Early in this year, I believe that the Lord said to me, “go back to Bethel.” It led me to study Jacob again and to meditate upon what that meant to me. I decided to meet with some of my local friends and pray. I also decided to go back to a place where God had met me in a powerful way in 1964, my first pastorate, the Bay View Heights Baptist Church, in Mobile.
I often recall the days and nights of prayer in my office and upon the altar in the sanctuary. I had not been there in years. Unsure of why and perhaps uneasy, I went to the door, someone let me in and showed me around. A lot had changed but the memories were still fresh. My old office was now a “cry room” for babies, and I had shed tears there too. Many people had met the Lord there.
I didn’t stay long, but long enough to sense the Lord’s presence and encouragement at my feeble effort to obey. The thought occurred that I might pray there again with friends. When I asked, the leaders of that church agreed to allow me to use their facilities for prayer meetings. And so, we settled on three sessions to seek God.
It is not my purpose here to fully describe the prayer meetings. They were informal and simply designed to seek and wait upon the Lord in humility and repentance. I took seriously the putting away of gods, purification, changing garments, and what those issues meant to me. The altar was a special issue not just a place but a sacrifice. What do we place there? Everything. But specifically, I sensed that if new things were ahead, my agenda needed to go to the altar.
Another thing that went on the altar was my lengthy prayer list. This is hard to explain, but the burden had become too heavy. I felt like Elijah who, after the great Mt. Carmel victory, ran from the evil Queen Jezebel. He was hated, forsaken by his servant, and exhausted after an 80 mile journey and fell asleep. An angel awoke him, fed him food and drink, and said, “Arise and eat; the journey is too great for you” (see First Kings 19). Sometimes the responsibility to pray through or resolve all of the issues is just too much for us. We need angelic and Divine food.
Can the Church go back to Bethel? Can it be brought back and reminded of its covenant purpose? Can it find peace amidst those who are bitter towards it? Is God calling it back to a place of simplicity, seeking Him and waiting on Him? I believe so.
But, the Church will not “return to Bethel” in some massive pilgrimage, to some place of idealism, or someplace where some exciting personality is on display. The Church’s return to Bethel is a call to individuals who have had a “Bethel Experience” to begin with, who have heard the Sovereign God and have built a real altar on some rock and made their own vows. When those people return to Bethel, others will go to Bethel for the first time.
Bear in mind, Bethel was not about an experience, it was about a purpose – God’s purpose. It was about His choice, to do His will, and about His declaration that He would see it through. Jacob didn’t always keep his vows – but God always does. A return reminds us that while we have often been unfaithful, God is faithful still. The vision is still there. One more thing: a return to Bethel reminds us that there is more journey ahead – it prepares us.
I pray that you have been to and remember – your Bethel. If so, is God saying for you to return or at least remember it? If you have never had a Bethel visitation from God, get ready! The Lord speaks to us in Jeremiah 33:3 and says, “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.”