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I did not know it

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.’

Philip Brad­ford