by Elaine Maust
Lent 2005: Great Journeys of the Bible
February 13, 2005
It was late. Dark really, when he stopped for the night. He had walked all day, and now alone in the dark, on a rocky hill, there was nothing to do but lay down and go to sleep. But before he did, Jacob looked around for something to make himself more comfortable. Nothing but stones. So he picked one up and using it for a pillow, settled down for the night. That’s when he had the dream.
But before you hear about the dream, you really must hear about how Jacob got himself out there in the first place on that rocky hill after dark.
Though Jacob and his brother Esau were twins (Genesis 25), Esau was born with two advantages because he was born first. In their time, it was as simple as that. First, he had a birthright, that made him senior family member. A little like the oldest in the royal family is heir to the British throne. And second, Esau would receive a blessing. Two things Esau had on his twin little brother.
From the time they were born, they never got along (Gen 25:22). The Bible says that even when their mother, Rebecca, was pregnant with them, they struggled inside her. But then, maybe they didn’t get along because they were so different (Gen 25:27-28). Esau was the outdoors type. He loved to hunt. The Bible calls him a “man of open country.” Jacob, on the other hand, was the quiet type. The kind of person who liked to stay around the house, or of course, in his case, around the tents.
And their parents didn’t help the matter – of the brothers not getting along, that is. They didn’t even try to hide that they had favorites. Isaac, the twins’ father, loved to eat wild game and Esau the hunter was his favorite. And the Bible says, “but Rebecca loved Jacob” (Gen 25:28).
Jacob may have been a quiet man, but he was sneaky. The kind of person… well, we might call him a snake in the grass. The kind of person you better keep your eye on, or you might get poisoned. That was Jacob. By the time he was in his forties (a relatively young age for that time), he had managed to trick his brother out of both his assets: his birthright one evening over dinner, and later his blessing.
Rebecca was in on the stolen blessing (Gen 27). She wanted to make sure her favorite son came out on top in the family, even if it meant lying and deception. This family could have easily won a spot on reality TV in 2005. They would do anything to get what they wanted.
Well, by the time we are up to today’s story, Esau is so unfuriated with Jacob that he decides to kill him (Gen 27:41). Out of respect, I guess, he decides to wait until his aging father is buried, then he’ll kill the liar.
Well, when Rebecca hears that her favorite boy is about to be killed, she goes back to her tricks again – or at least manipulates the situation and gets Jacob sent off back to her home town to look for a suitable wife. As he leaves, she tells Jacob, “When your brother cools off and forgets what you did (and when is that likely to happen?) and isn’t mad anymore, I’ll send for you” (Gen 27:45).
So that is where we find Jacob. The man who preferred to stay around the tents, out in the open country that his brother Esau loved. Jacob is on his journey to Haran. And it is dark. And he’s alone.
The Bible doesn’t give us a glimpse into Jacob’s feelings that night. What do you think he might have felt? Alone? Afraid? Angry? We don’t know. We do know that he laid his head down on that pillow that was as hard as a rock and fell asleep.
That’s when he had the dream. He dreamt that he saw a stairway to heaven. Imagine that! It was as if you could start walking and up you could go, right into heaven. One time I was on an escalator out of a subway that felt a little like that. It was so tall, it looked to me like it went on forever. Put a little steam on the top, and I could have imagined a stairway that went right up into the cloud.
But in Jacob’s dream, there weren’t any people on this stairway, going back and forth to work on the subway. There were angels going down and going back up. Angels streaming up and down and down and up this stairway, right up to God. That’s right. Up at the top of the stairway was God. We know that because God introduced himself with the familiar words, “I am the Lord” (v. 13). Like God said to Moses from the bush. Like Jesus said when he was arrested that night in the garden. “I am” (John 18:5).
And then, in that dream, God did a most surprising thing. God gave this man, who to hear his father and brother tell the story had swiped more blessings than he had coming to him already, God gave this man a blessing. And it was precious and gracious. It is as if God sings Jacob, that greedy rascal, a love song.
God said something like this: (Gen 28: 14-15)
You may be sleeping in the dirt,
but one day this dirt will belong to you and to your children.
You may be forty and childless,
but one day you will have more children and grandchildren
more than there is dust on this earth.
You may be just leaving home,
but your children and grandchildren will spread out
east and west and north and south.
