Dreams, Memories and God’s Presence
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On July 20th, 2014
Today I continue my sermon series on the stories in the book of Genesis by focusing on the character of Jacob and the dream he has of a ladder of angels coming down from heaven. Last Sunday, we read the story of how Jacob, the second born twin and his mother’s favorite, convinced his hungry brother Esau to trade him his birthright (Esau’s privilege as firstborn) for a pot of lentil stew. Between that story and the one we’re about to read, Jacob, with his mother Rebecca’s assistance, also snookered Esau out of a special blessing from his father by covering himself in animal fur and deceiving Isaac, who was old and blind at the time, into thinking that he was Esau. Needless to say, when Esau showed up and his father told him that the special blessing had already been given, that didn’t go over well. So as our story for today begins, Jacob, with his mother’s encouragement, is on the run, before his angry brother Esau can catch him—on the run back to the land of his ancestors, Haran—where he will begin a family.
We pick up today with a story of an encounter Jacob has on his way.
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. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’
Last Sunday, before I read the scripture passage for that day about how Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of stew, I asked you to think about which of the two characters with whom you would most identify: would it be Esau or Jacob? Then, in a sermon which focused on the meaning of baptism, I talked mostly about how we are too often like Esau—attempting to trade our baptismal birthright as children of God called to responsible living—for the sake of short term appetites: the easy sarcasm, the satisfying retort, the angry grudge. All of them satisfying in the moment but engaged in without an eye to the future consequences. I went on to say that, unlike Esau, we can’t trade away our birthright as children of God—a birthright we all have, baptized or not—even if we live as if that status is unimportant—because that status is based in God’s grace—God’s initiative, not our own.
Today we focus on Jacob. He is running for his life from a furious Esau because he has stolen both birthright and blessing from his brother, and he’s done it by disguising himself and outright lying to his old blind father, Isaac. To put it mildly, Jacob is not a sympathetic character.
With the news headlines coming from the southwestern border of the U.S., it is worth noting that Jacob is a refugee, a young man who has been sent away by his mother to avoid violence. We cannot draw easy parallels between Jacob and the children who are coming across our borders, though, because as Barbara Brown Taylor points out, he is there because of his own actions. He is in a “limbo of his own making.” He is not a vulnerable young child. He has created his own problems.
His mother Rebecca is in a limbo of her own making, too. After all her attempts to advance Jacob’s standing, to manipulate matters so that he gets dominance, she now has sent him away to protect his life. Ostensibly, he has gone to Haran, where Rebecca’s people live, to find a wife. But the truth is plain. This is Rebecca’s way of getting Jacob away from an enraged Esau. Jacob needs to get out of Dodge, to be somewhere else for a while, somewhere safe, and it is her hope that this somewhere else can lead to a good and fruitful life for her beloved son.
When I think about Jacob out there in the desert with a rock under his head, lying on the cold, hard ground; when I think of his mother Rebecca starting across the desert with tears in her eyes, hoping that all will be well when Jacob gets to the home of her brother Laban, all I can think of is the old saying, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”
Jacob, on the run between a troubled past and an unknown future, comes upon a “certain place” and finally feels safe to rest for a time. When the text says, “a certain place” what it means that it is no place at all of any particular significance. At least not up until that time. Jacob simply cannot go any further and the sun is setting, so he decides to stay there for the night. He has left in a hurry so he has nothing to comfort him, no blanket, no tent. He is all alone in a rocky place, so he gathers some stones to place around his head for protection and he begins a night of fitful sleep.
Jacob does not lie down with prayers. Up to this point in the narrative, Jacob has given little thought to God. Oh, he’s had people ask God to bless him. He’s had blessings pronounced over him. But in his conversations with his father, Jacob always said, “Your God,” not claiming Isaac’s religion or Isaac’s God or Isaac’s faith as his own.
Jacob is a little like young adults before and after him who have found themselves on their own for the first time and who have questioned whether their parents’ faith is something they can claim or not. As the story begins, Jacob cannot be called a man of faith, or even a religious seeker. Up to this point, he’s acted as if he alone is responsible for making things happen—as if there is no larger divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may—as if it is all on him. So he closes his eyes without a thought, without a prayer. But God will find Jacob. As one commentator said, “God is not without experience in handling hard cases.”
Lest we think that this story is just about a young adult coming to faith or his or her own experience of God, it’s worth pondering how people at every stage of life can begin to think that it’s all on us. The seemingly endless to do list—what of it get done, what doesn’t get done, what happens with the rest? The battle with an addiction, the daily challenge to be kind and compassionate, the relationship difficulty, the problems at work or at school… The notion that it’s all on us is an easy one to fall into.
