The heroes of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible were all flawed human beings. Not a one of them was perfect But few of them were more imperfect than Jacob.
Jacob and his brother Esau were twins born to Isaac and Rebekah. Although they were twins, from what we are told in the stories, they couldn’t be more different. Esau was their father Isaac’s favorite son, and Jacob was Rebekah’s favorite son. Esau was born first, and in their society that was an important distinction. There were many things that the firstborn son received the others did not. When your “older brother’ beats you into the world by mere minutes, it would naturally be hard to take. With his mother’s help, Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of the birthright belonging to the firstborn son. In the next major story in the Jacob saga, Jacob tricked his father into giving him, Jacob, the blessing that belonged to Esau, the blessing that was reserved for the oldest son. Naturally, Esau was furious when he found out, and their mother Rebekah decided it was time for Jacob to go find a wife—a wife from a country far away. It was their excuse for Jacob leaving town, but really he was fleeing for his life.
This is where our text for today picks up, with Jacob fleeing for his life . . . forced to run away from home by the consequences of his greed and duplicity. And so “Jacob is on the lam between a place where he is no longer welcome and a place where he has never been.”
Our scripture is Genesis 28:10-19a
Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. He reached a certain place and spent the night there. When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there. He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it. Suddenly the Lord was standing on it and saying, “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 become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”
When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven. After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. He named that sacred place Bethel.
After hearing this story, and depending on your age, you are now either humming “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to heaven.” So I’ll let you get that out of your system….
Okay, so let’s back up to when he lay down to sleep. It must have been a troubled sleep that Jacob fell into. Even if his conscience wasn’t gnawing at him, that stone pillow must’ve been a pain in the neck. Jacob goes to sleep, certainly not expecting to encounter God during the night, in a dream. If he’d known, he might have tried to stay awake. I would, if I were in his shoes. I’d be drinking double espresso to keep from meeting God in my dreams. I’m betting that Jacob doesn’t want to hear from God right now. He doesn’t want to hear a word of judgment. He doesn’t want to hear a pronouncement of guilt.
And he doesn’t get one. Instead he gets a promise: “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 all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”
Now, after hearing about Jacob’s misdeeds—swindling his brother out of the birthright, then lying to his father to steal the blessing as well—you might have been expecting a different response from God. I would like at least a “turn from your wicked ways and then” kind of message. But instead Jacob gets the promise of land and descendants and blessings. It seems to me like God is rewarding bad behavior.
I don’t know Jacob’s heart. Maybe fleeing for his life changed him. As he laid down to sleep, alone, covered only by a stolen blessing, maybe he realized, for the first time, that the ends do not justify the means. As he tossed and turned, the threats of his brother ringing in his hears, maybe he realized, for the first time, that he was reaping what he sowed. Then again, maybe he didn’t. But the Bible is like life in this way. I don’t get to decide who gets grace . . . which is frustrating when I look at others, but comforting when I look at myself.
Still, that’s not really the part of the story that interests me. What interests me is Jacob’s response. Jacob wakes up and says, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
This whole service we’ve been talking about God being in this place—not just this place, here in the sanctuary, but the place where you are. Your living room, your bedroom, your kitchen table—wherever you are, I ask you to repeat after me:
God is in this place.
God is in this place.
You’ve known this, of course. You’ve always known this. You’ve always known that God doesn’t reside in this sanctuary to the exclusion of others. Still, there is something special about this place, right? I mean, something special happens when we’re all together. Of course, something special can also happen when we’re all together digitally. I may be sitting here looking at my phone, but I’m also seeing in my mind’s eye the Zechmans over there and AnnElissa and Linda and Sally and Harris and John and Andrea and Lee Taylor (and where Jane used to be) and Bob and Mary and Lynne and Jim and Vicki and Jenny and Josh and the visitors who come in late, sit in the back, cry through the service, and sneak out before they have to greet anyone. I see you. And I feel you. And I know that we are still worshiping together. God is in this place.
When Jacob awoke from his dream he took a stone and he set it upright and he anointed it with oil so that it could stand as a testament to God’s presence. I’m going to ask you to do the same. When you go for a walk this week, look for a stone that you can set on your kitchen table. Anoint it with oil and claim the truth that Jacob claimed: God is in this place. But unlike Jacob, let’s say “I know it.” God is in this place, and I know it.
God will always be found where there is pain. That’s not the only place God is found, certainly; but we can be assured that God is there . . . in every place of grief, in every place of loneliness, in every mess we’ve made from our selfish choices, in every crisis we had nothing to do with creating. God is here. God is in this place.
Remember that in Jacob’s dream, God isn’t the only one in this story. There are also messengers from heaven—angels we might call them—moving in the space between earth and heaven. We have those, too. As Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” The medical professionals who are working horrible hours with insufficient personal protection equipment. The nurses and doctors who have come out of retirement to help. The hospital orderlies and the grocery store clerks and truck drivers and lots of low wage workers who stay on the job because we need them to. The people who are checking on their neighbors. The tens of thousands of people on Facebook who join compassion groups in order to help people they don’t even know. They are messengers going up and down that ladder. And so are we.
There are others. Other messengers. Others with messages to us from God. Keep an eye out for them. Watch for the moments of grace in your isolation.
I am praying for you—in general and by name.
God is in this place. Our task is to know it.