“Surely the Lord Is in this Place!” – Genesis 28:10-22
September 6, 2020
God of grace and mercy, open your Word to us by the power of your Holy Spirit so that we,
like Jacob, may know that God is with us and for us, always, come what may,
even in the midst of this unfamiliar year of 2020; Amen.
Before we read our text from Genesis, I offer a suggestion of two books that offer insightful views
into the lives of our biblical characters.
Frederick Buechner’s Son of Laughter is a creative retelling of the life of Jacob, son of Isaac.
Buechner describes Jacob as a ‘shrewd and ambitious man who is strong on guts and weak on conscience,
who knows very well what he wants and directs all his energies toward getting it,’
all the while trying to make sense of his mysterious deity who seems to be guiding his destiny.
(from Buechner’s sermon “The Magnificent Defeat”)
A second fascinating read is The Red Tent, by Anita Diamont.
This novel delves deeply into the sparsely told story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah,
the sister of the 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel.
Diamont offers an earthy view into the daily life of Dinah, her mothers, and the wives her brothers,
providing an intimate connection between these ancient stories and today’s experiences.
Both these novels are worth some time and reflection.
Over the past two weeks, we have explored the timeless narratives of Abraham and Sarah,
the patriarch and matriarch of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Today, we explore one of the telling narratives of their grandson, Jacob.
Jacob’s stories are some of the most engaging in all of scripture.
Jacob’s story begins with a long-awaited birth.
His parents, Isaac and Rebekah, had been married some twenty years before their twins were born.
When the day finally came, and it seemed that the promise of many descendants would continue,
hairy and red Esau was born first, and the younger twin, the one they would name Jacob,
exited the womb grasping his brother’s heel.
The name Jacob, Ya-akov, literally means “the one who seizes by the heel.”
Jacob can also mean one who “supplants, circumvents, assails, overreaches”.
Jacob, son of “Yitzak” – Isaac and Rebekah, twin brother of Esau, would become known as a “trickster.”
He would trick his brother Esau out of the birthright by conspiring with this mother
to fool his aged father Isaac.
He would trick his uncle Laban out of a significant portion of his uncle’s sheep and goats.
He is “shrewd and ambitious, strong on guts and weak on conscience.”
Nevertheless, Jacob, whose name will later become Israel, would become the father of 12 sons,
whose families would become the 12 tribes of Israel.
Next week, we will explore how Jacob received the name “Israel”,
and how his life came to embody and represent the struggles of an entire nation.
This week, we hear again how Jacob, the fallible trickster, the over-reacher,
the one teetering at the junction of past and future,
came to know that, despite his faults and foibles, God would be with him and for him, to bless him.
Hear the Word of God from Genesis 28:10-22
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;
but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying,
‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go,
and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace,
then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house;
and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Jacob was comfortable dwelling among the tents.
Favored by his mother, Jacob spent much of his time in and around the tents.
His twin brother Esau, favored by their father Isaac, was a man of the field, a hunter.
Unlike Jacob, Esau spent much of his time in the wilderness.
As our text for today begins, we find Jacob, not in the familiar setting of the tents,
but sixty miles from home, all alone,
Jacob journeyed into the wilderness out of the not so noble motivation of fear.
His twin, Esau, was furious that Jacob had just tricked him out of his birthright.
and Esau’s only consolation at the time were his plans to kill Jacob.
When the ever-watchful mother Rebekah heard of Esau’s plan,
she planted the idea in Isaac’s mind that Jacob should be sent off to be married.
So young Jacob is sent far away to the land of his uncle in order to find a cousin to marry.
When the day is long and the sun is setting, Jacob finds a place to sleep
and a rock to place under his head.
Separated from his mother, Rebekah, his advocate,
alienated from his father and brother over the birthright conspiracy,
suddenly Jacob faced a very uncertain future.
We can imagine that Jacob was afraid to be alone in the wilderness.
He does not know if he will ever return home. He has no idea what his future holds.
Anxious, fearful though he may be, his body is nevertheless tired and in need of rest.
As Jacob slept in the wilderness, he had a dream – the first dream recorded in the Bible.
Dreams can be an avenue for God to speak to our hearts.
Dreams can reveal our hopes and fears and give insights to our worries.
While we are awake, we have some measure of control over our thoughts.
But at nighttime, our minds become vulnerable.
Whatever is causing deep concern or whatever is buried just below the conscious level,
can be revealed in an unsettling dream.
We wake up in the middle of the night surprised, even intrigued,
when we realize what has been rolling around in our imagination.
Notice that God chooses to bless Jacob while Jacob was asleep.
Other people, like Joseph or Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Saul,
receive God’s blessings while they are awake.
Not Jacob. From what we have already read about young Jacob,
control and manipulation were two of his stronger traits.
Even from his birth, when he came out of the womb grasping his twin brother’s heel,
Jacob was an over-reacher, a grabber, trying to supplant his brother’s birthright.
When Jacob was asleep, he was not able to be in control, not unable to manipulate the situation
to what seemed his best advantage.
In his dream, Jacob envisions a ladder or in the Hebrew more like a “ramp” connecting heaven and earth.
Jacob envisions angels are ascending and descending upon the ramp
and he realizes, perhaps for the first time, that there is an active connection
between earth and heaven, between him and the God of his father and grandfather.
Then, in the midst of the dream, Jacob receives the promise,
the same promise given to his grandfather, Abraham.
Jacob, you will dwell in this land on which you now stand,
your people will become as numerous as the dust of the earth,
you will have God’s favor, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in your descendants.
