CLIMBING JACOB’S LADDER
A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Text: Genesis 28:10-19a
Exhausted, alone, terrified, not certain of his way, he ran until he collapsed in a heap. He could go no farther. Wherever he was, there he would stay. He was desperate for sleep. Yes, he was running for his life, but he felt that if he took one more step, his life would be over anyway. He would die from the effort of running. So, he lay on the ground, his head propped on a rock and fell into a deep sleep.
This could be a scene from any of a number of great novels or short stories. It could also be taken from the popular 1960s television series, “The Fugitive,” starring David Janssen, or the 1993 movie, with Harrison Ford, based on the same series. In this adventure, the protagonist, Dr. Richard Kimble, is wrongly convicted of killing his wife. On the night before he is to be executed, he escapes, with the authorities in hot pursuit. He is determined to save his own skin by tracking down a mysterious one-armed man he knows to be the real killer. For the next five years, throughout his time of flight, we find him at various times exhausted, lonely, terrified and lost. The drama itself turns on his willingness to risk capture over and over again by stopping to help someone in need along the way.
Jacob, however, the fugitive of this morning’s story, shows no such grace. His drama is very different. Up to the point we find him in today’s ancient word, he has acted consistently as a trickster and a scoundrel. Having garnered his older brother’s birthright for a bowl of lentil soup and then stolen the all-important paternal blessing that went with it, he is now running for his life, fleeing his brother’s murderous rage, embarked on a 400 mile journey to the land of his ancestors. His mother, once again aiding and abetting her favorite, has sent him off ostensibly to find a wife from her people because she claims not to be at all fond of the Hittite women Esau has married.
This is clearly no pre-planned trip though. Rebekah doesn’t have time to pack his bags, nor do we find Jacob traveling in a richly laden caravan of gifts for the folk back home. He is on foot and traveling alone. He is running for his life. He is a fugitive who ends up in the middle of nowhere, running to an unknown place and an uncertain future.
I wonder if any of us has ever felt anything like this ourselves? Maybe in less dramatic ways, we have run from some misstep or misdeed, from someone we have betrayed or hurt, from a situation that has filled us with fear or shame or guilt. Maybe we took off running, literally or metaphorically, not stopping to rest until we found ourselves exhausted and could go no further. Maybe this all seems melodramatic to you, but I know there have been times in my own life when I turned my back and fled a difficult, painful situation. I found myself feeling alone, afraid, lost and wondering. The whole journey may go on inside one’s self but it is still very real. Whether or not we want to admit it, I am guessing there is little of Jacob, the trickster, in each of us. We know something about a consuming desire to get ahead, to control, to have. We have given ourselves over to hurtful competitiveness or greed or an all-encompassing passion to take care of “number one” without much concern for others.
In this story, we find Jacob in the kind of place in which we may have found ourselves. He is no place, with no plan but to get away, and no concern for his surroundings except meeting his own basic needs. Here Jacob needs sleep. He has consumed every last drop of his own energy and is at his wit’s end. Sleep promises an ideal and necessary escape. There is nothing in the text to indicate that Jacob had any interest in God. We do not see him kneel by his rock pillow and say his nightly prayers. There is no ongoing conversation with God about the mess into which he’s gotten himself. He’s just desperate and frightened. He’s gone until he can go no longer, so he collapses on the ground and falls asleep.
Then the miraculous moment – “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Here, in the middle of nowhere, God comes to Jacob in a powerful way that transforms his life. There is a terrible old preacher’s story about an old farmer and a mule. Singing the praises of the mule’s ability to plow, the old farmer sells the mule to his neighbor. But no matter what the neighbor tries, he can’t get the mule to plow. So he calls the old farmer over to complain. The farmer takes a long look at the mule, picks up a two by four and hits the mule between the eyes. The mule takes off plowing the prettiest furrow you could ever want. The flabbergasted neighbor turns to the old farmer but before he can say anything, the old farmer intones, “You have to get his attention first.”
