To begin with, let’s just say it: though he may be a biblical patriarch, as he’s portrayed in the book of Genesis, Jacob is also a crook; pretty much “a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist.” As Frederick Beuchner has written, Jacob was the kind of man who “was never satisfied. He wanted the moon, and if he’d ever managed to bilk heaven out of that, he would have been back the next morning for the stars to go with it.”
It’s all right there in those middle chapters of Genesis: how Jacob cheated his older brother Esau not only out of his rightful inheritance, but also out of their father’s blessing (and that came about because Jacob took advantage of his father Isaac’s old age and blindness; basically covering his neck and hands with goat hair so that to the old man Jacob would feel like his hairy brother and thus receive the blessing!). Later on there’s the account of how Jacob managed to out double-cross his double-crossing father-in-law Laban, so that Jacob ended up with most of Laban’s livestock, both of his daughters and almost everything else that wasn’t nailed down! I’ve got to say, friends; every time I return to this story in Genesis, I start to rethink how great a name-sake Jacob was for my oldest son!
Then again… lest we become too judgmental here, I would also submit to you that in the biblical story, Jacob represents those of us who, shall we say, weren’t born lucky; those who have had to work and scrape for every possible advantage in life. Think about it; Jacob quite literally came into the world at a disadvantage, because even though he was one of a set of twins, Jacob wasn’t, in fact, the first born child of Isaac and Rebekah. That honor, and all the blessings that traditionally go along with that, fell to Esau by virtue have having been born a few minutes earlier! And that pretty much set the pace for Esau; who, as he’s portrayed here, just sort of stumbled into everything good that ever happened to him!
So here’s Jacob, the “other” twin who’s immediately put in the position of having to struggle to make anything happen in his life! Never mind the fact that from the time he and “Big Brother” were in the womb, God had promised a blessing unto Jacob; life just never seemed to follow suit! Jacob grew up with the philosophy that one’s destiny was something to be seized, and by whatever means possible. As far as Jacob was concerned, in this world you call your own shots, and life is something to be held in the palms of your two hands to create and shape at will.
Now that we can understand! I love what Craig Barnes, a wonderful preacher and author, has written about this: “Some people have it made,” he says, “and others of us have to make it happen. [Most of us] are in the second group. Believing that nothing is naturally coming our way, we are determined to go out and make our dreams come true. And as Jacob [illustrates] for us, that is the best way in the world to really mess up your life.”
So what we’ve got here, then, is a classic scenario of self-determination run amuck; our story today, however, shows that God has a different idea.
As we pick up the reading, Jacob had just stolen Esau’s blessing; and in the face of Esau’s fury over this betrayal, Jacob is sent by his mother to the hill country of Paddanaram, where Laban lived, to stay until the heat’s off. And so off he goes, and along the journey, one night Jacob stops to sleep – perchance to dream – and what a dream it is!
Somehow, given all that he’d already done in his life, you’d have expected Jacob to have nightmares (!); instead, we’re told that in this dream was an incredible vision of a ladder reaching up into heaven, with angels moving up and down its rungs. And somewhere above this ladder was God, who in the midst of all this activity was speaking to Jacob directly, telling him incredible things not unlike that which God had told his grandfather Abraham years two generations before; that the land on which he was sleeping would belong to him and his descendants; that his children and their children would become as a great nation and a blessing to all other nations.
This vision is the renewal of a divine promise, the one first given to Abraham, then passed on to his son Isaac, and which now belonged to Jacob; and the clincher is this: in the midst of all of this heavenly movement God says, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Now, it’s at this point that we’re told that Jacob “woke from his sleep,” but I’m guessing he fairly well leapt from his slumber; and not merely from having slept with a stone pillow, either! You see, that’s the thing about dreams, especially when God’s involved: they have a way of letting you see things as they really are! And in a heavenly flash, as it were, Jacob started to see his mistake: his whole life he’d been fixated on “climbing the ladder of success,” if you will, but now he’s discovered that for all of his ability, and cunning and supposition of self-created destiny, in the end there are some things in life that cannot be gotten, but have to be given to you.
We know that to be true as well, don’t we? To quote Craig Barnes once again: “The most important dreams [in life] are things like being loved, having a child, beholding beauty, discovering your purpose in life, finding joy in your work, or finding a friend who will stick with you through anything, even the truth… [These] things for which we yearn most in life, come only as blessings from God. And blessings can only be received.”
