Sometimes, when I’m preparing a sermon, I ask God for a dream to help me find my way into the text. It certainly seemed fitting to ask for a dream about Jacob’s dream!
But instead, the dream I had gave me a phrase from much earlier in Genesis. I received words from the story of Adam and Eve, where the scripture says, “They were naked and unafraid.”
Dreams! Yet maybe I dreamed of this phrase to remember how the things were between God and human beings, at the beginning of the Bible’s Big Story we start following today, as we start preaching through Year 4 of the Narrative Lectionary.
A lectionary is a set of texts selected from the whole Bible to be the focus for worship and preaching over the seasons of the Christian year. The Narrative Lectionary was selected with the purpose of telling the Big Story of God’s relationship with human beings from Genesis to Jesus and on through the beginning of the Church.
In order to complete the Ephesians series, we’ve skipped some important episodes at the beginning of this Big Story–the Creation stories and the stories of Abraham, which both set the stage for today’s reading.
So here’s a quick recap. At the very beginning, humans were “naked and unafraid” with God and one another, but it doesn’t last long. “And then there was trouble!” goes a phrase from Thomas the Tank Engine tales, which we still repeat around our house. Adam and Eve meet the serpent, eat the fruit, and exit the garden. Cain murders his brother Abel, escaping to start a civilization which becomes wicked, and only Noah and his children survive the Great Flood, which was intended to be a sort of reset of humanity’s relationship with God.
Alas! More trouble. The reset is flawed. Shame and fear have taken root in human nature, and the peace and harmony of “naked and unafraid,” that intimate trust with God and all other creatures which was always God’s desire and intention, seems impossible to restore.
But God doesn’t give up. God tries yet again, this time with a covenant between himself and Abram, whom God renamed Abraham, “father of nations.” Abraham’s son Isaac is the first in a family lineage through which God has promised to bless all people on Earth. Today, we take up the Big Story with Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, who is the unlikely inheritor of the Covenant Promise. Let us hear the Word of the Lord:
Read Scripture: Genesis 28:10-17
He was asleep: but actually, it was the first time in his entire life when he was fully awake. Fleeing from Canaan to Haran, running from the brother whose birthright he’d swindled and whose blessing he’d stolen, Jacob came to a point in his journey when he could just go no further. He had to stop for a night of rest. Not aware that he’d stopped at a place where his grandfather Abraham had once camped, Jacob knew only the exhaustion, loneliness, and fear of the unknown after leaving everything behind.
He must have felt that he had failed. Jacob had spent his young life grasping for all the eldest son entitlements of his elder brother Esau. But as soon as he’d achieved his ambitions, Esau’s murderous anger forced him to leave it all behind.
Now, as Jacob picked up a stone, all that he could find for a pillow, and stretched out, fully exposed to the night sky, he might have been thinking, Has it all come to this?
Have you ever had a moment like this? Perhaps, for days and weeks, you’ve been trying to stay in control of things, running through your lists, checking off tasks, watching the news, keeping track of risks, working hard to meet your deepest desires for your family and yourself.
Maybe, like Jacob, you are ambitious, and you are trying to move at least one rung up the ladder of success from your parents.Or maybe you’ve been running in place just to stay even. In our culture of more, bigger, and better, many of us keep running for most of our lives.
Then something happens. The circumstances of your life bring you to a sharp edge, in spite of your best attempts to avoid it. Your health falters, you lose your job, something happens to a loved one, or you just start feeling sort of dead inside and can’t figure out why.
Or maybe, beyond your individual situation, it’s a national or global catastrophe. An earthquake. A wildfire. A hurricane. A pandemic. A crisis breaks into and shatters the “fragile orb”* of rules, rhythms, and routines you thought would maintain stability and order. And it requires a total reordering of your priorities, expectations, and ideas about what life has been and will be.
Jacob didn’t know it yet, but the crisis which forced him from his home was about to open up a crack in his life for God to finally get in.
Of course, God had been present with him all along, but Jacob did not know that either. In all his competitive striving, Jacob had walled himself off from any real connection with God or anyone else. He’d probably heard plenty about Yahweh’s covenant blessing, but to Jacob, Yahweh was Dad’s God, not my God. And he really had no clue about the vast and cosmic purpose his family had been chosen to fulfill. Jacob only knew that he needed to sleep.
