Sacred Space

Sermon by R. C. Sproul on October 14, 2007

Genesis 28:10-19

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The Lord’s Day

October 14, 2007

Sanctuary Dedication Service


“Sacred Space”

Dr. R.C. Sproul,

Sometimes I think that people are funny, the way they talk
about their attorneys, and particularly about their physicians. Customarily they
will say, “Well, I’m going to this specialist in the city, and he’s the best in
the city; in fact, maybe in the whole country.” And we talk like that all the
time. I have yet to have somebody say to me, “Oh, yes, I go to that doctor all
the time, and I think he’s probably the worst in the city!” [Laughter]
Whoever we’re involved with, they have to be the best, and that’s just one of
our human idiosyncrasies. I haven’t been in every church in America, I haven’t
heard every choir director in America, but I don’t need to. We have the best in
America right there.

Before we get started, I have to tell you my favorite
Bill Wymond story! [Laughter] Would you like to hear a Bill Wymond story?
Anybody that knows Bill Wymond likes to hear Bill Wymond stories. [Laughter]
Vesta and I were driving to Orlando many years ago…and I can’t remember whether
we were coming from Little Rock, Arkansas, or from Memphis…it was from one of
those places, and we got to Jackson right about noon on a Sunday. And we went
into a restaurant to have lunch, and the first people we saw when we walked in
the door were Bob and Inez Cannada. I believe Barry and his wife were with them
that day. We had lunch together, and as soon as we sat at the table, they
proceeded to tell me that just that morning Bill Wymond had made some comments
about me to the whole congregation. So immediately I got his phone number, and I
called him. It was, like, 12:30. He’d just got home from church. I said,
“Bill…?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “This is R.C. Sproul.” “R.C., what are you
doing?” I said, “Well, I’m calling you because I heard that you said some things
about me in church this morning!” This was the first time in his life that he
was at an absolute loss of words! [Laughter] He thought I was “The Great
Kreskin” or something! [Laughter]

Well, you know, when I look at this magnificent
building that you have established, I’m inclined to break the Tenth Commandment.
I’m really coveting the building, the organ, the music, the choir…and it just
isn’t fair that you have Dr. Ligon Duncan and Dr. Derek Thomas all in one place.
And when I die, that’s the first question that I’m going to ask God. I’ll say,
“You know, You do things in mysterious ways, but why would You take two of the
greatest theologians in our day and stick them in one church?!?” Doesn’t make a
whole lot of sense to me. You must treat them very well.

But I think of our church which is going to break
ground, possibly next month, for our new sanctuary, and I can’t imagine what
we’ll experience when we have our dedication. We’ve already spent literally
hundreds of hours with our building committee and with the architects, to make
sure that every single detail is anticipated — as I’m sure you did, before you
built this magnificent structure. But somewhere along the way, I noticed you
forgot to put a clock up here…that must have been the ministers’ doing!
Then I look, and I find there is one, but it’s way under here
where you can’t see it! And then I came up here, and I saw, oh, yes…there is one
right next to me. And Lig told me that I could preach until ten minutes after
the hour, and this clock says five minutes after three! [Laughter] We’re
in for a long ride if we have all that time!

Before I read the Scripture, let me thank you for the
singular honor of inviting me and Vesta to be with you on this most important
occasion in the life of your church. Let’s pray, shall we?

Our Father and our God, we know that unless You
remove the scales from our eyes, we will never see Your kingdom; and that unless
You open our ears, we will never really hear the truth of Your word; and unless,
by the power of Your Spirit, You change the disposition of our hearts and of our
souls by the immediate supernatural work of grace within us, that we’ll never
embrace those things that are contained within Your word. And so now as we are
to attend to that word, we pray that the same Holy Spirit who inspired it in the
first place may now give us His illuminating light, that He may stoop to our
weakness and help us to understand it, to believe it, to embrace it, and to love
it. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I told Ligon when he asked me to do this sermon this
morning that I only had three sermons in my repertoire, and I preached two of
them in this church in the past, so it’s really limited my choice to one other
option. And my problem was that I’d preached from this text recently at the PCA
General Assembly, and I know that several of you were present. And I said, “Lig,
it’s the only sermon I have left, so that’s what you’re going to have to get,”
and he says, “Well, it’s OK. Sometimes we have to do things more than once
before they take root.”

