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Jacob's Ladder

A Homily from Genesis 28:10-19

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

July 21, 2002 (16th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

There once was a man named “Heel.” His parents called him “Heel” because he was born hanging onto the heel of his twin brother. The other brother they named “Hairy” (with an “i”) because he was born covered in hair. Hopefully any of you who have – in the past – been unhappy with the names that your parents gave you now feel a little better about them.

“Heel” is better known to us by his transliterated name, Jacob – but the literal meaning of his name was a fitting description for how he lived his early life. He constantly grasped for what his brother’s future, and always resented being the second son and the junior heir. Jacob was never satisfied with what he had, or even with who he was. In reading the stories of his schemes and manipulations, it always seemed to me that there was an emptiness he was trying to fill – a sense that, if he could only get his brothers’ possessions and status, he would finally be happy.

Jacob successfully conned his hairy brother Esau out of Esau’s greatest possessions: his inheritance as the firstborn and also their father’s blessing. He was not, however, any happier. In fact, although he was heir to his wealthy father’s fortune, Jacob found out that there were worse things than being the less-favored child. Among those things is having your impetuous and violent older brother turning over every rock and log trying to find you so that he can kill you.

Jacob followed the time-honored tradition of con artists everywhere caught in his predicament – he ran for his life. That’s where our story for today joins him – on the run from his brother, in exile in the middle of nowhere. Jacob, the schemer; Jacob the trickster; Jacob the lonely – wandering far from everyone and everything he had ever loved or who had ever loved him.

We are told that, on yet another unremarkable day on his solitary journey Jacob stopped in an unremarkable place and, shoving a large stone onto its side he placed his head on the hard rock and went to sleep. Although most of us have probably never camped on that particular spot, I think we may have nonetheless been there at one time or another. Some of us, in fact, may be there right now.

It’s that place we come to when we’ve worked hard for something, gotten it, and found out that it’s not what we hoped it would be. It’s that place on the other side of the fence or over the rainbow where we discover that we’re no happier there than we were here. It’s that moment of exhaustion, when we’ve tried everything we know, when we feel completely alone, and when we have nowhere else to turn.

Some turn to alcohol or drugs in that place – delirium and numbness seeming preferable to reality. It would be pious, and certainly praiseworthy, if we could say that Jacob turned to God in that moment; but in fact he simply lost himself to his dreams. When he did, God found Jacob.

Our translations and traditions tell us that in his dream Jacob saw a ladder connecting Heaven and Earth. It might be more accurate to say that he saw a massive ramp, of the kind that can still be seen on the sides of ancient ziggurats in Central and South America. A great, stone slope tying the world of mortals to the holy world of the Creator.

Jacob had risked his life to take his destiny into his own hands and make a better future for himself. In that regard, Jacob was a “doer,” a “go-getter” who figured that the only one who could make things better for Jacob was Jacob himself. Imagine his surprise to see the workers of God moving in a steady stream up and down that ramp, carrying word of the Earth’s troubles to the Divine ear and carrying down with them God’s plan of action.

All of the trickery and planning in the world could not compete with such a force. Most commentators on this text insist that the heart of the story is not in the vision, but in the promise that follows it. Yet it is the vision that has engraved itself into the Jewish and Christian consciousness over the centuries. Artists from many different places and times have found themselves captivated with the image of a place where we can see the connection between the mortal and the divine, the mundane and the holy.

It may be worthwhile then, at least for a moment, to simply rest with Jacob in awe and wonder at the very concept. Perhaps he couldn’t have had this vision when he was at the top of his game, confident that his wit and guile would win him the world. Who among us looks for God in those times when we are convinced that we don’t need anyone – especially God?

Yet, even in his despair, Jacob did not go looking for God – he had only sought escape. This too is typical of us. Even if we choose to ignore the reality of God when we are successful, choosing to instead give credit to ourselves; we nevertheless somehow take our failures as proof that there cannot be a God – otherwise why would we be miserable? We go from “Look at what I did. I didn’t need any help? My success is my doing!” to “Look how miserable things are. If there were a God, I’d be successful.” We often justifiably gripe that God doesn’t make any sense, but sometimes I think we’re more guilty of that than God.

Sensible or not, though, God comes to Jacob in the lonely nowhere that is his hiding (and resting) place. It is in his exile that Jacob finally gets a glimpse of the true nature of the world. Severed from his family, Jacob finds that he – like all of Creation – is not severed from the care and careful activity of God.

That is a sermon in and of itself. Whether we stand with Jacob in the pinnacle of triumph or slumber fitfully beside him in despair – the simple, fundamental truth of Christianity is that God is with us, that God is a force for change in the world. It doesn’t mean that the world is perfect, or even any more safe or sane. It does mean, however, than there is more to the world than we can begin to comprehend.

