Date: January 5, 1936
Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not! – Genesis 28:16
Triune and eternal God: Humbly do we beseech Thee to grant us Thy constant companionship and its sustaining energy for the coming months. Many of us will face critical, decisive days before the new year closes; some who even now pray with us may be summoned out of our midst before these twelve months have sped their course. And in all of this we see and feel the evidence of our sin, the frailty of everything mortal. So with the complete confession of our own selfishness, our covetousness, the coldness of our affections, and the prayerlessness of our days, but with that true repentance which clings to the cross and builds its hopes on nothing else than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, we pray Thee: help us to find the deep, abiding, inexhaustible peace that marks Thy presence in our lives. Be with us, O Father, whose love created us and still preserves us. Be with us, Thou divine Son, who hast purchased us with Thy blood. Be with us, O Holy Spirit, who dost enlighten and sanctify us, so that, banishing futile fears and depressing sorrows, we may ever walk with Thee, the Friend that sticketh closer than a brother. These blessings we entreat Thee to grant us for the sake of Christ Jesus. Amen.
WE are told that, when Sir James Simpson, whose researches in anesthetics helped to relieve almost a century of pain, was asked which of his discoveries he regarded as most important, he gave this unexpected reply: “The greatest discovery I have ever made is that I am a sinner and that Jesus is a Savior.” Coming from the lips of one who was distinguished as few men are, this recognition of Jesus Christ and His redemption cries out for emphatic restatement. For, though men today may raise other standards for the relative importance of inventions and discoveries as they prepare to sweep the heavens with 200-inch telescope lenses or peer intently through microscopes in their analysis of the atom; though the care for the soul may repeatedly be eclipsed by the concern for the body in this restless urge to find new frontiers for scientific conquest, we hear the solemn warning of our Lord: “What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” When the crises of life come,—the pivotal moments that offer blessing or curse, success or failure, happiness or misery,—there is little comfort in recent and remarkable discoveries. When the soul of a sinner hovers on the edge of life, Dr. Einstein’s theory of relativity holds out no attraction; nor is there any help in cosmic rays. When a man prepares to face his Maker, he must be strengthened by hope a thousand times higher than the stratosphere, purified by an antiseptic against sin inestimably more potent than the strongest of our chemicals. When the moaning night of death enshrouds a home, the bereaved need a light more penetrating than X-rays, more brilliant than the illumination from a galaxy of stars. For every momentous issue of our lives we must turn to the saving and sustaining power of the divine Christ and rediscover the sacred blessings of His unfailing companionship.
It is of—
THE BLESSED DISCOVERY OF GOD’S ABIDING PRESENCE
that I would speak to you in our first radio message of this new year. My words are based on that impressive incident in the twenty-eighth chapter of Genesis, which pictures a lone traveler hurrying on his way to distant Syria, a fugitive, driven from his home by his own fraud and intrigue. A solitary and defenseless wanderer, surrounded by a cruel and degenerate people, he comes at sundown to an open field about a dozen miles north of Jerusalem, where he prepares to stop for the night. There, asleep under the Palestinian heavens, a miraculous revelation is unveiled before him: the skies are opened, a radiant ladder stretches from heaven to earth, a procession of holy angels majestically weaves its way upward and downward, and supremely exalted above all is the eternal King of kings. As though even this miracle were not sufficient evidence of divine grace and strength, the slumbering traveler is assured that he will be the father of a great people, that from his descendants will come the Christ, in whom all the nations of the earth are to be blessed. Overcome by this celestial vision and by a mighty pledge of God’s continued guidance, Jacob—many of you have recognized the wanderer—is awakened out of his sleep and cries (v. 16): “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not!” He has made the startling discovery of God’s strengthening presence and sustaining grace.
