Do you remember when in Scripture that place name is first mentioned. (Genesis 28)
Jacob, the younger son of a very elderly Isaac, was running from his stronger older brother. While on the run he slept in an apparently God forsaken spot. He rested his head on a stone as a pillow. While sleeping he dreamt. He dreamt of a staircase between heaven and earth with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. When he woke he spoke and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.” (Genesis 28:16)
An accurate revelation that was immediately followed by a heresy. “How awesome is this place.” He named the place Bethel. Bethel means house of God. In saying this there is an obvious inference. Other places on this planet (or beyond it?) are not so much the house of God.
Maybe you think he was right? Maybe you think it was the particular place that Jacob was lying that was the reason why this revelation had come upon him. Maybe you think that the stone he laid his head on was somehow more holy that the other stones lying around. Maybe you think that the stairway between heaven and earth was only in Bethel and it was only because of the apparent coincidence of Jacob lying there that he had that dream. Maybe you think something similar like this was a special place, a historical spiritual well, a thin place or a high place. If you do you have missed the point. The whole point that God was making was that the heavenly stairway was in the eternal realm and could have turned up wherever he laid his head. It was not of this earth. It was there because he was there. The angels were ascending and descending on the son of man! (John 1:51)
There has been much talk recently among Christians that amounts to a theology of holy places and, by inference, less holy places. Others speak of “thin” places; by which they mean that the barrier between the earthly temporal realm and the heavenly realms is particularly thin there and so it is easier to be spiritual when there. Many people would say they have anecdotal evidence for this being a true understanding. But I would contest their conclusion and say it is a misunderstanding of the experience they have. The experience is valid, but the general theory which they have built upon that experience is flawed.
The point of what happened in the place that came to be called Bethel is that God can turn up anywhere. It was an apparently God-forsaken spot with only a rock as a pillow. And yet, when a runaway teenager was sleeping there he dreamt a vivid dream of a stairway to heaven. The stairway to heaven turned up there. Not to a particularly righteous chap. To a twister – which is one translation of the name Jacob. A snake-like man. To a man on the run. A man who was a wheeler dealer. A spiritually deceptive man. He had lied to his father and tried to trick him into giving a blessing that was only due to his elder brother. For Jacob the end justified the means, even thinking he could manipulate God. This man laid his head on that stone.
Special places? Special people? Holy places? Holy people? Is that where God turns up? The text of Scripture seems to suggest otherwise. The story of Bethel demonstrates that is not the way God wants to work. The place was ordinary. The person was twisted. He was not a good person. And yet God went and found him, in a non-place, run away, scared, lonely, tired. God found him in a place where he did not even have a place to lay his head. Under the stars. A hard place. As he slept God came and found him. God entered his dreams. Not because he had tricked his brother and earthly father, but because God the Father loved him.
Not a special person. And yet, because God turned up, the person became special. He knew he was not special but he felt so special he assumed the place was special. But it was not the place that was special. It was the fact that God had a special love for this man. He could have been anybody. He was like everybody. God loved him with a special love. He felt that love. He was thrilled and did what humans do, try to make sense of experience based on what he already knew. He made sense of it, but the explanation he came up with was wrong. He came to believe that Bethel was a holy, special place.
He believed it so much that he lead his people and future generations into setting it apart. The place became venerated. But it should not have happened.
If Jacob had known what we know now (because Jesus has come and we have the New Testament) he would have known his experience meant something completely different. It should have meant that every non-place can become special. It was in a non-place that God did this. So, if he can do this here, he can and will do it anywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere is special. Anywhere is where God turns up. Anybody is the person who God loves and wants to turn up for. Anybody. You! Me! The bloke you just passed on the road. The woman with the smart suit on with the flashy car. The little girl dancing in the park. The lad racing around shouting. Yes him! And her! And you!
Prayer. Anywhere. Everywhere. Anybody. That’s the message of Bethel.
If your heart is “a thin place” then anywhere you are will be for you a thin place.
If you turn your heart to the Lord. The Holy Spirit will see that, wherever you are, and will come and find you.