Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!”
(Preached on Sunday, July 23, 2017)
An 85-year-old couple, married almost 60 years, died in a car crash. They had been in good health, particularly in the last decade, due to her rigid enforcement of a low fat, high fiber diet. When they reached heaven’s gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion. As they “ooohed and aaahed” the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. “It’s free,” Peter replied, “this is heaven.” Next they went to see the championship golf course. The old man asked, “What are the green fees?” Peter’s reply, “This is heaven, you play for free.” Next was the clubhouse and a lavish buffet lunch. “How much to eat?” asked the old man. “This is heave, it is free!” Peter replied. The old man looked at his wife and said, “You and your bran muffins. I could have been here ten years ago!”
That joke has nothing really to do with the rest of the sermon. I just found it and thought it was a really good one and wanted to share it with you.
No, we are not in heaven in our scripture reading this morning. Jacob does have a dream, a vision, of the stairway to heaven with the angles going up and down doing heaven’s business. But where Jacob is when he has this dream is definitely not heaven.
Jacob is running away from home. He is doing so to escape the wrath of his brother whom he has just cheated out of his birthright (his inheritance from his father as the oldest son) and their father’s blessing (also rightfully reserved for the oldest son). And he did all this with the encouragement and help of his mother, Rebekah. Jacob’s story and family is every bit as complex and filled with scheming, conniving, back-stabbing treachery among family members as is Game of Thrones. For those of you who have not watched or read the Game of Thrones saga: if you know the story of Jacob, Esau, Isaac, Rebekah and their family, then you have an idea what Game of Thrones is like. (Except – there are no dragons in the Bible.)
His actions have made him persona non grata at home and so, again at the suggestion of his mother, he has fled to her brother’s family. She even cooked up a story that she wanted Jacob to find a wife from among her homeland, rather than marry one of the foreign women in the land where they now live.
So it is that the rogue Jacob finds himself far from home, not yet lodged with kindred, out in the middle of nowhere. He is not staying with friends or family. He is not invited in by hospitable strangers. Instead, he is alone and exposed, sleeping outdoors with his head on a rock. Unless you are a deep-woods wilderness camper, you’ve probably never experienced the kind of aloneness Jacob encounters out here, in the dark. I have camped, and will soon be once again, in the deep-woods of wilderness in northern Minnesota, and I have never used a rock for a pillow, or felt quite as alone as I imagine Jacob felt. Nor as anxious, for Jacob, running for his life, is greatly exposed. He is at great risk from the known behind him and the unknown before him. He is an “unperson” in an “unplace,” an immoral and irreligious rogue. It seems to be a most undesirable place: a metaphor and a reminder of where his choices have brought him.
All alone in this limbo, full of anxiety, and exhausted from his journey, Jacob settles into the vulnerability of sleep. That is exactly where God comes to meet Jacob – in an unexpected place; a place that appears God-forsaken; a place almost no one would go to for the purpose of meeting God. But God meets Jacob here and talks with him. God renews the promises that have been given to Jacob’s grandparents and parents before him.
But there is one difference. Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, heard the promises of God’s presence and protection and blessing on the way into the land of promise; Jacob hears these same promises on his way out of the land. And that brings a new, powerful element into the promise. God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes, not just in the land of promise. So, Jacob learns that God is not limited to one place or time. Wherever Jacob goes, even a desolate, isolated, forlorn place such as where he has this dream, God is there with him and God is taking care of him.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn learned this truth in a Soviet prison in Siberia. He became exhausted from the hard labor, weak from starvation, and suffering from and untreated illness. He felt that he could not go on. He stopped working, knowing that the guards would beat him severely and maybe even kill him. Then another prisoner, a follower of Jesus, took his shovel and in the sand at the feet of Solzhenitsyn drew the sign of the cross, and then quickly erased it. Solzhenitsyn says that the hope and courage of the gospel flooded his soul, and it enabled him to hold on. Was he saved by the sign of the cross? Yes! But he was also saved that day by that caring fellow, a Christian person who cared enough to remind him of hope. Even in a place like the Gulag in Siberia, a place as desolate and despairing as where Jacob spent the night, Solzhenitsyn found the presence of God.
There is a guided prayer and meditation technique that has become popular in Christian circles over the years. I have even used it at times. The leader invites the group participants to close their eyes and relax and imagine themselves in a beautiful and peaceful place. Then, having set the pretty stage, they are invited to picture Jesus coming to meet and talk with them there. Now I am sure that technique has generated some meaningful experiences for numbers of people. But there is something not quite right about that approach. For the Scripture does not bear witness to a God who meets us in imaginary places, especially lovely, peaceful, imaginary places. Quite the contrary, scripture reveals a God who meets us in very real – and often not-so-lovely – places. And when God is looking for us and calling us to receive God’s promises, God’s presence is not hindered by our colorful history and our misdeeds – no, not one bit.
This is the God who meets Hagar, the servant of Abraham’s wife Sarah who is abandoned along with her young child, Abraham’s son Ishmael in the desert, in her distress. This is the God who meets Gideon, the commander of the Israelite armies, where he is hiding from the menacing invading Midianite army. This is the God who meets Saul on his bloodthirsty way to Damascus. This is the God who meets a manipulative, deceitful scoundrel of a younger brother as he runs away from home, sleeping with his head on a rock in the middle of nowhere. It is a great testimony to God’s grace – and a great comfort to us in both our ordinariness and our distress – that God meets us in very real places.
There will be rocky times in your life, when you seem on your own (like Jacob) and you may imagine that God has deserted you. But that will not be true. There will be unfortunate times in your life when you (like Jacob) have acted badly towards others, and suspect that God might want nothing to do with you. But that will not be true. God will be there in the rocky place. God will be with you in your shame.
The commitment of God is total. God is a covenant God who remains faithful to the promised agreement to be there for us. God is present in every place and situation. Sometimes you may be aware of the holy Presence. But most often you will have no such awareness. Don’t be mislead by your feelings. Feelings are treacherous things, totally unreliable as a barometer of God’s Presence. Jesus, the living Word of God promises to be with us always, and where Jesus is, there is God. That is a covenant we can rely on. No matter how hard the territory you are in, no matter how alone you feel, no matter how much anguish or grief you suffer: Surely, God is in THIS place!
So remember what Jacob discovered in his rocky place.
Remember and think about it when you are being hassled at work.
Remember and think about it if you find yourself lying in a hospital bed.
Remember and think about it when you feel depressed and useless.
Remember and think about it if you become bored in church.
Remember and think about it when you are feeling badly led down by a friend.
Remember and think about it if you are being verbally attacked.
Remember and think about it when others prosper while you battle on.
Remember and think about it if your whole world seems to be falling apart.
Remember and think about it when you feel stretched to the limit of your endurance.
Remember, God is found among these rocks.
Surely God is in THIS place! And I did not know it!