Preaching on Genesis this summer feels a little bit like preaching about a serial soap opera.
Last time we met Jacob, he had just stolen his brother’s blessing. Will Esau kill him or will Jacob get away?
However, passages like this week’s remind us that Genesis is not just about family drama-the Book of Genesis is about God’s utter commitment to developing a relationship with the human family.
Before we get to Jacob’s life changing encounter, though, let’s recap where we are.
Last week we talked about how Jacob was a manipulative, greedy creep who stole both his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing. The implications of this were that the second-born Jacob usurped the role properly belonging to his older brother Esau. Esau was not happy about any of this, and threatened to kill Jacob.
What we did not talk about last week was the fact that in the midst of all of this, Esau got married to a Hittite woman. The Hittites were the local girls. The families of Rebekah and Isaac were miles away and apparently Rebekeah did not care for these local girls too much! The last verse of Chapter 27 reads, “And Rebekah said to Isaac, ‘I loathe my life because of these Hittite women! If Jacob takes a wife from Hittite women like these, from the native girls, what good to me is life?'”.
Hee! Now, I know none of YOU feel that way about your daughters-in-law, but I’ve heard that this feeling may not be isolated to the fine women of Paddan-Aram, like Rebekah.
Rebekah’s irritation is relevant to us today, because instead of just telling Jacob to run to the hills to escape Esau, Rebekah tells him to run for the hills in the direction of Paddan-Aram so that he can go to Laban’s house and meet a nice girl. Rebekah once again exerts her power over the men in her life to simultaneously save her son’s life and get a daughter-in-law she can live with. I love the character of Rebekah, but I don’t think I’d want to serve on a committee with her! She is a tough cookie.
So, Jacob takes off in the general direction of his uncle’s house. He travels all alone, which is unusual for Genesis, where people usually travel in family groups or at least have some servants with them. He is isolated, maybe lonely, hopefully feeling some measure of remorse. He is journeying to an unknown future and has put the relationship with his family in jeopardy. Jacob, for all his bravado and manipulations of the past, is probably feeling as vulnerable as he has ever felt in his life.
He is alone, the sky is growing dark, so he pulls up a stone for a pillow and goes to sleep. Remember, Jacob is not a spiritual guy. We have no previous indication that Jacob was interested in God at all. Though Abraham and Isaac were both faithful in their way, Jacob seems pretty dis-interested in following God.
Jacob may not be interested in God, but God is very interested in Jacob.
After Jacob falls asleep on his hard pillow, he has a dream. This dream is trippy. In the dream, he sees a big ladder that stretches all the way to the heavens. Angels are floating or walking up and down this ladder and then, before Jacob has time to absorb these wild images, God speaks. God identifies himself as the God of Jacob’s father and grandfather. God then goes on to repeat the promises he has made to Abraham to Jacob: Jacob will be the father of a great people who will stretch all over the earth. Jacob will own land. The families of the world will be blessed through Jacob’s family. And finally, God will not leave Jacob until his promise is complete.
Jacob is not the only person over the course of time to whom God has presented himself through dreams and visions. God interjecting himself into our subconscious when we least expect it is one of the ways he communicates to us.
The great theologian Augustine tells of his conversion experience in his great book of Confessions. Augustine was a lot like Jacob, actually. He was famously self-absorbed, and got into a lot of “romantic” trouble to boot. God intervened in his life in the following way:
“Such things I said, weeping in the most bitter sorrow of my heart. And suddenly I hear a voice from some nearby house, a boy’s voice or a girl’s voice, I do not know: but it was a sort of sing-song, repeated again and again, “Take and read, take and read.” I ceased weeping and immediately began to search my mind most carefully as to whether children were accustomed to chant these words in any kind of game and I could not remember that I had ever heard any such thing. Damming back the flood of my tears I arose, interpreting the incident as quite certainly a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the passage at which I should open. . . .So I was moved to return to the place where Alypius was sitting, for I had put down the Apostles book there when I arose. I snatched it up, opened it and in silence read the passage upon which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupisecenses. I had no wish to read further and no need. For in that instant, with the very ending of the sentence, it was as though a light of utter confidence shone in all my heart, and all the darkness of uncertainty vanished away.”*
And if you think these kind of experiences are relegated to great theologians of the 400 hundreds, think again. Anne LaMott, a hilarious and insightful writer struggled with alcohol, drugs and relationships throughout her early adulthood. One day, in the midst of a very dark time, she had the following experience:
“After awhile, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there-of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I just felt him sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that ‘s not what I was seeing him with.
Finally, I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.”**
Jacob, Augustine, Anne LaMott: all three had memorable, personal, transformative experiences with the living God. Each of them experience God’s personal, intimate desire to be in relationship with them and to heal them. All three of them go on to become faithful followers of God, who do their best to live in such a way that is pleasing to God.
What is wonderful, is that none of them lose their identity and character when they begin following God: Anne LaMott continues to be creative and irreverent, Augustine continued to be passionate and articulate. And Jacob. . .well, Jacob continued to be a bit of a pain in the neck. For whatever reason, our lectionary cuts our reading off a few verses before it actually ends. After Jacob has this profound encounter with the God of his fathers, he gets all excited and marks the spot, but then he goes on to say:
“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, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, 22 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.”
Jacob cracks me up. He has a profound, personal encounter with God and then tries to bargain with God! Instead of just thanking God and moving on, Jacob tells God that if God gives him food, and clothes and safe travels then the monument he builds will be God’s house and then Jacob will give a tenth of all he has to God.
I don’t know if God has a face, but I would have loved to see God’s face when Jacob came back with a counter-offer to God’s promise! I picture God rolling his eyes, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head a little, “These humans. . .”
Lucky for Jacob, God seems to take Jacob’s response with a grain of salt and continues to show faithfulness to Jacob and Jacob’s descendents. God reminds us, through Jacob, and Augustine and Anne that his faithfulness to us is not our behavior, our attitudes, our nice-ness. God pursues us and wants us for his own no matter how disordered our lives are. He chases after us, and reaches out for us and reveals himself to us even when we are least expecting it and not at all prepared.
The idea that we could be adequately prepared to meet the living God is pure arrogance. Thank goodness He comes when we’re not ready, or we might never encounter him at all!
*Augustine, Confessions, Hacket Publishing Company: Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1993, p. 146.
** Lamott, Anne, Traveling Mercies, Anchor Books: New York, 1999, pp. 49-50.