by Dave Swanson
Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17 and John 1:50-51
I.In the religious community I grew up in, British writer C.S. Lewis could just about walk on water. He was super smart, told cool stories, thought interesting theological thoughts, AND he was an evangelical Christian. What’s not to like??!!! Well, we forgave him for being part of the Church of England and not a Baptist.
In the religious community I grew up in, British writer C.S. Lewis could just about walk on water. He was super smart, told cool stories, thought interesting theological thoughts, AND he was an evangelical Christian. What’s not to like??!!! Well, we forgave him for being part of the Church of England and not a Baptist.
At this point in my life I’m not a fan of much that he says, but one thing he says in his work, “The Four Loves,” has stuck with me for the last 25 years. As Lewis delineates between eros, the Greek word for romantic love, and phileia the word for friendship, he notes, “In some ways nothing is less like a Friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”
I don’t know about you, but these images ring true for me. Of course, today, most of us hope, maybe expect, that our lover will also be our friend, but even for those of us who have that pleasure, the moments of friendship and romance are generally distinguishable. It’s like there’s a different handbook for each kind of interaction.
In today’s story, God seems to have read in both handbooks. Jacob is having some kind of vision or dream of a ramp from Earth to Heaven traveled by heavenly creatures moving up and down it. Jacob is transfixed by this supernatural sight. He is mesmerized by the magical sight in front of him, and then God shows up next to him.
While writing this sermon, I kept thinking about one of the final scenes in the David Fincher movie, Fight Club, in which Edward Norton and Helena Bonham-Carter are standing in front of huge plate glass windows high up in an empty office building looking out the window, when, one by one, the other sky scrapers around them start blowing up and collapsing. It’s the middle of the night and the whole scene is pretty dark, but again and again, there is a flash and another building goes down. Slowly, Bonham-Carter’s character reaches out her hand to take Norton’s as they watch. Similarly, God sneaks up beside Jacob, and watches the display of magical movement beside him. Two friends, observing the magical world.
And then comes the lovers moment. God performs an introduction. You have seen it in the movies, the friends are watching something else, and then, as if drawn by some magnetism, they slowly turn toward one another and behold one another as if for the first time. Suddenly they are no longer just two companions. Something has happened. The text reads, “And the Name stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Name, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.’” God surprises Jacob with God’s presence, and with God’s loving self-disclosure.
But this moment of intimacy and beauty comes as a surprise to Jacob. Not only because it is just not normal to receive supernatural visions and visits from God, but because of what had happened before the vision. In the scene before, Jacob cheats his older brother, Esau, out of the blessing due him by lying to his old and blind father, tricking him into thinking that he is Esau. In many ways, this early part of the Jacob story is really about the brilliance of his mother, Rebecca. She works in this scene to ensure that Isaac’s blessing is given to his younger son, while the custom was to bless the older son. Much of what happens to Esau is totally unfair, but Rebecca, two chapters earlier, when she was pregnant with these twins, was told by God that the older son would serve the younger. The binding theme of God’s blessing given to Abraham is going to go through Jacob, not Esau.
So, from that perspective, all of Rebecca’s machinations are about bringing God’s promises to fruition. Further, it is fascinating that the so-called patriarch, in this part of the tale, is feeble, blind, and not the brightest bulb in the set. His wife is brilliant creative as she furthers her plans. Carol Newsome, in the Women’s Bible Commentary is very careful to note that we are not witnessing in the text the appearance of a “liberated woman.” Unfortunately, Rebecca’s leadership and strategic intelligence come confined within a patriarchal system. She has been dealt the very limited hand of a woman in ancient times, which is to say that sex and its symbolic counterpart, food, are the main tools available to her to affect change in the male-dominated system of which she is a part. Never-the-less, her wits and intelligence are shown to be heroic as she moves the men around her like so many pieces on a chess board. And, from the perspective of following the promise of blessing, as the books of Moses do, Rebecca comes out as the heroine of this part of the tale, ensuring that the blessing goes to the right man.
But from the perspective of Jacob, he just stole something that was by right, his brother’s. Jacob is a scoundrel. The meaning of all this comes clear in the portion of text between our readings today. Esau, upon learning that the blessing has been passed to Jacob, loses it. He weeps and wails and begs his father for another blessing. This was no small thing. After this, Esau vows to kill his brother, and so Rebecca, in another brilliant move, sends Jacob to her brother, Laban, in what we now call Syria, to marry there. In doing this, Rebecca, saves Jacob from his brother’s vengeance.
