Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 19, 2020
Genesis 28:10-19a Commentary
You don’t have to feel close to God for God to be near to you. You don’t have to reach out to God for God to come to you. And you don’t have to be a perfect person for God to bless you. Jacob is a case in point.
We are following the Hebrew Patriarchs on their journey through the Middle East with Yahweh, their covenant making and keeping God. They are not always saints, as we saw last week in those stories from Jacob’s life. Here’s the sequel of those stories. After cheating his older brother out of both his birthright and his blessing, Jacob is on the run from the murderous rage of Esau.
Oh, his mother has, once again, manipulated things so that Jacob’s departure from the family home in Beersheba appears to be a high-minded quest for a bride rather than a desperate flight for his life. But make no mistake, Jacob is the real villain in the story.
As his name indicated, he was a born deceiver, a habitual schemer, a smooth little weasel, and a half-hearted believer, if he was that at all (more on that in a moment). Most of us church folk would have a hard time even talking to such a scoundrel, so the thought that Jacob would be given this splendid vision of God may strike us as unreasonable and unfair.
There isn’t any evidence that Jacob himself expected any vision of a heavenly ladder. Some psychologically oriented readers might speculate that in this dream Jacob was simply projecting the expectations of his ambitious ego. But if we imagine our way into his psyche that night, a self-generated vision like this seems most unlikely. I mean, he was alone, away from the shelter of his mother’s tent for the first time in his life, exposed to the elements and wild beasts and robbers, not to mention his brother’s rage (who might have been right behind him, for all he knew).
His fears might have been deeper than his fear of Esau’s vengeance or the darkness of this place. I suspect that he was also haunted by the knowledge that he had done wrong. After all, he did possess enough inner honesty to admit his guilt when he said to his mother, “If my father happens to touch me, he will see that I am cheating him….” He knew he was a sinner.
There is no reason to suppose that as he lay his head on that stone, he prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” He was a man in isolation, alone with himself, far from home, from other humans, and most of all from his God. Or so we may think.
But as he fled his brother, his God followed him. There is only one explanation for what happened that night in that dark place—God’s amazing grace, his sheer unmerited grace. Contrary to the ever popular spiritual, the ladder Jacob saw in his dream was not “Jacob’s ladder.” He did not build a ladder to God and climb that “stairway to heaven” by a succession of good deeds and proper prayer. (Most scholars favor “stairway,” thinking of the ziggurats that were so common in the religions of the ancient Middle East.)
No, God built a stairway down from heaven to earth and then, standing atop that stairway, rolled down incredible blessings that shaped the rest of Jacob’s life. I love the way Kathleen Norris puts in her delightful book, Amazing Grace. “God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in the open country, is not to strike him down for his sins, but to give him a blessing.”
What a blessing it was! Be sure to focus on that—not the special effects of this spectacular vision, the ladder/stairway, the angels going up and down, but the blessed word of God to this unbelieving sinner. Yes, unbelieving sinner—not only has Jacob shown a total lack of moral integrity, but also a lack of any real trust in God. In his egocentricity, he grabbed what God had promised to give him.
But God makes his promise anyway, again. God had already spoken part of the promise to Abraham and Isaac. Now God lets it be known that he will still keep his promise to and through a wretch like Jacob. And God makes it even more personal than ever. Not only will Jacob’s descendants inherit the ground on which he slept, but God will also be with Jacob in whatever happens and will never forsake him.
Make sure that your congregation gets the Gospel message here. This story shows us that God will speak and keep his promise to us, not because we deserve it, but because his is the way of forgiveness and restoration. We may be undeserving and unlovable, but we are so important to God that he lets down the ladder and comes to us. We simply do not understand the Bible and the Christian faith based on it if we do not understand this. It is the story of God invading the very center of our existence because he wants to find us, speak to us and bring us back to himself.
Jacob responds to this vision of God’s amazing grace in typically Jacobean fashion. First, he bursts into a jubilant and honest confession of faith. “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Words that any one of us might speak—God is with us and we don’t know it. As I said at the beginning of this piece, you don’t have to feel close to God for God to be near you. You don’t have to reach out to God for God to come to you. And you don’t have to be a perfect person for God to bless you. Well said, Jacob.
