Pastor Sherry’s Message for July 19, 2020
Scriptures: Gen 28:10-19a; Ps 139:1-12, 23-24; Ro 8:12-25; Matt 13:24-30, 36-43
Some years ago, I read a story in Christianity Today about a woman in India, who lived in a concrete sewer pipe with her husband and two kids.
Her name is Shivamma. She was a member of the Dalit caste, the lowest of the low, pretty much untouchable—except for rape. She remembers she was barren. A Dalit Christian named Bangarraju prayed for her in her home and she conceived and bore two children, a son and a daughter. The girl child became badly jaundiced. Bangarraju returned, prayed, and the child was healed. Shivamma became a Christian. She says she accepted Christ because, I realized that Jesus is the living God. We used to drink and everyday we would fight, fight, fight. Jesus Christ brought peace to our family. I have no fear, because I have come to know the living God. I trust Him. God met her in her need, and she now trusts Him.
In another story, there was a debate between a Christian and an Atheist. The Atheist began his presentation by writing on a whiteboard, God is nowhere. When the Christian speaker stood up to make his arguments, he erased nowhere and used the same letters to write, God is now here.
Let’s look at what our Scriptures have to say today about the twin themes of God’s presence and God’s knowledge of us. In our OT lessonàGenesis 18:11-22, we encounter the patriarch, Jacob.
He is the younger of the twin boys born to Isaac and Rebekah. He was named Jacob (which means heel grabber because he was born grasping his older twin’s heel; but it also carries the sense of deceiver, schemer. God had told his mother, when pregnant, that the older will serve the younger. In other words, God was reversing the usual order of things.
Even from the womb, God had determined that Jacob would be the one to carry out His plan of redemption from Abraham and Isaac.
Nevertheless, Isaac favors Esau, so Rebekah and Jacob collude to rob Esau of both his birthright and his father’s blessing. Esau is furious when he discovers this, so Rebekah invents the pretext of needing to go abroad to find a suitable wife to help Jacob escape his brother’s wrath. Jacob leaves the family compound. Notice none of them bothers to check in with the Lord: Not Mama Rebekah; Not brother Esau; Not Papa Isaac; Not even the culprit, Jacob. This does not appear to be a family of very firm faith!
Our passage today finds Jacob has put 40 miles between himself & Esau by the time he stops for the night. He was “booking it” to get out of Canaan! How must he have felt? No doubt he was anxiously looking over his shoulder for his murderous brother. He must have felt alone. Perhaps he was worried about the long, potentially dangerous journey ahead of him, uncertain of his future. Can you identify? Maybe you find yourself in a dark & lonely place right now; perhaps you too are filled with uncertainty. Maybe, like Jacob, it’s even your fault that you find yourself “out there, on your own.” Well, this story was made for you (and me), so read on!
Jacob falls asleep (not the sleep of the just) and dreams of a ladder or a set of stairs reaching to heaven. The Lord is at the top (“the Voice from top of stairs”), and Jacob, realizes he is sleeping, at the bottom. Angels are traversing the ladder, some going up, others coming down. The Lord reiterates to Jacob the promises He has made to Grandfather Abraham and Father Isaac: I am giving you Propertyàthe land; Progenyàlots of descendants to populate the land and to bless all people of the earth; PresenceàGod would be with him; and ProtectionàGod says I am with you and I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you…. Notice: God does not require anything of Jacob. There is no if…then clause.
God has chosen an unlikely patriarch. Even though, as Psalm 139 affirms, God knows his every thought and scheme. There is no place Jacob can go where God might lose track of him (or of us). Not departing the Promised Land for Haran (Syria); not getting lost in NYC or the Amazon jungle; not even by participating in a Witness Protection Program, in Minot, ND, where our names and ID’s are changed; Not living in a sewer pipe outside some remote Indian village—these are just issues of geography.
Not even struggling alone with a job loss, the death of a loved one, declining health, financial setbacks, or troubled relationships. Our God knows where we are emotionally and spiritually, besides. He is the with us God, Emmanuel. He knows our names. He is always present to us.
Now do you notice Jacob’s response to God? He doubts. He has chutzpah, vowing to follow the Lord if God goes with him; if God protects him; if God provides for him; and if God brings him safely back to the land again. To his credit, He sets up a memorial stone (and names it Bethelàhouse of God) to commemorate his encounter with the pre-incarnate Christ. And he promises a tithe, a 10th of all God gives him. But the schemer is bargaining with God.
I don’t’ know about you, but I take a great deal of comfort from the Jacob story: Jacob is not of man of strong or good character. He’s a liar;a trickster. He’s not even a strong believer. God has promised him 4 P’s without strings, but he puts conditions on his commitment to God. He’s not perfect, but still God loves him. We could say God goes out of His way to comfort Jacob.
If we follow Jacob’s story thru the next 22 chapters of Genesis, we find that the Lord does take Jacob to His woodshed/the Refiner’s Fire: The deceiver is himself deceived, by wily Uncle Laban. He spends 20 years outside the land, working off debt to his Uncle; building up a family (12 sons, 1 daughter); and acquiring herds and wealth with which to support them. He flees his Uncle when he returns to the Promised Land. He fears a hostile reunion with the brother he wronged. His favorite wife dies in childbirth. His only daughter is raped. His sons cause him grief. They jealously sell his favorite son into slavery and lead him to believe Joseph is dead. And, upon entering the Land, he wrestles all night with the pre-incarnate Christ, Who leaves him crippled, but changes his name from Jacob to Israel—he who struggles with God & men, and overcomes.
It’s a heck of a journey, isn’t it? Jacob’s story makes me glad I am not him! But it also assures me (and you) that God never deserts us; that He loves us even if we are Scallywags; and that He cares for us, faithfully.
Do you know that scholars believe Jacob’s Ladder is really an image, a prediction of Jesus? Jesus, you see, mediates between us and God. Jesus is our only way—our ladder, if you will–to heaven.
So what are the lessons we can draw from Jacob? (1) If we think God doesn’t know where we are, or what we are thinking, we are grossly mistaken! (2) Our God appears to enjoy overturning human convention and Human expectations. He can do great things with the least likely. He’s not discouraged by our rebellion, sinfulness, or unbelief. (3) He clearly sees us as we are—there’s no hiding from Him, or fooling him–as well as who He wants us to become.
There is an ancient Hebrew poem that I think sums this up very well:
Wherever I go…only Thou!
Wherever I stand…only Thou!
Just Thou! Thou, Thou,
Thou! When things are good,
Thou! When things are bad…
Thou! Thou, Thou, Thou!
©2020 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams