Sunday 8 January 1995
The life of the ancient character Jacob makes great reading – comparable, perhaps, to the unfolding dramas portrayed by the soap operas we see on television, featuring as it does a story of greed, deceit, plots, lies, intrigue, favouritism, jealousy and murderous intent. The Old Testament tells the story of the Hebrew people, the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham.
The book of Exodus relates details of God’s greatest redemptive act prior to the coming of Jesus: the release of Israel from slavery in Egypt and their deliverance across the inhospitable desert to the land promised long before to Abraham.
The book of Genesis shows how they came to be living in Egypt, and this has much to do with the great patriarchal dynasty of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons.
As we look at our reading for today, let me summarise the story so far. Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons named Esau and Jacob. Now grown to adulthood, Esau comes home hungry from a long day of hunting, and trades his birthright (his inheritance) for nothing more than a meal prepared by his brother Jacob.
Then, as though to add insult to injury, Jacob masquerades as his brother and tricks his father into bestowing the family blessing on himself rather than on his older brother Esau. When he discovers what has happened, Esau plans to murder Jacob, and Jacob runs away at his mother’s advice to Paddan Aram, the region in upper Mesopotamia where Jacob’s maternal family lived.
On his first night away from home Jacob finds no convenient motel to pull into, so he camps under the stars with a stone for a pillow. Have you ever slept under the stars? It’s not unusual for a starry night to invoke in us thoughts of God and his creative power. As Bruce Prewer expresses in a poem,
Blessed is your name, God of the universe,
For the insistent questions and the wild wonder
That are awakened when we walk out at night
And take a long, long look at the work of your fingers.
Jacob’s parents and grandparents possessed a living faith in God, but as far as the biblical record reveals, Jacob has been silent until now about his relationship with the God of the universe.
In 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly outside earth’s atmosphere, he apparently said, “We’re up here in space where God is supposed to live, and we don’t see him anywhere!”
In contrast, when Apollo 14 commander Edgar Mitchell landed on the moon on 5 February 1971, he left on the moon’s surface a small capsule containing a microfilm package. What was in the capsule? Written in sixteen languages were the words of Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
It’s not for you and me to decide whether God exists, but to acknowledge that he is there, and to respond to him in a positive and reverent manner.
Under the witness of those stars, then, Jacob falls asleep, and dreams of a stairway or ladder “resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).
In his grandfather’s birthplace, the great Sumerian city of Ur, stood a great terraced stone ziggurat soaring above the otherwise flat plains of the Tigris/Euphrates river valley. A temple dedicated to the worship of the moon god Nannu lay at the summit. Worshippers apparently ascended to the temple, while the deity descended to commune and receive sacrifices.
The biblical tower of Babel may have served as an early prototype of this structure. But whereas Babel symbolised human arrogance and led to confusion, Bethel (the place where Jacob experienced his dream) served as a demonstration of divine grace and led to conversion.
What formed the focal point of the dream was not the ladder itself, nor the angels upon it, but the figure who stood at the top. It was the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac, who now revealed himself to Jacob.
Notice carefully what he says to Jacob:
I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.
I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (Genesis 28:13-15).
This demonstrates the grace, the extravagant goodness of God. Despite Jacob’s flawed character and selfish actions, God reveals himself to him, assures him of his presence, and promises to protect and guide him through his travels, eventually bringing him back to this very place.
Imagine Jacob waking from sleep, darkness still across the land, the dream still fresh in his mind. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” he says to himself, “and I was not aware of it” (verse 16). This is his first personal encounter with God; it leaves him trembling with fear. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (verse 17).
Whatever unfortunate and regrettable events lay in the past, this moment was for Jacob a new beginning; we might even call it the moment of his conversion. The immediate result was that his vision was filled by the One he had encountered, not by the promises God had made to him.
He rises and worships his new-found friend, taking the stone he had used as a pillow and setting it as a pillar, and pouring oil on top of it (verse 18). Then, in his first recorded prayer, he dedicates his life to the Lord (verses 20-22):
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 so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God 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 promises three things to God. First, his allegiance: “the LORD will be my God.” Second, his worship: “this . . . pillar will be God’s house.” And third, his possessions: “of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” A voluntary offering, motivated by his heart emotions, long before such a practice became the norm in Israel. Perhaps this was the beginning, the seed, of the tradition of tithing our resources for investment in God’s mission.
Jacob’s response to God’s self-revelation indicates that there were no doubts in his mind about the reality of his experience. He took God seriously from the start, and sought to follow God for the rest of his life.
Have you found God, as Jacob did? Has God been speaking to you, revealing himself to you, waiting for you to respond? Even in our moments of personal crisis, or deep shame, or unremitting depression, when God may seem far away or unconcerned, God is near you, and will meet your need, and bring you through the dark night to a better morning.
Sometimes it takes a crisis, or an extraordinary event, for God to reach through our human defences and capture our heart, but when he does, we may be certain it’s for our good. Wherever you are today, whatever your circumstances, no matter how close or how far you seem from God’s heart, he wants to gently draw you closer to him.
Copyright © 1995 Rod Benson. Sermon 005 presented at Flinders Baptist Fellowship, Ipswich, Australia, on Sunday 8 January 1995. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).