SCRIPTURE – Gen. 28:10-22 – Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. ”
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord 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. ”
Wake Up with Jacob sermon series
#3 – Dreams of Upward Mobility
July 8, 2012
We continue our sermon series this morning looking at the life of Jacob, one of the forefathers of faith and supposed heroes of the Hebrew scriptures. When we left Jacob last week, he wasn’t acting particularly heroic. In fact, he was running away from a conflict that he started rather than face the consequences of his actions. Jacob came out of the womb grabbing at his brother’s heels, and ever since then he’s been grabbing at his brother’s possessions: the promises of the birthright and the promise of their father’s blessing. Jacob has now stolen both of these things from his brother Esau, and their mother Rebekah has sent Jacob away to Haran rather than face Esau’s murderous rage. So, Jacob is on the lam.
This is a pivotal moment in the story of God’s people. Going all the way back to Ch. 12, God made a promise to
Abraham to bless him, to make his family into a great nation, and to lead him and his people into God’s land. So Abraham left Haran and headed toward the land God had promised. But now, Jacob is leaving that land and heading back to Haran. The forward progress of God’s blessing has not only been halted with Jacob, it’s regressing. For the first time, the bearer of God’s promise is going into exile, with no guarantees that he’ll ever return. God chose to nest this promise in a living, breathing, fallible human being, and that comes with consequences. The land, the central piece in God’s promise, is at risk, because the promise keeper is running away from it. How will God make good on this promise, when it rests on a liar and a deceiver who is fleeing from the promised land and going into exile?
The scripture tells us that when Jacob reached a certain place, he stopped for the night. Names are important in the Bible, both for people and for places. So when a place doesn’t have a name, it’s not really a place at all. More truthfully, it’s a place in between places. You’ve probably stopped at places like that on trips. I remember when I used to drive from Bloomington, Ill., to Chicago, I would sometimes stop for gas in Paw Paw, Ill. There was nothing there but a rest stop. Barely even paved roads. No restaurants, no hotels. It was a place in between places. We know those kinds of places in our lives, don’t we? A place in between places. Like Jacob, it’s a place where we might be running from what’s behind us and we can’t see where we’re going. God doesn’t seem to be around anywhere, and there aren’t any road signs to direct us. It’s a spiritual Paw Paw. A place in between places.
Jacob stops to rest here, and finds nothing more comforting than a rock for a pillow, which is probably all the comfort he deserved. While sleeping, he has this famous dream about a stairway or ladder with angels going up and down. As we know, dreams can often be a manifestation of deep subconscious issues, bringing to the surface things that are stirring within us. Leigh said one time in my sleep I cried out, “Nacho man, come back!” I’m not sure what deep subconscious issue I was dealing with, but it sounds like it involved a trip to Taco Bell.
Jacob had more serious issues that were bubbling up in his dreams. Professor Gerry Janzen says this story is actually a continuation of Jacob’s struggling. First he struggled with Esau in the womb, then over the birthright, then over the blessing. Jacob’s life has been defined by struggle, and now, during his exile, he’s beginning to struggle with God. You see, Jacob was the kind of person who liked to be in control, because when he was in control, he could manipulate the situation to extract the outcomes he wanted. He could prey upon his brother’s impulsiveness to swindle his birthright, he could take advantage of his father’s weaknesses to garner a blessing. When Jacob was awake he was in control, even if having control meant struggling with those around him.
So God comes to Jacob at the only time when he’s not in control: while he is asleep. It’s the only time of day when Jacob has no say over what happens. Janzen says that this dream of Jacob’s represents the yearning in his soul for a connection with God, a connection that Jacob has been resisting during the waking hours. But now, Jacob has nowhere else to turn. He is on the run, he is in exile, and he controls nothing, not even his own future. Sometimes it is when we are at our lowest points that we are most open to hearing God’s voice inside and around us.
That voice has something very important to say to Jacob. First, God reiterates the promise he had made to Abraham and Isaac: the promise of land and offspring and blessing. But then, God adds something else to the blessing, specifically for Jacob: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” In total, God makes nine promises to Jacob here. That seems a bit over-the-top, doesn’t it, especially considering Jacob hasn’t done much to deserve it. How about, “Hey Jacob, I’m keeping an eye on you. You get a do-over…this time. Clean up your act, OK?” That’s about all Jacob deserves. Instead, he gets this lavish blessing poured out on him.
You see the irony here in God’s words? Jacob, who has failed miserably to be his brother’s keeper, just like Cain failed Abel, is now told by God, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Those words directly address what had to be Jacob’s greatest fear: abandonment. None of us want to feel abandoned. And when we do, there’s no feeling like being found again. Why do you think dogs get so excited every time you come home? They’ve been found! They haven’t been forgotten! “I am with you.” That’s the symbolism of the angels descending the stairway, and it foreshadows another time when God came down to earth in the form of a baby called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us,” and when Jesus told his disciples right before he ascended into heaven, “I am with you always.” It’s the promise of God’s presence.
This is hugely significant for Jacob and signals a major turning point in his life. Up until this point, he probably believed he was traveling alone. His brother wanted to kill him, his mother had sent him away. He had nothing. But this dream reminded him he is never, ever alone, and it snaps Jacob out of his life-long stupor. When he wakes up, he acknowledges the sacredness of this place in between places; he realizes God is even here, even in this place with no name. There is no place we can go where God is not with us, and God’s promise of keeping us and watching over us knows no boundaries. For anyone in who feels like they’ve been in exile, the words of Psalm 121 are like being found. Listen to the repetition of God’s actions:
I lift up my eyes to the hills— where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who keeps you will not slumber; indeed, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD keeps you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will keep your life; the LORD will keep your coming and going both now and forevermore.
It’s important to recognize that up until this point in the story, we’ve been given absolutely no clue that Jacob has any kind of relationship with God. In fact, you could argue the exact opposite, that Jacob has no interest in God. Jacob has built relationships on the utilitarian qualities of the other person, on what the other person can do for him, and frankly, he has no use for God. What can God offer him? But now, Jacob has this window-rattling realization of God’s presence and protection. He sees the benefits of believing in God and takes full advantage of them, because taking advantage of things is still in his blood.
But he also does something else that we haven’t heard before: Jacob the promise-stealer makes a promise of his own. “The Lord shall be my God,” he says, which marks an important transition. Up to this point, Yahweh has been known as the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac. For the first time, Jacob is acknowledging that Yahweh is the God of Jacob. “Yahweh shall be MY God.”
Now, he IS still Jacob, so his promise comes with a bunch of conditions. “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I may come to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” That’s a lot of “ifs”, a lot of conditions to put on God. That may strike us as more than a bit presumptuous, but we’ve got to start somewhere! In the midst of his running away, this is Jacob’s first step toward God. For some of us, our first step toward God was into this sanctuary, or it was a hushed, anxious prayer that we didn’t know would be heard, or it was an acknowledgment that we wanted something more in life. Every one of us has taken a first step in faith. After all that Jacob has done, did we ever think he would actually trust someone? Could it be there is still hope for the deceiver, still hope for the one who had no visible relationship with God? Is there hope for people like that in our lives today?
As this part of the story ends, Jacob is still in exile. He’s still running from Esau, and running to his uncle Laban, another seedy character we’ll hear about next week. But the nature of Jacob’s running has changed. No longer is he running scared or running alone. He’s not running from something. He’s running to something, or better yet into something, into the promise made to him by God, trusting that God will not leave him until God has done what God has promised. That’s a vow we can all claim as our own; for we are here this morning because we have given our lives to the One who descended the stairway and dwelt among us, the one called Emmanuel, God with us.