Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 27:41-45, 28:10-19a

Read the text here: Genesis 28:10-19
A recording of the sermon - preached on Sunday, July 20 is available here: Wartburg Parish

“On the Run” or “Jacob Didn’t Climb No Ladder”
I am climbing Jacob’s ladder, I am climbing Jacob’s ladder… Every step gets higher, higher, Every step gets higher, higher…  Because of this well-known camp song this story in Genesis 28 may easily be the best known of entire set of Patriarchal/Matriarchal story cycles.  But at the same time just because we know the song and have a familiarity with at least the overall theme of the story doesn’t mean we get the point, in fact I think the opposite is true – we often miss the point of this story because the popular and well-known song provides an image that completely contradicts the story itself – who is actually climbing the ladder (which in Hebrew is more of a ramp and not really a ladder)?  Hint – it’s not Jacob!
Last week we focused on the first part of chapter 27 and heard how Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspired to cheat Jacob’s twin brother Esau out of the Blessing from his father, Isaac, which would have bestowed on him the inheritance of all of his father’s property and possessions – including making Esau the heir of the promise.  But Jacob tricked his father, stole the blessing and then has to run away to escape from Esau’s anger.  Jacob is now at his most vulnerable, he is tired and afraid and he encamps at an anonymous place in order to get some rest.  As he sleeps the Lord God – Yahweh – the God of his fathers and mothers, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah – comes to him.  In the dream he sees a ramp that extends from heaven to earth and on this ramp the messengers of God are ascending and descending.  And then God comes to him, standing next to or behind or hovering above him (the Hebrew is vague here) but the point is that it is God who descends to Jacob.  God then reminds Jacob of the promise that he will remain faithful to Jacob and Jacob responds by honoring God.
So what is the point of the ladder/ramp?  A couple thoughts – first, this is not the central point of the dream.  The song makes it seem as if it is the most important thing in the story, but it is not.  God’s descending to Jacob and re-affirming the promise is the most important part of this story.  The ramp however tells us something really important about God – and that is heaven is involved with earth!  Heaven is not up there and earth down here; God is not watching impassively from a distance.  God’s messengers in this dream are busy at work being involved with human life.  Heaven is not some remote Godly place far away – heaven has to do with earth! 
And 2nd – It is the messengers of God who are using the ramp.  Jacob does not climb it, and no one else does either.  The problem with the song is that it misses this point and seems to suggest that what we Christians are called to do is to climb higher and higher towards Godliness – but this is a direct contradiction of the dream.  It is just the opposite.  Jacob is a scumbag.  He has cheated his twin brother.  He has deceived his father.  He has run away as a coward in order to preserve himself.  He is not climbing anything toward Godliness – just the opposite in fact.  But yet, he is given this vision to remind him that despite his unworthiness, despite his unfaithfulness, despite his sin, God is still involved with him, God still loves him and God will continue to be present with him – no matter what.
The center of God’s promise to Jacob is exactly this message – “I am with you!”  And this is a message that is repeated over and over and over again in the bible’s history of salvation.  The Gospel of Matthew begins with the proclamation that the child Jesus is to be called “Emmanuel” that means “God with us!” (Matthew 1:23).  And at the end of the Gospel in Matthew 28:20, Jesus’ last words to his disciples are this: “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age!”  And consider again the beautiful words of our Psalm – 139:
7Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
8If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
9If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.
Not only does God promise to be with us no matter what, but the promise to Jacob and to us is that we can’t get rid of God, no matter how hard we try.  God will remain with us always no matter what.  As Paul says, “What can separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus… Nothing can separate us…”
Jacob is running away, he is controlled by fear; Jacob is vulnerable and it is in the midst of his fear and vulnerability that God comes to him to assure him of God’s everlasting and never-failing and unconditional presence.  What about us?  When we are at our most vulnerable, in the midst of our fears, in the midst of our uncertainties God comes to us and assures us that nothing can separate us from God.  No ladder climbing required!  God descends into the midst of our world and our lives and is present with us - forever.  


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