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Raising Bethel – A Genesis 28 Funeral Message

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Today I conducted funeral for a lady who died in her one hundredth year.
As part of her preparations for the funeral she recorded a request that I sing a solo of Nearer My God To Thee.
In accepting her request it seemed appropriate to read Genesis 28:10-22 and explain the background to the hymn’s distinctive imagery.
The reading describes the situation of Jacob, a man who had sought the blessing of his father and the family birthright, and had achieved these at the cost of his relationships and his safety. His brother wanted to kill him, he had deceived his father, and his indulgent mother could no longer protect him.
He had gained everything he wanted, but, in effect had nothing.
Under the open skies, Jacob beds down for the night on a pillow of rocks, an emblem of the loss, grief and confusion which is now his life.
It is as he sleeps that God reveals himself to Jacob.
All the scheming and deceptions have counted for nothing. It is at this lowest of the low points that God comes to Jacob and reveals the nature of the promises of relationship and blessing which will flow to Jacob and his descendants.
Importantly this is the time during which the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac personally becomes the God of Jacob.
Not when he is at his best. Not when he is at his strongest. Not when all is as Jacob wants everything to be.
But when he is at his worst. When he is at his weaker. When his circumstances are loss, grief and uncertainty.
This pattern is observable throughout the Scriptures. Again and again God reveals Himself to people when they are at their lowest. He includes them in His love when they are most hopeless.
We see this most clearly in the incarnation and redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Immanuel, God with us, comes among those who weren’t seeking him, and who didn’t want to receive him.
God reveals Himself.
What does this say to us?
Well, at times like this, when we grieve the loss of a loved one, when we realise the fragility of our own lives, when we come to understand our inability to get or maintain our own way; when our struggles to achieve our own blessings and sense of peace with God seem futile or fragile, we are in the very place where God can come to us.
God reveals Himself to Jacob as Jacob’s God.
Jacob is able to take the stones which represented shattered dreams and a ruined life, and erect a marker place he calls ‘Bethel’, the house of God, as a demonstration that the place which was the end of his personal dreams was the beginning point of a new life in which God’s plans take the forefront in his life.
The sadness, loss, confusion and grief which we experience at this funeral can also be the marking point of a new season of life, what we experience now as a ruin of grief can be the time when God makes Himself known to us in redeeming love.
If you seek Him, He will reveal Himself to you, and this time of sadness will become your own Bethel.

Note: In singing the song I added the sixth verse which has been added to the original five stanzas. This verse clarifies the themes of the hymn which I explained above.

Nearer, My God, To Thee
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
yet in my dreams I’d be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
all that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
angels to beckon me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Then, with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise,
out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
so by my woes to be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,
There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest;
Age after age to be,
nearer my God to Thee.
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

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