“Even when not aware”
Message preached on
July 23, 2017
Somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran, Jacob - son of Isaac and Rebekah, younger brother by a fraction of his twin Esau, grandson of Abraham and Sarah – caught a glimpse of heaven. When he lay his head down to sleep, he had no intention of seeking such a vision, nor any clue that it might happen. It just did … somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran.
Earlier, as his father lay dying, he followed his mother’s instructions and wore goat skin on his hands and neck, and took a last meal to Isaac, prepared by Rebekah in the savory way Esau would. In so doing, he beat his brother to the punch. “How did you catch your game and cook it so quickly?” his nearly blind father asked. “Because the Lord your God granted me success,” Jacob replied. Please note, he said “your God,” not “my God.” Somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran that way of seeing things would begin to change for Jacob, just a little.
Later, his brother was furious when he took his meal and realized his father’s blessing which belonged to him as first born (even if first born by only a second) had already been given to Jacob. “Your brother came deceitfully,” Isaac told Esau when he realized what had happened, “and he has taken away your blessing.” Sheer hatred grew within this elder son as he spoke his brother’s name. Jacob had been so named because he had been born grasping Esau’s heel. The name means “heel.” However, as Esau breathed the word - this name shifted to its other meaning, “one who grasps, who takes.” “He took away my birthright,” my inheritance! He is a trickster!
Somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran, Jacob is running away from his brother’s wrath, for Esau had vowed to kill him. “Flee at once to my brother Laban,” Rebekah told him in no uncertain terms. “Stay there until your brother’s anger fades, and he forgets what you did.” Isaac agreed, and sent Jacob with the task of finding a wife there. Esau had already chosen unwisely – in his parent’s eyes - from among the women nearby, who “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah (26:35, cf 27:46, 28:8).
Somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran, Jacob is running from his past and traveling toward his future, unaware that on the road between the two God would intervene… And it is at this juncture that we step into the story and seek to make it our own. No, we cannot claim to face the same struggle, but we have our own. On our journey, there are things – perhaps – that we’d really like to put behind us. I cannot say what that might be for you, but for me – well, I’m currently running from an angry back, trying to make my way toward a future with less pain. On a different level, I’ve got my eyes on that horizon called retirement, trying to figure out what I’m going to be when I grow up. Whether that’s running from or running to, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m somewhere between here and there.
What about you? Where are you on this road? Are you running from something? What might you be traveling toward? It seems we spend a lot of our time either putting the past behind us or aiming toward some not-yet-fully-defined or realized future. Along the way, we may see God as more involved with some previous point in our lives when things may have seemed more clear, or we see the Lord as off in the distance, somewhere down the road when we get to where we’re trying to go. Or we may, like Jacob, not really have much sense that the God of our parents or grandparents is our God.
Somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran, Jacob caught a glimpse of heaven. In so doing, God became a bit more real to this heel of a guy, this grasping brother, this trickster. It happened as he was just trying to get a good night’s sleep on the road… Isn’t that when inspiration (or something) often happens – not just in the Bible, but in our own lives? When we just want some shut-eye. Oh, it may not feel terribly inspiring in the moment. Sometimes it is a restless night that breeds holy dreams, troubling visions, thoughts from deep within or far beyond… With a stone for a pillow (imagine that), Jacob fancied a ladder as he slept.
Now, don’t get so caught up in logistics here. I know, I placed a ladder against the wall up front – just to get those brain cells imagining. Some translations of Genesis here call it a “ladder” in this dream, but others use “staircase,” or “stairway.” Those last two may have been more in line with the time, but if a ladder such as this rings your bell, go for it… You may recall that Jacob’s grandparents were originally from a place called “Ur of the Chaldeans” (11:31) before they moved to Haran, which is where God first spoke to them.