So I’m going to read this morning from the
twenty-eighth chapter of the book of Genesis, and I’ll be reading beginning at
verse ten, reading through verse nineteen. Genesis 28:10-19.

“Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a
certain place and stayed there that 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 to
sleep. And he dreamed; and behold, there was a ladder set upon the earth, and
the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending
and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it 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. 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 in you and in your offspring shall all
the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, I am with you, and I 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.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep
and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, but I knew it not.” And he was
afraid and he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the
house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

“So early in the morning, Jacob 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. And he
called the name of that place Bethel.”

What you’ve just heard is not the collected lore of
ancient Hebrew semi-nomads. What you’ve just heard, dear friends, is the
unvarnished word of God, which carries the full weightiness of His authority and
of His truth. Who has ears to hear the word of God, let them hear it.

I. Holy Time.

In the story we’ve just heard, we hear the narrative
of some things that took place in the life of Jacob the patriarch, whom we know
to have had his name changed as “the supplanter.” This is a man who through
chicanery wrested his birthright away from his twin brother. He is the
scoundrel’s scoundrel of the Old Testament, and for all intents and purposes it
seems that up until this point in his life he had no regard for the things of
God. Jacob was a man of this world. He was secular in his activity and in his
thinking. And now his father sent him on a trip for the purpose of finding a
wife. And like most men in this world who are searching for women, they have
little time to think about the things of God. Jacob’s enterprise was a secular
one, not a holy one. And, as was the custom of his day, when he made the journey
he stopped whenever the sun set, because to go any further was to be vulnerable
to the perils of highwaymen, wild animals, and the like. And so wherever he was
on the journey when the sun set, there he stopped and prepared to go to sleep.
The only comfort that was available was a rock on the ground that he picked up
and dusted off, and he used it to support his head as a pillow. And, as the
Scriptures tell us, he went to sleep.

While he was asleep, he had a dream–a very strange
dream, and in this dream he had a vision. He saw this ladder that was attached
to the face of the ground, and it stretched all the way to heaven. And he
watched this ladder, and on the ladder he saw angels ascending and descending —
on this ladder that bridged the gap between heaven and earth. And so we call it
in our nomenclature, “Jacob’s Ladder.” When we were children in Sunday School,
we used to sing that song called Jacob’s Ladder…. “We are climbing
Jacob’s ladder.” Do you remember that? “Every round goes higher, higher…”? Well,
that comes from this text where Jacob has this dream, this vision. And this
dream changed his life. It was a sacred moment in time for Jacob. It was a holy
moment. And if you look through the pages of the Old Testament, you will see
again and again and again there are episodes that take place that are different
from everything else, and that these episodes are so decisive that they will
change the whole life of a person, or the whole life of a nation.

This idea of sacred time is rooted and grounded in
creation, where, after God on successive days creates all that there is, but
does not reach the ultimate climax of creation on the sixth day, which we like
to think…we like to think that the ultimate point of creation was the creation
of human beings. The sixth day, beloved, is the penultimate day, not the
ultimate day. The ultimate day is the seventh, and it’s the seventh day and not
the sixth day that God sanctifies. Here the acme of the holy is reached, when
God at the end of the seventh day blesses and hallows it.

What does that mean? When God hallows something, He
makes it holy. That is, He sets it apart. This is not ordinary. This is not
common. This is extra-ordinary. This is uncommon. This is sacred: a sacred hour;
a sacred day in creation.

He follows that pattern throughout the whole Old
Testament, doesn’t He? When He hears the cries of the people in bondage in
Egypt, He says to Moses, ‘You go…you tell Pharaoh, I have heard the groans of My
people. You tell Pharaoh I said ‘Let My people go.’’ And when that struggle
reaches its climax, on the night of their departure God sent His angel of
judgment upon the Egyptians. You know the story. And He warned the people of
Israel that that angel of death was coming, and He said ‘If you want to escape
it, you need to take the blood of the lamb and put it on the doorposts, because
when that angel comes bringing devastation in his wake, wherever he sees the
blood of the lamb, he will pass over.’ And so on that night, when the angel of
death passed over the people of God, God said to His people, ‘Don’t ever forget
this. This is a sacred moment; a holy moment in your whole history. Every year,
I want you to gather with your families and with your children and celebrate
this moment in time — the Passover.’

