July 20, 2014
William G. Carter
Last week, we heard of Jacob, the Heel-Grabber. From his brother Esau, he slyly took the rights and privileges of being the first-born child, acquiring them for a bowl of lentil soup. When she was pregnant, God had hinted to their mother Rebekah that this would happen, that the older of the twins “would serve the younger.”
And so it came to pass, years later, that with Rebekah’s help, Jacob would swindle Esau out of the family blessing. She had remembered God’s Word to her, that the “older would serve the younger,” so she did what she could to make it happen. Disguising Jacob as his hairy, smelly brother, and preparing her blind husband’s favorite meal, she sent Jacob to father Isaac where he received the family blessing, a blessing intended for Esau, who by all accounts was a dim bulb.
Again, this is some family. Bill Moyers calls them a mother-and-son team of con artists, who take advantage of a blind man and his first-born son. Isaac blessed Jacob, who promptly skedaddled out of there. When Esau discovered what happened, he let out a howl and began to plot his brother’s death.
To save Jacob’s life, Mother Rebekah said to Father Isaac, “I’m getting tired of these Hittite women around here. You know, Esau married a couple of them. They are driving me crazy and I don’t want Jacob to marry someone like that. Let’s send off Jacob further away to meet a nice girl.” And here is what happened next:
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 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.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
One of my first true-blue spiritual experiences came when I was seventeen years old. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and I was feeling like a surly teenager. Escaping to my bedroom, I closed the door, put on my headphones, and listened to some music. It was a new recording of pianist Keith Jarrett, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and the great bass player Charlie Haden, who passed away just last week. They were playing with a German string orchestra, and I had not yet heard the album.
I laid down on my bed and closed my eyes. Maybe I was tired, or still working on the previous day’s turkey, or just weary of my family, but pretty soon I was near the boundary between sleep and wakefulness. As I listened to the shimmering music, I felt like I was lifted into the air. It was something like a trance, except I was completely alert. There was peace and tranquility, even though I had been on the outs with my family. Somehow I was lifted and then brought down gently. As the music concluded, I felt like a different person.
Have you ever had a moment like that? Call it a spiritual moment. A moment that feels like you were in the presence of God, or at least the presence of angels? It’s my observation from years as a pastor that these moments can come to any of us. They are not restricted to Bible characters from a time long ago. No, they can come here and now. They can catch us unaware. At least that’s what happened to me, in a bedroom with blue striped wallpaper in a housing development in a small town.
So we hear Jacob wake from a dream and say, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”
According to the stories of Genesis, this is his first actual encounter with God. His mother heard God speak directly to her in a prophecy about her twins (25:23). His father had been directed by God to move around, first to some well-watered Philistine land and then off to Beer-Sheba. God spoke to Isaac in each place. Now God finds Jacob – and speaks the same family promises, personalized for him and a new generation. Jacob marks the spot and calls it “Bethel,” literally, “house of God.” He sets it up as a shrine and marks it as a special place where he can return.
Now, I never did name my bedroom with the blue striped wallpaper even though I returned there every night. But here’s what I did do: remember that record album? I played it album over and over again, trying to repeat that spiritual experience. In fact, I played it again yesterday morning while I was working on this sermon. The moment never came back. Not from playing that recording, at least.
I have had other moments and other places when God surprised me. I remember a vista on Lower Wolfjaw Mountain in the Adirondacks, a farmhouse in the Appalachian hills northwest of here, a red rock canyon in New Mexico, a stone chapel in the North Sea surrounded by noisy sheep. Those are the moments I remember. As you turn over the stones of memory, you may be able to remember some too. As God said to the prophet Isaiah, “The earth is my footstool.” I take that to mean sometimes God touches down.
That was Jacob’s experience. It is an extraordinary moment. He had no reason to expect it. Jacob is not a person of prayer. He does not seem the least bit religious. And his character is anything but good and upright. The Bible seems strangely indifferent to all of his lying and conniving. Like his mother, Jacob reaches for what he believes is his. And then God finds him – and declares, that indeed, it is all his. God says,
I am the God of grandfather Abraham and father Isaac.
I am the God of your children and grandchildren.
This land is their land.
Every family on earth shall be blessed by your family
And I am with you.
Let me say it again: this is God’s Word to a thief. It is the essence of grace. God speaks kindly to this conniving schemer, withholding all punishment, restraining all accountability. God never says to Jacob, “You had better shape up if you want anything out of me.” Oh no; God simply gives him the promise of Abraham and honors the blessing of Isaac . . . because Jacob is part of his family.
It reminds me of a confusing moment in the recent history of Lackawanna County. Some years ago, one of our politicians got in trouble with the law. I know, you’re going to say “which one?” This was a United States congressman. He was brought up on federal charges of racketeering and conspiracy. A local Catholic priest came to his aid and announced, “We are going to throw him a parade to show our support.” All of this was confusing to me, since I was still relatively new to the area. But it was explained on Channel 16 one night. A roving reporter interviewed a parade-goer who said, “He may be a crook, but he’s our crook.”
