This sermon for Pentecost 5, Year A Proper 11, was preached at St Paul’s, Norwalk, OH, 17 July 2011
When we left Jacob last Sunday, he had wrestled with his brother in their mother’s womb, he had tricked his brother out of the birthright inheritance due to the elder of the twins.
In between last week’s reading from Genesis and this week’s, Jacob’s story continued. He consoldiated his position over his elder brother by tricking their father into giving him the blessing due to the elder son. Isaac, their father, told him to go away and find a wife from his mother’s people, because he would be the one to continue the promises made to Abraham, that a great people would be his descendants, that they would live in the promised land, that they would be the people promised by God.
Esau, Jacob’s brother, even though he had given up his birthright for a mess of stew, was overwhelmed with grief and anger when realised what he had lost, and how his brother had taken his place in the family, and in the promises of their father. Their mother warned Jacob that he shouldn’t wait but must leave now, because Esau was thinking of killing him.
So Jacob left home, blessed by his father and by the promises made to Abraham and his offspring, but hated by his brother;
the heir to a promise of richness, of fat and fruitful land, of a healthy and large family, of the blessings of God, yet running away with nothing, with not so much as a bedroll to give him comfort in the night.
He took a stone, we are told, and placed it under his head as a pillow to sleep when night fell and he could go no further in the dark.
That is where we find Jacob this morning. He is lying in the darkness, fleeing from home in fear for his life. He is in the middle of nowhere,
with nothing, and no one to keep him company. He has, quite literally, hit rock bottom, lying on shale for a bed, with a stone for a pillow.
What does it feel like to be alone? To be apart from family and friends, isolated by distances measured in miles or in emotions? What does it feel like to be cut adrift, to be homeless, to have nothing? What does it feel like to be alone in the dark?
We see in our own lives the echoes of Jacob’s dilemma. We fight and fall out with those to whom we feel closest. We do it as indiviuals, in family and friendship relationships. We do it as churches, splitting apart instead of working together for the kingdom, focusing on the weeds rather than on growing the wheat. We experience financial hardship, in our households, in our parishes, in our country, striving to stop our own debt ceilings collapsing around our heads. We see hunger and homelessness in the world around us, and we pray that our children will not have to suffer that way.
We know what it feels like to be alone in the dark. Some of us have felt the hard rock beneath us.
But in this dark night of Jacob’s soul, he is reminded that he is the bearer of God’s promises. Wherever he goes, whatever situation he finds himself in, however bleak things look and however alone he feels, God is still with him. There is no chasm between the divine dwelling place and Jacob’s rocky pillow that God cannot cross.
When God speaks in Jacob’s dream, it is not from the top of the stone stair. God stands beside Jacob, and says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; … 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.”
Close enough to whisper in Jacob’s ear, God promises never to leave him, never to withdraw the promises of the blessing which Jacob stole, but which God now freely gives back to him.
Now I don’t want to give away too much of the story and spoil your enjoyment of the next few weeks’ readings; suffice to say that God kept God’s promise to Jacob. Things did not always go smoothly for him, to say the least. He continued to duck and dive, wheel and deal his way through life, and he met his match more than once; but he was the heir to those promises that were made to Abraham and to his descendants, and he was the father of the nation of Israel, and all of the families of the earth have been blessed in his descendant, Jesus of Nazareth, that preacher from the promised land and the author of the promises to us of God’s salvation, of God’s blessing, of God’s presence among us.
Things didn’t always go smoothly. When Jacob woke up from the dream of God’s presence with him and God’s promise to him, he was overawed. “Surely God was in this place, and I didn’t know it!” he exclaimed. How could he know it, in the middle of nowhere, alone in the dark? And yet, there God was.
There is a postscript to this story. After Jacob set up his stone pillar and anointed it, he promised God that he would follow God’s promise, and be faithful to God, if God kept the promise and was faithful to Jacob. If. Even now, in the face of awe and wonder; even now, in the face of God’s promise; even now, as though he had anything left to lose, Jacob hoped in the rock of our salvation, but held on to a small, smooth pebble of fear.
St Paul wisely observes that we do not hope for what we can already see and grasp. The promise offered to Jacob was a long time coming to fruition, but he lived in its hope, and in the knowledge that God was with him, waiting patiently as he and his offspring and the whole earth laboured towards its fulfilment.
God knew about that smooth pebble of fear. God knew the sharp, cold places of Jacob’s heart, the stumbling blocks in his way, and God stayed true to Jacob and to the promises that he carried.
Life in the promise of God is not always a smooth pathway. This is not an instant fix for our grief and our divisions. We still stub our toes on the hard rocks of our debts, our hunger, and our heartsickness. We still wait for the final fulfillment of God’s promises to us. Even in our hope, we still encounter those pebbles of fear. But God is in this place, whether we know it or not. God is waiting with us. God is walking with us.
Because the promise that Jacob heard is also God’s promise to us. We are the heirs alongside Christ of the promises of God. We are children of God, adopted by the Spirit to be co-inheritors of God’s promises. God nows the pebbles of fear that we carry, the hard and sharp places in our hearts, the stumbling blocks in our way, and God promises that, flawed as we are, we, like Jacob, have the potential and the power to do great things, to bear fruit, to be a blessing to the people around us, if we trust in the Spirit to live in us and work through us.
And even when it seems hard, in the rocky places of our lives, even among the weeds, God is with us, whispering in the night, so close that we could almost reach out and touch the sound of God’s voice,
“I am with you, and I will keep you; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”