Sermon on Gen 28:10-19a for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost A, July 20, 2014
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. 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.
Here’s a little question to start with:
“What is going on in this world, and where is God in it?”
Or, we could ask it personally:
“What is going on in my life (or my family), and where is God in it?”
I read a quote this week that bears repeating here:
To give an account of life that is neat and plausible is certainly to get it wrong. I experience life as complicated, and mine isn’t half as complicated as the lives of many whom I have observed. I am quite sure you experience life as complicated.
Things go wrong. Plans sometimes fail. Illness happens. Accidents happen – sometimes tragically. Loss happens. And there is evil.
We understand a bit about evil. We all know what temptation is, and we have all done things we wish we had not done. We have all indulged our impulses and believed our own excuses, pretended to be special cases, and acted selfishly. So, we understand the impulse to evil.
And yet, there is another kind of evil – or a dimension, or a level (what should we call it?) that is so much worse. There are people who seem to have been given over to evil – business people who will do just about anything to the unsuspecting or to the environment if it makes them money. I have been cheated and sold garbage more than once.
There are people who exploit and abuse women, children, or the elderly; people who abuse others verbally or psychologically, and there are criminals of all kinds.
So, we ask, “what is going on, and where is God in it?” because the answer is not at all neat nor obvious.
One serious answer that has been given is the one people like Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin offered. It was called Deism. In this account, God just simply does not interfere with the world. He made it, but lets it run like an expertly crafted Swiss Clock all by itself. (So then, this is the “best of all possible worlds” – Leibniz? Read Candid once and that notion goes away.)
I guess Deism lets God off the hook for not jumping in and stopping evil – since intervening is simply not what God would do – but I find it unsatisfying. That kind of account of “what’s going on in the world” simply overlooks an experience that is common to the vast majority of people who have ever lived. We experience God. Nearly all of us do. Certainly all groups of us do. We know of no human culture that is or was not religious.
This universal feeling does not prove anything, of course, but it leaves us needing to give an account of what is going on in the world that at least leaves the door open.
Stories of the Hidden Presence
This is one of the reasons I am so happy to have inherited from the Jewish tradition the stories of the Hebrew bible. They can be read on the surface like quaint, ancient attempts at history, but they are not that.
Rather these stories of people like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and dear old Jacob and clan are much deeper. They are narrative struggles to understand what is going on in the world and where God is in it. In other words, theology – in its most practical, even visceral sense. And they are complicated stories – not at all neat and tidy.
We read a bit of the Jacob story. Jacob is the poster child for moral ambiguity. He is a trickster, a deceiver and a manipulator – remember the story from last week of him stealing his older brother Esau’s birthright? Jacob gets himself in all kinds of morally ambiguous situations.
But at an even deeper level, Jacob’s story keeps shoving a problem in our faces as we read it: what is going on and where is God in it? Especially when it comes to the question of causes. Who or what is behind the things we experience in life? Is God doing things, or are we left to our own devices and to chance?
Jacob has stolen his older brother’s birthright, but then, at his mother’s instigation, also connives to steal his father’s final blessing (remember the trick about putting on hairy skins on his arms so his nearly blind father would feel them and think it was his hairy older brother, Esau?).
But readers already know that when Rebekah was pregnant with the two boys, the Lord himself told her that the older would serve the younger. So was it God, or was it human manipulation that won the birthright-blessing for the younger Jacob?
After he steals the birthright-blessing, Jacob has to run away from home to keep Esau from killing him. Our story takes place in the middle of his flight. He comes to a certain place – no place special to him – and spends the night.
“Some Place” – !
Before we look at what happened as he slept, we need to realize that this place that he just thinks of as any-old-place is anything but! It happens to be Bethel, which for centuries has been a Canaanite shrine location where the God El was worshipped. Could he not have noticed?
And, to make it even more important, Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had been there years earlier. In fact God, we are told, had appeared to him, and he built an altar there. God did not just appear to him, God also re-affirmed the promise there, to give to his offspring the land. (see Gen 12-13) That was a pretty big deal. But to Jacob, it’s just “someplace.” Is this chance that Jacob stops here? Coincidence? How should we read it?