A sacred time, once a year, on a special day, Yom
— only on that day, and only the high priest could go into the Holy
of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat, and Yom
until this day is a celebration of sacred time.

In the upper room, when our Lord celebrated the
Passover for the last time with His disciples, He changed the liturgy. You know
what happened. He took the bread now and said, “This now is My body, which is
given for you.” Then took the cup, and He said, “This is now the blood of a new
covenant: My blood, which was shed for the remission of your sins.” And
basically what Jesus was saying to His disciples that night was ‘Don’t you ever
forget what you will witness tomorrow. It’s holy. It’s sacred time.’

We understand that. We have what we call “holidays”
or “holy days” which are special to us. Just last month I recalled that it was
the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion to Christianity. I became a Christian
on September 13, 1957. In the first weeks of my Christian experience, I was
introduced to the quintessential little old lady; a blessed saint who spent
eight hours a day in prayer. She was a member of an obscure church I had never
heard of, called the Wesleyan Methodist Holiness Church, and she undertook to
pray for me that I might be sustained by the Holy Spirit in my Christian walk.
And she said, “Young man, don’t ever forget September 13, 1957. Put a spiritual
stake in the ground, so that you will know that that’s the night that God
intruded into your life and claimed you for Himself.” She had no idea that she
was praying for an incipient Calvinist–but at that point, she really didn’t

But we all have sacred moments like this, and for
Jacob, this was a moment he would never forget. But it seems like the whole rest
of the people of the Old Testament did forget it, because you hear next to
nothing about this dream of this ladder up to heaven through the whole rest of
Old Testament history–until it reappears suddenly, unexpectedly, at the
beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee when He’s calling His disciples to
himself; and He sees Nathaniel off in the distance, and He said, ‘Behold! Over
there, there’s an Israelite in whom there is no guile.’ And Nathaniel was
shocked by that: ‘How do You know anything about me? I’ve never even met You.’
And Jesus said, ‘Before I knew you, I saw you over there under the tree. But you
haven’t seen anything yet, Nathaniel. You’re going to see the heavens open, and
you’re going to see the angels of heaven ascending and descending on the Son of
Man.’ Do you know what Jesus was saying there to Nathaniel? ‘Nathaniel, I’m
Jacob’s ladder. I am the One who bridges the gap between earth and heaven,
between the divine and the human. Come along and follow Me.’

And so in the midst of this vision that Jacob has, he
hears God repeat the promises that He had made to Abraham first, and then to
Isaac, of the descendants that would be as the stars of the sky and the sand of
the sea, or the dust of the earth; and He promises to Jacob that wherever Jacob
goes, He will go with him. He will never forsake him, and He will do everything
that He promised that day.

II. Holy Space.

Aaah! And then Jacob wakes up! And when he wakes up,
ladies and gentlemen, he’s in stark, cold, terror. And he said, ‘Surely…God was
in this place. God was just here! And I didn’t even know it! How awesome is this
place. This must be the gateway to heaven. This must be Beth-el…the
house of God, right here!’ And then he did something very strange, didn’t he?
That same rock that he had dusted off and used to put his head on during the
night, now he takes it and he puts it on the ground, and he takes oil and pours
the oil all over the place–all over this rock. What kind of a bizarre ritual is
that? You see, what Jacob is doing is saying ‘I’m going to mark this spot,
because this spot is holy ground. And it was holy ground because it was there
that God intruded on him.

This whole idea of holy space as well as holy time is
well mentioned in sacred Scripture. Think for a moment again of Moses, when he
was grazing his flock out in the Midianite wilderness, and all of a sudden he
sees this bizarre sight of a bush that is burning but is not being consumed. And
he turns aside to see what this is all about, and as he looks at this spectacle
before him, he hears the voice of God, saying, “Moses! Moses! Take off your
shoes from off your feet, because the ground on which you are standing is holy
ground.” Moses, take your shoes off; this is holy ground.

