“Once a little boy came up to me and said, "I saw the ladder that goes up to God.‟ That‟s how writer Kathleen Norris begins one of her essays. “I closed the book that I was reading...and I listened. The boy told me that the ladder was by his treehouse and that God had come halfway down. God‟s clothes were covered with pockets – like a kangaroo, he said, and we both laughed. Even God‟s running shoes had pockets, he told me, full of wonder, and we laughed again.”
“He told me that God carried food in the pockets,” she writes. But, as the boy continues to tell her about his dream, it turns out that the food is for animals and people who have died. “The boy had recently experienced that most fierce of childhood experiences, the death of a beloved dog. It had been bitten by a rabid raccoon on his family‟s ranch. As the boy told me of this dream, Norris thought about Jacob, who, during a crisis in his life, had also seen a ladder going up to heaven.
Dreams and ladders connect two places: where we are and where we want to be, or need to be. But neither Jacob nor Norris‟s dreaming boy climbed their ladders to get from where they were to where they needed to be; it was God who came down the ladder to them, with food for their journeys.
The boy in Norris‟s story sounds delightful. Jacob, let‟s face it, is kind of a punk. He swindled his brother, Esau, of his birthright and stole their father‟s blessing that was meant for the oldest son. He was always a momma‟s boy, and when mother Rebekah discovers that older brother Esau is ready to slit Jacob's throat for what he has done, she finds a way to save her favorite son‟s hide. She tells her husband, Isaac, that it would be a bad idea for Jacob to marry a foreign girl now that he is heir to the family blessing. It‟s just what Jacob needs to make his escape while Esau cools his heels.
So now he‟s on the run, fleeing a place where he is no longer welcome, headed to a place he‟s never been. He‟s guilty, defenseless and scared; and he hasn't got a friend in the world. He finds himself out in the hill country north of Beer-sheba. Worn-out, he lies down under the night sky with nothing but a stone for a pillow.
You would think that Jacob would sleep the sleep of guilty, haunted by nightmares of the father he had deceived and the brother he had betrayed. But Jacob doesn‟t get what he deserves; he gets something much better. He dreams of a stairway (not really a ladder) that reaches all the way to heaven and on which angels are climbing and descending. Suddenly, he hears the voice of the Lord, speaking directly to him, not words of reproach and accusation, but of comfort and blessing:
"...the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth... 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." (Genesis 28.13-15)
It is the same covenant God made with Abraham and Isaac. Whether he deserves it or not, whether he wants it or not, Jacob is drawn into the covenant of his ancestors; he is part of the promise of land and descendants, and part of the responsibility to be a blessing to the world.
And how does Jacob respond to this miraculous appearance, this life-changing encounter with God and his past and his future, this unmerited gift of identity and direction? Does he fall on his knees in humble obedience? Does he offer words of praise and thanksgiving? Is he struck speechless by this encounter with the great divine? No! In this awe-filled moment he proves that he really is the con-man we all thought he was. He bargains with God.
In fact, he doesn‟t even bargain directly with God. He speaks as if to an invisible witness about what he wants from God: "If God gets me to my destination, if God supplies me with food and clothing, and if God gets me back home safely, then I promise to maintain this place as a shrine and give God back a tenth of what he has given me."
Jacob responds to God's completely unconditional promise of blessing and protection with a completely conditional promise of his own. "IF you will give me the land, food, clothing and protection, THEN I will be your man." God gives Jacob holy heaven instead of holy hell, and Jacob, demonstrating that he hasn‟t learned a blessed thing, says in response, “Prove it to me!” In effect, "Show me the money!"
The dream might have been clear, crystal clear, in fact. But Jacob‟s vision of what it all meant for him was blurry, clouded by his own self-interest.
Jacob is often presented in sermons and Bible studies as an example of how God can choose and use anyone for God‟s good purposes, even an irresponsible, self-absorbed con-man like Jacob. But I‟ve never been able to relate to Jacob. I‟m certainly far from perfect. God knows I need mercy and forgiveness. But I think that if God came down a staircase and told me what God told Jacob, I would know how to respond appropriately!
What is it that Jacob‟s bargaining for, anyway?
- A safe trip to his destination. I’ve asked for that.
- Home again in one piece. Check.
- Food to eat and clothing to wear. I guess I ask for daily bread at least once a week.
So, yeah, I want those things too. My manners might be better, but it seems that Jacob and I are more alike than I thought. He wants his needs met; he wants security; he wants God‟s presence to be with him. I want those things. I‟ll bet you do, too. Whether or not we‟ve made enemies of our family members, whether or not we‟ve cut corners to get ahead, whether or not we‟ve found ourselves alone and in crisis, we all want a clear map of the way ahead, we all want to know that it‟s going to turn out OK.
Jacob has much to learn. If you know your Bible, you know that a long journey lies ahead of him. Still to come is a wrestling match with God from which Jacob will emerge asdifferent person. Right now his dreams are clear, but his vision remains blurry. He‟s thinking that if only God will make the world right, he‟ll be fine.
