18th Sunday after Pentecost
22 September 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert
Jacob is on the run. He is running for his life. Jacob, the deceiver, has gone too far this time. It was not enough for him to swindle his older twin, Esau, out of his birthright. When his father Isaac became old and blind and wished to pass on his blessing to the older twin, Jacob deceived his father, as suggested by mom, and wore Esau’s clothes and pretended to be the hairy-armed hunter. After Jacob stole the blessing, Esau was so angry, he said he would kill his brother, Jacob. So Rebekah, heard of this threat, and was afraid for the safety of her favorite son. So she urged him to fee to her brother Laban’s place in Haran. She also convinced husband Isaac that Jacob should leave to find a wife amongst the kinfolk in Haran. Jacob’s grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, had traveled from Haran to find the Promised Land, settling in Beer-sheba, as called by God. Now Jacob is running back to Haran, fearing for his life. He makes it fifty miles before stopping to sleep, not knowing that he is stopping at the very place where his grandparents, upon reaching the Promised Land, had built an altar, giving thanks to God. Exhausted, Jacob falls asleep, having deep and vibrant dreams, dreams that teach him of the God of his parents and grandparents, a God he has heard about second hand, but never encountered like this.*
* I am indebted to Sidney Griedanus for his summary of this story in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, edited by Roger E. Van Harn.
Hear now the story of Jacob’s dream from Genesis 28:10-22:
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 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. 12 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.
13 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; 14 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. 15 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.”
16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 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.”
18 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. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 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, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 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.”
(New Revised Standard Version)
I know that some of you, like me, have had profound dreams, which you perceived were messages from God. I had a dream after my father died that allowed me to resolve a conflict in a way that had been impossible while he was living. My brother had an encounter with Christ in a dream, that re-shaped his life in college. Some of us have experienced clear messages from God while awake. Others of us find these dreams and experiences strange and rare. You might even think that those of us who take them seriously are a little weird. But I think God is communicating with us much more than we are ever aware.
This story is a coming-of-age moment for Jacob, who had truly wronged his brother, and yet still has the blessing intact – both the parent’s blessing and God’s blessing too. Reminder, friends: no matter what you’ve done and how fast you are running from the consequences of it, God is still present in your life, seeking to turn your bad to good, with some cooperation from you. That’s who God is, and Jacob is just learning this. He had heard stories about the God who led his grandparents to a new land, but this is his first real experience with God and he receives the same promise of multiple descendants and the land, even as he is departing that land.
Guilty and scared, this scoundrel Jacob is overwhelmed by the promise of God to be with him, and this sacred place, where he encounters God is special to him. He marks the moment and the place with an oiled rock, the one on which he had laid his head in exhaustion. This is a reminder to all of us that places become sacred because of encounters with God. When we first moved into this building, it felt foreign and awkward. After we had worship for two or three months, it began to feel like sacred space because here we had prayed in Spirit, and heard God’s Word and tasted Christ’s goodness. Remember that when we move.
In Jacob’s dreamy vision of the ladder or the ramp it is not clear in the Hebrew whether God is beside him or above him on the ladder or stairway to heaven. which connects him to God is often understood by Christians to be a pre-figuring of the work of Christ as the great mediator between God and humanity.
Christ is the God at the top and the human at the bottom, and Christ’s Spirit forms the ladder which brings us together. Even before Christ was born to Mary, there were prophecies that Immanuel would come, and Immanuel means, “God with us.” That’s the same message which was given to Jacob at Beth-El, this special place which is named “House of God.” Later Jacob encounters God again at a place called Peniel, having struggled with God in night, and his name is changed from the one who deceives to one who struggles with God, Israel, and thus Jacob’s new name becomes the name of an entire people for generations to this day.
Jacob makes a pledge to God after this encounter. He says, “If God will be with me and will return me safely to the Promised Land, then the Lord will be my God and of all that God gives me, I will return one tenth. There we find one of the earliest references to tithing. Jacob, out of gratitude for God’s promises, makes his own promise – I will return a tenth. There are few people who really tithe these days a full 10%, but those who do are blessed and make of themselves a true blessing to others. Those who make a deliberate decision to give back to God a percentage of all God has given them, even a half-tithe (5%) are truly blessed by this faithful action of thanking God and trusting God to keep providing. I challenge you to the spirit of gratitude we see in Jacob, who after one night of protection and promise, made such a profound commitment. This autumn in gratitude season we will ask you to make a specific commitment to God for 2014 and to allow Peace Church to help you stay accountable to that promise – not accountable like a bill which is binding, but like the promise of a gift or of a commitment of time, which is liberating and joyful and sometimes challenging.
Jacob will go on spend twenty years with his uncle Laban, marrying his daughters Rachel and Leah, having many children, and taking care of Laban’s flocks before deciding to return to the Promised Land. Once again God protects him, as he steals away from Laban with Laban’s daughters and grandchildren and flocks. He and Laban ultimately part in peace, with Laban offering his blessing at mizpah, the watchpost in Gilead where Laban chased him down:
Laban says, “May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.” And he adds, “You’d better take good care of my daughters, remembering that God is our witness.”
After twenty years away, Jacob is still scared to return to his home, where Esau may still be holding a grudge, but once again God promises to be with him. Jacob sends gifts of animals ahead and has his wrestling match with God in the night at Peniel. Don’t miss the connection of these two places as names of two valued ministries we support in our presbytery– Beth-El Farmworker Ministry in Wimauma, and Mision Peniel in Immokalee. Both places where Jacob received a blessing from God while struggling with fear and being away from home. We hope to be part of the blessing God provides to many farmworkers, who themselves feel far from home, as they migrate to the US to work on our farms at very low wages. We hope to help them by compassionate service, providing food and clothing and a place to worship. We hope to support them in their struggle for fair wages, as we work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, another farmworker organization we Presbyterians support.
The promise to all who are scared, to all who are running or restless, to all who have made terrible mistakes, to all who are uncertain of their futures, to all who have been called by God nonetheless, who are part of the family of faith, even if you have never been able to say with strong assurance, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place” Know that God is with you. God is with you always, whether you feel it or not. God will never abandon you, but will keep the covenant of blessing. So look for God and listen for God’s word to you that you may live by it. Give thanks to God for his providence, speak of God’s presence and faithfulness to others, and return to God a portion of all that has been given you. You will see the fatherly goodness of God as you draw near to God through your brother, Christ, as you listen for the whispers of your mothering Holy Spirit, who is calling you to your true home in the arms of God.