Sermon on Genesis 28:10-19a for Pentecost +7 A, July 23, 2017
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;
I heard a scientist talking about how important sleep is for us, specifically for the brain. Apparently all kinds of important organization and clutter control takes place while we sleep. He mentioned that our large brains that gave us the ability to out-think, and therefore, out-survive other primate groups, came at a high cost. They consume an enormous amount of energy. And the fact that they require so much sleep leaves us vulnerable for hours at a time.
It is interesting that Jacob’s first encounter with God takes place when he is vulnerably sleeping. When you sleep, your defenses are down, you cannot play games. Jacob had a lot of defenses, and played a lot of games.
He was the one who stole the birthright from his elder brother Esau.
He is the one who deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing.
He is the one who, having fled to his uncle Laban to escape Esau’s wrath, is going to connive a breeding program that enriches himself at his uncle’s expense, but that hasn’t happened yet. In this story, we meet Jacob who is en route to Laban’s land, in flight from his brother.
Being In a “certain place”
So Jacob is a trickster, a deceiver, a person who is in control – he believes – but now he is also away from home, alone, worried for his future, and a person who needs his sleep.
He is between places; the text says that he is in a “certain place” but it has no name yet, at least none that Jacob knows. So his vulnerable sleeping takes place in an existentially vulnerable, in-between place.
I know we have all been there. Maybe you are at an existentially in-between place now. At one level we are always there, between birth and death, between what our life has been like up to now and what the future holds. We are always in what Tolkien called “middle earth.”
In this “certain place” with no name, the sun has set. Now things that you used to be able to see clearly are only shadows.
When the sun sets, it means something is over. Whether or not that is a good thing depends on what happens next. But before the new day, is the time for being vulnerable; the time for sleep.
The Disturbed Sleep and the Dream
Our text says he used a stone for a pillow. That sounds to me like a completely bad idea. One early Jewish commenter said the stone was to protect his head. Maybe the stone pillow is the story-teller’s way of setting us up to expect a disturbed sleep. Anyway, we are not at all surprised that in this condition, Jacob dreams a vivid dream.
We get to see and hear his dream with him. First we see the ladder to heaven.
Some say it should be translated “ramp” instead of ladder, like the ramps that spiraled around the Mesopotamian ziggurat towers meant to take worshippers up closer to the gods.
On this ladder or ramp are angels coming and going. So this is where heaven and earth touch – it is the spatial conception of every ancient temple. Here the realm of the gods comes in contact with the realm of humans. This is the axis of the world (axis muni) upon which it turns.
Angels function as messengers. There are plenty of angels and there is a message, but in this dream, the message is delivered directly by God. Without any description of what it was Jacob saw, and completely at odds with the biblical understanding that no one can see God and survive, in this dream, Jacob sees God. It says, God, or literally the Israelite name for God, Yahweh,
“stood beside him.”
When we sleep, we are in a kind of temporary paralysis. Maybe that is why we do not see Jacob reacting with trembling or taking a fearful, defensive posture, but when the dream is over, he says,
“How awesome is this place!”
The Promise of Blessing and Presence
So what does the Lord say to this fleeing, conniving trickster in this vulnerable, in-between moment of his life? Does God come with judgment or correction? Does God come with warnings and threats? Not at all. Yahweh came with a promise. It is the promise of a future with hope, and the promise of presence. Let us hear it again:
“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.”
It was most likely in exile in Babylon that the Jewish descendants of Jacob wrote down this story, in the form we have it now. In their moment of being in a certain place, with no recognizable name, in between the nation they had been and an uncertain future, in their moment of utter vulnerability, after their sun had set, and it is dark, this is the story they tell. For any of us who are in that kind of a place in our lives, this is the story we need to hear.
With no formal temple left in which to find God’s presence, they speak of a God that can show up in any place, and who promises to be present to every place. Jacob draws the conclusion that changes everything:
“Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!”
God is Present
This is what we believe: that every place is present to God and that no place is apart from God’s presence. In fact, it is not just that God is present to the world as an object is present. It is rather that the world itself is how God’s presence is experienced.
Peter Rollins uses a shipwreck analogy to explain it.
When a ship is in the ocean, he says, all of the ship is submerged in the ocean, though not all of the ocean is in the ship.
God is present to us, not as an object, but as the the depth dimension in life; as density in each experience. Even better than the shipwreck analogy, Rollins says that God is present to us always, as light is present in daytime: not as something to be seen, like a tree or a house, but the means by which we see everything. Not as a separate being, but as the ground of all being.
So, being present, God brings forth possibilities for a future. God is present as the lure towards goodness. The future is unknown and uncertain, but God is present, allowing us to continue to dream of a better land. Even in exile in Babylon we can say,
“Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!”
God is present giving us good dreams of how we can be fruitful wherever we are, in any place. And God’s dream is that our fruitfulness is not merely a blessing for ourselves, but that we become a blessing for,
“all the families of the earth.”
When we wake up like Jacob did, and come to understand that God is present in this place, we can dream of that blessing coming true. We can dream of a world in which all people are reconciled, as Jacob was, eventually, with his brother, Esau, and there is no longer hostility, no more discrimination, no scapegoating of others.
We can dream of a world without guns and bombs. We can dream of a world without famine or urban food deserts. We can dream of a world in which everyone has access to decent housing and education and healthcare. And with God present, we can live into that dream one new day at a time.
We can dream of a world in which our personal setbacks, our doubts, our fears, our frustrations, our angst, our failures and regrets can be faced with courage and equanimity, because, as Jesus told his disciples,
“I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jacob awoke from his dream and continued his journey. He went to his uncle Laban’s home, eventually married two of his daughters, with them and their handmaidens (it was the iron age) had 12 sons. The dream of fruitfulness was coming true.
He became prosperous and returned home to the land of promise and was reconciled with his brother. He even was able to be with the father he had deceived before he died. After the dream, came the life of action.
So we too are called to dream God’s dream of a just and beautiful world which is everywhere and always God’s world. And we too are able to be people of action, even in Babylon, even in the in between places of life, believing that the promise of blessing is true for us, and for all the families of the earth.