Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Everyday Living
Practice Joy – “Joy in God’s Creation” – Genesis 28:10-19a
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 24, 2022
Gracious God, open again your Word to us by the power of your Spirit that we, like Jacob, may experience the joy of realizing the connection between heaven and earth, that we be joyful in the realization that You are with us and for us, always; through our risen Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
In this Easter season, we begin today a four week series called Practice Joy. Today’s emphasis will be Joy in God’s Creation with the reminder that, with our eyes opened, we can see and experience joy in God’s good creation, and that the experience of joy in creation is often closely related to the realization of God’s presence with us and for us.
Before we read our Genesis text for today, a few reflections on joy… Joy, as you have heard, is deeper than happiness. Happiness depends on circumstances, while joy emerges from the trust that God is with us, whatever our circumstances may be.
In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last letter written to friends, in November of 1942,
not long before Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for opposing Hitler, Bonhoeffer acknowledges the numerous faithful ones who had died at the hands of the Nazis, much like what would happen to Bonhoeffer two years later, much like what is happening today, as Ukrainian civilians are dying at the hands of Russian forces. Bonhoeffer, in the midst of fear for his own life and grief over the deaths of others, writes about the joy he has been experiencing.
“Joy abides with God, and it comes down from God and embraces spirit, soul, and body; and where joy has seized a person, there it spreads, there it carries away, there it bursts open closed doors.”
The experience of joy has to do with the faithful trust that God is with us – always – and that God will lead us through whatever trials we face.
Joy is something that can be discovered; joy can also be something that we choose. Paul wrote: “Be joyful in the Lord.” Elsewhere, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!” When we discover joy, or we choose to be joyful in the Lord, then we are able to face suffering and hardship with a different, stronger, and lighter spirit.
As the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a book together: when we discover joy, “We have hardship without becoming hard.
We have heartbreak without being broken.”
(From The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, New York: Random House, 2016)
C.S. Lewis titled his 1955 autobiography about his early life, Surprised by Joy. Lewis, in his early life, was a dedicated atheist, fairly certain in his rigid non-belief. Then Lewis writes about an experience he had on the train… when he departed one station, gazing out the window on the beautiful English countryside, he was still an atheist; when Lewis arrived at the next station, not all that far down the tracks, he arrived with the realization that he now believed, that he was at least a theist.
Lewis relates this experience to the true nature and purpose of joy, which he accidentally discovered. In the autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis relates that “joy” is a phenomenon. “Joy was so intense for something so good and so high up it could not be explained with words.”
Lewis writes about being struck with “stabs of joy” throughout his life. “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
Because of joy, Lewis made the leap from atheism to theism, and then from theism to Christianity. Lewis realized that, for him, joy was like a “signpost” to one lost in the woods, pointing the way” to the presence of the Divine. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surprised_by_Joy)
Joy was also a signpost for the patriarch Jacob. Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah, and brother of Esau, grandson of Abraham and Sarah, is the one who had 12 sons who would become the 12 tribes of Israel.
Jacob is the one whose name was changed to “Israel” – “one who wrestles with God.” The name “Jacob”, ya-akov, means “trickster”, “over-reacher”, “supplanter”. The life of Jacob, the supplanter, described in Scripture embodies and represents the nation of Israel.
In our narrative for today, Jacob is sixty miles from home. He is all alone in the wilderness. He is no longer protected by his mother. We can imagine that, facing an uncertain future, all alone, he might have been afraid. Jacob was a tent dweller; he dwelt among the tents while his twin brother, Esau, was a man of the field, a hunter.
When Jacob journeyed into the wilderness, he did so out of the not so noble motivation of fear. The older twin Esau was furious that Jacob had tricked him out of his birthright, and Esau was planning to kill Jacob.
When the ever-watchful mother Rebekah heard of Esau’s plan, so told Isaac that Jacob should be sent off to be married. So the young Jacob journeyed far away from home, carrying with him his father’s blessing, his brother’s anger, and his mother’s hopes that he would find a woman and be married.
Hear the Word of God from Genesis 28:10-19a.
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran.
He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set.
Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.