GOD ABIDES WITH ALL HIS CHILDREN
It is a far cry from that Canaanite field which Jacob called Bethel (“the house of God”) to the throbbing activities of the life that we live today after thirty-eight centuries. But can you not see with me in this fearsome wanderer, alone in a bleak and hostile country, the picture of men and women rushing through our unsympathetic world, driven from the fulfilment of their hopes by their sins, their selfishness, their overreaching greed; surrounded by encircling dangers and lashed by relentless worries? There in ancient Bethel was a runaway who had deliberately deceived his feeble father and with the help of his scheming mother had secured for himself the blessings of the firstborn,—a shrewd, calculating supplanter, who took advantage of famished Esau and purchased his brother’s birthright for a mess of red pottage. And here in modern America are the unnumbered fugitives from happiness, exiles from peace, outcasts who are suffering the retribution of their own sins or victimized by the cruelty and greed of others. There a wanderer, driven away from his home, a stranger in a foreign land, is never to see his mother again; and here thousands, separated from a distant home, are tom away from the love of their parents,—homesick and desolate. There, asleep in a Judean field, a banished son, in the middle of his long span of years, is forced to start life over, to face the world with only his shepherd’s staff, his travel-worn clothes, and the few possessions he may have rolled in his pack; and here,—can we number the great company of the disillusioned and middle-aged who, almost overnight, must face the real and earnest battle for existence, for whom the past, with its ease and security, has collapsed, leaving only the wreckage on which life must be built anew? There at Bethel a defenseless outcast, bracing himself against an uncertain future; and here, in the United States, millions hoping, yearning, and praying that the promises which lately have again pledged the restoration of prosperity will be more substantial and reliable than flimsy visions conjured up in the past,—millions earnestly but not always successfully trying to suppress the persistent fear that this new year may try their hearts and lives even more grievously than the ordeals of the past.
But, God be praised! in the midst of sin, loneliness, adversity, and a problematic future we, too, have the same pledge of our Father’s abiding presence, the same assurance of the opened heaven, the same guarantee of eternal glory, the same promise of angels and their swift service of protection. Our pathway is no ethereal ladder, but in a very real and practical sense it is He who says, “I am the Way,” He who as God and man bridged the chasm between a corrupted world and a perfect eternity; He who left the highest glory to reclaim the sinner and restore him to His Father’s love,—the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, and now glorified Savior, in whom Deity descended upon humanity, so that men might be exalted to heaven.
Let this comfort of the eternal Presence strengthen you particularly on this first Sunday of the new year as you inscribe the opening pages of a new volume of your life. I ask you to believe that Jacob’s startling discovery, “The Lord is in this place,” may be yours wherever you are. Don’t say that your sins are too numerous, too often repeated, or too loathsome to be forgiven; for Jesus’ worldwide, all-embracing, non-exclusive love penetrates the veneer of self-righteousness and pharisaical self-confidence, the finer sins of envy, strife, jealousy, hatred, slander, the low and brutal crimes of bleeding humanity, to reach the hearts of those restrained behind prison walls, to touch the souls of robbers, prostitutes, drunkards, narcotic addicts, murderers, and others whose letters bare their souls in testimony to Christ’s mercies and His blessed release from degrading sin. That Savior’s love promises every contrite and repentant soul that, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
If with all your hearts you believe this promise of God’s abiding presence in Christ; if these words of Jacob, “God is in this place,” are your motto for the new year, you will discover the one infallible truth that remains constant amid life’s disappointments and bewildering changes. Everything else may vanish during the new year, as these last, meaningful months have reminded us. Emperors and dynasties securely enthroned only two short decades ago have disappeared from history. Bankers and politicians who basked in the spot-light of civic leadership a few years ago have fallen from public grace or live in self-imposed exile. Scientific theories that were accepted as basic truths have been contradicted by new evidences, supplanted by new claims. And in the confusion of this upheaval many Christians have lost their money, their gainful employment, their social standing; they have sacrificed their homes, their friends, their opportunities in life; and they stumble with faltering step along a deserted road. But God tells them today that there is a perpetual Bethel, where they can find their Savior and, trusting in His love, catch a foregleam of the open heavens. They have the Bible, and by that Word of grace the Spirit of God comes to abide in their hearts. Every time they read and believe the promises of the Crucified, they are assured of divine leadership and are strengthened and sustained by His promise: “I will not leave thee nor forsake thee.”
GOD ABIDES WITH HIS OWN AT ALL PLACES
For the abundant life during the new year you and I must discover not only that this divine companionship is for all men, but that its blessings extend to all places. That was Jacob’s experience when God appeared to him on an open field, and in a foreign country and at the depth of night. Awaking from his sleep, he cried: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not!” God’s eternal presence with His children, His unfailing counsel, the ceaseless vigil of His watchful eye, the constant preparedness of His mighty arm,—all this startled Jacob’s awe-filled heart.
