I did not know it
Sermon preached at Enmore, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, 23rd. July 2017
Reading: Genesis 28.10–19a
Last week’s reading from Genesis introduced us to Jacob, the figure who dominates the next nine chapters of the book and who will later be known as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob is a fascinating, complex character, described by the prophet Hosea as the man who ‘in the womb tried to supplant his brother and in his manhood strove with God.’ Not the most likely candidate to be chosen by God as the one inheriting the promises made to his grandfather, Abraham. The etymology of Jacob’s name is related to two very similar Hebrew words, one meaning ‘heel’ and one meaning a ‘supplanter’ or trickster. He is a good example of one’s name defining one’s character. In today’s passage Jacob is on a journey from Beer-sheba to Haran in the north (present day, Turkey). He is in effect making Abraham’s journey in reverse. It was while living in Haran that Abraham heard God’s voice telling him to go to a land that God would show him.
The preceding text gives us two reasons for Jacob’s journey. He is escaping the wrath of his brother, Esau and he is on an expedition to find a wife from among his mother’s relatives. Chapter 27 of Genesis has narrated the sad tale of Jacob stealing the paternal blessing from Esau. The ageing Isaac who is nearly blind and thinking his life is nearly over, summons his elder son, Esau and asks him to go hunting so that he can prepare a tasty meat dish for his father. Isaac promises that he will then bless him. Overhearing this exchange, Rebekah comes up with a plan so that Jacob can take the place of Esau and receive the blessing instead. The plot succeeds despite Isaac’s suspicions that something is not quite right. So when the hapless Esau finally returns with the food he has carefully prepared for his father, he discovers that Isaac has already given his blessing to Jacob. Not surprisingly he is extremely angry with his treacherous brother and vows to kill him. Once again Rebekah intervenes and warns Jacob that he must flee but she also realises that this is an opportunity for Jacob to visit her own family in Haran and find a suitable wife. So Jacob retraces the journey that Abraham’s servant had made years before in search for a wife for Isaac. But Abraham’s servant had travelled with a large well equipped party of servants, camels, food and money. Jacob travels alone.
The narrator tells us that on his lonely journey he came to ‘a certain place’ and decided to make camp for the night. The fact that Jacob has to make do with a stone for a pillow indicates that he was travelling light with few resources. While he sleeps he has a vision of a ladder set up on earth but reaching to heaven. In the ancient Mesopotamian world, ramped towers known as ziggurats were often built symbolically linking earth and heaven. The account also reminds us of the Tower of Babel story where its builders attempted to build a tower reaching up into heaven. The difference is that this ladder or ramp is of God’s design and it reaches down from heaven to earth, in contrast with the vain attempts of the builders of the Babel tower. Jacob believed that he travelled alone, a fugitive with an uncertain future, completely reliant on his own resources but his dream shatters those presumptions. Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote abode of the Gods. Heaven has to do with earth. When Jacob awakes he declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” Overcome with awe he says: “This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” In response to his vision Jacob consecrates the place by pouring oil over the stone he has rested on and he names the place Bethel, meaning ‘House of God’. Bethel will later become a sacred site but not always for the worship of YHWH.
There is no doubt that Jacob has had a profound spiritual experience which will remain with him for years to come but one wonders if he really understood the full significance of the Lord’s message to him in the dream. The Lord’s speech is a promise- it begins with a reaffirmation of the promise made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. It is the promise of land for Jacob and his many descendants, and the promise that all the families of the earth will be blessed in Jacob and his offspring. But God’s speech also contains specific promises for Jacob himself and they are threefold.
First, Jacob is told “I am with you.” That after all was the main intent of the ladder vision. That promise is central to the Scriptures – in our darkest moments of loneliness, guilt or grief, we can take hold of that word, “I am with you.” It was true for the duplicitous, run-away, Jacob, it is true for us. It is no accident that Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, begins with the angel’s statement that Mary’s child will be called, ‘Emmanuel’, God with us.
The first promise is about a presence and the second promise to Jacob is about an action: “I will keep you.” The word ‘keep’ suggests the image of the shepherd who keeps watch over his sheep. Frequently in the Psalms the Lord is described as our keeper. In Psalm 121, the word ‘keep’ is repeated some six times and the Psalm finishes with the words, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”
The third promise God gives Jacob, is that of homecoming: “I will bring you back to this land.” Jacob does finally return to his home years later and is even reconciled with his brother, Esau. The theme of Israel in exile returning home will also be an important motif later in the Old Testament. But the New Testament promise is that for the Christian, homecoming is the end of our earthly journey when we go to the place that God has prepared for us. We are reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 14, “I go to prepare a place for you that where I am there you may be also.” As we remember the members of our own parish who have recently died we take heart from Paul’s words in Romans 8 which we read this morning; ‘I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory which will be revealed in us.’
As we have noted, Jacob’s response to the vision and to God’s promises to him is to consecrate the place as a sacred site and also to vow that ‘the Lord will be his God’. Yet one wonders if his emphasis on the importance of the place represented a failure to understand the significance of God’s promise, ‘I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’ In the ancient world worshippers had to come to a specific place, a temple or sacred site, to find their god but Jacob’s God declares that he can be found anywhere. This God is not confined by a building or even a holy land. Nowhere is ‘God forsaken’. Centuries later resonances of Jacob’s ladder are found in the Gospel of John. In John 1.51 Jesus is introduced to Nathaniel by his disciple, Philip and describes him as ‘an Israelite in whom there is no deceit’, (which may be an oblique reference to Jacob who was noted for his deceit). The puzzled Nathaniel then asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus tells Nathaniel that he knew about him even before Philip spoke to him. When Nathaniel expresses his amazement at Jesus’ fore knowledge Jesus declares: “Truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” With the coming of Jesus the day of temples as the meeting place between heaven and earth was over. Jesus in his own person brings together God and humanity. He is our temple. Through his death and resurrection Jesus becomes the ladder, the bridge joining estranged men and women with their Heavenly Father.
But while Jacob failed to understand the full import of his heavenly vision, it marked a turning point in his life. He learnt that he was not alone, that God had not abandoned him and though he remained a rather devious character his spiritual journey had begun. God had much more work to do in his life before his name would be changed to Israel and Jacob the supplanter would be left behind. Jacob’s story reminds us that God sometimes chooses the most unlikely people to be his followers and that his grace can transform anyone, who with Jacob declares, ‘the Lord shall be my God.’