Jacob is running away from home to escape the wrath of his brother Esau whom he has just cheated out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. Esau is out for his brother’s blood. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, covers up for him, making up an excuse to her husband that it would be a bad idea for Jacob to marry a foreign girl, like his brother Esau did, now that Jacob is heir to the family blessing. She sends Jacob on a journey to Rebekah’s family almost 400 miles away to find a wife.
Barbara Brown Taylor observes that “this is not a vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry.
He is in a limbo of his own making.”
Jacob escapes to the wilderness. He is a fugitive between a home where he is no longer safe and a place he has never been. He’s guilty, defenseless, and scared and not necessarily a sympathetic character. Things for Jacob are a bit tenuous as he finds himself alone in the desert hill country – he is exposed – physically, emotionally, spiritually. He is at risk from the known behind him and the unknown before him. It is a stark reminder of where his choices have brought him. He is basically between a rock and a hard place. Full of anxiety, and exhausted from his journey, Jacob settles into the vulnerability of sleep under the night sky with a stone for a pillow.
In that liminal, wilderness place, between Beer‐Sheba and Haran, God reaches out to Jacob in a dream. With his defenses down, as he slips into his unconscious world, one might think his dreams would be filled with angst of the father he had deceived and the brother he had betrayed. Instead it was a dream of unexpected beauty and wonder. Jacob dreams of a stone stairway set up on the earth and reaching all the way up into heaven. Angels are ascending and descending. As you heard this text read, I know some of you have a hymn playing through your head – We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. If you didn’t have it in your head before, you can thank me for putting it there now.
Right beside him, God speaks to Jacob, not words of accusation, but comfort and blessing:
“...the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you. 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.”
Jacob is not looking for God in this place, not expecting to find God in this place. Jacob’s interior landscape was as desolate harsh landscape around him. That is exactly where God comes to meet him – in an unexpected place; a place that appears God-forsaken. This is the God who met Hagar in her distress, the servant of Abraham’s wife Sarah, who is abandoned along with her son, Ishmael in the desert. This is the God who meets a conniving Jacob in the middle of nowhere.
When Angie & I attended the 5th session for the Academy for Spiritual Formation in October 2018, one of the presenters was a Jewish Rabbi. What a privilege to be in his presence and learn from him. He had us read a book by
Lawrence Kushner: “God was in this Place and I, I did not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, and Ultimate Meaning.”
In this book, Kushner is in conversation with rabbis and mystics across the centuries, and their interpretations of the sacred text. Kushner talks about the inner work that is before us as we wrestle with our lives and contemplate God.
Kushner is in a conversation with 11th century Rabbi Rashi from France who writes that this story is about what it means to be awake.
The beginning of knowing about God, is paying attention, being fully present where you are, waking up. Most people, most of the time, are asleep. The trick is to pay attention long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. Jewish spirituality is about living with the awareness and the immediacy of God’s presence everywhere. It is about paying attention, seeing, feeling, and hearing things that only a moment ago were inaccessible to us.
The eastern sky was already bright orange with sunrise; Jacob could begin to see the purple shapes of mountains on the horizon. Jacob was waking up. Confused by the wilderness in which he found himself, shaken by the dream’s power, he whispers, “Wow! God really must have been right here, and I, I did not know!”
Jacob begins to ponder the events of his life in a new way. Jacob could have also proclaimed “Surely God is in me, and I did not know it!” And that would lead to another awakening: “If God was here, and I didn’t know, then perhaps God has been other places also.”
Jacob recognizes this as a thin place where heaven and earth are joined, where angels ascend and descend in our lives reminding us that Earth has its own angels. A reminder that you can encounter the holy in the most unlikely places. Life is messy and complicated, our lives are sometimes messy and complicated, but this story points to the truth that it can also be spiritually full in all its complexity when we open our senses to divinity within and beyond us. God is in all things, and all things are in God! Jacob sees something that was hidden to him before, the veil between what is seen and unseen is thinner. This teaches us that thin places, the joining of heaven & earth abound.
In Psalm 139, the Psalmist discovers God everywhere. No place is without God’s presence. Even when we run away from God, we run into God’s hands. In the heights, God is there; in the depths, God is also present. God knows each of us fully, but God’s knowledge of us is liberating, not judging. Jacob’s encounter with holiness comes by pure grace.
In recognizing the presence of God with him, Jacob re-names this place “Beth-el,” meaning the house of God, the gate of heaven, an awe-some place. “liminal space where earth and heaven meet”.
God comes to us on the darkest night, when we like Jacob recognize our brokenness. God cries out in wounded nature. Wherever we are, God is present; and wherever we are, it is Beth-el, the house of God. Jacob dedicates himself to this God who has promised to be with him, who provides for his needs along the way. Jacob’s response to God’s gracious covenant will be to set aside a portion of his resources to God in return. Grace leads to gratitude leads to generosity. Like his grandfather Abraham, and his father Isaac, Jacob creates a monument to God’s presence – erecting a stone, a cairn, and anoints it with oil. Erecting a stone altar was an ancient symbol of God’s dwelling place, a stone of help, an ebenezer. Cairns are intended to be added to by those who pass them. They become a growing symbol of God’s presence among us.
We may not always be awake to our lives or what God is doing. We might miss the encounters with God and times of blessing that can happen at any time, anywhere: at rest and at play, alone during COVID, or in a crowd with masked faces. 20th century mystic Thomas Merton reflected, “In Louisville, at the corner of 4th & Walnut, in the center of town, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs.”
Where does the ordinary becomes extraordinary for you? It may be a place in nature, or a corner in your home, or you may unexpectedly stumble upon sacred ground in an unexpected place. Like Jacob, we can wake up to our lives, and exclaim, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, Beth-El. This is the gate of heaven.” Like Jacob, we can proclaim, if God is here, God will be with us everywhere, even in the least promising places of our world and our lives.
In good news or bad, in joy and sorrow, we hold fast to the sure knowledge that God is with us.
Like Jacob, we too can erect a stone, a cairn, and mark the place where God has made God-self known. Perhaps you have brought a stone with you to your worship space this morning – your Beth-el, your house of God. In the Bible, we read that people encounter God under shady oak trees, on the top of mountains, in the middle of rivers, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, and burning bushes.
If you have brought a stone with you, I invite you to take a drop of oil to place on it, to anoint it, to bless it, as a symbol of acknowledging God’s presence. This Blessing does not confer holiness. The holiness is already there, embedded in the creation of God. Our job is to give voice to that holiness.
I want to end with Lawrence Kushner’s words from his book about BEING PRESENT:
You already are where you need to be. You need go nowhere else. The Hebrew word for place is makom – it is also a name for God. When Jacob came upon the makom/place, he came upon God! God is the ground and the source of everything that exists, the very Place of Being itself. And to be awake and present IN THIS PLACE is to encounter God. Right here, all along, and we may not know it because we were asleep. Jacob was waking up. Waking up to his life. Waking to God’s presence in this place.
May we wake up to our lives, to God’s presence with us in the midst of all that is. May it be so. Amen.