Today’s Scripture is from Genesis 28, when God introduces himself to Jacob for the first time and promises to fulfill the covenant He made with Abraham and Isaac through Jacob. The devotional thought that came with the text suggested that this is Jacob’s first encounter with God. I don’t know that I buy that – probably the first encounter with God of this kind, but probably not his first encounter, having grown up as the grandson of Abraham and son of Isaac. Perhaps the first personal encounter? Maybe that’s what the editor meant.
In any event, the thought went on to ask the question about the reader’s own first encounter with God. What was it like? Jacob set up conditions (“If God does this, then I will do this”), but also set up the altar that he called Bethel (“House or Dwelling Place of God”).
I don’t know if I remember my first encounter with God. In fact, I’m sure that I do not. I remember when a tropical storm (or minimal hurricane, not sure which) went over the house we were living in on the Gulf Coast, and Mom gathered us in her bedroom and prayed to God to protect us. I was young then, maybe four or five. We were fine, as was our house. Is that an encounter with God? I remember flickers of what I call my salvation experience…being in my parents’ bedroom, talking with our church’s pastor, being baptized. Is that my first encounter? I can look back and clearly see places and times where God guided me, protected me, steered me, put me in the precisely right place at the precisely right time. Are any of these my first encounter? I remember as a senior in high school, ten years after that time in my parents’ bedroom, pacing up and down the street in front of our house, trying to figure out what to do with my life (so that I could finish my college application – singular – by writing down a major), and having the assurance that I would be in full time ministry. Without a doubt. Though I had no clue what that looked like (pastor? missionary? professor?). Just that ministry was it. Because I was 18, it’s probably the most vivid encounter with God that I can remember. But I wouldn’t call it my first encounter.
I guess my first encounter came before memories started sticking in my brain. Probably my mother singing to me or praying over me (or for me, in another room). I do know that my life is different from the lives of others in the world who have not encountered God in a significant way. While I often take detours down the paths of consumerism and commercialism and materialism, I’m always drawn back. Jacob was a conniving liar who stole from his twin brother and spent the remainder of his life cowering from him, but God still chose him and always drew him back into His plan.
Sometimes I wish I had a dramatic instant-change testimony like I sometimes hear at meetings or conferences or read about in books. But then I count myself lucky that my encounter with God is lifelong, ever present. I have, at times, flirted with doubts about God’s existence or providence, but never for long. He is always with me. Just like God promised to always be with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob, with their descendants. He is always with me.
That’s my Bethel.