It must have been quite a jolt to Jacob, to find that the vacant spot in his life that he had tried to fill with his own ingenuity was not empty because of what he had failed to drag into it – but because of what he had kept out: the presence of God. And so, contemplating the wonder of his vision, he finds that emptiness filled by the very presence of his Holy Creator. The author of the text is careful to use the holy, unpronounceable name for God. Jacob is in the close presence of the unfathomable, divine mystery that is God.

And God asks nothing of Jacob. There are no demands, no criteria that Jacob has to meet (which is probably a good thing because Jacob likely had little more than the clothes on his back). God simply makes a promise – several promises actually. Like all promises to the patriarchs in the Hebrew Bible, this promise has a long history of careful parsing to understand the will (and the obligations) of God. As a result, different commentators break them down different ways.

Those promises, however, boil down to a few essential points. The first is that God makes it clear that the past promises will be honored. God says, “I am the God of your parents, and your children will cover the Earth. There will be more of them than can be counted.” This is the Promise that we have looked at over most of the Summer. God saw in Abraham someone whose descendants would be faithful enough to God to carry the presence of God in their hearts, and the memory of God’s words on their lips. Somehow, even though no one else can see that potential, God sees it in Jacob as well.

God goes on to promise that all the families of the Earth will be blessed by the descendants of Jacob. This is a significant image, not only for those of us who came to faith by the life and death of Jacob’s great grandchild Jesus – but also for Jacob as well. Standing in the presence of God’s divine angels, watching them enter the world to do God’s work, Jacob is told that his children will also be the agency by which the whole world is blessed. The work of Heaven, it turns out, it not just for the heavenly. It’s our work as well. It’s our privilege as well.

But again God does not make demands of Jacob. Here at least God only offers promises. The next part of the promise is one that Jesus would echo after his resurrection. God says, “Know that I am with you wherever you go…” Even in the middle of nowhere, Jacob is not really alone. Even in the midst of our nowheres, we likewise are not alone. Wherever we are in our lives, geographically and emotionally, God is there with us. Not staring down from the heavens, but beside us – as God was beside Jacob.

God also promises to keep Jacob. God is not only beside him and his descendants (who – spiritually – include us) – God is watching over us. God has a destination in mind for the Jacob and for us; and God will see us safely there. As we well know, this did not mean that the journey was easy for the children of Jacob; but God promises that, if they look, even in the hardship they will find the work of God. Heaven and Earth are joined, and God is at work in the world.

God is faithful, God is with us, God is working with us. Not only for us, but with us and through us. With the promise completed and clearly reiterated, the vision ends and Jacob awakes.

He proclaims, “God is here!” and he is afraid. Perhaps it is a sign that we have become a bit too comfortable in our faith that this seems an odd response. We live in a sanitized world theoretically tamed by technology where “fear” is generally an abstract concept. In many ways we have likewise sanitized our faith. We forget, as Jacob and his family did not, that the plans and wisdom of the Almighty might differ somewhat from our own desires.

It is well and true to remember that the presence and love of God is a source of strength and hope to us. Yet invariably, there is sacrifice and change involved in following the will of God – and if we are honest about our human desires we have to be honest that such change can be frightening.

Yet, even in his fear, God is with Jacob and Jacob understands that the presence and gift of God should be honored. He takes the stone upon which he slept, and stands it upright. It will be a marker and a reminder of the vision and promise of God. Jacob then covers the stone with oil, marking it and setting it apart for those to come.

He names the place “Bethel” – “The House of God.” It can no longer be anonymous, for – having stood in the presence of God Jacob is no longer lost.

In the presence of the stone, and the memory of God’s promise, Jacob makes a promise of his own. He begins it with “If.” “If God will be with me, and if God will take care of me, and if God honors the promise to my grandparents then the Holy LORD will be my God and we will worship here and I will give a tenth of what I gain to God.”

Funny thing about that. There were no “if’s” when God chose Jacob. There were no “if’s” in God’s promises. Maybe that is the most glaring difference, the most irrational aspect of Holy God. God needs nothing to believe in us, to consider us worth care and love.

We, on the other hand, expect much of God before we will return the favor. In a sense, it seems perfectly reasonable for God to be expected to meet a higher standard, but it’s interesting that – not only does God exceed that standard in honoring those promises – God exceeds our own standard in caring for us.

In the following pages of Genesis, we will hear how God meets every one of Jacob’s “if’s” – through famine and drought, through slavery and apostasy – God remains with Jacob’s children – the physical ones and the spiritual ones as well. God does not prevent the danger, but nor does God abandon those who fear they are hopeless.

Somewhere along the way, Jacob and his children all learn that the presence of God is more satisfying, more solid, and more permanent than all of the wealth and physical prosperity he had ever hoped for. Jacob laid down to sleep, having escaped such wealth with his life barely intact. He believed himself penniless and alone. He awoke to find that he was neither, even though his purse was still empty.

Some of us dream of other things. Some of us forget to dream at all. Who is, in fact, the wealthier?