Jacob’s Dream at Bethel

March 24, 2019

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Genesis 28.10-19 at Mattins on Sunday 24th March 2019, the Third Sunday of Lent.

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the 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. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder[b] set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him[c] 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 and 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 all the families of the earth shall be blessed[d] in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that 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 woke 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.’

18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; [which means House of God].

John 1.35-51


Our reading from the book of Genesis describes Jacob experiencing God meeting him in a dream whilst he is on a journey.

Our culture tends not to take dreams too seriously. Imagine the bible story we’ve just heard going like this:

 “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him 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;’

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely that was a silly dream’, packed his bags and continued on his journey. He hadn’t walked for five minutes before he’d completely forgotten that he even had a dream and his life carried on just as before.”

One of my fellow canons tells me that African cultures, similar to the Middle Eastern culture in which the Scriptures were written, encourage us to consider dreams a lot more seriously than we often do.

I’ve recently seen a film called Inception (2010), with Leonardo di Capprio in the leading role. It’s a film all about dreams, and the plot revolves around whether dreams are more real than real life.

Could it be that dreams aren’t just fantasies of the mind, but tell us what is real? Jacob woke from his dream and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I didn’t know it.’

That’s a wonderful statement of epistomology: how does he know that the Lord is here? He didn’t know it, but the Lord revealed himself. The reality of God’s presence is sometimes beyond knowing. Jacob experienced the dream and didn’t deny its significance. He didn’t forget it. He didn’t dismiss it.

He acknowledged that God had spoken words of promise and destiny to him. The ladder he dreamed of represents the traffic on the M3 going up and down between heaven and earth. It represents an email server, full of messages shuttling between God and humanity. Jacob’s dream gives the picture of God revealing his purposes for people.

I wonder how many times in your life you have sensed God speaking to you, revealing himself to you? How frequently does it happen?

As part of my role as Canon Principal I sometimes have the privilege of talking with people, hearing the story of how God has revealed himself and spoken to people. In the past couple of days two people shared with me how God spoke to them, resulting in both an emotional response and a motivation to action – actions which have changed their course of life, their destiny.

Jacob felt afraid, awed at the presence of the Lord in this place. And then he took action. He set up a shrine, a rock at which he worshipped the Lord, naming that place Bethel, the House of God, which became the home of the prophets and a place of worship for centuries.

The rest of Genesis reveals that Jacob had one other dream in which God spoke to him, and then an extraordinary wrestling match with God in human form, when his hip was put out of joint.

That’s all we hear about – three instances of meeting God in the life of the man who gave birth to the nation of Israel. Perhaps there were dozens more, which never made the final cut, lessor encounters that were too mundane to record. Or perhaps that’s all there was. Three encounters in a lifetime.

So this story makes me wonder. How much should we expect God to speak to us? Do we seek an encounter with God every time we gather for morning prayer? Every Evensong? If we dream every night is God’s ladder there full of angels every night our head touches the pillow?  Is our inbox full of messages from God that we’re just not opening? Do we close our ears to the voice of God, which is constantly whispering in our ears, ‘I have a destiny for you. I long to bless you. I have people for you to meet, things for you to do. Listen to me.’

Could our journies be littered with shrines, which mark our encounters with God through life? Not roadside shrines of regret and wilting flowers for the death of a loved one that died due to a drunken driver, but places of pilgrimage that mark when our lives were turned around because we heard God speak, were afraid and took action.

In Evensong this past week we’ve been listening to the story of Jacob’s son, Joseph. His life was dominated by dreams, dreams that were pivotal points of turning in his life, which prepared him for his destiny. Joseph’s destiny was to be the saviour… the one who understood Pharoah’s dreams and anticipated the seven years of famine and stocked up food during the years of plenty so that thousands of people had food to survive. And so he saved his own father, his brothers, and the nation of Israel was not starved to death but was nurtured into a great multitude.


In our gospel reading when Jesus meets Nathanael, Nathanael recognises that Jesus is the one who has inherited the throne of Israel. Jesus’ response is to remind his disciples of what it means for the kingdom of God to come: ‘Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

Just as Jacob’s dream led him to be recognised as the father of the nation of Israel so Jesus will be recognised as God’s annointed one, who brings salvation to many. Jesus is the new Bethel, the new house of God, the place of meeting and encountering God. Therefore, when we gather for worship in this place of pilgrimage, we too express the reality of the presence of God.  ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.’