He hadn’t had a moments’ rest from the beginning.
It began before they were born, as God was knitting them together in their mother Rebekah’s womb. It was then the struggle began. She could feel the wrestling. I had a call from a friend this week whose wife is pregnant with twins. She was hurting, uncomfortable, and finally got a little worried. A trip to the doctor and an ultrasound revealed one twin sitting on the other’s head. Just take it easy for a few days, the doctor said. They’ll work it out.
Rebekah didn’t have that luxury of medical technology. I wonder what it was like for her as they fought within her. Instead of her OB she asked God, early on, “If it is to be this way why do I live?” And God told her God was in the struggle, that these boys would be divided, two peoples, two nations, full of conflict.1 And it remained that way as they grew up in very different ways, in the same house but not really knowing each other. Esau came in from the field, famished from a day’s work and Jacob, before placing the stew in front of his older brother, made him promise to give up his birthright, that sacred blessing a father gives to his oldest son. Esau doesn’t care, he was hungry, and hastily agrees. He didn’t care. But Jacob did.
The conflict festered for years, and in the next chapters the scene shifts from the sons back to their father. Isaac settles into the land to which God directs him, and he becomes quite wealthy. This privilege causes conflict with his neighbors, who encourage him to move on, and he does, and he forms new relationships, tries to do the best he can. But Jacob remembered the promise Esau made, tricking his elderly father for that birthright, that blessing Esau cared so little about, that love Jacob wanted so desperately. He fools his father, who speaks great words of blessing to Jacob, words the people believed released the power of God to shape their lives from that point forward. This was to be the crucial moment of both Isaac and Esau’s life, and Jacob has supplanted him. And Esau hated his brother, the text says, and said to himself: “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”2
And so Jacob runs. Rebekah stuffs some clothes in a bag and shoves him out the door, sending him to her brother Laban. Run, my son, run away. Get away from here. You can’t be here anymore, this conflict is too much, take some time, get some space, until we all can breathe again. Run away, son, please run away. In an awkward section, inexplicably, Jacob returns to his father for another blessing, and then he runs, heading north, the text tells us from Beer-sheba, at the southern end of the land, toward Haran.
And so he runs, filled with anger and confusion, resentment and fear, unsure of when he was going to look up and see his brother coming after him in the distance. Even as his father was dying. And he ran, from everything he thought he was, from all he had previously known. I wonder if you have ever tried to run away like that. Not out of fear for your life, but running from who you were, who you were raised to be, the expectations heaped upon you. And Jacob, dusty, exhausted, finds some brush, a spot up high, covered, secure. He finally had a moment to rest. He laid his head on a stone and fell fast asleep.
And then he dreamed. A ladder, a stairway, set up on the earth, the top of it reaching up, he couldn’t even see the top of it, high up towards heaven. And the angels of God, the text says, were ascending and descending on it. This is a marvelous image, a beautiful and comforting one, the angels going up and down, back and forth, keeping communication open between heaven and earth. But the image is only the setup for God’s remarkable words. The promise is the heart of the passage. God reminds Jacob who God is: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” I am the God of your parents and your grandparents; I have claimed them before you. The land on which they live is the embodiment of that promise, and God makes clear that promise continues with Jacob. “The land on which you lie,” God says. The land that is holding you now as you run from all of your troubles, even there I am beginning the working out of my promises in you. Even this land, God says, “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 your and in your offspring.” In ALL that is happening, as desperate as it seems, God is STILL working out God’s purposes.
But it gets better. The promise is not only about the past, and the future, it is about the present. My guess is Jacob can’t see much farther than where he is right now. That is how it works in those times, it seems. When things are at their most desperate it is hard to even imagine a future. But God gives Jacob something to take with him. From all he has been through, all the poor decisions he has made and will continue to make – the rest of Genesis is about Jacob and Jacob’s family, his beloved son Joseph. Jacob dies at the very end of the 49th chapter. We have a long way to go here, and God knows it. So he makes Jacob this promise: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
I want to take a minute to let that promise sink in. It is extraordinary. And Jacob, despite his many faults, wakes up and seems to get it. “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!” God had been with him, but he had forgotten. And he had lived like he had forgotten. But Jacob seems to see how important this promise is, in its power to change him. What if he were to live as if it were true? How awesome is this place, he says as he stands, stretching out his neck and back – he has been sleeping on a rock, after all. This, he says, this is none other than the house of God. The ladder has demonstrated that, too. There is no, ‘down here,’ and ‘up there.’ God has brought God’s own self down, among us, infusing all of creation with God’s glorious presence, calling us to lives of faithfulness and courage in response. And he rose, and took that stone that was his pillow and marked that place, named it, blessed it, as a place of worship. Here I was reminded of what I know is true each moment.
And it also got me thinking about those times in our lives we need God to break in and remind us of God’s own presence. God is going to work regardless of our awareness of God’s presence. God doesn’t need us. But the less aware we are of this gracious presence, the less attention we are paying, the greater the likelihood we aren’t our best selves. So I wonder what this world would be like if we KNEW, really knew, that God was embracing us, that all of our surroundings were infused with God’s grace? I wonder what it would mean at the White House as the debt ceiling talks continue with all their relentless childish posturing. I wonder what it would mean to people sleeping under bridges, who some of you served last month and who our new officers will serve again down at Urban Ministries in 10 days. I wonder what it would mean if they knew God was holding them? What about all of us over at presbytery meeting on Tuesday, as people figure out how to live into the new openness in our ordination standards? What if we dared to believe God was at work shaping the church? As we thank God for the gift of another morning, as we lose our temper with the kids as we rush out the door, as we complain to coworkers, as we make decisions that impact other people, as we think about what we do with our time and our gifts and our money? Do you think we would make decisions differently if, like Jacob, in good moments and more difficult ones, that we could be SURE that wherever we go, whatever we do, God is doing something in and through and despite you that you cannot even imagine? As we continue summer travels, as we say goodbye to our dear friend Rebecca, as we juggle the chaos of this life. It sounds simple, but is a radical, radical thing. The God who formed us and knew us, who knit us together as the psalmist says continues to claim us and promises to never, ever let us go. Surely the Lord is in this place, he said. And I didn’t even know it.
Jacob is in a pretty tough spot. His grandfather is Abraham, the model of faith, his father Isaac, noble and pure. And then there’s Jacob. He’s not a particularly likeable fellow. But maybe there’s something like us in Him. I don’t feel noble and pure much of the time. I am much more likely to feel like Jacob, when I can’t get it together, when life continues to pile up. But it is in those moments, when I am most aware of my own weakness, that I, that we all can be reminded that God’s promises remain. That the purposes of God, as Walter Brueggemann writes, are tangled in a web of self-interest and self-seeking.3 That grace shines through despite us. That when we least expect it, we may be jolted awake and exclaim: Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not even know it! And God will have been there with you the whole time.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Genesis 25:19-26.
- Genesis 27:41.
- Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 204.