The way God reaches Jacob is through an extraordinary dream that causes him to reflect on all that has been going on in his life. He has been scheming and struggling his whole life. And for what? He has been running. And to where? All of this activity, all of this manipulation, and to what end? He is fearful, anxious, and I’ll bet that he has more than a bit of a guilty conscience.
The dream catches Jacob when he is still, when he is in the vulnerable posture of sleep. Sleep is a way we let down our guard, whether we want to or not. That sort of vulnerability is sometimes the only way God can reach us. The dream Jacob has allows him to see the larger spiritual picture of God’s activity in the world and in him. In the dream, Jacob sees a ladder or staircase leading up to and down from heaven and on that staircase, divine beings, angels, are in constant motion, going up and down between heaven and earth, carrying out God’s work in the world.
Up until that point, Jacob has assumed that he is all alone in that place -all alone in life, too- but the dream alerts him to the fact that he is not alone. His resting place, which is of no importance at all in the larger scheme of things, is full of busy angels with a full time job of making the kingdom of earth more like the kingdom of heaven.
Imagine that. Just imagine it. Because it is a dream that invites us to imagination. Imagine, just imagine that God really is at work in the world. A world where planes get shot down, and children are killed, and families fight, and people are shot. Imagine that, God at work in the world.
When God pulls back the veil and allows Jacob to see this activity which is going on around him and all of us all the time, it is meant to be a life-changer, it is meant to reach the heart of one who has not yet claimed God as his own. God means to get Jacob’s attention.
And God does. And this dream has gotten the attention of God’s people ever since, who have told this story and recalled how God reached out to a schemer, a runaway, a refugee; how God reached out in a place that up to that moment had held no particular importance, and revealed God’s glory in both that place and that person. Artists and poets have depicted that ladder of angels, that moment of epiphany. Hymn writers have urged us to climb, “Jacob’s Ladder” and with the runaway unbeliever to draw “Nearer, my God to Thee.”
If we can, for a moment, put ourselves in Jacob’s skin, we find that God seeks Jacob not just with a spectacular and awe-inspiring vision, but also with an intimate and personal assurance. Jacob, in that hard place, that rocky place, encounters God drawing near to him. One translation says that God stands beside him and makes this amazing promise. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
This promise does two things. For a young man on the run, a wanderer, the promise says that God is not limited to one place. God will go with Jacob as he leaves the land where he has grown up, and go with him into the unknown of his future. With this promise, God also establishes that the covenant relationship continues to a new generation. Now the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, is also the God of Jacob.
We spend a lot of time in larger church circles thinking about how faith gets passed on to the next generation—and sometimes we wring our hands about what we perceive to be our failures. Parents and pastors worry about youth and young adults and what happens when growing children are no longer strictly dependent on their parents. Have we done enough to give them a foundation of faith? Have we given them what they need when they head out on their way? Why is it that sometimes faith seems so unimportant to them?
The truth is that many youth and young adults question the faith their parents have handed down to them and that it is only natural that these questions should arise when they are on their own and beginning to think for themselves.
A deeper, more important truth, in this story is that God is still at work in every new generation, seeking, finding, and establishing relationships with those we have nurtured and sent out. God doesn’t wait for them to return, doesn’t give up when their lives take interesting or distressing turns. God keeps on showing up in unexpected places and seeks them where they are—in dreams and encounters and memories and people.
It has happened for generations, and will continue to happen. Perhaps it occurs on a mission trip like the one that seven of our youth and two adults are going on today. Trips like this are the occasion for youth to really see the activity of God as they hammer nails for Habitat or dish out food for the hungry, as they visit with those they help or as they. A baby is born to a twenty or thirty something and they begin to feel the same sense of responsibility towards that child as their parents felt toward them. They begin to think, “How can I share my faith? How can I take my baptismal pledge seriously?”
One of the ways young people encounter God is through other people, ordinary people. Ordinary people are used all the time as agents of God’s blessing. Sometimes people are aware of how God is at work in them and through them and sometimes not. The veil is mostly not drawn back, so we do not see the ladder of angels on a daily basis, but when we get glimpses of it we find so much divine activity in the world that we could never have imagined. We find that God’s blessing is not limited, not scarce.
