Year A, Pentecost 6
When I was preparing for this sermon, I spent a lot of time thinking about holy places, places where I encountered something sacred and divine. I got a little frustrated because I could not really think of any specific place. Then I stopped filtering my thoughts and I realized that when I thought of sacred encounters, I did not think about places. I thought about experiences and emotions. Sometimes they were in churches or places of natural beauty; but usually I could not even remember the place. What I remembered was times of weakness, times of desperation and fear. These were the times when my mind shut down and the barrier fell down and God broke through. That is where I found my holy places.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Jacob. On the one hand, he’s sneaky and manipulative which irritates me. But he’s also pretty scrappy and tenacious. Jacob was the younger son born to Rebecca and Isaac. His brother (Esau) was born just seconds before him. Because he was the oldest son, Esau was guaranteed a birthright and a blessing. Having the birthright meant that he would be the head of the family when his father died. He would own all the property and have authority over any younger siblings. Jacob wanted that birthright and convinced Esau to give it to him by tempting him with food. Esau was hungry after a long day of work. When he asked Jacob for food, Jacob said he could have it if he gave him his birthright. Esau must have been terribly hungry because he agreed.
Years later, when their now blind father was on his deathbed, Jacob presented himself to his father and claimed he was Esau. Since Isaac could not see, he gave Jacob the blessing that Esau deserved as the first born thus giving Jacob both the birthright and the blessing. As you can imagine, Esau was pretty angry. He vowed to kill his brother. When Jacob learned of this threat, he ran away.
When he left his home, he had nothing and no one. There was no one to accompany him on this journey. We know he did not have time to pack since he was using a rock as a pillow. I assume he was experiencing some guilt, maybe wondering whether it was worth it. While he clearly had the brains in the family, Esau had the hunting skills and he was angry and out for revenge. It didn’t seem as though having the birthright and blessing was doing Jacob much good since he couldn’t even stay in his homeland.
The text tells us that he came to a certain place and stayed there for a night. The phrase, “certain place” is an interesting choice of words. We know where he left and we know where he was heading to, but neither the reader nor he knew where he was. He was just in-between his home and an unknown future. He must have been very tired because despite his fear and the lack of comfort, he slept.
I imagine it was one of those dreams that felt real and unbelievable at the same time because it combined his immediate surroundings with something that was glorious and almost unimaginable. Our translation of the Bible says it was a ladder, but most scholars say it was more of a ramp, like a land mass in between earth and heaven. Jacob knew that the ramp led to heaven because he saw angels ascending and descending. If that was not convincing enough, the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord….” God proceeded to promise Jacob the gift of land and offspring as numerous as the dust of the earth. It was a very similar blessing to that which God had given his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac.
Then God added even more to the blessing. He said, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land…” Imagine how that must have sounded to someone who had been forced to cut all ties to his family and his homeland. God was promising him that he would be with him at all times and that he would protect him from all peril. That was an added blessing. That was even more than God had promised Abraham and Isaac.
That confuses me a little. What had he done to deserve that? He deceived his father and stole from his brother and now he gets an extra blessing? Maybe he needed a little extra blessing. He was alone and scared. He was not the hunter that Esau was. If Esau wanted to find him, he would. But there was something feisty about Jacob. God knew that he was going to fight for his blessings. He would doggedly pursue a blessing that he desperately wanted.
Let’s face it, it’s not like it was fair that Esau got the blessing just because he came out of the womb first. Jacob fought for that blessing and that birthright and he never gave up. While his methods were questionable, I think God saw something promising in this him. God knew that if he was at Jacob’s side, that persistence would no longer be so selfish. It would be a persistence that would bring blessing not only to him, but to an entire people. It would be a persistence that the Hebrew people would emulate for generations.
So not only did God give him this blessing, he showed Jacob something that very few had ever experienced. He showed him a place where heaven and earth met. What is so amazing about that ramp to heaven was that it was a two way street. Angels were ascending and descending. Angels are messengers of God. That is the literal translation of the Hebrew word: messenger. That ramp was proof that the lines of communication were going both ways. God was speaking and God was listening. There was no and is no barrier between heaven and earth.
The only barrier is the one that we create in our minds. Maybe God chose Jacob to be a witness to that message because he was a man without roots. He was a man in-between the home he left and a home he was searching for. He was (as the text says) in a certain place. And that is where God often reaches people; in that in-between place where we are still open to revelation. It’s when we get comfortable that we stop having those vivid dreams that allow us to encounter true holiness. If he was sleeping in a comfy bed instead of on a rock perhaps he would not have seen that vision.
When he woke up he proclaimed, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” He took the rock that he had slept on and set it up as a pillar so he could remember that place where the Lord had appeared. He declared the place to be a gate to heaven. It is understandable that he wanted to remember that place and honor that place. But I wonder if he kind of missed the point. That place was not holy because of where it was. That rock was not holy because he had dreamt on it. That place was holy because of what was missing from that place, and that was the barrier between heaven and earth, between the sacred and mundane.
I feel the Lord in St. John’s and I hope you do as well. But I really hope that in your moments of pain, and fear and loneliness—in those certain in-between places where we feel lost and we have no idea where we are…I pray that we will find the Lord in those places as well. Because that is where the Lord will find us.