While Christians profess that God is graciously present to everything everywhere, we also have to admit that it’s sometimes hard to recognize that presence. Especially when God’s adopted sons and daughters are busy running from some kind of pursuer.
Genesis 28’s Jacob is at least figuratively on the dead run. He has, after all, swindled both his brother out of his birthright and his brother’s blessing out of their doddering dad. His livid twin brother Esau’s resulting promise to kill him as soon as their dad dies fuels this cheater’s mad dash for safety.
But notice what this text’s Jacob has given up. First, he has surrendered the very inheritance his mom and he hustled out of their family. Jacob has had to abandon the land on which God has promised to bless him with an abundance of grain and new wine.
However, our text’s fugitive Jacob has also surrendered his personal safety in order to run for his life. Of course, not everything is as safe as it seems. The safety that is Jacob’s family home is where Esau now waits to kill him. His “safe” destination is, we know, where his Uncle Laban waits to swindle the swindler. It’s why Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001) says our text’s Jacob is “situated between a death camp and a hard-labor camp.”
But as Jacob gives up whatever safety he has at home to head for whatever safety lies with ahead of him with his Uncle Laban, Jacob must also travel through dangerous territory. Sure, he retraces the route his grandpa Abraham had followed 125 years earlier. However, it was risky for his contemporaries to travel outside of the protection afforded by their relatives and home country. That’s one reason why my colleague John Buchanan says banishment from one’s tribe or clan was about the worst thing that could happen to someone. It was what he calls “a virtual death sentence.”
On top of all that, the sun sets on the cheating fugitive’s flight. So Genesis 28’s Jacob has traded the safety of daylight’s exposure for the danger of dusk’s shadows and night’s darkness. That makes it something of a wonder that he falls asleep on the ground in utter exhaustion with nothing but a stone for a pillow. Sleep, after all, lowers his guard against any kind of predator that can sneak up on him.
It’s unlikely that anyone who preaches or teaches Genesis 28 or those who hear us are literally on the dead run. But that doesn’t mean God’s children aren’t figuratively on the run.
Maybe it’s bad memories they’re fleeing, memories of past abuse or neglect, of failure or disappointment. Or perhaps they’re fleeing a reputation for coldness or callousness, of bad behavior or worse language.
Or maybe it’s a person or thing Genesis 28’s preachers, teachers and hearers are fleeing, a faithless friend or a scorned lover, an angry boss or co-worker. Or perhaps they’re on the dead run from bad credit, worse job performance or even worse health. Or maybe they’re just trying to run away from God, God’s holiness and forgiveness.
Anyone on the even figurative run can probably relate to Jacob’s collapse to the ground. Because running and fleeing anything or anyone is exhausting. Your fear of being caught by someone or something drives you like a jockey’s merciless whip hand. You pour so much of your time, energy and attention into your flight that you have nothing left over.
God’s people who have experienced that or are experiencing something like it can understand why Jacob finally collapses in an exhausted heap. He doesn’t even bother to look for a place to stay. Jacob’s, in fact, so exhausted that a stone is a comfortable enough pillow for him.
While he’s awake, says Walter Brueggemann (Genesis, John Knox, 1982), Jacob’s world is one of fear, terror, loneliness and, we’d at least hope, a bit of guilt. Sleep, however, allows another reality to slip into his life. It’s a reality that points forward rather than backward. This new reality blesses Jacob instead of punishing or cursing him, as Esau has promised to do, or cheating him, as his Uncle Laban will soon do.
God introduces that gracious new reality into Jacob’s life via a dream that he has while he’s sleeping. Perhaps, in fact, suggests Brueggemann, it’s the only way God can inject it into a Jacob who assumes he must live by the reality that is his own wits.
In his dream Jacob sees what translations call a “ladder” that’s probably more like a ramp or stairway that connects heaven to earth. On it angels are ascending and descending. It’s God’s startling and clear reminder that earth is not left on its own and that heaven isn’t closed off for the gods. Heaven is not just connected to, but also very interested in the earth. Jacob has assumed that he’s running for his life away from his brother and toward his uncle. His dream reminds him that because God and God’s angels have access to the earth, God can and wants to be involved with both his plight and him.
In fact, while most biblical translations indicate God is “above” the ladder to heaven, at least some biblical scholars strongly suspect that God is, in fact, right next to Jacob the dreamer. After all, eventually Jacob celebrates the fact that “the Lord is in [not above] this place.”
God’s message to the dreamer sounds a lot like God’s message to his Grandpa Abraham. After, while Jacob may be fleeing from the land, God promises to still give it to him anyway. God also promises to give Jacob a nearly countless number of descendants with whom Jacob will bless the whole world.
Jacob’s actions have shown that he has always assumed that he must make his own way, must climb the ladder in the world, by cheating and swindling people if necessary. However, by both sending God’s angels and perhaps standing next to Jacob, God promises to make that way in the world for him.
Even God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally assume we too have to clamber up various ladders to make ourselves successful. Such frantic ascents are, however, always both exhausting and, ultimately, futile. Thank God, then, that God graciously promises to make us a blessing. We don’t have to make our own way. God promises to make it for us.
Yet that’s not all God promises Jacob. God also promises to accompany him on his flight from his brother. On top of that, God promises to protect Jacob so that he will eventually return to the very place from which he’s now fleeing for his life. God’s presence and protection is never, after all, limited to just one time and place. God graciously goes with God’s adopted cheaters and swindlers wherever they go.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jacob seems to only slowly awaken from this dream. At first he perhaps merely groggily feels awed by what he has seen and experienced. Jacob recognizes that his campsite is nothing less than the house of God. His grandpa and dad’s God doesn’t live at the top of some temple people build. Their God is present even in the very place where someone sleeps in the world that God created.
Of course, Jacob wasn’t aware of that presence at first. He had thought of his campsite as just a place where he could bed down for the night on his sprint toward safety. Jacob had thought of himself as alone in his flight to save his cheating skin.
That makes Jacob’s campsite like a lot of places that God’s people find ourselves. We naturally think of our homes as just places we live, worksites as places we work, parks as places we play and churches as places we worship. God’s encounter with Jacob reminds both him and us that God is present to all of those places — even when we don’t recognize that presence.
God’s people typically assume that we somehow must make our own way in the world, with perhaps a little help from our family members, friends and allies. God’s encounter with Jacob reminds us that we’re never alone, that we never have to make it on our own.
At the Lord’s Table God’s people gather to eat what looks like very common bread as well as drink what seems like quite ordinary wine or juice. None of it actually looks all that different from what we buy at a store or bakery and then eat and drink at home. And yet we profess that God makes himself present to and in these common elements. That the Holy Spirit somehow makes wine, juice and bread for those who believe the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Of course, those elements look so ordinary and we struggle so hard to know how Christ is present in them that Christians sometimes endlessly argue about that presence. Perhaps, then, God’s children are best off when we just profess the Lord is somehow among both God’s people and the bread and the wine – even though we aren’t always aware of or understand it.
In his own inimitable and memorable style, Frederick Beuchner (Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, Harper & Row, 1979) describes Jacob’s dream. He notes, “the words God spoke in the dream were not the chewing-out you might have expected, but something altogether different … It wasn’t Holy Hell that God gave him … but Holy Heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world that you can’t get but only can be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 23, 2017
Genesis 28:10-19a Commentary