Meeting God in Unlikely Places
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; 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.’
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel, which means House of God.
If ever there was a word to describe what is happening in this morning’s story from Genesis, I would propose that it is all highly unlikely. It’s kind of preposterous, actually, and dare I say, even a little bit offensive.
Now maybe it’s been a little while since you last heard this story, and so maybe you don’t necessarily remember all the details about Jacob that you learned oh so many years ago in Sunday School. And so you might wonder what exactly is so offensive about this story. After all, isn’t it basically just a story about a guy who has a groovy dream about how heaven and earth are like, all connected and stuff? Isn’t it basically just a story about a guy out in the middle of the wilderness who has a vision of God and hears words of great comfort and promise?
Well… there’s a little more to it than that.
So, I’m going to suggest that we actually back things up just a bit, to one chapter before Jacob has his vision in the wilderness. Here’s the reader’s digest version: In chapter 27 of Genesis, Jacob is home, safe and sound with his mother Rebekah, his father Isaac, and his twin brother Esau. Now Esau was Jacob’s twin, but technically, he was considered the eldest son because he came out first. This was a kind of a sore point between the two brothers, especially for Jacob, who felt that it wasn’t quite fair that Esau was always treated as the favored older son, even though he was literally only seconds older than Jacob. And so, ever the resentful baby brother, Jacob was constantly trying to gain an advantage over Esau and steal some of that favor for himself.
For example, in ancient times, one of the advantages of being the eldest son was the blessing one received from one’s father. This was a time honored tradition, going all the way back to God’s own blessing to Abraham. Such a blessing included words of encouragement, but also important details regarding one’s inheritance and prophetic words for the son’s future. To receive such a blessing was an honor, and to lose it… well to lose it was tantamount to being cursed. Of course Jacob knew all of this, and so he came up with a plan (assisted by his mother) that would essentially trick his father Isaac— who at this point in the story is old, nearly blind, and somewhat feeble— into giving him the blessing that would have been intended for his brother. The plan works, and Jacob, ever the trickster and the scoundrel, manages to impersonate his brother and fool his feeble, aging father into giving him the following blessing—
“May God give you of the dew of heaven,
and of the fatness of the earth,
and plenty of grain and wine.
Let people serve you,
and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”
As soon as Essau discovers what his brother has done, he flies into a fit of rage, curses Jacob, and pledges to kill him the next time he sees him. Thus Jacob is forced to flee from his home, bringing us to where we find him in today’s reading— homeless, landless, and with no prospects for the future. By all appearances, one would say he was lost. But of course, if we’ve been reading this story from the beginning, we’re really not so inclined to feel particularly sympathetic towards Jacob. He did bring it all upon himself after all, with his greedy, selfish behavior. He pretty much deserved exactly what he got.
But then, night comes, and Jacob goes to sleep. And everything changes. God shows up for Jacob in a most extraordinary way and gives Jacob a most extraordinary promise.
Which brings us back around to why this story is so unlikely, and for some, even a little but offensive. Why is it, some readers may ask, that this lying, cheating, selfish son gets singled out to receive this astounding blessing from God? Why is he being rewarded for his dishonesty? And why now, before he shows even an ounce of remorse? And why there, in the middle of no man’s land—land belonging to other tribes who swore their allegiance to other foreign Gods? Even if you’re not actually offended by this story, you have to admit, it’s a curious turn of events.
Some scholars theorize that Jacob had unwittingly stumbled upon a ‘thin place’— a gateway between heaven and earth, a place where “the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we are able to catch glimpses of the divine.” Personally, I love the idea of thin places— places where we can somehow sense God’s presence more acutely—but I have to admit that in this story, I’m not quite sure that the explanation that Jacob just accidentally stumbled upon one is ultimately very satisfying. Because that would almost seem to imply that our encounters with God happen merely by chance, if we happen to be lucky enough to stumble upon one of these “thin places” in the world. But the thing is, I don’t believe these kind of divine meetings have anything to do with luck or chance. I think that while they may often be unexpected, and maybe even unlikely, they are by no means accidental.