And in the mystery of grace, the vulnerability of utter fatigue finally made him available to God’s love. Closer to “naked and unafraid” than he’d ever been before, Jacob has a curious dream, which begins with a vision of something like a stairway or ramp, reaching all the way to the sky. Angels, messengers of God, traverse this ladder between heaven and earth.
As Walter Brueggemann writes, this image tells Jacob that, “Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth. And earth finally may count on the resources of heaven.”**
Even more remarkably, the Lord God comes to stand beside Jacob to give a direct message. “I am YHWH,” God begins. To give Jacob God’s personal name is to extend to him the intimate relationship God had with Abraham, who was called a “friend of God.” God continues by reiterating the promises first given to Abraham and then to Isaac now to Jacob himself: the land shall be given to Jacob and his offspring, who will be as prolific of the dust, and through them, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed…”
Finally, God offers a powerful assurance: “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.”
However hopeless Jacob’s situation had seemed, the dream reveals a different reality: God. Jacob is accompanied and upheld by the God who promises him a future of hope and blessing, and a return to this very land. As one author writes, “Now he can continue on his way with trust. He is an exile, but not an exile without hope. He is lonely, but not alone. Far from home, he can keep going because of this dream and God’s promise. His feelings of fear are no longer the only reality.”***
After nineteen months of global pandemic, many of us feel like exiles. We wonder when we will be allowed to return to the homeland of “the way things were.” And we are so tired–tired of worrying about our families and neighbors, tired of putting on masks and hand sanitizer, tired of carefully deciding which social gatherings to risk and which to avoid, tired of the division in our communities over the best ways to prevent the virus’ spread, tired of new case tallies, and above all, tired of death.
Grief is an exhausting emotion, and few of us willingly allow ourselves to feel it. Whenever I let myself weep, I want to sleep the rest of the day afterwards! Yet, to wall ourselves off from grief is also to block ourselves from positive emotions like love and joy.
“Follow the tears,” my spiritual directors have trained me, because “[t]ears often reflect an opening to God’s grace.”**** So, perhaps it’s time for us to stop running. Perhaps we need to stop and take time out to face the rock hard pillow of grief. We are not going back to the way things were anytime soon, and possibly never. These nineteen months have changed the world. Perhaps it’s time for you to grieve what you have lost.
This I know for sure: when you lay yourself down, vulnerable and available, naked and unafraid, and you let your tears flow, they will make an opening through which a fresh grace of God can enter. They will make a window through which you can see that God is here and has been here all along.
As you finally release your tears, you will not drown in the puddle! You may, however, sleep, and in that sleep, God will remind you again of God’s promises, and God will call you beyond your fear and sadness to a greater purpose, to your own way of blessing the world.
When Jacob woke from his sleep, he was not only refreshed but amazed. “Surely the Lord is in this place…” he cried out.“This is none other than the house of God!” He took the rock he slept on and set it up as a pillar, a touchstone he could return to, of God’s presence here and with him always. He vowed to make that place a center of worship and thanksgiving.
After the panic of his exile, it is a new beginning. With new determination, Jacob leaves Bethel. The road he and his children walk is long and winding, but they find their way back to the Promised Land again and again. Finally, through Jacob’s lineage, God’s promise is fulfilled, the blessing of all families on Earth, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So what about us? In our grief and sense of exile, my friends, in the disorder and uncertainty of these days, let us allow ourselves to rest and trust in the God who has always been with us, who desires for us a future of blessing, who works through us to bless all the families of God’s earth.
This week, I invite you to find a stone, a small one, that you can hold in your hand, and as you hold it, remember all the places and people through whom God has met you. Remember that God’s promises are as certain as this rock, true, strong, and reliable. Remember that heaven has to do with earth, and earth may count on heaven’s resources.
The Lord is here, in this very place, and God is working out God’s promises, so that all of us can find our way home to that place we can rest in God, naked and unafraid. Alleluia and Amen!
(You can watch Laura preach this sermon by clicking HERE )
** Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation, 243
****Quoted by Susan S. Phillips in Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2008,36.