Jacob left Beersheba and went toward 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 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 top of it. He called that place Bethel.
Today, we begin a four-part series on “Foundations of our Faith” as we look at life-changing stories from the book of Genesis. Genesis is the first of 66 books in the Bible, and Genesis is a word that simply means “Beginning.” It is the beginning, not so much because it comes first in the Bible, but because it tells us about the beginning of humankind’s relationship with God.
The stories throughout Genesis are meant to tell us about ourselves – where we’ve come from, what we’ve come through, what we’ve learned, as we have made the faith journey with God. Every step of the way, God has revealed something about God’s self to us. The stories from Genesis anchor our understanding and experience of God, and as such, they are foundations of our faith.
As we will hear life-changing stories from the book of Genesis, I invite you to open yourself up to what God says through these stories, so that, as the lives of the people in these stories were changed, God may change our lives as well. May we pray.
There were two mischievous boys who had a way of finding trouble and getting themselves into it – I have absolutely no idea what that must be like. Their parents knew that if there was any sort of mischief or mayhem taking place in their small town, their boys were likely involved somehow.
There was a corrections officer-turned preacher with a reputation for straightening out wayward children, and the parents sent their boys to him. He called in the younger of the two, sat him down in a hard chair opposite the imposing desk, leaned across the desk, looked the youngster right in the eye and said, “Where is God?”
The boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open, wide-eyed. So the clergyman repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God!!?" Again the boy made no attempt to answer. So the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE IS GOD!?"
The boy was scared to death, and jumped out of the chair, ran through the door, and found his brother waiting on the bench in the hall. Barely able to catch his breath, he said, “Dude, we’re in trouble this time! Apparently, God is missing and they think WE have something to do with it!”
Perhaps you remember the scene from the movie Forrest Gump, in which Forrest goes to visit Lieutenant Dan in New York City for the holidays. Disillusioned with life, de-motivated by a lifestyle of drug and alcohol-abuse, Lieutenant Dan sarcastically repeats a question that well-intentioned people have asked him. He says, “Gump, have you found Jesus yet?” Forrest naively says, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”
It would be funny, except that many times, we can be just as naïve as Forrest, unaware that we’re supposed to be looking for Jesus, unaware that we’re supposed to be looking for God. We can be rather like Jacob, whose story we read today.
In today’s reading, we catch up with Jacob, the son of Isaac, and the grandson of Abraham, and you’ll recall the covenant that God has made with Abraham – that God would make Abraham’s name great, make him the father of a great nation, that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the shore, and that through him, all people on earth would be blessed.
Jacob was the grandson of the man to whom this covenant had been made, which would have put him in line to receive all this, except—Jacob wasn’t the only son. He had a brother, a twin brother named Esau, but Jacob was the younger of the two, having come out of the womb literally clinging to his brother’s heel.
In Britain’s royal family, Princes William and Harry are often referred to as “the heir and the spare;” William, as the oldest, is the heir to the throne and all that entails, whereas Harry, the younger brother, is a “spare.” Likewise, for twin brothers Jacob and Esau; Esau, the oldest, was the heir, and Jacob the spare.
However, the name “Jacob” means “striver, hustler, supplanter.” Indeed, Jacob has spent his whole life in the shadow of his seconds-older brother, striving to be like him, striving to be him, striving to be more than him. But friends, Jacob is not that unlike us. Like Jacob, we all have a twin. From the day we are born, we are measuring ourselves against some Esau, some standard of what or who we think we should be. We all have some picture in our mind of the person we have to become before we can receive any blessings, that vision of a person who is like us, just better somehow – richer, more glamorous, more popular, more powerful, more influential, more religious, more spiritual. Like Jacob, we can spend a lifetime trying to climb ladders to success, scheming and hustling and striving to do whatever it takes to put ourselves on top.
He schemed his hungry older brother out of his birthright over some stew. He has spent his whole life striving to be Esau, trying to supplant Esau from his position of first-born privilege, and low and behold, he did it. And then, their aging father, legally blind, wants to bless oldest son Esau, and Jacob decides it’s time for one more hustle. He dresses up in his hairy brother’s clothes, tapes some goat’s wool to the back of his neck and hands so their father will think it’s Esau, and Jacob steals the blessing that wasn’t for him to begin with.
Finally, Jacob has all the things he ever wanted in life – he has schemed and tricked his way to his brother’s birthright and their father’s blessing. He has everything he ever wanted in life, and all that hard work has paid off in a run for his life and ending up someplace he never wanted to be.
Has that ever happened to you? You set goals in life, you worked hard on them, you kept your eye on the prize, you didn’t lose your focus, and when you crossed everything off your list and had everything you thought you ever wanted, you took a look around and said, “How in the world did I end up here? I got everything I ever wanted, and now I’m stuck someplace I never wanted to be.”
Jacob got everything he had ever wanted. He got all the things he had devoted his whole life to getting, landed somewhere he never wanted to be. Jacob is portrayed as a fugitive fleeing for his life; he is no place in particular, somewhere between a conflict-ridden past and an uncertain future.
And so there, at the intersection of “Where I don’t want to be” and “Noplace Special,” Jacob collapses in exhaustion, his head resting on a rock for a pillow, and he has a dream. In his dream, a ladder, a ramp, a staircase stretches from God in heaven right down to the rocks where Jacob is sleeping. In this no-man’s land, this noplace special, this “where I don’t want to be place,” God is there.
