Sunday, July 18, 2010

In the Presence of God Genesis 28:10-22

It is one of those stories that have been told in children’s Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible Schools for as long such things have been in place. It is the story of Jacob and his dream of a staircase or ladder that connected heaven and earth. It is hard to forget Jacob. Jacob was a manipulating, conniving, thieving kind of guy. He was the fair skinned weak kneed younger brother (by moments) of the huge, powerful, hunter brother Esau. Jacob is the guy who demanded his older brother sell him is birthright – his place in the family – for a bowl of soup after a long day of hunting. Jacob is the guy who dresses his arms with animal fur to deceive his nearly blind father and claim the father’s blessing that rightly belonged to his older brother. Jacob was a scoundrel! But he was a scoundrel that God would decide to redeem and use to shape the story of people of Israel – and by extension our story as a people of faith this morning.

Our story for the morning picks up soon after Esau realizes that that he has been cheated from receiving the blessing due the eldest son. Instead of hearing words of encourage, affirmation, and familial blessing from his father Isaac, Esau hears words that promise a life of curse. Esau was mad!...and rightfully so. We hear him mutter to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob. While Jacob was a conniving thief, he was not a stupid conniving thief. Using the excuse of seeking a bride, Jacob heads out on the run. Geoff McElroy, Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Rome, Georgia, writes a blog on this passage and notes something interesting, something vital, in understanding the story.
Jacob’s interests to this point in the story are strictly material: his desire for the birthright and inheritance of his brother prompted his actions, which lead him to flee to protect his physical life. Jacob finds himself in the desert with no means of shelter or sustenance other than what he might find as he goes. The text emphasizes Jacob’s status as destitute and cut off, of being in a place of exclusion and exile, by noting that the only thing he had to provide comfort in the night was a rock for a pillow. No blanket or tent or other means of comfort; just a hard stone on which to lay his head.
Wow! What an image. The conniving one who thought he had gotten everything he wanted, found himself with nothing. Isn’t interesting that sometimes it takes a moment like this one – when everything we think we have or need is lost – only to find what really matters.

Outside the city walls of Luz, in the shadows of the desert exhausted he finds a flat stone, lays his head on it, and falls to sleep. Nothing could have prepared him for what happened next. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway [a] or ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Can you imagine what must have been racing through his mind? Until this moment we find no record that Jacob has done anything of value. There are no stories of conversations with God or even any indication that Jacob has claimed any kind of relationship with God. Now, in the dark of the desert he sees a ladder tying heaven and earth together. It is amazing how many different Jewish and Christian interpretations have been offered to explain the ladder. But, to be honest, even if the childhood song of “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder” is playing in your mind, please join me in shifting from a misplaced focus on the ladder to the central focus on a broken man in great need of a moment in the presence of God.

Here is the part that changes everything. At the top of the staircase or ladder Jacob sees and hears something remarkable. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. This scoundrel found himself in the presence of God. The voice from heaven lets him know that Jacob is a part of an important family tree. His grandfather and father before him we people of the covenant – people who claimed a unique relationship with God. In the verses that followed God repeats the covenant he had shared with Abraham and Isaac. God tells Jacob that he will be with him -that his descendents will be dust of the earth – everywhere – that he would claim the land God had for him - and that Jacob would be blessed to be a blessing.

Jacob did not understand that the birthright and the blessing that he had claimed in deceit would lead him to the feet of God. 16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." 17 He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." Did you hear the first thing that Jacob thought?"Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." If Jacob had thought about God before that moment he probably thought that he had left God behind when he ran. He probably thought that the God of his father and his father’s-father was probably left behind in the land he has just days or weeks before called home. Jacob’s response made it clear that he could not imagine that God was there – with him in the desert – with him where he had nothing – with him where his only bed was the ground and his only pillow as a stone. Here in the midst of nothingness God was present with him.

We can be tempted to think about this place being where God is. While it is beautiful, what makes it the home of God is that God’s people dwell in it. Sometimes we have experienced the presence of God in a special place or moment. When we gather in worship we move through the motions, but long to experience that kind of presence of God again. While I was with our youth at Falls Creek I heard them sing a song in our cabin worship that spoke with power to this kind of desire. Let me invite them to come and share the song with you – listen closely to their voices as they call us toward the presence of God.

YOUTH SING “The Motion” by Matthew West

This might hurt, it's not safe
But I know that I've gotta make a change
I don't care if I break,
At least I'll be feeling something
'Cause just okay is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of life

I don't wanna go through the motions
I don't wanna go one more day
without Your all consuming passion inside of me
I don't wanna spend my whole life asking,
"What if I had given everything,
instead of going through the motions?"

No regrets, not this time
I'm gonna let my heart defeat my mind
Let Your love make me whole
I think I'm finally feeling something
'Cause just okay is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of this life

Repeat Chorus followed by…
take me all the way (take me all the way)
take me all the way ('cause I don't wanna go through the motions)
take me all the way (I know I'm finally feeling something real)
take me all the way

Did you hear them as they sang; “I do not want to go one more day without Your all consuming passion inside of me”? Once Jacob had experienced the presence of God he did not want to every miss it again. We cannot let anything, even our comfortable pattern of going through the religious motions, stop us from experiencing the power of the presence of God – the kind of presence that makes us reorder our priorities and reset our lives.

Our story finishes: 18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth."

Jacob’s response is a good model for us to consider when we seek and experience the power of the presence of God. Hear that Jacob’s encounter with God called him to worship. He grabbed anything and everything around him to mark the place and the moment he experienced the presence of God. Jacob’s encounter with the power of the presence of God made him realize his dependence on God. Jacob had to choose to trust in God’s provision rather than trying to connive and manipulate his way through life. He could trust God and trust in God for all he needed. Jacob also understood that a part of his worship would be to return an offering to God – not out of debt or obligation – but out of a sincere desire to honor God will a portion of everything that he had.

Can you imagine what our worship might be like if everyone of us came to this moment grabbing everything we can find – and bringing every part of our life story – to this moment so together we can celebrate a God who loves us and call us His own? Can you imagine how our lives might change if we began to truly depend on God – to trust God with our futures – rather than depending on ourselves? Can you imagine how our giving might change if we choose to respond to God in generosity born in God’s provision for us, rather than coming with a bookkeepers approach to religious debt and obligation? Surely God is in this place and in this time of worship. Let us claim this moment in the power of the presence of God. Let us claim it and be forever changed by it. Amen

(1) Geoff McElroy, Genesis 29:10-19a, Desert Scribblings, available at on July 12, 2010.

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