So in this place, Jacob arranges some rocks “around” or “under” his head (translations differ) – for what reason, no one really knows. Are the rocks under his head for a pillow? That seems bizarre to me. Are they arranged “around” his head for “protection” as some suggest – without in any way saying how that would work(!). Why mention rocks at all?
But could it be that the author’s suggestion that Jacob did some odd things with rocks, in relation to his head, may be a way of giving us readers a possible explanation for why he had such a weird dream. So, again, what’s going on? Did the rocks cause the bad night’s sleep and weird dream, or was God doing something?
Anyway, he dreams he sees angels going up and down on something. Our English translations say it’s a ladder – giving rise to the image in the song “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” But it is not a ladder at all. It is more like a stair, or a ramp.
Maybe you have seen artistic representations of those tall, multi-level monuments, built by the Egyptians and Babylonians as religious shrines, like in the story of the tower of Babel. They called them ziggurats. They were supposed to be a place where heaven and earth could meet.
And that is exactly what Jacob dreamed about. Angels going up and down meant that he was in a place where heaven and earth touch each other. The Irish call places like that “thin” places – where you feel as though the border between you and God is thin as paper, and you can almost touch.
So, in his dream, Jacob sees the Lord! And the Lord does what he did in Abraham’s dream – he states the promise in great detail.
“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.”
Let’s just pause right here. How is God going to accomplish this? We are going to read that Jacob finally makes it to his uncle Laban’s home. There, he falls in love with his first cousin, and marries her. Only, on the day after the wedding night, it is not her, but her sister he wed. Uncle Laban tricked Jacob to get him to stay and work for him longer.
So, long story short, later Jacob marries the other sister also. The two women, Rachel and Leah, start having babies, and eventually the twelve sons, who will become the twelve tribes of Israel, are born. Again the story forces us to wonder, who or what was the cause of all this fruitfulness? Was it the God who promised Jacob in the dream, or was it uncle Laban who tricked him into polygamy? The story itself gives two possible explanations. Which do we believe?
Anyway, after the dream, in the morning Jacob awakens and says one of the classic lines of all times:
“Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”
What is going on, and where is God in it?
God is always in it.
Only most of the time we do not know it.
We cannot be faulted for not knowing it. It is not at all obvious. In fact, some of the time it is the opposite of obvious that God is in it. Bad things happen. Lots of them.
It would be neat, plausible and wrong to say that God is either the cause of everything that happens, including the evil, or that he causes nothing, as the Deists believed. It is way more complicated than that.
And so I love the fact that these texts purposely demand us to see the problem for what it is: we go through our daily lives, not with miracles happening and angels flying around, but as normal humans do. There are plausible explanations for the cause of everything. And as we do, looking back, we can see God was at work, and we did not know it.
Sometimes we do have those moments of encounter. We sometimes experience a “thin place” where heaven and earth seem to touch. Thank God for those moments of wonder or awe – but they are the uncommon, not the common.
But a person of faith does not demand certainty, and certainty is not what we ever get. We get glimpses. We get “hints and guesses,” as TS Elliot called them. But we choose to believe what Jacob learned: God is present, even when we do not know it.
God’s promise to be with us is what we rely on. And thankfully, we have the advantage over Jacob that we have seen more of the promise fulfilled. We known that Emmanuel, God with us, is true. We have the advantage of being able to look at Jesus and see God with us. We have had a glimpse of one who lived present to God’s presence in a powerful, life-giving way.
Things do go wrong; that much is true. Life is like a field with weeds in it, as in Jesus’ parable. But sometimes, God is in the weeds. God is present even in the pain and sorrow. Some of the events we would have done anything to avoid, at the time, turn out to be the very ones that shaped our lives for the better.
So, whatever is going on in your life that makes you ask, “What is going on and where is God in it?” we are invited to live with the ambiguity as people of faith in the promise.
As we said last week, we are called to be the good soil people who simply take the risk that the message of the kingdom’s real presence is true, because God is in this place, even when we don’t know it, and God will never leave us.