You know what it’s like when you’re driving through the mountains, and what it’s like trying to get cell phone service. You go around this curve, and four bars drop to “no signal.” Or, my GPS when I pull into a parking garage, goes, “*BEEP!* Lost satellite reception.”
But in Jacob’s dream, we realize that, when it comes to God, we always have a signal. We never lose reception. Even when our lives take twists and turns into places we don’t want to be or when we simply find ourselves nowhere in particular, God is still there.
Indeed, the psalmist would say, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8). No matter where we go, God is there. In our highs and lows, God is there. No matter where we go, there always exists a ladder, a link between us and God, upon which “angels descending bring from above, echoes of mercy, and whispers of love.”
You see, Jacob had been confused. While he was scheming, climbing the ladders of success, and trying to get ahead, God was saying to Jacob, to you, to me, to all of us – “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Why all this scheming? Why all this climbing? Why all this trying to get ahead? Do you not know that I am with you now, have been always, and will be forever?”
We’re like Jacob. We can spend a lot of time climbing the ladders in our lives and doing anything we can to get a rung up on the competition. But for all his climbing, Jacob got everything he ever wanted, and ended up someplace he never wanted to be. You see, we can spend a lot of time climbing the wrong ladders. Or, sometimes the ladders we’re climbing are propped up against the wrong wall, and when we get to the top, we look around and say, “This isn’t where I wanted to be at all.”
And while we are busy scheming, striving, and climbing ladders, God is already right there. Always has been, always will be – standing by with a pocket full of dreams and blessings, just waiting to give us both. Once Jacob has his dream and sees what God wants him to know – namely, that God is there and always has been, God repeats the promise that was first made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. And you know what? The promise is still the same. Just the same old promise. Nothing new. Nothing added. Nothing taken away. God just repeats the promise and reminds Jacob of the covenant that is already in place.
For the first time, Jacob listens. He has been so busy climbing his own ladder of success and striving to be some better version of himself that he had, up until now, failed to recognize the ladder God was extending to him from heaven. Jacob wakes up from his dream, the light bulb goes off, and he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Well, duh!
But, let’s not be too hard on Jacob – it wouldn’t kill any of us to pay a little more attention and discern the presence of God in all the places we go. It would actually be a good thing if we would stop our striving, our climbing, and our running, slow down, and have some dreams about practicing the presence of God in every aspect of our lives – that no matter where we go, what we do, and with whom we interact, we would say, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in THIS place – not just at church, not just in my Sunday School class, not just in my Bible study, not just in my prayers, not just when I talk to other Christians – surely the presence of the Lord is in THIS place – especially ordinary places, plain places, nowhere in particular places, places we don’t even want to be – surely the presence of the Lord is in every place.”
The story of Jacob invites us to stop running and start dreaming. To stop running from our fears, to stop running on empty, to stop running our own lives, to stop running other people’s lives, to stop running for the sake of running. The story of Jacob invites us to stop running and start dreaming. To start dreaming about the presence of God, to start dreaming about the blessings of God, to start dreaming about God’s call to bless others as we ourselves have been blessed.
In the dream, God reminds Jacob that when we are blessed, we are to bless others. God says, “All the families of the earth will be blessed in you and in your offspring” (Gen 28:14). God’s blessings are not just for us; they are meant to be shared freely and abundantly, liberally and generously, just as God has given them to us.
Jacob’s response to the dream is threefold, and this is a good pattern for our lives as well. The first thing he does is recognize and name the presence of God. It sounds simple, but when we have discerned the presence of God, the first thing to do is recognize and name the presence of God. Wherever we find ourselves, even if and particularly if we are in an ordinary place or a place of no special significance – everywhere we go is a place to recognize and name the presence of God. And if it’s been awhile since we have recognized and named God’s presence, that’s a good indicator that it’s time to slow down, take a breath, and dream about God’s presence. If we’ve gotten so caught up in striving and climbing ladders of our own making that we haven’t given a thought to God, then we’re too busy.
The second way Jacob responds to the dream is worship. After recognizing and naming the presence of God, he celebrates the presence of God in worship. Worship turns the “no particular” places in our lives into the house of God. And if we truly recognize and celebrate the presence of God everywhere, then every moment and place in our lives in an opportunity for worship, and our lives themselves become the very instruments tuned to tell God’s glory as we find ourselves lost in wonder, love, and praise.
And the third way Jacob celebrates God’s presence is through service. After recognizing and naming the presence of God, he celebrates the presence of God in worship, and as a result, his life becomes the blessing God named it to be in that dream. Because of the reality of God’s presence in his life, he pledges 10% of whatever God gives him he will give back to God. He realizes that the most appropriate and faithful response to God’s blessing is to use what God has given him to bless others. The same is true for us.
Jacob called the place Bethel, which means “house of God.” Up until now, it had been no place in particular, but now, because of God’s grace, Jacob recognized it as a place where the spirit of the Lord was surely present, even if he was previously unaware. When we wake up and find ourselves living in relationship with the living God, things change. We change. The places in our lives that seemed like no place in particular are changed into the house of God.
So, if it seems like your life is nowhere in particular today, get some rest, take a nap, and have a dream, a dream in which you discern the presence of God. Where is God? All around, it would seem. Sometimes, it just takes a dream to remember.
God, we thank you for your constant presence. Give us all the time to rest and the inspiration to dream. May dreams lead to blessing, and may your blessings continue to change the world, even as they change our hearts. Amen.