God-stories are always anchored to particular places. So what are our God-stories, and how can they charge the landscape? (Listen.)
Once upon a time, our ancestor Jacob went on a journey. He left the place called Beer-sheba and came to the place called Luz. It had been a long day on the road; it was now twilight. The first stars were becoming visible in the darkling sky. So he took one of the stones of that place, a flat stone, a smooth stone, and brushed off the dirt; then he used it as a pillow. He wrapped himself tightly in his traveling cloak, and drifted into a deep, God-filled sleep. While he was dreaming, he saw a stairway reaching from that place all the way to heaven, and God’s messengers were moving between heaven and earth.
Like our ancestor Jacob, people sense God’s presence in particular places. You might remember old Abraham, and how the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting in the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Or the people in the territory of Zebulun and Naphthali, which lies on the road by the sea across the Jordan River. The people in that place knew darkness, but then they saw, really saw, God’s light!
Then there are all the places Jesus visited: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethany, Jerusalem, and so many more. The people in those places experienced God’s presence as Jesus prayed with them and shared meals with them and taught them and healed them in and around where they lived.
There were the people in Rome and Ephesus and Thessalonika and Caesaria and Athens, who encountered God through the place-tailored teachings of Paul and other early missionaries: because different aspects of the gospel needed to be emphasized in different places. And of course there were the seven churches of Revelation, named by location, whose faithfulness was shaped by local pressures and local culture.
The places named in the Bible are not symbols. They are not abstract. They were and continue to be real, geographically located places in distinctive landscapes. Fishing villages. Great deserts. Hamlets on steep hillsides. And the particularities of place shape the people and their cultures, economies, histories, politics, languages and theologies: and, of course, people’s encounters with God.
Indeed, we are always in a particular place when we encounter God. Whether we experience God as a loving healing presence, as a quiet still voice, as a glimpse of the Risen Christ, or even in our dreams, we are never nowhere. It doesn’t matter if we are eating at a community meal or digging in the garden or praying with our eyes shut or sound asleep; we are always doing these things as real bodies in real spaces. We walk through particular groves of trees and along rivers with distinctive characteristics and under a sky revealing a different star path to the place fifty miles away, and the God who dwells among us meets us in these particular, local places.
It’s fashionable in some Christian circles to spend many thousands of dollars travelling to Israel to visit Biblical sites. I understand it: I went on this pilgrimage myself after my ordination. The risk is that it can make us think, consciously or otherwise, that real encounters with God are limited to the place we call the Holy Land.
But if we believe that God is universal, and we do, then God must be here in this place, too. Always was, always will be, we might say. And if we believe God is three-in-one, that is, Creator, Christ and Spirit dancing in community, and we do, then Christ has always been here, too. Europeans brought the Bible and the stories of Jesus, but the First Peoples already knew Christ through Country.
Most stories of Country are not ours to tell or even know; but we have our own stories. We can share those moments when we sense God’s presence in the landscape, and we can describe the exact place where it happened. At the oaks of Mamre. Among the manna gums at Cudgee. At the ford in the river in Woodford.
We can also point out features in the landscape which remind us of God’s characteristics. The roots of a Moreton Bay fig tree in the Botanic Gardens, which remind E of the hand of God, holding him. Twin dunes at Kelly’s Swamp, which remind me of a woman’s breasts and the fertility of God. And we can testify to glimpses of Christ in the garden, at the beach, on the road, and among people, and name which garden, which beach, what road, and where those people were. We can inscribe the landscape with sacred stories so that when others are in that place, they, too, can see it through our faith-filled eyes. Perhaps they’ll even catch a glimpse of the ever-present but always elusive Living God.
This Lent, we are asking you to help us see local places in new ways. Give us stories and prayers anchored to particular places, so that when we go there, we experience them anew. Show us that we live in a God-breathed God-filled land.
Long ago, our ancestor Jacob woke from his sleep. He yawned and stretched. Suddenly, he remembered his dream. He said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I didn’t know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this, the gate of heaven.’
My friends, the Lord is in this place, too: and we should know it. Help us wake up to God’s holy presence, in this and every place. Amen. Ω
Are you a regular reader of this blog? Write a story about your place! Sanctuary is rooted in Warrnambool, but has a much wider scattered community; your story would be welcome and we would love to read it. Contributions due by the end of this week, 12 February, as Lent is looming. Or, if it comes later, perhaps we can include it after Lent. As a means of encouraging vulnerability while maintaining privacy (especially for minors), contributions will appear on the website with a generic acknowledgement (Sanctuary), unless you would specifically like your name attached.
A reflection by Alison Sampson leaping off Genesis 28:10-22 (off lectionary) given to Sanctuary on 5 February 2023 © Sanctuary 2023. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.
Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, the wattles are sprouting new growth. All the grasses are rustling brown, and the dianellas are covered with fresh purple berries. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all. Amen.
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