Then God said, I will be with you. I will keep you.
And I will bring you back home and not leave you alone until I have done what I promised.
I will be with you, I will keep you, and I will bring you back home.
When Jacob woke up from this amazing dream, his first response was to exclaim,
Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not even know it!
The Lord was here with me all along and I did not realize it.
How awesome is this place!
Then Jacob responded with three vows of his own:
If you, O Lord, will be with me and keep me and bring me back home,
then you shall be my God, he said, and I will worship you,
and I will recognize you, O Lord, as the owner of all that I have.
After receiving God’s promise and after making his sacred vow, Jacob went on his way.
Jacob did not seem changed by the experience.
Jacob still lived as a trickster, an over-reacher, a manipulator.
He was never what you might call a great example of faithful and righteous living.
Nevertheless, Jacob knew that God was with him. Jacob lived more or less according to his sacred vow,
and God blessed Jacob.
Like Jacob, all of us enduring the wilderness experience of this pandemic year of 2020
are at a junction between the past and the future.
The old lives we once knew have been left behind, an uncertain future lies ahead.
As the scripture says elsewhere,
“Behold, the former things have taken place, and new things I now declare…” (Isaiah 42:9)
Once we obtain a working vaccine and get it widely distributed,
once the protests in the streets begin to wane and we have determined new ways to live with one another,
once employment levels are back to pre-Covid levels,
still our nation as we have known it will no longer be as it was.
We have left behind a chapter in our national story, and we are entering a new and different age.
Not unlike Jacob, we may find ourselves anxious and afraid.
We may find ourselves exhausted and in need of rest.
We may find ourselves excited or nervous about what is yet to come.
But what is clear is that we have left behind the old life and we are entering something altogether new.
How might this pandemic year impact, for years to come, how and where people do their jobs?
How will this pandemic year impact for the long term the way that we organize public education
and university life?
How will our church life be different five or ten years from now
because of what we are experiencing this year?
What Jacob discovered in his wilderness experience, in his fearful, painful time of transition,
when he faced an uncertain, unknowable future,
was that God was with him. God was with him and for him and intended to bless him,
and that God intended to bless the generations that would follow him.
Jacob woke up from his dream on that restless night when he tried to sleep with his head upon a rock
and exclaimed, “Surely God is in this place!
This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.”
This wilderness, this unfamiliar territory, this place of transition, is where God lives!
Jacob poured oil upon the rock where he had laid his head
and named the place “Bethel”, which means “house of God”.
For many generations, that place, Bethel, served as an important center of worship for the nation of Israel.
Perhaps we too can recognize the presence of God at work in this unfamiliar wilderness year.
Perhaps 2020 can even become a “Bethel” moment, when we realize that God is here, in this place.
God is still with us and for us, and God intends hope and a good future for us
and for those who follow us.
God appeared to Jacob, to deceitful, conniving, trickster Jacob in an unfamiliar place
and granted him a wondrous blessing.
In whatever unfamiliar wilderness we find ourselves, perhaps God just might bless us as well.
For those of us who very much want to control our own futures,
our blessings may have to come in the dark of night, in a dream when we are sound asleep.
For others, like open hearted Isaiah, the realization may come during the middle of a worship service.
For others, like reluctant Moses, the realization may come when we step aside
to view some awesome sight, like a burning bush.
For still others, like Peter and Andrew, it may be that we hear the voice of Jesus
in the light of day when we are hard at work, beckoning to us,
Drop your nets and come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Matthew 4:19
However we may come to realize that yes, God is here, in this time, in this place, in this year,
working out God’s purposes, and preparing us for the future God has in store for us,
let us all one day soon exclaim: “Surely the Lord is in this place and we did not know it!”
The psalms are a helpful guide for our prayers in the meantime.
Psalm 67 offers a prayer of trust and hope, a prayer of assurance of God’s blessings yet to come.
I invite you join me in closing with this prayer from the psalms:
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make God’s face to shine upon us,
that God’s way may be known upon earth, God’s saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere the Lord.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Thank you for your faithful support of the ministry of the church.
Your gifts have enabled the ministry of the church to continue through the pandemic.
The checks you have sent through the mail enable the worship and music staff to lead weekly services.
Your online gifts enable the pastoral care that has been offered during these difficult times,
including a number of memorial services.
Your unexpected, unpledged gifts enable wonderful outreach by Allysen, Emily and Lori
as they encourage our youth and children to live their faith at home
and to continue to grow in faith, hope, and love.
Your gifts of time and money enable the Threshold Ministry to continue,
connecting people in drastic circumstances to vital resources and services.
Your regular, monthly gifts maintain these church buildings,
which wait in hopeful anticipation of your return.
ready to serve as a place of worship, fellowship, learning and service for young and for old.
Your generous, sacrificial gifts enable our mission partners, here in Decatur and around the world,
to provide nourishment for the minds, bodies, and souls of those in need.
Thank you for all of your gifts, given in response to all that God has given to you.
Let us pray…
O Lord our God, you have greatly loved us, long sought us, and mercifully redeemed us.
We thank you that you act as our holy shepherd, giving us everything we truly need.
You make us to lie down in green pastures; you lead us beside still waters,
you restore our souls. You lead us in right paths for your name’s sake.
Even though we walk through dark and difficult valleys,
we need not fear, for you are with us, comforting us with your rod and staff.
Surely your goodness and mercy will continue to pursue us all the days of our lives,
and you will bring us back home to dwell in your house forever. Amen.