Last week we left our sly, conniving, deceitful and evil friend, Jacob just as he was getting himself settled down for the night. He’s on the lam, running away from home, trying to avoid being killed by his somewhat older twin brother Esau. He’s behaved abominably, of course; he’s snatched his brother’s birthright away for the price of a bowl of savory stew, but most horrendous, he’s deceived his father into giving him the family blessing by employing some wild deception and by using some completely outrageous lies. One of those lies even made God complicit in Jacob’s act of treachery. In Jacob’s final act of deception, when he went in to his father’s bedroom disguised as Esau, his father Isaac found it quite remarkable that his son had so quickly found wild game and transformed it just as quickly into a savory stew. Now, of course, the stew was not made from wild game at all; it was goat stew that mommy Rebekah had made as her part in this sly, conniving, deceitful and evil charade. But nevertheless Isaac thought it amazing that the stew had come to fruition so quickly, and so he asked Jacob, thinking he was Esau, of course, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” And Jacob answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Oh my. Sin is sin, and evil is evil, and all sin makes us less human than God intends for us to be, but involving God in our treachery deeply diminishes us in ways that I cannot even fathom. We are created in the image of God. There are lines of beauty and glory and holiness and sacredness that profoundly connect us to our creator. And when we sin, we diminish and debase that image.
Over the years of my ministry I have listened to many individuals as they explained away their sinful behaviors by proclaiming that this is something that God would have wanted for them, or that it was God who led them into this sinful behavior so that they could be happy. And none of them seemed to realize that they were damaging the image of God within them, and that they were becoming less and less the human being that God intended for them to be. Being human is a good thing. God glorified it at creation and then magnified it in his son Jesus Christ. We lose a little bit of our humanity every time we sin.
And so Jacob, our severely diminished human being is getting himself ready for bed. He’s most likely chosen a spot well off the well-beaten path, because in those days, as it is now, it was not safe to travel after dark. And he’s got his angry brother to consider, too. He doesn’t want Esau to come upon him while he’s snoozing by the road. The result, to say the least, could be disastrous.
Last week we left this story wondering about Jacob’s state of heart. Was he remorseful, overwhelmed with grief and shame, or was he smug and contented with himself, now that he’d gotten away with his treacherous acts of deception? This week, it doesn’t matter much either way, because what ever his state of heart is, he’s about to meet God. And wouldn’t we rather, given our own senses of justice, that when Jacob meets God, that he gets a severe drubbing from God for his abominable behavior? Not that we want any drubbings for ourselves from God, but we certainly want Jacob to get one; it is just exactly what he deserves! But what he gets instead, is a vision of heaven, and a promise from God that he absolutely does not deserve. This is grace in the extreme, and we do not always appreciate grace at this level unless we are the ones receiving it.
I’m fairly certain that when Jacob made that rock his pillow, that he believed that he was about as far from the reaches of heaven and a kindly encounter with God as he could possibly get. I want him to feel that way, because sometimes that’s exactly how we feel. Somehow we’ve gotten this idea that heaven is billions of miles away, distant and remote, and that God is equally distant and remote. And yet, the Scriptures are absolutely filled with stories just like this one where the heavenly realm breaks into the earthly realm, and where God is powerfully present with his people. God’s promise to Jacob that he would be with him is no less powerful today than it was then. Listen to what God says to Jacob: “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 promised you.” That promise spanned Jacob’s entire life, and it reached glorious fulfillment in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is with us, heaven is present on earth, there are angels ascending and descending in our lives all the time. Jesus said stuff like this to his disciples: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” And, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That’s pretty profound stuff, especially if we believe it the way that Jesus meant it. Jesus is not stuck way away in heaven, he’s right here, among us, present with us, alive with us, and teaching us his ways. That actually ought to shake us up some. It certainly shook Jacob up. When he woke from his dream, he was utterly astonished and totally filled with fear and awe. Listen to him: “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.”
I wonder, if when we gather for worship, if those are also our words. We often gather for worship with expectations, but being in the awesome and fearsome presence of Almighty God is not always one of them. We might come because of the preaching. Or we might stay away because of the preaching. We might come because of the people. Or we might stay away because of the people. We might come because of the music, or we might stay away because of the music. There are all kinds of reasons why we might come, and there are an equal number of reasons why we might stay away.
But the only reason that we should come is to engage ourselves with the living and active and mighty presence of our Lord and our God. Like the stone pillow in the woods, this is a sacred place set aside to meet with God. The only difference is that Jacob did not know that the stone pillow that he stuck his head on was sacred. And when he found out, it blew his mind. There should be no question in our minds in terms of what this place is. And it shouldn’t stop us from being filled with fear and awe every time we enter. Entering this place with reverent fear is a good place to begin. It is, after all the house of God and the gate of heaven. But then, oh, the inexpressible joy of being in the presence of our Lord and Savior! This is a joy like no other and it ought to be celebrated with absolute abandon. Behind Jacob’s fear, we can sense his joy and excitement.
Part of that joy and excitement is because his conversion is now complete. He has discovered grace, in spite of the fact that he must know by now that he is a very unsavory character. And that is very good news indeed. That tells me that we have a God who is quite willing, anxious, in fact, to redeem all of the unsavory characters of this world, even and maybe especially, those who have made God complicit in their own evil deeds, as Jacob has done. Our God is a forgiving God, and there is no limit to that forgiveness. Jesus did not cry from the cross “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” just for something to say. He meant every word. That’s especially meaningful to me, because I know that the small percentage of sins that I commit without knowing it, are also forgiven. Most of the time I am in solidarity with the Psalmist when he said, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
Part of God’s blessing and promise that we haven’t talked about yet, is still to come. God said to Jacob, “…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.” One of the descendants of Jacob was Jesus of Nazareth, the one who permanently brought the Kingdom of Heaven into the realm of this world. And by his presence here, he permanently transformed all of creation. And he gave his disciples and every one of his followers the authority to carry on his ministry of transformation. Today, this is our task. Again, in his own words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
Jacob was overjoyed to discover that. Are we?