- September 18th, 2017
If you frequently attend Plymouth’s Saturday Night service—and you should!—this week’s text may have you humming an old spiritual. This week we are all climbing Jacob’s ladder.
Of all the Narrative Lectionary texts for this year, the story of Jacob may be the one that got me thinking about the idea of heaven as a place on earth. At his lowest point—outcast, shunned, fearing for his life—Jacob dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. And he says something I hope will resonate with more and more of us: “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
We are, all of us, climbing Jacob’s ladder. But isn’t just about our climbing up; it is about the One at the other end of the ladder; the God who comes all the way down to us
Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17
When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” 2He said, “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. 3Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. 4Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.”
15Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; 16and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. 17Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob. 18So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” 19Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” 20But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” 21Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” 22So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.
10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He 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. 12And 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. 13And 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; 14and 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. 15Know 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.”16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And 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.”
As per usual, the Narrative Lectionary takes a big leap forward in the story. Isaac—almost but not quite sacrificed in last week’s text—is old now and the story opens with the foremost preoccupation of Genesis: the transmission of the blessing down the generations.
And—once again, as per usual—it’s complicated.
The complication comes for Isaac and Rebecca in the form of twin sons: Jacob and Esau. The patriarchal world of Genesis obsessively practices primogeniture. The birthright, the inheritance, the blessing belongs to the first-born male child. In this case, that means Esau, who is barely older than his twin brother. But, in an interesting preview of God’s preference for underdogs, the blessing falls on the younger instead.
Only…the passive voice is a little misleading. Jacob does not receive the blessing so much as he steals it. In a bizarre episode, he exploits his elderly father’s failing senses to deceive him by impersonating his hirsute brother. Isaac, mistaking Jacob for Esau, confers the first-born’s blessing upon the younger son. And the blessing is, apparently, irrevocable. What Isaac has done cannot be undone.
We know Esau to be quick-tempered and skilled as a hunter, so it should have come to no surprise that Esau vows to make Jacob pay for the pilfered blessing with his life. Jacob has to hightail it out of town –hated at home, confronting an uncertain future.
He has to wonder if this blessing is worth it.
One night “at a certain place”—which is to say, an in-between place, which is to say no place in particular—Jacob stops for the night. He sleeps. He dreams.
And the blessing finds him.
He has a vision of a ladder—probably more of a ziggurat, actually—connecting earth and heaven, with busy traffic in-between. And the God of his ancestors speaks the words he has longed to hear, confers the blessing for which he has sacrificed everything.
God is not done with Jacob—not by a long shot—but it all begins with the blessing.
As we get ready for worship this weekend, what should we keep in mind?
FOCUSING ON THE FAMILY
Do you know what I love about the Book of Genesis? And do you know why it still ranks among the great literary works?
This book is real. It’s portrayal of families is real. No plaster-cast saints, no hagiography. Genesis narrates what all of us know: families are messy and broken and just plain hard.
Too much of Christianity in this country has been wed to narrow and impossibly idealized depictions of family life. But the Bible knows better. Family life can be deeply difficult. But that does not mean that God is not at work. Quite the contrary.
At first reading, it can be hard to enter the world of Genesis. You cannot get this story without getting the notion of blessing. The blessing carries a weight and a power that may seem superstitious to 21st century folks.
And yet…I know families, and churches and communities that bless their children well, that raise them up to have the kind of confidence and ease that only come from knowing in your bones that you are a beloved child of God. And I know families and churches and communities that withhold the blessing in a way that deeply wounds. Many years ago, in a retreat on the topic of men and their fathers, I heard a therapist explain how a man’s father is the only person who can tell him that he has become a man. And when that blessing is withheld, the effects can be nothing less than devastating.
I wonder if we are doing all that we can to confer the blessing to the next generation –in our families, at Plymouth Church, in our city and nation. This is critical and sacred work.
There is a reason that this story sticks with people. Jacob’s ladder is powerful image. As Walter Brueggemann writes: “Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote, self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth.” And that makes earth “a place of possibility.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.