You may be trying to accumulate blessings for yourself,
but this blessing is for all the people of the earth.
You may feel alone,
but I am with you.
You may feel afraid,
but I will watch over you wherever you go.
You may feel abandoned,
but I will not leave you
until everything I have promised has happened for you.
Then Jacob woke up. And he said, “God was here and I didn’t even know it!” (v 16) And he was afraid and he said, “This place is awesome!”
The next morning, he took the pillow stone and made a pillar of it. And he made a promise back to God. But the promise doesn’t swell with God’s loving abandon. It’s not the promise God made to Jacob. It’s Jacob trying to get what he can out of the situation, promise. He bargains with God. There are four conditions to Jacob’s promise. “If you are with me and watch over me on this journey I am taking…” (Gen 28: 20-22)
But even though his promise is a weak bargain, it has the seeds of honest commitment. You know why I say that? Because it involves his wallet. Now we are getting real. Let’s face it. The last time you bargained with God, did God even get a 1% promise out of the deal? Jacob offers 10%. That’s pretty impressive, I’d say.
Remember in my last sermon I said, “God is a mystery”? Well, here is one of the mysteries for me. Why did God choose Jacob? Seems like there should have been someone good-hearted to whom God could have given his vision. Wasn’t there an Esther or a Noah or a Ruth or a Job around somewhere? Someone who was, okay, maybe not perfect, but at least trying? Why did God appear to this cheating son of a liar and offer him comfort and companionship?
But when I am honest, I could ask the same kind of question about myself. Why did God come to me? Why did God bother to come to an ordinary country girl from rural Mississippi and call me to a ministry that would bring me such joy and bless others? It’s amazing. And you should know that God didn’t call me because I showed particular promise. You could reference that with my elementary school teachers.
We are more like Jacob and Rebecca than we’d like to admit. We have lied when it has been convenient. We have cheated when it improved our test scores. We have manipulated the facts, hoping someone else would give us the respect we wanted. Should I go on? Should I list our sins, our fears, and our addictions? Can I say out loud that we have loved attention and work and our children and money and chocolate and football more than we have loved God? We could fairly question God’s judgment for loving us. Lord, have mercy on us!
That incongruence, that impossibility to understand God’s grace, has become one of the most beautiful parts of this story for me. If God appeared to Jacob as he was and God has come to me just as I am, then I can come to God, today just as I am.
In the book of John, chapter 1, we have the story of Philip bringing his friend Nathanael to Jesus (v. 43-51). When Nathanael heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, he said, “Nazareth, can anything good come from there?” Philip said, “Come and see.”
In the account that follows, Jesus and Nathanael meet and Jesus tells Nathanael – a descendant of this Jacob from today’s story – Jesus tells him that he already saw him when he was under a fig tree (and by implication heard what he said about nothing good from Nazareth). Then Nathanael makes a remarkable confession of faith (v. 49).
And Jesus says (v. 50), “You think that’s a big deal?” And then Jesus tells Nathanael this story from Genesis with Jacob and the stairway. Well, a version of it, at least. Listen to this (v. 51).
Just three years after his conversation with Nathanael, Jesus, “The Son of God… the King of Israel,” died. He dies for all the swindlers and the liars and the cheats. He dies for the addicted and the ashamed and the broken. He dies for the Jacobs and for me and for us all.
And as Jesus dies on the cross, it becomes the stairway for us, into heaven. From the top of that cross stairway, we see a love that says, “I will not leave you.” Jesus made the connection between people and heaven, which was only a vision in Jacob’s time, a reality for us.
And so during Lent, during these forty days of repentance, we wake up like Jacob did. We look around like he did when he woke up, and we say, “God is here and I didn’t even know it. This is awesome.” But we are going to go a step further than Jacob. We are going to tell the truth about ourselves to God and to others this year during Lent. We will confess our sins, tell the truth, and ask for God’s grace and others’ forgiveness.
On Wednesday night, I went to the Ash Wednesday service at St. Paul’s Episcopal and was deeply moved by the Holy Spirit. That night with the ashes pressed into our foreheads, we shared the Lord’s Supper and we sang “Just As I Am.” And I thought about Jacob. God came to him, just as he was, to offer him presence and promise. And that gave me more courage and hope to come to God, just as I am.