No spot should bring God closer to us than the sanctuary of His own house. Many of you have written to ask whether you must be a member of a congregation and attend services in order to be a Christian. Now, while it is true that many who live beyond the ministry of a true church are faithful followers of Christ, it holds with equal force that wherever the true worship of God has been established, Christians will feel impelled to make that church their Bethel. And if these words reach the hearts of those who want a true spiritual home, a church that rises over this drab world as a bright gateway to heaven; or if I should speak to those who remain aloof from the Church’s battles, half sympathetic and half indifferent, men and women whose love and support and intelligent cooperation would, under divine guidance, be a vital force in the spreading of the Kingdom and in the promotion of righteousness, then may these words push their way through all the reluctance and opposition of the flesh: “Join the Church, support its work, help fight its battles!” If you need assistance and guidance, let us help you to find that strength which, every time you enter the house of God, makes you exult: “The Lord is in this place!”
Unfortunately many of us are so restricted in the breadth of their faith that they isolate God in their churches and limit their communion with Him to the Sundays on which they gather for worship. The valedictory of the risen Savior promises: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” But how reluctant we are to accept that presence and to believe in a practicable, everyday faith that through Christ we can actually “live and move and have our being” in God! I wonder how many of you are aware of the daily presence of your Savior in the shop or factory, in the office or store, particularly in the heavy hours of life, during your search for employment, your quest for health. How many of you walk with God and talk with Him and inscribe on the walls of your homes the conviction of your hearts: “The Lord is in this place”? The shriveled hopes of men and women today, their shrunken lives, their dwarfed outlook, their meager spiritual experiences, their starved hopes, their entire small-souled existence, are often traceable to the tragedy that, while God stands beside them, they never make the discovery of His presence.
This most glorious of all patriarchal visions, the radiance of this ladder leading into celestial bliss, with angelic messengers bringing the petition of God’s children to the heavenly Father and returning with His answer of love,—these glories of heaven were unveiled in a simple sanctuary of nature, with the darkened skies as the vaulted dome, the bright stars as the studded lights. No carved artistry, no costly sculpture, marked that house of God. Its furniture was field stone, its paraments were wanderer’s robes. No organ pealed forth its vibrant chords, and no skilled choir raised the harmony of its anthems. The only music was the sigh of an Oriental wind, perhaps the shrill note of a fearsome night bird.
Has this vision not been recorded, we may well ask ourselves, to impress us with the fact that God would accompany us on all our life-paths and through Christ bless us at all places? You will spend about one-third of this year in sleep; but if He who “gives His angels charge over you” has been enshrined in your heart, His love will sustain and protect you during the midnight watches, and you will awake, as did the patriarch, fresh for each day’s new trials, with the confidence: “Surely the Lord is in this place.”
Another third of the coming twelvemonth will be consumed by the hours of your occupation and the remaining third for the opportunity of leisure. If, “redeeming the time,” you live these decisive hours “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” you will encounter the unmistakable evidence of His providential guidance; the very hairs of your head will be numbered, and the resources of Heaven will be drafted to protect you on your individual pathways. For every moment of this new year of grace the love of Christ would be with us, in our hearts, our homes, our church, and—may this be the prayer of every American Christian!—in our nation.
GOD ABIDES WITH HIS OWN AT ALL TIMES
Let us today discover that God’s abiding presence not only blesses all men and extends to all places, but that it endures for all times. Jacob, who must have beheld with deep-rooted concern the perils of his flight, seized the words of divine blessing as an assurance that would carry him through the entrenched hostilities of his entire life. His startled discovery “The Lord is in this place” was to be the watchword of his harassed, but victorious career.
Is there anything that you and I need more imperatively than the same assurance of God’s presence for our own future? Seldom has the Christian’s course been beset with more serious issues and graver problems than in these overcast years. We have hoped that out of the turmoil and travail of these disheartening years, forces would arise which could bestow a substantial feeling of security. Yet who is there that can have absolute certainty that this year or the succeeding will bring the hope that has dazzled our wistful eyes?
If, then, through this crisis year, amid wars and rumors of wars, over craters of smoldering class hatred, through the barrage of political fog that will soon sweep the States, we were to push on without any positive, unchanging hope; if, alone, we are to cross this wilderness which men call life, then it might be difficult to condemn the sensualist and the skeptic who preach the enjoyment of life’s short day and stolidly consign all problems to the gulf of hopeless mystery.
Thank God with me this afternoon that every one of us who has discovered in our Savior the salvation of his immortal soul and the guidance of his life, can make the pilgrimage through this year and face want or plenty, sickness or health, persecution or applause, withered hopes or attained ambitions, with his head high and his heart firm. For we, too, have the sustaining vision of an eternal Bethel. We have Christ, the Ever-blessed and All-sufficient. And as we beseech Him for His strengthening presence in the prayer of His disciples: “Abide with us,” we, too, shall make the joyous discovery: “The Lord is in this place.” God grant us this abiding, redeeming presence for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.