That’s one of the messages God had for Jacob when he found him in that rocky place. See, Jacob had grown up in a family that believed blessing to be in limited supply. Esau was devastated when Jacob received his father’s blessing, because in that family, there was only one blessing to give. But here God announces an alternative idea, one that had been said before but never really grasped. God’s vision is of a world with enough blessing to go around, enough for everyone. “In you,” God says, “all families of the earth will be blessed.” Israelis and Palestinians, for instance.
These are challenging words for our generation to hear because we are, like Jacob’s family, people who are afraid that there isn’t enough blessing to go around. We are graspers, like Jacob, who scramble and scheme to get as much blessing as we can, assuming that if someone else has a blessing, it will come out of our allotment. We are people who cannot fathom the largeness of the God we worship and know only in part. If only the veil could be lifted back for each of us, if only for a moment we could see the larger spiritual activity going on all the time for us, around us, and for each person and part of God’s creation. The heavenly messengers go up and down and are constantly busy with God’s work in the world and all we can imagine is a God who is limited and whose blessings must be hoarded lest we find that a usurper has grabbed what is ours.
Maybe that’s why God keeps reaching out to new generations, and in new ways, so we keep being reminded that our relationship with God is not an exclusive one, and is not limited to a specific religious expression, a specific place, mode of worship, or type of person or lifestyle. God is God. God’s glory fills the world and all the people who are in it. God is active in all times and in all places. There is not place on the face of the Earth where God is not present.
That’s an epiphany Jacob had in that rocky place. God is real and in this place… and in every place, he realizes. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it! I had no idea!” Jacob then took to gathering up the stones he had placed around his head and stacking them up, placing the stone where his head lay on top. And he named that place Bethel, “the house of God.” A nowhere place came to be called the very house of God. When have you been a guest at the house of God and did not know it?
Of course, when I think of the house of God, I most often think on houses of worship, be they churches or synagogues, mosques or temples. Just yesterday, my daughter Rebecca, who is in India for two months, went to visit a couple of temples. She went to Bahai temple and a Hindu temple and was astounded by the beauty she saw and sense of peace she felt in both places. When I think of the house of God, I think of ornate and beautiful decoration, grand and glorious structures meant to convey the mysterious and holy nature of God. I have stood in simple white sanctuaries with no stained glass, no ornamentation at all, and in cathedrals with every kind of flag, banner, and ornamentation you can imagine in every corner of the room. I have preached in high pulpits and stood behind simple wooden podiums. I have walked into some churches where I’ve felt such a palpable sense of the presence of God that I just wanted to sit there for a while and soak it in.
Then there are the sacred places that are sacred to me because of what happened there. The church where I was baptized in northern Illinois. The church where I was confirmed, outside of Houston, Texas. The church where I was ordained in upstate New York. This place, which has been a thin space for so many of us, hosting so many holy moments. Where are your sacred places?
The story reminds us that, for all of our love of these set aside places, we cannot forget that the house of God is anywhere we can be, anywhere God finds us. This story also reminds us that for all of our striving to be right with God, God in the end will find us right where we are, and God will embrace us even in our brokenness.
This is good news, because you and I will act badly toward other people and there will be times when we will be certain that there is no God, or that if there is a God, God is through with us. But it will not be true. You and I will be in rocky places and we will think that God has abandoned us. But it will not be true. You and I will run away or deny our culpability, we will try to hide our shame because we believe that we are unacceptable. But it will not be true. God will be there in the rocky places. God will be with us in our running. God will be with us in and beyond our sense of shame.
Did you notice what is missing in this story? Where’s the big lecture? Where is God saying, “Uh-huh. Got yourself into a real mess, didn’t you? What did all your trickery and lying get you, Jacob? You’ve made your bed, now lie in it!” That was my response, but it’s not God’s response. God comes to Jacob, not with repercussions, not with judgment and finger-wagging. God seeks and finds Jacob and comes along right beside him and says, “Know that I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go, and will bring you back into this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
Imagine that! Grace! After everything Jacob has done, God comes with grace, a grace that will go with him and eventually lead him home. Jacob has many miles to go before that will happen. His actions and the actions of his mother, Rebecca, are not without consequences. The stolen blessing results in twenty years of exile for Jacob and Rebecca will never see her favored son again.
That is the tragedy of this story, how grasping for dominance tears a family apart and how big a price each of them pays for their desire to be on top. In the midst of this tragedy, however, God continues to reach out to Jacob and to let him know that he is not alone. God also provides for Jacob a kind of base camp there at Bethel, a place he can return to either physically or in his mind to remember that encounter with God, to remember that God is real and that God will be with him. And it will be a place that his heart cannot forget.
And it will be a place that his heart will not forget.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.