This is the first of a weekly blog of ideas for preaching and Bible study on texts from the Revised Common Lectionary. I will be working a week or two ahead in hopes these ideas and thoughts might be helpful to my colleagues in the pulpit.
“Jacob’s Ladder and God’s Surprises,” Genesis 28:10-22 (Hebrew Scriptures lectionary text for July 17, 2011)
If there had been a TV show in Biblical times called “Israel’s Most Wanted,” Jacob would have been a headliner – wanted for fraud and extortion, for impersonating a son. Jacob is like the prodigal son in the New Testament, only worse. The prodigal son only took his share of the inheritance, but Jacob wanted his Brother Esau’s share too. He took what was not rightfully his. By my count Jacob broke at least 4 of the 10 commandments before they were even given to Moses!!!
The story seems very familiar to us because many of us learned to sing about Jacob’s ladder at an early age. But if we look more carefully, it is full of surprises:
Surprise #1. Jacob is surprised God is out there in the wilderness, in a place one might describe as “god-forsaken” where Motel 6 doesn’t even leave the light on. God’s presence is not good news for Jacob because of his guilt over tricking his poor old father and cheating his brother. Remember, he’s out there in the wilderness because he’s on the lam. So, Jacob is first fearful and then pleasantly surprised that he doesn’t get judged and punished for his sin. He could have been a crispy critter on the spot.
I remember a Bible study several years ago where our youth group discovered some of the R-rated stories in the Hebrew Bible—the ones you never learn in Sunday School about incest and rape and adultery and murder. Many of the youth knew that in his later life Jacob had 12 sons, but they were quite surprised to learn that those sons were from 4 different mothers and that old Jacob wasn’t even married to two of them. Finally, one of the youth said, “Those aren’t very good people. What are they doing in the Bible?” Because like us, they are sinners and like us they are loved by God anyway. That’s why Jesus ate with sinners; if he hadn’t he would always have eaten alone.
Surprise #2. For this one, stop and think about what you envision when you think about Jacob’s dream and the ladder or stairway to heaven. Where is God in that picture? Up there, like the giant at the top of the beanstalk right? Now listen to what the NRSV translation says in verses 12 and 13: “and he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father….” How did we miss that? God is right there next to us to guide and direct us, not far removed in Heaven.
An old curmudgeon decided to tease some children on their way home from Sunday School. He said to them, “I’ll give you 10 cents if you can tell me where God is.” One sharp little girl responded immediately, “I’ll give you $100 if you can tell me where he ain’t.”
One of the problems with our theology from sources like the Jacob’s ladder song is that it perpetuates a narrow view of the hierarchical nature of our faith journey toward a God “who art in Heaven.” The song says, “We are climbing – higher, higher,” but we aren’t. The world is in worse shape now that it’s been in years. The ladder theology implies if we just climb high enough, we’ll know all we need to know about God, and that’s not the way God works. Someone once said that talking about God is like trying to bite a wall – none of us ever climb high enough to have the whole truth about God.
When United Methodist clergy are ordained, we are asked a lot of questions that date back to one of our founders, John Wesley. One that always gets a chuckle is “are you going on to perfection?” The point is simply that we all need to be reminded regularly, especially clergy, that we are called, as the prophet Micah puts it, to “walk humbly with our God.” None of us can ever climb up the ladder of perfection, and the good news is we don’t have to – because God is already right here beside us.
You’d think that would be good enough wouldn’t you? But are we satisfied with that? Was Jacob? Surprise #3: God has just spared Jacob from divine judgment, given him unconditional love, forgiveness, renewed God’s eternal covenant with him, and what does Jacob do – say thanks, or sing the Hallelujah Chorus? No, he starts negotiating, putting conditions on the relationship with God!
Unfortunately, the lectionary selection of this story usually ends at verse 19, but I would urge you to also read verses 20-22 to get more of the story. In those verses we find the five conditions or “ifs” that Jacob tries to put on God: If God will be with me, if God will keep me in this way that I go, if God will give me bread to eat, if God will give me clothes to wear, and if God will bring me to my father’s house in peace–then the Lord shall be my God! And even then God only gets 1/10th of Jacob’s income. Such a deal! We give bigger tips to the servers at a restaurant.
Jacob doesn’t get it. God’s covenant isn’t measured in material rewards. The only promise is that God is with us, no matter what happens or where we are. Appropriately, the Psalter lesson for July 17 is Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in hell, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.”
You get the point — we really can’t go anywhere that God isn’t.
Surprise #4, perhaps the biggest of all: If rascals like Jacob and you and I are in Beth El, which means the house of God, then everyone is. To paraphrase St. Paul, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female – Muslim or born again Christian. We are all one big dysfunctional family like Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Esau.
Jacob doesn’t deserve God’s love, and neither do we; but that doesn’t mean we have to hoard it or cheat others out of their eternal inheritance. God’s amazing grace is bountiful enough for every one of God’s children everywhere. There is no need for sibling rivalry in the family of God
Our spiritual journey isn’t about anything we can or have to do – it’s about realizing Jacob’s surprise — that God is right here beside us, even if we don’t know it or deserve it. Our spiritual growth and salvation isn’t about us. It’s not about our climbing higher and higher on the stairway to heaven.
We can’t draw closer to God –not because we aren’t good enough, but because God is always so near to us that whenever we cry, God tastes the salt of our tears.