A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Text: Genesis 28:10-19a
Have you ever set out on a long journey with a sense of urgency about reaching your destination as soon as possible? You drove farther than you had planned, pressing onward through the day. Suddenly you realized the sun had set, darkness was gathering all around you, and you were in the middle of nowhere. You could feel exhaustion inhabiting body, mind and spirit. With a sigh of relief, you settled for the first seedy motel you encountered and eventually settled into fitful sleep.
This where we find Jacob in today’s text. Admittedly, he’s a fugitive, fleeing his brother’s wrath, so the urgency of his journey is a life or death matter. And, of course, he’s walking in an area where there are no motels to be found. He’s gone as far as he can manage. Exhausted, he falls to the ground, cradling his head on the nearest stone and drifts into fitful sleep. Is it his exhaustion that troubles his slumber? the hard ground and his stone pillow? the uncertainty of his future? guilt for his past? It may well be that all this and more came into play.
Jacob’s is an important story in the history of the Hebrew people but he is not a very likable character. Some want to claim for him the archetypal role of the Trickster and there might be merit to that, but it is not hard to see that he is a scoundrel. You know the story, in conspiracy with his mother, Rebekah, he cheats his poor brother, Esau, of his birthright and his father’s blessing, both crucial to establishing his patriarchal rights as the first-born son. Whether or not Esau was a dolt or just naively trusting is irrelevant to the wickedness of his brother – and, yes, his own mother.
Esau has had enough. He’s out to get his brother. Thinking quickly, Rebekah hatches an elaborate plot for Jacob to get out of town. He should head across country to Haran, the land of her family and find a wife there among her people, lest he find himself wed to one of these awful Canaanite women as his brother was. Jacob doesn’t hesitate. He hits the road for Haran and here we find him, in the dead of the night, sleeping under the stars.
The vision he dreams, the theophany he encounters, lights up the night with angelic messengers descending and ascending a ladder or ramp that reaches all the way to heaven with God holding forth above it all. This was hardly what Jacob expected, a marked man, lying on the hard cold ground. Suddenly, the Holy One, the God of his forebears stands beside him, making promises in line with the covenant God had established with his ancestors – a great line of heirs who will bless the earth. Then, “I will be with you – yes, you, Jacob. I will keep you and I will bring you home.” Jacob can hardly believe his ears.
Is this amazing grace? It surely seems so to me. Jacob has certainly not earned any favor with God. In fact, this fleeing scoundrel has had little to do with God or religion at all. He has been totally wrapped in feathering his own nest. His very name means “striver,” “usurper” or “schemer.” His whole existence had been given over to getting ahead. When he speaks to old Isaac about the Holy One, he refers to Yahweh as “your God” (Genesis 27:20). Wouldn’t he be shocked by God’s showing up, even in his dreams.
But then there is that nagging question Barbara Brown Taylor raises. “By day I can outfox questions like these,” questions that challenge conscience, questions about how I treat my sisters and brothers, questions like “who am I?” and “what am I doing here?” questions that call forth the Holy One. Looking at her own daily routine, she describes,“…racing from one appointment to the next, answering emails with red exclamation points by them, taking the suddenly sick dog to the vet, rummaging through the freezer for something to thaw for supper. By day, I am a servant of the urgent. Nothing important has a chance with me…But in the middle of the night…I am a captive audience.”
In his own little world – self-absorbed and self-serving – Jacob has made neither time nor space for God. So, God comes to him, even if God has to wait till the middle of the night to capture Jacob’s attention. In learning to walk in the dark, we run the risk of encountering God in a deeper, more intense way than we ever imagined possible. Some days it‘s the only time we’re free of the clutter that threatens to bury us. It’s the only time God can get our attention – middle of the night, lying on the hard cold ground, open and vulnerable in our sleep and in our dreams.
The problem with Jacob, as it may be with us, he only skims the surface of the encounter. Visionary living remains beyond him. Walter Brueggemann writes that “The element in the narrative that surprises Jacob and seems incredible to us is…the wonder, mystery, and shock that this God should be present in such a decisive way to this exiled one. The miracle is the way this sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, p. 242).
However, instead of falling on his knees in repentance and joy, Jacob actually tries to bargain with God. Verses 20-22 of Genesis 28 record this response from Jacob, “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.’”
He almost embraces what God is offering, but then, just to be certain, he adds that little “if” to his vow. “If you really do what you say you will, then I will take you as my God, worshipping and serving you.” Maybe it’s too much too soon. Maybe this is a far as Jacob can go in this encounter. There is no question that our spiritual journey is a life journey. There is always more to learn, more to let go of, more God to encounter and give ourselves to. Jacob is on more than one journey this night. He may be on his way to Haran but he is also on his way to heaven, as heaven draws nearer to earth. He is being drawn in the Spirit’s tether, lured by divine love into an ever closer walk with God. He has a lot yet to learn but he will never be the same, having seen this vision on this night.
Maren Tirabassi has been blogging prayer poems on the parable of the Prodigal Son for this Lenten season. They are both moving and challenging. Yesterday she posted this one, which I think gives insight into Jacob and, perhaps, to us.
Lenten reflection — recidivism
by Maren C. Tirabassi
February 20, 2016
How many times do we expect
the prodigal to return?
What about the fourth time,
when we are out of rings and robes
and the only sandals
in the house
already have feet in them?
What about the seventh time,
a little gray in the hair,
and there is not so much
as fatted turnip left in the kitchen?
Our older child does not need
to say, “I told you so.”
It hovers in the air,
but still we are not left alone.
God, look the prodigal comes again.
We always lean our hearts
into that moment —
the one with the big hug,
and we believe every time …
the way you always do.
These are word of grace for the Prodigal, for Jacob, for you and me and all the world. Jacob is touched by his night vision but he is not healed. He will go on his merry way, creating more mischief before he comes to his senses and decides to head home. “Maybe,” he recalls, “there is something to that old covenant I made with God at Bethel. Maybe God really has been with me and kept me and now is calling me home. Maybe it’s time to pay up.”
You remember how the story ends – Jacob trembling at the Jabbok, having done everything he can imagine to cover his behind – emissaries and gifts to placate his brother, dividing up his goods and his entourage, hoping at least some will survive, Here he comes, bowing and scraping, as Esau approaches with 400 men. Here he stands before his brother, his greatest fear for, lo, these many years. Now he is at Esau’s mercy. Will he live or die?
And, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Amazing grace, how sweet the sound of brothers weeping in forgiveness and love. Visionary living. Oh Jacob saw the vision, he dreamed the dream that night at Bethel, but it took a life time for the vision to be realized, for the healing to occur, for the promise to be fulfilled. Learning to walk in the dark opens us to dreams and night musings, to visions of what might yet be when we trust God to walk with us, keep us close and lead us home. Amen.