His name might as well be Jacob. That’s how the God of Abraham and Isaac regards Jacob the heel-grabber. God says, “He may be a crook, but he’s all mine.” All mine. God appears to him, fully aware of what Jacob has done yet never rubbing his nose in it. For one thing, God is not done with Jacob yet. Oh no, anything but!
In the moment, it is enough for God to come. God interrupts his escape from his brother. God finds him in a moment of vulnerability, revealing there are angels coming down to earth to provide what the earth most needs, and there are angels ascending to heaven to lift earth’s aches and pains to the place where they can be healed. We call it “Jacob’s Ladder,” but actually it is a holy circulatory system, where the power of God is coming and going all the time.
That’s what Jacob sees. “Surely God is in this place,” he says. It’s a way of saying, “God is in this life of ours, and we did not know it.”
Like that woman who lost her home in a tornado. Her house has no roof, the laundry is strewn around the surrounding fields, her house cat is missing. But she cries tears of joy as she describes how people from a faraway church have shown up with hot food, fresh water, and clothing for her children. “I don’t think God was in that terrible storm,” she says, “but God came to me in the gifts of these people.” Then she adds, “I never expected that.”
Just exactly what kind of God are we talking about? Maybe you noticed that the story reveals a great deal. Here are a few things I learned anew by reflecting on this story:
· God slips into the shadows just out of our sight.
· God can come to us cloaked in our dreams, somewhere on the border of sleep and consciousness.
· God sees what we do, and what we don’t do.
· God knows the future, but allows us to live our lives here and now.
· God does not control us, but somehow works out the purposes of heaven through us.
· God stands above our family squabbles, personal vendettas, and human conflicts.
· God is kinder to us than we deserve, promising Jacob the moon -- and then some.
· God desires that we flourish – that we live and flourish – notice how God says, “your offspring will be like dust of the earth … like grains of sand …” That’s really generous.
· One more observation: God is not bound to a single place. In the words of today’s Psalm, “Where can I flee your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” And to keep going, if I lie down in Bethel and put my head on a rock pillow, you are there . . . and I did not know it.
Do you know what we have here today? The storyteller of Genesis is teaching us about God. I think that is a primary purpose of this story. In grand Jewish fashion, the storyteller is holding two contradictory truths about God in tension: (1) we don’t know where God is, and (2) God is here. When we discover where God is, we can name it and mark it. Yet that doesn’t mean that God is there.
We can set up the altar, burn the incense, lift up our prayers, and trust that God hears us. Yet at that moment, God’s ladder may be set up somewhere else, with angels ascending and descending over there. And in this way, we are reminded that we don’t manipulate God to show up on cue. True-blue spiritual moments are not manufactured by laser-beam light shows, throbbing music, or smoke and mirrors. That’s show biz, not the Holy One of Israel. God is free to come and go, just like his own angels descending and ascending.
So what we have today is a story to prepare us for the moments when God shall come. We can’t predict them, but we can prepare for them. We can open our hearts, turn off the alarm systems, and pray for eyes to see and ears to hear when God shall come. We ask that we might be ready, that we wouldn’t miss it.
A few years ago, I found myself in Sedona, Arizona. Ever been there? Striking rock formations right out of an old Road Runner cartoon – I think they filmed those cartoons in Sedona. The new-age types love that place. They claim it is full of spiritual energy, that there is a vortex there between heaven and earth. I don’t know about that. One gift shop after another was hawking crystals, incense, and esoteric junk of all kinds.
But then our family made its way to the Chapel of the Holy Cross. If you’re ever in Sedona, don’t miss it. The chapel is built around a huge steel cross that looks like it has been thrust down into a red rock cliff. Many years ago, a woman I know went there as a tourist with her husband. They thought they were sight-seeing; in truth, their souls were still mending. It was a year or so after losing a son who died three days after he was born.
The tour guide explained about the chapel. She told about the wealthy woman who commissioned it with some guidance from architect Frank Lloyd Wright. That was interesting, and the woman sat in a pew and gazed at the extraordinary landscape through the chapel windows. Then it happened – she had a vision of Jesus Christ. He beckoned to her - and he smiled. She gasped, started to weep, and then he was gone.
“It was the last thing we expected,” she said, “and just what we needed.” After all these years, when she tells the story, her eyes still fill up with tears, her heart still full of deep joy.
“Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” The theologian Belden Lane asks, “How do you know a place is a holy place?” Did a miracle once happen there? Are there worship services in that location? What makes it a sacred place?
His answer is simple and profound: the holy place finds you. The sacred place is not chosen, it chooses. God chooses to find you there. This may happen only once, never to be repeated. But when God comes, you know it. And after you stand and wipe your eyes, you continue on your journey – and you are a different person.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.