Genesis 27 (select verses)
July 23, 2017
HOUSE OF GOD, GATE OF HEAVEN
If you travel to Ireland you can visit Blarney, and you can enter the medieval castle and bend over backwards, while you are lowered carefully, and you can kiss the Blarney Stone. It is said that if you kiss the stone in this way you are granted the Irish gift of gab, you are endowed with the capacity for empty flattery and beguiling talk.
Our man Jacob, in Genesis, apparently was ordained with the gift of gab and after disguising himself as his brother Esau and cooking some savory food, he tricks his elderly father into giving him the patriarchal blessing. This beguiling scheme was hatched with his mother Rebekah. Isaac’s eyes were too old, and his mind too frail, to completely understand what was happening and he blessed Jacob and this caused a family crises.
Let’s be clear, the characters in Genesis think differently about a blessing than we do. They all understand the words of a blessing to be one time, and incredibly powerful. It sounds like blarney to us. We would likely say that there is plenty of love to go around, and the more we love our children the more love is multiplied. They see blessing as a limited edition, rare, extraordinary, one time, final and irrevocable. It is true that words once uttered cannot be taken back, but much more so to our ancient family. And so Jacob, who has already wrangled the birthright from his brother Esau for savory stew, now wheedles and coaxes the sacred blessing from his father.
Esau, for his part, is dealing well with his anger. In fact he is consoling himself, seeing a counselor. The nightmare that he has been cheated of both his inheritance and the holy blessing is no longer clawing at his mind. He is getting his life together, and he is approaching living, and his sibling Jacob, with new fortitude. He is unconditionally resolved to kill him.
Rebekah, who has conspired to fool her husband, now works a secondary plan to get Jacob out of town and safely away from Esau, who is quite good with the bow and arrow. Off he goes to search for a wife among the people of Uncle Laban.
Jacob, father of Israel, is in full retreat, fear driving his every step. Right from the start, this anything but identical twin, Jacob, has been trying to cheat his brother out of his birthright and blessing and Jacob has succeeded—well sort of. Jacob, having just made the supposed deals of his life, now finds himself without family or tribe, which in ancient days was everything. He is disoriented, distraught and on the run. So exhausted is Jacob, that he can fall asleep with a freestone slab as a pillow. Jacob sleeps like a rock and finds himself rocked by a dream. Jacob encounters God. This consecrated apparition includes angels. This nocturnal vision is a stairway to heaven. Jacob is surprised by God. Whatever his pillow of granite lacks in the ways of physical comfort, it seems to make up with what it grants in wisdom and spirit.
We know Jacob because he dwells within us. We have been like him. We have bestowed empty flattery upon our friends, our partner or our children. We have made bad decisions, sneaked and cheated. We have tricked ourselves and our neighbors. It’s the human predicament, and we have lived with consequences just as our brother Jacob. The hardness of this rock is a metaphor, I think, for hard times.
Funny how the messes that people make for themselves, often have to get to a point of crises, before reevaluation is possible. Jacob has pushed his brother to the explosion point and now finds himself exiled. As you read the book of Genesis, you get the impression that God has been trying to reach Jacob with the promise of the covenant, but only in crises does Jacob find himself open to the presence of God.
Jacob came to describe it as a dream, or a vision, of a structure that reached all the way to heaven; A stone stairway upon which angels ascended and descended. Jacob was heading north toward Haran, toward the old country, to go live with Uncle Laban back in Babylonian territory, from where Jacob's grandparents Abraham and Sarah had originated. Maybe thoughts of returning to the home country flavored his dream. Babylonian Ziggurats were stair step temple towers where the divine and the human met.
In this time of fear and exile, in this moment of crisis, Jacob has a dream about God reaching to him. His difficulties have somehow made him more receptive to what God has been trying to say to him all along. In the hazy clouds of a dream, God descends the ladder and speaks, and Jacob can hear. Jacob, I have a promise for you. The life of a hellion, although exciting, has its downside, you always have to watch your back. The dream, and the voice of God, suddenly allows for other possibilities.
Angels are not employed. God does not speak from the premise of a heavenly cloud. God comes to where she is not anticipated. God is standing right next to Jacob. Jacob, I am with you. I will keep you. Israel, I am with you. Christians I am with you. I accompany you.
And the Lord stood beside him and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give to you and your offspring; ….and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.” Jacob is offered an even fuller promise than his parents or grandparents and an alternative future. Not only will God be with him and his family, but they will bless all people, Chinese and Africans, Muslims and Hindus. Jacob finds the new world of God’s dream more convincing than his old world of fear and guilt. In his wakefulness, he resolves to embrace the new reality of the dream.”
This is the Gospel. Even though this is written down 1000 years before Christ, even though this is a story about people who lived in the faith 2000 years before Christ, this is the Gospel. "I am with you and I will keep my promises." Jesus is called Emmanuel in the Gospels and Emmanuel means God with us. Before Christ, God was with the people of faith in the covenant promises. The promises made to the patriarchs and the matriarchs are kept with the life and mission of Jesus and in the sacraments which Jesus institutes. In Baptism we are named a royal priesthood and commissioned to love and serve all people. Men and women are named as priests, one in Christ equal heirs of Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, Jacob and Rachel.
God's promise is made to Jacob in this special place called Beth-El, which means house of God. Jacob does not choose this holy place—God does. Jacob camps at Bethel quite by accident, but Jacob's accident is God's providence. This no place in between Israel and Haran, somewhere in the wilderness is transformed by the coming of God. Posed pictures are not the same as capturing a special moment by surprise or by chance. So it is with faith. We do not create Holy Places or engineer special times of recognizing God's awe and growing in faith, as much as we discover God’s presence and what God's intentions for us can be.
Jacob has been deeply moved by this experience. The dream has changed his life. His exile has lead him to God. He sets up an altar, a peace pole, a gazing garden, a spiritual meander. He pours out oil in awe of God. The rock is anointed as a sign of his promise. A holy place is consecrated. Bethel, which means house of God, becomes a sanctuary, and hereafter the people of Israel will return to this gate of heaven for prayer.
Jacob, the trickster, has now bound himself to God, who will supervise future shenanigans. God has been committed to Jacob from the start, since he spoke an oracle to Jacob's mother while she was pregnant. But only now has Jacob reciprocated. He makes his vow. Jacob's response strikes one as a genuine act of faith. But Jacob will be Jacob. Even in this solemn moment, he spreads a little blarney. He tenders his promise with an "if." The journey of faith is not a stair-step chart of progress. If God will be with me, and if God will give me bread and clothing, if God will…, then the Lord shall be my God. Jacob, it seems, has consulted his team of lawyers. Nonetheless Jacob’s ego has been altered, his shell has been penetrated, and his heart is beginning to change. Jacob, in exile, has been shown a way home. And the next time Jacob encounters God at night it’s not during a restful dream. The next time God is encountered by Jacob, it’s an all-night wrestling match.
~ Pastor Tim Stern