropes. It’s all a bit old hat to you. You’re feeling pretty comfortable in your life and roles here in Abu Dhabi. For you, I want to fast forward in the life of Jacob. He has spent his time with Laban in a far country. He has acquired wives and families and wealth. He has had his ups and downs and additional experiences of faith successes and faith failures. He is now on his way back to the land of his youth. And God appears to him again. We’ll pick up reading in Genesis 35:1.
God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. 3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” 4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem. 5 And as they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. 6 And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, 7 and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother.
Sometimes, to move forward in our walk with God, it is helpful, even necessary to go back. In this passage, God commands Jacob to “go back to Bethel.” Go back to that time, event, place where I first appeared to you – where you took that significant step of personal faith. And Jacob gets up to go, and as he does so, he realizes that over the intervening years, many accretions of unbelief and false worship have been allowed to creep into his family and his household. So he calls on all of his family to purify themselves, to put the idols aside and to accompany him back to Bethel where he erected an altar on the site of his first faith encounter with God.
I wonder if you and I need to go back to our own personal Bethel. Our early faith experiences were powerful, but over the years, the dust has been allowed to gather. Other things, other sources of confidence and distraction have been cluttering up our lives. We have left, as Jesus said, “our first love.” And we are trusting other things and other people rather than God. We need to go back to Bethel and spend time once again in worship and communion with the God of our youth, the God who showed himself to us before and now desires to show himself to us again. “Come back to Bethel,” God says, and let’s renew our walk together.
Do you need to do that this morning? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to prepare for this new ministry and church and school year?
Finally, before we leave the life of Jacob, I want to hit the fast forward button one more time, this time all the way to the end of his life. It is his final testimony. He is blessing his sons and grandsons before he dies, but I just want to highlight the way he describes God in Genesis 48:15: “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
Here is Jacob as a very old man, about to die. And this is his testimony: “God has been my shepherd all my life long to this day.” What is the truth behind the shepherd metaphor? What is a shepherd’s task? To take care of his sheep. To keep his sheep. God had appeared to Jacob as a young man and promised “to keep him”. Jacob said, “If you will be with me and keep me, you will be my God.” Now, after all the ups and downs of a turbulent and long life, Jacob is able to look back over it all and say, “God has been my shepherd all my life long…”
I highlight this for two reasons. One is for encouragement. God keeps his promises. When God says he will keep us and be with us and watch over us, he means it. He is faithful. He will never leave us or forsake us. As I personally have moved into what is the last third, possibly even the last quarter of my life, I find that encouraging. God is not just the God of the young. His faithfulness lasts a life time. God will not forsake us in old age.
But I also highlight this as a challenge to myself and to you – that I might remain as faithful to God as he has been to me. As we see the faithful hand of God at work in every phase of life, may it inspire us to walk more closely to him in love and worship and obedience.
In prayer, give people a chance to reflect on their experience and relate it to the truths of the message.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
In Genesis 28, God appeared to Jacob as he was alone in the wilderness. It was a significant step in Jacob’s “family faith” become “personal faith.” As a group, share with one another some experiences from your spiritual journey when this happened for you.
How has your time in Abu Dhabi (whether short or long) contributed to your spiritual growth and your walk with God?
In Genesis 35, God commanded Jacob to go “back to Bethel.” Why do you think God told him to do that? What did Jacob discover he needed to do before he could make this journey? In what ways can we go “back to Bethel” and what do you think the benefits might be?
In Genesis 48:15, Jacob looks back over his life and testifies to the faithfulness of God. How is this testimony an encouragement to you as you look ahead in life?