III. Holy Intersection.

Now I ask you, dear ones, what made it holy? It
certainly wasn’t the presence of Moses. It was the presence of God. But you say,
“Oh, wait a minute. I thought our theology teaches us that God is omnipresent,
that He’s everywhere. And if He’s everywhere, then that would mean that all of
the earth is holy, and there’s no such thing as ground that isn’t holy.” Well,
that’s true that God is omnipresent. David said, “Where shall I flee from Your
Spirit? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol,
behold, You are there.”…. ‘I know what you’re going to say before you even say
it. Before a word is even formed on your lips, I know it altogether.’ But of
course God is everywhere! But only this piece of real estate was designated by
God to Moses as holy ground. Why? Because it was a point of intersection. It was
a point where God was not only present, but He made himself known. It was a
point where He visited Jacob, just as He had visited Moses–or would visit Moses,
I should say.

Today we talk of Palestine as the Holy Land,
Jerusalem as the Holy City. Why? Because that was the point of intersection.
That’s where God came down and visited His people in those places. That’s why
they’re considered holy ground.

Now, we’re here today to ask the Lord to consecrate
this building, that this building might be considered holy ground. You know that
God doesn’t need this building to minister to His people. You know that in the
early church the first Christians met together in little houses, and then from
there, when they were being persecuted in Rome, they went underground to a Roman
cemetery. And amongst the skulls and skeletons there, they worshiped in the
catacombs. [If you’ve ever been in the catacombs, you know they have no
resemblance to Gothic cathedrals.] But any place that the people could assemble
together, they were sure that God would be in their midst. But as the church
grew, they were to have buildings that would accommodate large crowds, and so
over the years we’ve seen magnificent buildings built for the church. And this
church, as a congregation, has been worshiping together for 170 years. And yet,
in that 170-year period, right now is a new moment of holy time, as we
consecrate this holy place.

Back in Orlando, at our church, on the front of the
bulletin each Sunday are these words: that we are crossing a threshold:

“When we enter this building, we are moving across a threshold, making a
transition from the common to the uncommon; from the ordinary to the
extraordinary; from the secular to the sacred; from the profane to the holy.”

That’s what those doors out there represent for you,
dear friends. There’s no magic about a building, but if this place is set apart,
if it’s consecrated, then this place is holy ground. This place is uncommon.
This place is extraordinary. This place is sacred. This place is holy. In 170
years, how many people have been baptized in this church? How many have been
married? How many have been buried? This is a place where memories are made of
the visit of God amongst His people.

Let me close by telling you something about the size
of your congregation. A few years ago I was asked to preach at a Presbyterian
church that had a service at 8:00, and then one at 9:30, and then another one at
11:00. It was a large congregation–three services. I go to the 8:00 service, and
there were, like, thirty people in the congregation! And I said, “How am I going
to get excited about preaching to thirty people in a room that’s supposed to
hold a thousand?” [I was really drawing the crowds, as you can imagine!] And so
I began by saying to them, “You know, any time I preach to a congregation this
large, I get nervous, and I’m intimidated by it.” And they laughed. They thought
I was joking. And I said, “I want to explain something to you. According to the
author of Hebrews, when we gather to worship on Sunday morning, we’re not going
to a mountain that can be touched with hands; we’re not going into a sanctuary
that is built with stones; we are coming now into the heavenly sanctuary. When
we worship together, we come into the very presence of the angels, the
archangels, the spirits of just men made perfect, the general assembly on high.
We come into the immediate presence of God and of Christ. That’s what we call
the communion of saints: that worshiping with us this morning are the departed
saints, the angels in heaven, and Christ Himself.”

And where Christ joins His people, it’s holy

It’s not just holy today; but this is holy ground
every time we enter into it. This building is a sanctuary, a refuge, a place
where we can know the presence of God. And my prayer is that not one of you will
ever come into this building and walk out of here and say, “Surely God was in
that place…but I didn’t know it. I missed it.” Dear friends, don’t ever miss
the presence of God

Let’s pray.

Our Father and our God, we thank You that wherever
we flee from You as fugitives, You pursue us; You present obstacles to that
flight; You intrude where we don’t want You to intrude. But we thank You for
those intrusions that can define our lives for us. And may Your blessing be in
this house today and for generations to come. Amen.

[Congregational hymn: Open Now
Thy Gates of Beauty

Dr. Duncan: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with
your spirit.

[Choir Response: Love So
Amazing, So Divine

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