And that is what brings us to the story of Jacob’s ladder in chapter 28. Jacob is on his way to his uncle’s when he lies down for the night. Jacob, at least in the story, is fresh off his deceit and theft. Despite receiving his father’s blessing, he has to know that what he has done is morally bankrupt and wrong. He has to know that God knows what has really happened. Given what we know of the story, we might expect a magical meeting with God to feel more like the tale we have in the New Testament another person traveling to Syria. When Saul gets stopped and challenged on the road by a blinding light and thundering voice, his wrongs are addressed. Saul is blinded and humbled and shown the error of his ways.
But not Jacob. Jacob is gifted with a vision of divine and earthly commerce, heavenly creatures coming and going. Jacob is visited by God and promised blessing. Where is the smack down? When does God tell Jacob: “Hey man, you don’t have to cheat the world to gain my blessings. Just trust me and walk faithfully. Also, now you’re blind, so you can have some time to think about this.”
Last week, while she was lighting the peace lamp, Kayla thanked God that FARC, the Marxist guerillas of Colombia had laid down their weapons and become a political movement instead of a military one. This was indeed a development toward a more peaceful life in those countries. However, what has me curious is what kept those guerillas out in the jungles for decades, plotting attacks and seeking to effect their will through violence and terror. Guerrilla is Spanish for “little war” and guerrilla fighters are often small bands arrayed against much larger forces, which is why they use surprise and terror tactics. But it is more than just small against big. FARC is an acronym that, translated, stands for “The Revolutionary Forces of Columbia.” The life of revolution is action in the present, motivated by and moving toward a vision of the future that will turn everything on its head. With visions of a peaceful, agrarian and anti-imperialist Columbia in their hearts and minds, the FARC lived in the jungles and fought battles and committed atrocities.
They used the element of surprise to try to move their world toward the world they could see in their hearts. In today’s story, God makes a guerrilla attack on Jacob. Instead of violence, torture, and terror, God uses different weapons to move toward the world of God’s dreams. But the element of surprise, that God employs in spades. Jacob must have some guilt scratching at the door of his mind given all he has done. As he lays down to sleep, he must wonder if Esau is going to catch up to him and murder him while he lays there. If thoughts of God were on his mind, he likely would have imagined that a surprise meet-up with God would not turn out well for him, given what he’d done. And so he falls asleep, but maybe it takes him a while to get there—and not just because he’s using a rock for a pillow.
And then comes the attack. God’s vanguard is overwhelming beauty and majesty. I don’t know what angels look like, but you can bet they inspire wonder. You can imagine Jacob staring in his dream-state at the outlandish beauty of the scene in front of him. And then, before he knows what is happening, God shows up right beside him.
The two of them.
Staring at the wild and wonderful sight.
God whispers in Jacob’s ear:
This is who I am.
You will be blessed.
Can you imagine Jacob’s surprise? If God had just shown up with nothing preceding her presence, perhaps Jacob would have remembered to be afraid. But God sends beauty and wonder ahead and, one thing that is true is that you cannot feel shame and wonder at the same time. Wonder lifts and transports us out of our worst selves and into something bigger and more beautiful than all the good and the bad of our individual existences. Wonder and beauty are God’s gifts to us that soften the earth of our hard souls. They are the tools that help make us ready to receive Godself, so maybe we won’t die or shrivel up if and when God appears. And wonder can be sourced in almost anything: a cold cup of water after a hot Great Race, a sunset hanging over you as you gaze at it with your companion, wine and cheese with your lover on the new patio your friend built you for no reason other than his awesomeness. Six-hundred dollars in an envelope that show up when you desperately need it. A kind word, a moment of connection, a child so excited she starts spontaneously dancing.
All of this reminds us that joy comes in God’s world—that is takes us by surprise and overwhelms us with its gifts.
All of this reminds us, that though we are just as messed up as Jacob, God’s world is still the best pen to play in.
Because what follows this for-runner of joy, wonder, and beauty, is God’s presence. God sneaks up behind us and says: “See? Isn’t it beautiful? This is who I am. I am with you. I will never leave nor forsake you. You’re with me now.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the NAME is in this place—and I did not know it!”