Overwhelmed with fear and awe, he continued to confess his newfound faith. “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Was it? Or is this the ecstatic exuberance of a man who knows the reality of God for the first time and gives his subjective interpretation of his experience. I say that in the light of later history, when the Temple in Jerusalem became the house of God and when, later still, Jesus said, “I am the gate….” (More on that later.)
Suffice it to say that this was the first time in his recorded life that Jacob confessed his faith in the God of his forebears. As far as we can tell, he had no personal encounter with God before this. He’s been raised with the knowledge of the God of Abraham and Isaac and he had been told the promises. So, the words of Yahweh in this dream would not have been brand new to him. But his early story gives no evidence that his upbringing had taken hold of his heart. He knew all about this stuff, but God was just a word, not a living part of his life. Until now.
This was the beginning of his conversion. It’s not done yet, not by a long shot. He will continue to wrestle with God in his scheming deceitful way. Do we hear that in the verses immediately after the Lectionary lesson? In verses 20-22, he seems to be bargaining with God. In the vow he makes, there’s a conditional character to his confession: “If God will be with me and will watch over me… and will give me food and clothes, so that I return safely to my father’s house, then….” Three conditions, followed by three commitments. If God takes care of me, then….
Listen carefully to the “then:” “then Yahweh will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” Even after this magnificent revelation of God’s grace and glory, Jacob isn’t ready to give exclusive loyalty to Yahweh until Yahweh gives him what he wants. He is still managing his life by his own efforts—“this stone that I have set up will be God’s house.” Who does he think he is? And his willingness to give his whole life to the God who has given him everything is not there yet; it’s only a tenth of what God has given him.
Before we get up on our Pharisaical high horse and criticize, we would do well to look in the mirror. How often is our commitment conditional? How far along the road to conversion are we? How much do we still think we can control our own destiny, even the form of our worship? How much are we willing to give back to the God who has given everything to us?
Including his own Son. As you preach on this story, don’t fall into the old story-with-moral trap. The story is about Jacob, of course, but ultimately it is about the God who is there even when we don’t know it, feel it, experience it, or believe it. It is about the God whose grace invades our lives in awesome ways, especially in the person of Jesus, the ultimate Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It isn’t a stretch to preach Jesus from this story, because Jesus used this story to preach about himself. As he was recruiting Nathaniel to be one of his 12 apostles, Jesus alluded to this story when he said, “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (John 1:43-51).”
The important thing to catch in Jesus’ words to Nathaniel is the change of position that has taken place. God is no longer at the top of the ladder; he is at the bottom. He is here with us. He is clothed in the rough clothes of our humanity. He is no longer restricted to an awesome and otherworldly revelation of his glory. He is one of us. Here at the bottom of the ladder, he is the very gate of heaven (John 10).
So, as we close our message, we can assure our people and ourselves that God is here, that God wants to bless us, that grace and mercy are available for all our needs. If we will lie down quietly at the foot of the cross, resting our weary selves on the Rock of Ages, we will discover that this is the house of God, the very gate of heaven—not because we are holy people, but because Jesus is here.
That’s true wherever we go, however far we may feel from God, however afraid and lonely and guilty we may feel, even if we have wrestled with God and lost. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, even though I may not know it.
The old pre-Civil War spiritual, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” was a mixture of commitment and confusion. As I’ve said, it wasn’t Jacob’s ladder. He didn’t build it and he didn’t climb it. Jesus is Jacob’s ladder and we get to heaven by trusting him. Think of Jesus as the escalator who carries us into the presence of God. But there is also something admirable about that old spiritual, because it expressed the dedication of enslaved people to soldier on with Jesus in spite of their conditions. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross…. Sinner do you love my Jesus…. If you love him, why not serve him, soldiers of the cross.”
Kathleen Norris in Amazing Grace tells a marvelous story that helped me feel the power of Jacob’s experience with God. One day she was waiting at an airport, when her attention was captured by a young couple with a little baby. The baby was staring intently at passing people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried looking, he would respond with absolute delight, with the kind of whole body smile that only babies can give.
Norris writes, “It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become a gate of heaven. As I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt as awe-struck as Jacob, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted. And as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we’ve done” and see our face, a face he loves, even the two faced Jacob.
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