Ultimately, if we really want to get at the heart of what’s going on in this story, and if we really want to understand what it says about how and when and why God comes to meet us, I would suggest that it all comes down to how we relate to Jacob. For example, if we read this story, and we start to identify Jacob with others in our lives who seem to have blessings falling into their laps even though they have done nothing to deserve it (we all know people like that, right?), we may start to feel slightly resentful. It’s not unlike the reactions that some people have to Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, when the younger son, who lives a life of gluttony and greed, is granted a lavish, costly party when he finally returns home. These stories, and others like them, have the potential to send our minds down the rabbit hole of resentment, as we think about all the liars and the dirty dirty cheaters of this world who seem to be rewarded for their bad behavior while those who play by the rules do so thanklessly and with little or no reward.
That’s one way to read the story, which can leave us scratching our heads in confusion and frustration at the seeming randomness of it all. But there’s another way to read this story, which is to put ourselves in Jacob’s place. To see Jacob, not as the other, but as ourselves. To call to mind all those times when we weren’t completely honest, when we might have bended the rules to get our way, when we treated family or friends unfairly, or when we put our own selfish desires before the interests of the common good. And then to realize, that despite all of our faults and imperfections, despite our weak and often selfish behavior, God will still come to meet us in our hour of need, because God’s grace is wide and God’s mercy endures forever. Furthermore, when we put ourselves in Jacob’s sandals, maybe we can start to see how often it is exactly in those times when we are feeling the most helpless and the most vulnerable that God shows up to meet us. Yes, Jacob screwed up. Yes, he lied and he cheated and he treated both his father and his brother unfairly and unkindly. But one can imagine that that night, alone in the wilderness without a friend in the world, using a rock for a pillow, he knew he had messed up. The confidence and cockiness from before was long gone. There were cracks opening up in the facade of Jacob’s arrogance and self-assurance.
Personally, I’d like to think that it wasn’t so much that Jacob accidentally stumbled upon a thin place where God was somehow more present than before. Rather, it was that God was there all along, just waiting for an opportunity. God was just waiting for those cracks to start to open up so that Jacob could finally hear God’s voice above the voice of his own ego, a voice which had been saying all along, “You are mine, and I am with you.” I’d like to think that at the end of the day, the whole world is actually quite “thin,” but that often we are the ones who are too thick-headed to notice. I’d like to believe that in fact, thin places are everywhere, and therefore God can meet us anywhere, and that indeed, the ultimate thin place is within our very own hearts, where if we are able to let down our guard just enough and be just a little bit more vulnerable, despite the sometimes overwhelming harshness and cynicism of the world around us, we may just hear God’s still small voice whispering to us, “I love you, I am with you, you are mine.”
There is one last thing I’d like to say about this story, which is that I believe there is much to be gleaned here about the kinds of people God calls to do the work of healing and reconciliation in the world. We live in a world today where almost everything has become professionalized— everything from art and music to service and community engagement. Most of us feel inadequate to do certain tasks because we don’t feel we have been trained well enough or we don’t have the proper experience, or wisdom, or qualifications. When it comes to the work of healing our broken world, for instance, we may find ourselves thinking, “well maybe we ought to leave that to the professionals—to the social workers and the clergy, and the government workers and the non-profit directors—because they actually know what they are doing.” Setting aside for a moment the fact that I don’t think any of us ever really know what we are doing—there is a larger point to be made about what it means to be qualified and called as a servant of God. There is a fabulous meme that seems to make it’s way around social media every now and then— maybe some of you have seen it. It starts with our hero of the day—Jacob himself—and it goes a little something like this: “Jacob was a cheater. Peter was a coward. David had an affair, and Noah got drunk. Jonah ran from God and Paul was a bully. Gideon was insecure and Miriam was a gossip. Martha worried and Thomas doubted. Sarah was impatient and Elijah was depressed. Moses stuttered, Zaccheus was too short Abraham was too old, and Lazarus was dead! And then, at the end of this laundry list of reasons why all these people should have made terrible ambassadors for God’s love and justice in the world, the meme concludes with these words: “God does not call the qualified. God qualifies those who have been called.”
Jacob wasn’t perfect. Neither were any of those whose stories we read in the pages that follow (except for Jesus, of course). And, newsflash, neither are we. God calls us anyway. God meets us anyway. God loves us anyway. God is with us and we belong to God, forever and always. May we know this to be true in the deepest places of our hearts. God in your mercy, may it ever be so. Amen.