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 and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’
And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
As far as we can tell, Jacob had not been a very religious or spiritual person; His experience in the wilderness was perhaps his first real encounter with the Divine. In Jacob’s dream, Jacob realizes there is a connection between heaven and earth, and he receives the promise of the covenant, the same promise given to his grandfather.
You will have this land, and your people will be many, like the dust of the earth, and you will have God’s favor, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in your descendants.
And notice the final part of the promise: I will be with you, Jacob. I will keep you. I will bring you back home and I will not leave you alone until I have done what I promised.
Out in that rugged wilderness, far beyond the tents of his family, far beyond the protection and oversight of his mother, God was with Jacob. This was not some God-forsaken wilderness afterall, but the very locus of God.
The response of Jacob was, “Surely the Lord is in the place, and I didn’t even know it! The Lord is with me and I didn’t even realize it. How awesome is this place!”
In our wilderness experiences, in our times of transition, during our stages of grief, whatever uncertainty we may face regarding the future, Jacob’s story reminds us that God is with us, always.
God is available in the wilderness. God is with us, wherever we may go. From one perspective, we might argue that Jacob missed the point of his dream. He woke up that restless night and proclaimed: “Surely God is in this place… This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.”
And Jacob took the rock from beneath his head, poured oil upon it, and named the place “Bethel”, “house of God”. And for many generations, Bethel was an important center of worship for the nation of Israel.
The mistake Jacob may have made was that he seemed to identify the presence of God more with the place than with himself. God did not just appear out of the blue at some special place in the wilderness, with Jacob just happening to be there to experience it.
God appeared to Jacob – deceitful, conniving Jacob – in order to give him a blessing.
We might tend to make the same mistake. One of the most common experiences of someone who comes down from the top of a mountain, or who comes home from the roaring waves and soft sands of the beach, or who returns to daily routines after some special experience, is that they lose the sense of God’s continuing presence with them.
God is not limited to the “place”, whether the glory of the mountaintop experience, or the awesome wonder of the sea, or the beauty of the fields covered with flowers. God is everywhere. God is with us in the deep valleys. God is with us wherever we go, inviting us to notice and to respond, inviting us to participate, even, in what God is doing.
Today, on this Sunday closest to Earth Day, we are reminded that God is not just in heaven, waiting for us one day to die and join the joyful heavenly host.
God is here! God is alive and at work on this earth.
This beautiful, amazing, wondrous creation that God has made leaves us without excuse for knowing that there is a God, an Intelligence, a Force, a Being, that was before all that is. And on this second Sunday of Easter, we are reminded that the risen Lord Jesus Christ is loose in the world, loose in God’s creation, showing up as a gardener calling out to Mary, showing up as a host at table in Emmaus, showing up as a friend on the beach cooking us breakfast.
God is with us. Christ is with us. The Holy Spirit surrounds us…. and we experiences this in the gifts of nature, in the gifts of music and artistic expression, in the smile of a loved one, in the playfulness of animals, in the wonder of a mountain vista or the perfection of a flower blossom.
God’s glory is all around us, and our calling as human beings is to enjoy God’s good presence and to glorify God forever.
Often, it is not a lack of faith but simple inattention that impedes our practice of joy. The many daily tasks, the old routines, the difficult challenges can distract us from noticing – noticing the wonder of daily human life, noticing the wonders found in God’s creation, noticing the presence of God’s abiding love.
Surely the Lord is in this place, and we did not know it!
The opposite of “joy” is something more like “anxious uncertainty”. Jacob, before the dream, probably felt some anxious uncertainty. What if I get lost or injured out here in the wilderness?
What if my brother follows me and catches up with me and desires to kill me? What if my uncle Laban does not want to receive me? What if…?
When our current circumstances seem fearful or even unbearable, this particular story of Jacob reminds us that God is with us wherever we go. And the rest of Jacob’s story reminds us that God is not only with us in the special places and times, the “Bethel” experiences, but God is with us always.
And the realization of God’s presence – with us, for us – can lead to a deep sense of joy.
Friends, the Lord our God has promised to be with us, to walk with us, to keep us, and to bring us back home. Surely the Lord is in this place, and we did not know it!
To God be the glory. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 24, 2022