First Mennonite Church
October 30, 2016
Today I want to start a new sermon series. This time I want to work on several well-known Bible stories. As you well know, the beauty in the biblical stories lies in the non-sanitized accounts of ordinary men and women. These stories are simple, direct and in many cases told with economy of words—they are brief.
As we will see along this series, the biblical stories are like special-occasion envelopes. And although we delight in looking at these beautifully designed envelops we know that the message found inside them are yet the most important aspect about them. The biblical stories are fascinating to read, but the message and lessons they are intended to communicate are more important.
Today we will start with the story of Jacob and his dream of a tall ladder.
From Ordinary to Extraordinary
Text: Genesis 28:10-22
The story we are reflecting on today is the pillar of the Jacob story. That is because from here on God gives continuity to the legacy, promise and charge given to Abraham. The uprightness, faithfulness, and closeness of Abraham to God make the timing of this transfer of continuity more intriguing at first sight. Jacob is not at the peak of any spiritual mountain in his life nor is he at the height of moral uprightness. Yet, once again the sovereignty and providence of God proves amazing and beyond human comprehension. You see, Jacob is fleeing his brother’s death threat. Jacob had just tricked his father into blessing him and thus robbing Esau of his rightful blessing as firstborn. Night caught Jacob as he is just starting a long journey to his relatives in Haran. As Jacob lies down tired, confused, and fearful, he begins to dream.
If you grew up attending children Sunday school as I did, you might still remember the vivid images of your Sunday school lesson on Jacob and his dream. In my Sunday school lesson handout on that passage was a picture of a man sound asleep with his head on a rock and beside him was a tall ladder reaching up to heaven. There were winged creatures who preferred using their feet to go up and down that ladder instead of flying. Such vivid memories come clear anytime I read this story.
From here on Jacob appears by himself as Genesis lays down the foundation of what will become the Israelite story. Jacob becomes the main character for most of the remainder of the book of Genesis. As Jacob flees the hatred and murderous threat of his brother, he comes to a “certain place.” At the end of the day, exhausted and vulnerable Jacob needs to rest. He takes an ordinary stone from that place and uses it as his pillow and Jacobs falls asleep. It is precisely at this deep vulnerable moment in Jacob’s life that God appears to him in his dream. Jacob dreams of a long ladder reaching up to heaven and angels not doing what angels usually do—that is, conveying messages from God. Instead these angels in Jacob’s dream were going up and down. But God speaks directly to Jacob. God identifies himself as “Yahweh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.” The use of “Yahweh” as the name of the God emphasizes continuity of the relationship between the God of Abraham now being established with Jacob. Yahweh is not a generic term, but the proper name by which God will reveal himself to Moses further down the centuries. God confirms the call of Abraham and his promise of making out of him a great nation. But now God is transferring this call and promise to Jacob and in doing so, God gives continuity to the call and promise he made to Abraham.
It is so amazing to see that at this critical moment in Jacob’s life, when he is so confused, feeling guilty, possibly, and when he is alone and fearsome, God appears to him and makes no mention of the troubles he is fleeing from nor of the problems he has caused to his family. In fact God promises something Jacob desperately needs to hear: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Yes, God instead of rebuking Jacob for his wrong doing and the problems he left his family to deal with, he offers Jacob unconditional protection.
If we want to find signs of God’s grace in the OT, here is a clear example of that.
In your own experience, how was someone going through troubles treated by the church? For instance, when someone was going through a divorce, was this person criticized, rejected, and excommunicated from church even when that person’s life was made miserable by the other spouse?
I was 25 when I started pastoring the church I grew up in. The church council was made up of older men and women than me. There was an occasion when Maria, young woman got involved with a married man from another town. Maria was the daughter of one of the deacons. Some of the church council began criticizing the deacon for not having “control” over his children. The deacon was asked to step down. But what was worst is when someone preached one Sunday night. The entire sermon on the sin of fornication was clearly addressed to Maria. I remember the night I had to address the church council. I told them that sin hurts. Sin destroys. But Jesus came to redeem us from sin and its effects. And when the “sinner” happens to be one of the church family, the church is called to bond the bruises and stop the bleeding of that member. But when the church hurts and adds “salt to injury” to those who are already hurting the church is not only abdicating of its duty but is also denying the Lord it claims to serve and follow.
God does not rebuke Jacob for cheating, instead, God blesses Jacob.
When Jacob wakes up the following morning he realizes the importance of his dream. Jacob recognizes that there is something new he did not know. Jacob is astonished and awed to discover that in fact he was alone. He discovers that God is with him in that place. The random place he chose to rest in the night before is nothing less than “the house of God.” So, he calls the place “Beth-el,” the house of God! But Jacob is not finished yet. Jacob takes the ordinary stone he used as a pillow and converts it into a sacred pillar. He pours some of his cooking oil and dedicates the place onto to God. Jacob turns his campsite into a sanctuary. He takes the ordinary elements of the place and his ordinary supplies and dedicates these to the Lord. But still yet, Jacob does something more. He dedicates himself and any future gift from God to him by making a vow: “the Lord shall be my God [and] of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
There are some lessons we can learn from Jacob’s experience in Beth-el. First, he does not speak of the God in his dream, but of God’s presence in this place. The place in the middle of nowhere along a long journey becomes a place of God-human encounter. In a moment of personal crisis and in place in the middle of nowhere, God shows up and makes a promise of permanent companionship to Jacob. And although the place of encounter becomes a sacred place, Jacob’s safety is not dependent on staying in that place but on the God who promises to walk with him every step of his life’s journey.
So let us ask ourselves, can we say like Jacob, “Now I know that God is in this place? What signs have you found of God accompanying you in your life’s journey? How has God revealed himself to you in the middle of troubles?
The other night someone called me. It was fairly late to receive calls. The person on the other end of the said she could not sleep because of a problem in the family. I offered to pray not only for the problem but also for peace of mind that she might sleep well. Two days after, the person called again. The problem was solved and she said she was surprised the following morning she called me that she fell asleep and did not wake up thinking of the problem that was keeping her sleepless.
God does reveal himself when we are in trouble.
The second lesson we can learn from Jacob is the act of consecrating the ordinary things of daily life. How can the ordinary activities become sacred moments and acts of worship? The ordinary stone became an altar to worship and to remember God’s presence. The cooking oil becomes a priestly element for dedication.
This week, Bud took several bags of food items to Loaves and Fishes. There are families who gave thanks to God before eating their meal made with those food items. We might say, “It’s just a box of plain cereal.” Or “It is the surplus of my pantry.” Yes, they were ordinary things, but someone might have given thanks to God for them. To those families, what was just pantry surplus or plain cereal was a God-given blessing.
A third lesson we can learn from this story is about the grace being an unconditional gift from God. If God could make such undeserved promises to a trickster and cheater, he may as well make it to just anyone. We may not have the same kind of flaws as Jacob had but we have our own. Jacob, the ordinary man was transformed into God’s carrier of promise, legacy, and great people; the ordinary turned extraordinary. God might have surprised Jacob with his extremely generous blessings and promises. But, are we not surprised by how free giving our God is with us? Have you ever felt deserving the things God gives you? Never!
I do trust now you and I are able to say with Jacob, “Now I know that God is in this place. Amen!