September 22, 2013
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Narrative Lectionary, Year 4
Preaching text: Gen. 28:10-22 Pent 18 9-22-13
Wow—Jacob is in TROUB-LE!
Well, in this part of the story we find him sort of in-between troubles.Before this, he has made some bargains with his twin brother, Esau, that have resulted in Jacob receiving Esau’s birthright and place as firstborn; and has tricked his blind father into giving Jacob the blessing that belonged to the firstborn son.Esau is beyond angry, and has sworn to kill his brother when their father dies. Their mother, learning of this plan, plots for Isaac to send Jacob away to find a suitable wife from their own people—and assuring he is safely out of range of Esau’s wrath. So when we find him in this lonely place, he has fled from a vengeful brother upon the death of their father, leaving a beloved mother and home behind. He is going to seek out his uncle who will hopefully give him a home, a job, and a wife, and, well… that all happens, but not quite as easily as anticipated.
But for now, Jacob is here—in a deserted place. Really all we know about it is it is a good place to stop for the night and rest. He is alone, it’s night, he’s in the wilderness. So he “makes camp” by which is meant he pulls up the nearest rock and rests his head on it and goes to sleep-- a miracle in itself, given the circumstances.
Jacob dreams while he sleeps: he sees a stairway or a ladder between himself and heaven. Angels are going up and down the stairway. God is at the top, and God speaks to Jacob in this dream: “I am the God of your ancestors—your grandfather Abraham and your father Isaac.” And God reminds Jacob of the promises God has made in choosing Abraham’s family to be God’s family: I will give you land—the very land you are lying on—and countless descendants; and you will be a blessing to all the people of the earth. This is the covenant God had made with Abraham back in chapter 15—now God renews that covenant with Jacob. And Jacob wakes up and realizes God is in this place—this deserted, lonely, dangerous place is a place of God. He takes the rock-pillow and makes it into a rock-altar, and names the place Beth-El, house of God. And he promises to be faithful to God, to worship God, and to make a ten percent tithe to God.
Jacob is one of those unlikely heroes of the Bible. He has gotten himself in trouble—he is destitute, homeless, placeless, family-less, clueless—at this point he couldn’t look less like a chosen person of God than he does. And it’s all his own fault! He isn’t that easy to live with, as we have seen, and he managed to irritate his family enough that even they don’t want him around.
Jacob is in no-place; but he is in the perfect place to find God. Or to be found by God, rather. He has hit bottom. He is at point-zero. He has nothing to lose, nowhere to go but up—and God sends angels to bring his attention “up” this staircase to find that God is there. Please notice—despite the song you may know, the angels are going up and down the staircase; not Jacob. This “climbing out” is not something we have to do—all Jacob is doing is sleeping, lying on the hard ground, literally on a rock. It is the message of God, the grace of God, the presence of God, that does the work of coming down.
When we are lost or outcast, God comes down to find us there.
When we are alone and lonely, God comes down to find us there.
When we are cut off from others and in danger of forgetting who we are, God comes down to find us there.
When we deserve all the misery that surrounds us, God comes down to find us there.
When we don’t know where we’re going or what to do next, God comes down to find us there.
This deserted place of Jacob’s is an in-between place; he’s no longer where, or who, he used to be; he isn’t yet where, or who, he’s going to be.
It doesn’t take very long for this in-between to crash into our innocence; most of us have known it by now. But this is just the place God promises to meet us. The God in whose image we are formed; who knows us by name and knows us as child of God; the God who will not let anything take us away from God--will not let the nothingness of these dark places take us, either. Jacob did not see God when he lay down to sleep—I expect he did not look for God because he did not expect God. No one expects God in the low places, in the lonely times, especially when we know we don’t deserve God. No one expects God in a place of suffering. But that is precisely when and how and where God shows up. When Jacob stops running for a moment; when he puts away his fear long enough to sleep, when he stops tricking people and just sits with himself and who he is for a moment, then his eyes and heart are clear enough for him to see God—in a dream. But Jacob does not dismiss it as “only” a dream –when he awakes, he is sure that God has been there, that God IS there, in this place. God has not been absent; only Jacob has not realized God was there.
Some people don’t like the Bible, especially the Old Testament, because it’s too messy. It’s complicated. We can’t understand it. We want a happy ending. But the Bible is a real story for real people. We are messy and complicated and hard to understand, and our days end up average, if we’re lucky. I need to know that God is paying attention and can see around the mess. I need to know that God knows when I’m in trouble, and will at least visit me there in the trouble if not get me out of it. I need to crash Jacob’s dream to be reminded that God is in this “place”, even, or especially, the places I don’t want to be, which makes them holy places, houses of God. Jacob’s life doesn’t get much easier from here on out--he doesn’t change his conniving ways, either. But he does remember that God is with him.
God is in this place, and all your places, whether you know it or not. Thank God for those angels who remind us, awake or asleep, of God’s presence and promise.