Perhaps campfire stories were told to Jacob and Esau of the great Ziggurat in Ur. I’d show you a picture of an archaeological reconstruction of it in the present-day country of Iraq, but there were no photos of it to show the grandkids back then. Just word pictures. It was a massive building, with stairways leading up to level after level, a building that served as an administrative center for the city, as well as a temple, a shrine of the moon god Nanna, the patron deity of Ur. Built a couple hundred years before the time of Abraham and Sarah, it may still have been standing. I wonder if this isn’t a bit of what Jacob dreamed – in the imagination of those who wrote down this story at a later time.
How ever you picture it, here is Jacob’s dream – a ladder set upon the earth, a stairway leading up to heaven, reaching beyond where the eye can see. Countless messengers of God, angels, were coming down or heading up on those stairs (or rungs). Here is Jacob, caught up in his present goings and comings, the troubles he is running away from and the future toward which he is headed. Such a small life, really. And here is this dream of heavenly busy-ness – a reality greater than his (or our) imagination.
In the middle of it all is God. Now, some translations or paraphrases picture the Lord at the top or even above the structure. In others, God is simply on or at the bottom of these stairs. Still others portray Yahweh standing right in front of or next to Jacob. All of these can be correct, not only from the Hebrew words, but also from the faith we derive from them. God is both transcendent (i.e. far above and beyond us), as well as imminent (i.e. closer to us than we dare imagine).
There, somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran, in a dream God speaks to Jacob – the heel, the gasping taker, the trickster - the same promise made to his grandparents and parents:
Did Jacob deserve such a promise? Do we deserve God’s unconditional love? Do we deserve grace? That’s the good news of Christ in our lives. We may not deserve God’s love, but God loves us anyway. And will continue to love us, no matter what. An unconditional promise. It’s the gospel, if you will, right here in Genesis. Here is Jacob, who lied to his father and tricked his brother, who was running from the past even as he was trying to make a life for himself by heading back to his Uncle. Of course, his uncle Laban would prove to be as good at tricking Jacob and Jacob had been at tricking Esau – making him work twice as long as intended. But that’s a story for another day.
Gospel in Genesis: an unconditional promise to an as-yet untrustworthy man. Of course, you might add that all this was simply a dream, a restless night on an unforgiving pillow. However, when he woke up, Jacob considered it very real. “Surely God is in this place – and I did not know it!” he told himself after the dream, and the next morning he made his pillow into a memorial. He called that place Bethel – the “House of God.”
God’s house can be anywhere along the way, you know. It is not defined by the four walls of a sanctuary, nor is it a massive structure somewhere – be it a great Ziggurat, a Temple, a Cathedral, even a Tabernacle. Bethel, “God’s House” can be found anywhere along the way. We may not even realize the place for what it is, for it is more than a place. Perhaps you have been somewhere between here and there in your life, and in this moment or place became aware of God presence and promise. Maybe you are now running away from something, trying to get somewhere, and you are tying value and meaning to the past or the future, and the now is just the muddle in the middle along the way. Guess what? Your Bethel may be right here and now – God on the stairway (it’s not a dead-end), angels all around, Jesus right in front of you, the Spirit within and beside you. Welcome! … and you weren’t even aware of it, just like Jacob.
Let me take the story just a sentence or two further (28:19b-22), for today’s reading ended at an almost too neat and convenient point. You see, after Jacob set up that stone memorial and named the place Bethel, he made a promise back to God. Only his promise was quite full of conditions, whereas God’s was not. “If you’ll be with me,” he prayed, “and keep me safe to this destination, and feed me and clothe me, so that I return again to my father’s house in peace (knowing that my brother now hates and wants to kill me), then the Lord shall be my God…” Not “now,”… “then.” [Sigh!] It wasn’t exactly the greatest prayer ever prayed, along the lines of “I’ll love you if you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” I’ll bet that all of us have at some point prayed just like Jacob did (maybe we still do). But that’s okay, because God wasn’t done with Jacob yet. Just like the Lord isn’t done with you or me individually, or us together as a people – as a “church.”
There’s much more to the story – good news to be shared, promise to be fulfilled, grace to be extended, peace to be made, hope to be lived out … even when we’re not yet aware.
Blessed assurance – this is my story, and yours as well.