But in order for clear dreams to become clear vision, we have to allow God to change us. Not the world, us. At the end of Jacob‟s journey, God doesn‟t change the world for Jacob, God changes Jacob for the world.
I heard there was a concert here in East Lansing the week before I arrived. A small performance with a 50 million dollar stage and an obscure group called U2. I didn‟t go (we were busy packing) but I‟ve heard that it was as amazing as Jacob‟s dream, with stairways and ramps coming and going. Even if the sound and video crew members who climbed the enormous stairways aren‟t angels, and even if Bono and The Edge who spoke from them aren‟t divine, at least one of their songs, “Yahweh” offers us the lesson that faces Jacob: there‟s no change “out there” until there‟s change “in here.”
Take these shoes
Click clacking down some dead end street Take these shoes
And make them fit
Take this shirt
Polyester white trash made in nowhere Take this shirt
And make it clean, clean
Take this soul
Stranded in some skin and bones Take this soul
And make it sing
There‟s no change out there, until there‟s change in here. Until we learn that our dreams may be very clear, but our vision of how to live in the world is not. The late Peter Gomes who, until his death in February, was professor and chaplain at Harvard University, has written something similar about the change that Christ worked in the life of the Apostle Paul.
“Christ did not change Paul‟s world. Christ did not change one thing in Paul‟s world. The Romans still ran the show; the Jews and the Greeks were still difficult; life was still nasty, brutish, and short; death was certain and often painful. None of those facts was changed or mitigated. What Christ changed was Paul‟s imagination, and by doing that he empowered him, enabled him, to live as a changed man in an unchanged world.
“To be a Christian is to be a changed man or a changed woman in an unchanged world. Anyone can be a Christian in a Christian world, but, in case you haven‟t noticed it, this is not a Christian world. This is a pagan, world, a fallen world, a secular world, a sordid world, a shabby world, and it happens to be the only world that you and I have. That‟s it. To be a Christian in it is to be changed in the middle of that which is unchanged.”
God doesn‟t change the world for Jacob, God changes Jacob for the world. Eventually Jacob gets the message: he sees who he is meant to be, that he is blessed to be a blessing, not for his own benefit but for the benefit of the world.
Last Sunday, while Bill was leading the 9:00 garden service, I had the chance to meet with many of you in the adult Sunday School class that meets at the same time. As we went
around the room, making introductions, I asked folks to share their dreams of the future for this congregation. Three clear dreams emerged from the 40 or so people who were there:
that our emphasis on mission and outreach programs, both domestic and international, would develop and grow;
that relations between the church and the Wesley Foundation would improve;
and that the number of young adults and young families in this congregation would
These are clear dreams; they are good dreams; they are achievable dreams. I believe that they come not only from you, but from God. I believe they are God‟s dreams for University Church and the Wesley Foundation.
But if these are our dreams because they benefit us, if we want more mission involvement, and better relations between our two organizations, and more young adults and families because they will make us a bigger, stronger, better church --- then we have clear dreams, but blurry vision. We are seeing the future with our own eyes. We want our needs met; we want security; we want God to be with us. We want a clear map of the way ahead, and we want to know that it‟s going to turn out OK.
We are the people of God, heirs to the promise God gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, when we understand that we are blessed to be a blessing. God promises to be with us and to give us what we need not so that our numbers will grow or our budget will grow or our standing in the community will grow, but so that we can give to others what we have received.
We share our gifts because others need them:
areas of need, whether local, domestic or international, need our attention, our time and our resources;
the campus community needs a house of worship that includes all people, that encourages questions and conversation, that lives out the truth that critical thinking and faithful living are compatible;
young families need a place for children and parents to grow in faith and love.
The world needs to know that God is love not by way of some abstract statement but in real, tangible, human form: us.
But in order for our clear dreams to become clear vision, we have to allow God to change us. Not the world, us. God didn‟t change the world for Jacob, God changed Jacob for the world. God doesn‟t change the world for us, God changes us for the world. We are blessed to be a blessing.
Let‟s finish U2‟s song together:
Take these hands Teach them what to carry Take these hands Don't make a fist Take this mouth
So quick to criticize Take this mouth Give it a kiss
Take this city
A city should be shining on a hill Take this city
If it be your will
What no man can own, no man can take Take this heart
Take this heart
Take this heart
And make it break.
Juliana Claassens, “Commentary on Alternate First Reading: Genesis 28:10-19a” at WorkingPreaching.org, posted 7/17/11. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/17/2011&tab=1
David Lose, “Learning to See” at WorkingPreacher.org, posted 07.10.11. http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=496
William Lee Holladay, “The stony dreamer: Jacob” The Christian Century 113 no 21 Jl 3-10 1996, p 691.
Barry J. Robinson, "Grace," Ordinary 16 - Year A, Genesis 28:10-19. Keeping the Faith in Babylon: a pastoral resource for Christians in Exile. http://www.spirit-net.ca/sermons/a- or16-keeping.php
Walter Brueggemann, Living Toward a Vision,
Peter J. Gomes, “Remembrance and Imagination” from Strength for the Journey: Biblical
Wisdom for Daily Living, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.
Kathleen Norris, “Revelation” from Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Riverhead Books, 1998.