Jacob is sort of like that mule, running on autopilot, unconcerned for his brother or his father, stubbornly self-focused. God needs to get his attention, so God does, in a most dramatic way. It must have been a spectacular vision, this ladder or ziggurat running from earth to heaven with angels descending and ascending. And suddenly there was God beside him, God in conversation with the scoundrel, God making promises to the trickster. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch” like this. God reaches out to Jacob, tracks him down in the middle of nowhere and reiterates the great promises that God has made to Jacob’s family going back three generations, “You will have land and offspring and through them all the families of earth will be blessed.” The self-absorbed one, fleeing into the night, has fallen through the thinnest of places, stumbling unknowingly onto the very gate of heaven. In the vulnerable state of sleep, through the wonder of a dream, everything is changed for Jacob. He encounters the living God.
Walter Brueggemann writes of this powerful vision that Jacob discovers, and we are allowed to see, that “Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote, self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth. And earth finally may count on the resources of heaven.” He goes on to argue that the vision “…shatters the presumed world of Jacob. He had assumed he traveled alone with his only purpose being survival…divine reality was irrelevant.” But, through the vision, he sees that “earth is a place of possibility because it has not been and will not be cut off from the sustaining role of God” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching – Genesis, p. 243.)
Have we ever traveled like that, presuming that divine reality was irrelevant, that our only task in life is to survive? Have we assumed that we were pretty much alone, needing to rely on our own resources to survive? Many have known well that life on this earth is not easy. And then there are those precious, amazing moments when we step through a thin place, when we see with new eyes the threshold of heaven, feel with new hearts the brush of angels wings, hear with new ears the voice of God – “You are loved, you are mine.” Earth, our earth, in that moment becomes a place of infinite possibility as God guides us on the way.
Now as I said last week, we are not told why God favors Jacob. Perhaps it is that it’s those who are ill who have need of the physician, those who are lost and wandering, frightened and desperate who need accompaniment and guidance, those who are self absorbed who need a loving connection with another. Regardless, it is a given of the story, which is, of course, a story told to hearten the children of Jacob, also known as the children of Israel as Jacob will eventually be re-named, when they are living in exile, far from home. For Jacob, we hear again the blessings of the covenant that God made with Jacob’s family. We also hear how they are responsible for blessing everyone with the blessing with which they have been blessed.
Finally, God turns directly to Jacob and makes three promises – “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land…” To this one who has been up to no good since he began wrestling with his brother in his mother’s womb, God says, “I will go with you, I will protect you and I will bring you home.” Brueggemann argues that these three promises of God are core to scripture and to our faith tradition. In this story and others, in psalms and prophecy, in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul, we hear these promises repeated over and over again. Brueggemann proclaims “…accompaniment, protection, homecoming: a full complement of good news” (op. cit. 246.) Hear the gospel once again: God is with us. God will hold us dear. God will bring us home.
Jacob may be a scoundrel but he’s no fool. His eyes have been opened. He has seen things he never imagined because he had been too busy with his own agenda. But as our words of preparation say, “The real voyage of discovery consists…in seeing with new eyes.” From this time forward, Jacob is embarked on such a voyage. He has new eyes and will never be the same. Yes, it is true that he remains a trickster. He is not transformed into a plaster saint. But he is now engaged with God is such a way that he will always have this vision of the house of God, the gates of heaven before him to remind him of God’s promises to him and the promises he makes to God in return.
Obviously Jacob has things to learn but he is on his way to being a very different person. In time he may come to understand that God will be with him and keep him and bring him home, even if he doesn’t live up to his own promises. That seems to be the way God is. That seems to be the wonder of true grace. That seems to be the lure of divine love. God seeks us out wherever we are wandering or hiding. In fact, God is continually watching and waiting for us. God is as likely to come to us in the middle of nowhere as she is in our lovely sanctuary. We may meet God by a mountain stream or a wave-strewn beach. We may find God in the kitchen fixing dinner or cleaning out the garage. God may come to us in the supermarket or the hospital or sitting at our desk. “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” It is an awesome thing to stand at the threshold of heaven, to enter into the house of God, wherever we may find it. It is there that God speaks to us, to you and me: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back…” With such assurance, we may continue on our way, but we will never be the same again. Amen.