It’s grace, pure and simple; an understanding that when all is said and done, you and I, we don’t always call the shots in this life, but in fact live as recipients of myriad blessings that come by the mighty and loving hand of God. It’s truly an “amazing grace;” so it’s no wonder that when Jacob arose from his slumber, his whole body and soul literally tingled from the power of it. In fact, we’re told that so filled up was he with this sense of wonder and fear and amazement, all Jacob could manage to say was, “Surely the LORD was in this place – and I did not know it!” In truth, that was quite a reaction; almost a bit clueless, actually! Given what we know about his family history, it probably should have been a little more obvious to Jacob that there were greater forces at work in his life than what appeared!
But then again, isn’t that often the way we react to God’s grace? And isn’t that way God always is?
In a hospital room, a dying man finds in the midst of his pain a peace that the world and all of its medical technology cannot provide.
“Surely, the LORD…”
In the thick of a heated conflict, suddenly words of love and healing overcome the anger and silence that had prevailed just a few moments before.
“Surely, the LORD…”
In a time of utter confusion, a bible gets randomly opened to a psalm that manages to offer clarity, touching a heart and changing a life in a process.
“Surely, the LORD…”
Offering up an awkward word of prayer in a moment of sheer desperation, but the result brings a unique and life-giving response more direct and profound than we’d ever thought possible.
“Surely, the LORD… was in this place!”
All of these, and so many more, times and situations in which we come face to face with the God who insists on giving us that which we yearn for the most in this life; even when we don’t know what it is we’ve been yearning for. This is God’s grace, experienced in such a powerful way that our lives become so much more than they ever were before. It’s a gift, freely given out of infinite love, but the truth is that most often, like Jacob, we’re so caught up in trying to drive our own destiny that we don’t even notice that it’s been God who’s been guiding our pathways all along!
As you know, this summer we’ve been taking a look at materials and curriculum for our children’s Sunday School program this fall, and of course, there’s a lot of criteria to be considered as we move forward on that. We want whatever we choose, for instance, to be solid in its presentation of the Bible and the precepts of our Christian faith, because we are seeking to nurture a strong faith for the next generation of believers; we also want it to be lively and exciting for the children, so that they want to learn more; and it wouldn’t hurt for it to be easily accessible for our volunteer teachers as well! Lately, I’ve been thinking about it, and I realize what I’m really hoping for is that in and through all the lessons and crafts and songs, ultimately our kids will come away knowing and appreciating that so much of what really matters in our lives is given to us solely by God’s grace. Love, acceptance, inner peace, a true sense of dignity and self-worth; strength for facing both life’s joy and its struggle: these are the golden qualities of life that we can neither create nor earn for ourselves, but which come by the same hand of God who shapes the days of our lives into something full of beauty and meaning. I dare say that it’s within such knowledge that the seeds of faith are sown; and I know it’s where we find our true purpose for living.
You might remember that wonderful scene in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” when the Olympic Runner Eric Liddell was trying in vain to explain to his sister why he was putting off becoming a missionary to run in the Paris Olympics? “God made me to be a missionary,” he says to her, “but God also made me fast. And when I run very fast, when I win, I feel God’s pleasure in it. Who am I to deny God’s pleasure?”
Well, beloved, God takes great pleasure in us as well, moving in and through our lives, giving us that which brings us our joy and purpose in living. We must never let our own “pride of determination,” if I may call it that, get in the way of what God is doing with us, with you and me even now; for to do so would be to deny God’s own pleasure in us!
It seems to me that you and I need to be about the business of “climbing Jacob’s ladder,” that is, setting the course of our lives in such a way that we come closer to God’s purpose for us as we go up on every rung, awakening to God’s presence and guidance in all the times and places of our lives with every step.
Yes, there’s some risk involved; it means we have to let go of some of the control to which we cling in this life; and it means that often we head in unexpected directions and go where we’d rather not go, all for the sake of God’s vision and intent. It’s not always easy for us to rely wholly on God’s grace; but we are given that divine promise that wherever we are on the journey, we’ll be able to look up and say, “Surely, the LORD is in this place.”
As God said to Jacob, “I will not leave you.” Wherever we are, beloved, surely the Lord will be there.
Thanks be to God, and AMEN!
c, 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry