A sermon for Proper 11: Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
We continue following Jacob’s story. A lot has happened since last Sunday, and at least a bit is important for setting the stage for today. Last week Jacob took advantage Esau’s fierce hunger and bullied him into selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Between then and now we read that Isaac is old and nearly blind. And while Jacob had successfully taken possession of his older brother’s share to his father’s estate, he does not have his father’s blessing, which includes the passing on of God’s promise and covenant. Rebekah over hears Isaac telling Esau to go hunt game and prepare it so he may bless him. She schemes with Jacob to disguise him with lamb’s wool and a lamb stew to deceive Isaac into thinking that he is Esau and bless him. Yes, the plan is to steal Esau’s blessing. Taking the birthright was an opportunistic action. This is just plain deceitful, no matter how acceptable it might have been in matters of dynastic succession, think Game of Thrones, it is not justifiable. But the plan works, Isaac blesses Jacob. When Esau returns and discover s the ploy he is fiercely angry and promises to kill Jacob; which, of course, Rebekah over hears, and she warns Jacob and sends him off to her brother Laban, on the pretense of getting a wife, which works in part because Esau has a Hittite wife, which displeases both Rebekah and Isaac.
Rebekah watches Jacob set off on a journey that basically reverses his grandfather Abraham’s original journey. She believes it will only take “a little while” which literally means just a few days; (Schifferdecker). We will see. It will be a hard journey, with at least one night out under the stars (Ellingsen). Jacob is vulnerable, alone in dangerous territory (Schifferdecker). He is essentially banished from his family; which in those days is about the worst thing that could happen to someone. It is virtually a death sentence (Bratt).
This is also the first time Jacob appears by himself, and it becomes a new beginning that comes to him in a dream (Fretheim). It is significant that at the moment that he is most vulnerable in his life, God appears not to judge, but to confirm that he is the one who will carry the promise (Fretheim).
I think it is a wonder that Jacob wants to or can sleep, but he does, and in his sleep, he dreams and in his dream another reality to slip into his life (Bratt). God communicating through dreams is common in Scripture (Harrelson). Mary had a dream, Joseph had a dream, perhaps we should wish each other something more significant than sweet dreams.
Ladders are associated with judgment. Psalm 75, verse 7 reads:
It is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another” (Butterworth).
Ladders, which are more like a ramp, or stairway (Bratt), (Harrelson) are a bi-directional connection heaven and earth (Fretheim). Think of them as a sort of divine portal; they are holy places, not built by us, but are places in time and space that are revealed by God (Gaventa and Petersen). They provide an avenue of communication between heaven and earth. Angels, the divine intermediaries, or messengers, going up and down the ladder, or stairway; their motion reveals the reality of divine – human communication. It’s interesting that in this story these messengers never speak (Fretheim). They and the ladder are another sign that we are not alone (Bratt).
In Jacob’s dream, the angels may not speak, but God does (Fretheim). God confirms that Jacob is the heir of the promise and the covenant and that his descendants will be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Ellingsen) a repeat of the blessing he received from his father with Isaac. Then God adds to the promise (Schifferdecker)
Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.
Jacob wakes up, remembers the dream realizing that
Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” awesome -! it is none other than the house of God, and the gate to heaven (NRSV Genesis 28:16-17)
He takes his pillow rock and makes it a pillar, which is a common religious symbol, then pours oil on it and names the place Bethel, which is literally beth – house and el – of God, “the house of God” (Schifferdecker), (Harrelson). You know from other stories whenever we hear something named in scripture it is a significant event, and that makes this story significant. This particular time it emphasizes the continuity between the immediate experience and the ongoing significance of receiving God’s promise. In this place, in this time, ordinary place and an ordinary rock have been divinely transformed to become a sacred symbol. Pouring oil on the rock is a form of anointing, which you know sets it apart for God’s use. It also stains the rock so that anybody who comes by can see and know it is a sacred place (Fretheim).
But I have to wonder; is all of this, that Jacob does, is it simply actions of grandeur? I wonder that because the very next thing Jacob does is to revert to his old self, as he makes an if- then bargain (Schifferdecker).
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. (NRSV Genesis 28:20-22).
In short, if God keeps the promises, then I will remain loyal accepting Yahweh as his God, he will construct a sanctuary, and offer a tithe (Fretheim). It makes you wonder how or if Jacob really changed? The bargain reveals that Jacob still thinks he is on his own (Schifferdecker). It’s true Jacob’s proclamation and actions about Bethel indicate that he has moved from not knowing to knowing about God’s presence. However, his grand bargain reveals his knowing is just a little bit shallow; sort of like the shallow soil of Jesus’ parable of the sowers and the seeds.
Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that this story isn’t really about Jacob; this story is really about God. Jacob’s dream comes entirely at the initiative of God. The world continues to be a place of meetings and times, like Bethel, which dreams come in a troubled night’s sleep, and God uses both that place and that time to get through to us (Fretheim).
We intuitively know that there is a transcendent, or otherworldly, quality of God. And there is some thought that if we get to close to God we compromise the divine perfection. Jacob’s story assures us this is not so. The story assures us that God is mysteriously able to be both transcendent and awesomely present at the same time; as you hear me say the Kingdom of God is right here right now (Fretheim). The story also reveals how this interaction affects God; because from this moment on, from this story on, God self-identifies as “the Lord, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Schifferdecker). Our relationship with God matters ~ to God and it matters for God’s presence in the world.
So, I am wondering where we might be in all this? We tend to believe that how God is present to us is how is present, should be present to everyone. It’s not true, if we read Abraham’s family story, we will see how God is present to everyone in Abraham’s family, differently. Every person has a different relationship with God. When I was doing my work at MTS, we were discussing how God acts in the world through physical manipulation, moving molecules and stuff around, or does God work through inspiration that makes use of required human participation. I disagreed with every one of my classmates. I came to understand I didn’t need to push my argument; we understood how God acts differently because I needed to believe that God to act one way and my classmates needed to believe that God to act another way. Mysteriously, it is not a contradiction of God’s being.
A lesson from the stairway to heaven is that like Jacob, we often believe, or think, or act as if we are alone, all by ourselves (Bratt). We assume we too have to clamber up some sort of ladder to make ourselves successful. Notice, no matter the words to the song we sang, notice that Jacob never climbs the ladder; no human is on the ladder. That ladder is a pathway for the divine messengers between us and God; which is a role Jesus now permanently fills. But the ladder still assures us that we are never alone; we never have been, we never will be. We may be slow to accept God’s gracious promises to make us a blessing. We may be slow to accept that we don’t have to do this all by ourselves. We may be slow to accept God’s promise to make it for us ~ and with us. We may be just like Jacob in thinking that we are alone , he was not, God was at his campsite, and at his side forever. And he is for us. We have our own campsites, they look like the places where we work, and they look like our homes, and they look like parks, and they look like churches, and they look like church camps. God is present in every one of those places and all sorts of other places, just as God is present in communion we are about to celebrate. We take common bread and we take we common wine and then we profess, we do not make, we do not put in, but profess that God/Jesus/Spirit is present in them. We don’t even know how it happens, we can’t even agree how it happens, but we all know that God/Jesus/Spirit is present (Bratt). The is true wherever you are, God is present.
I believe that deep – deep -deep down we know this. And it is one reason why we value all sacred spaces; no matter where they come from, or who makes them sacred, we value all of them. We value them because they reflect one way that we are connection with God. Our experience rudely tells us that our life’s being moves up and down, and left and right, and all over the place, but in this story, we are assured that regardless of all that action God is with us. No place is forbidden to us, every place can be, ~ every place is, ~ that place where we can be certain of the God’s presence. You know those special ones, Will, just got back from one, Camp Mitchell, it is one of those thin places we deeply cherish (Fretheim). This story of Jacob nurtures our awareness of consecrated space and the certainty of our eternal relationship with God (Butterworth). It affirms that Heaven is not just connected to the earth, but is also interested in the earth; that Heaven is not just connected to us but is interested in you. God/Jesus/Spirit and angels don’t just have access to the earth, God/Jesus/Spirit wants to be involved in both your life’s circumstances, just as God is involved with Jacob’s (Bratt). None of us, I don’t think, none of us are as scheming as Jacob is; but scheming doesn’t really matter there is no divine criterion about that, but his story gives us hope that God will ~ no ~ that God has blessed us, and will continue to bless us.
Bratt, Doug. Proper 11A Genesis 28: 10-19a. 23 7 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Butterworth, Susan. “Stones, Wheat, and Weeds, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.” 23 7 2017. Sermons that Work.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 23 7 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 23 7 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a. 23 7 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.