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Surely The Lord Is In This Place

July 23, 2017

SURELY THE LORD IS IN THIS PLACE

July 23, 2017 (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR

 

Genesis 28:10-19


10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards 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.’

18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19He called that place Bethel;* but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

 

O God of Jacob,
you speak in the light of day
and in the dark of night
when our sleeping is filled with dreams of heaven and earth.
May Jacob's vision 
remind us to be open and watchful,
ready to discover your presence in our midst. Amen.


Each of us can probably recall our first encounter with persons whose influence has affected us deeply.  We recall our first encounter with those teachers, co-workers, friends, neighbors, and adversaries.  We recall where we first encountered them.  We cherish those memories.  We often reminisce about the first encounter with those persons.   

 

So, do you remember your first encounter with God?  

 

I do not mean the first time you heard about God.  I do not mean the first time someone taught you about God.  I do not mean the first time you read about God.  

 

Do you remember the first experience when God became personal with you, to you, for you?  Where were you?  What was going on in your life at the time?  Do you remember the first time that you, like Jacob in this passage from Genesis 28, realized that “Surely, the LORD is in this place!”   

 

The Genesis account about Jacob’s first encounter with God presents several deep moral and ethical challenges for us.    Jacob’s first encounter with God happened when Jacob was fleeing the fury of his elder twin brother, Esau, after Jacob – acting on the advice and with active help from his mother, Rebekah – committed fraud upon his father, Isaac.  With his mother’s encouragement and help, Jacob pretended to be Esau and stole a death-bed blessing Isaac intended to give Esau (see Genesis 27:1-45). 

Death-bed blessings (and curses) were important – and powerful – features in the life and literature of ancient peoples.  The ancients believed that death-bed blessings released a tangible power that determined the character and destiny of the persons who received them.  The death-bed blessing was irrevocable, meaning that it could not be retracted after it was given.  

 

It is important for us to ponder Jacob’s encounter with God and Jacob’s role in the moral and ethical traditions of Judaism, the religion of Jesus, and Islam in light of the tradition of the death-bed blessing.  Jacob committed fraud upon his father.  He robbed his brother.  Jacob did those acts to obtain a death-bed blessing from Isaac he didn’t deserve and was never intended to receive.   That conduct raises some perplexing moral, ethical, and theological questions we should not gloss over.

 

  • How was it morally decent, ethical, fair, honest, just, and right for Jacob to receive any blessings from God, not to mention the blessings he dreamed about at Genesis 28:13-15?
  • Why would God promise to bless Jacob and his offspring with “the land on which you lie” (Genesis 28:13)?
  • Why would God promise Jacob that his 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” (Genesis 28:14)?
  • Why would God assure Jacob, of all people, 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” (Genesis 28:15)?

 

We do a dis-service to justice if we read about Jacob’s encounter with God and gloss over these questions.  Jacob was a cheat and a thief.  Jacob cheated his old and blind father.  He stole the death-bed blessing his father intended to give Esau.  His conduct was calculated and intentional.  There were no mitigating or extenuating circumstances that made what Jacob did morally decent, ethical, fair, healthy, honest, and right.  

 

So, we would not expect God to bless Jacob, but curse him.  We would not expect God to tell Jacob, “I am blessing you,” but “Curse [damn] you!”  

 

God’s encounter with Jacob and bestowing blessings upon him raises another big problem.  Nowhere in the passage is there the slightest hint that Jacob received a divine reprimand for his treacherous and thieving conduct.  And there isn’t a word in the passage suggesting that Jacob did anything that we would consider confession, not to mention repentance!  How could God show someone like Jacob favor without confession and repentance?   

 

We are accustomed to saying and believing that people always get what they deserve.  We hear people talk about pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, and stuff like “every tub sits on its own bottom.”  The Genesis account of Jacob’s first vision of God contradicts those ideas.  

Instead, we read about a cheat and thief whose first encounter with God happened during a night-time dream in which God promised to bless that cheat and thief!  

 

If God not know what Jacob had done, we must stop claiming that God is all-knowing?  If God didn’t care that Jacob deceived his father and robbed his brother, we must stop claiming that God is righteous/just/fair?  

 

We can get a better understanding of these problems by remembering that God’s blessings to Jacob were reaffirmations of a divine promise to Abraham, his grandfather!  At Genesis 28:13 we read, And the LORD stood beside him [Jacob] and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…”  

 

Long before Jacob was born, let alone before he cheated his father and robbed his brother, we read at Genesis 17 that God promised to bless a ninety-nine year old man named Abram.  God obligated God to make Abram “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4).  As sign of that divine commitment, God re-named Abram.  “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:5-7).  

 

Jacob didn’t have favor from God because Jacob deserved it!  Jacob had favor because God refused to break faith with God’s own commitment to Abraham!  

 

Here’s the big ethical takeaway for us.  We often enjoy benefits from God – despite our guiltiness – because of commitments God has made that have nothing to do with our merit, but are about God’s grace and purposes for the world, and those commitments include us!  Jacob’s vision teaches that because God keeps faith with God’s grace and purposes for the world, God honors God’s commitment to bless us despite our sins and transgressions.  Despite our timid faith – and even despite treacherous faith – God keeps faith!  

 

God will not break God’s commitment to God to be gracious.  

 

God will not break God’s commitment to God to be , forgiving.  

 

God will not break faith with God’s passion to liberate us from everything in life that oppresses us, including the things in our personal and collective histories.

 

God will not break God’s commitment to God to find us – and what’s more – to claim us, affirm us, and reassure us.  Because God will not break faith with God’s grace, God will be with us when we are on the run from ourselves.  Because God will not break faith with God’s grace, God will be with us when we are, like Jacob, trying to escape our pasts, trying to escape and evade people we have wronged, and even trying to escape and evade God!   

 

The gospel of Jesus truly amounts to “good news!”  Divine justice is not the result of personal merit or responsibility.  Divine justice is based on getting what God wants for us!  God claims us despite our personal and collective histories of untrustworthiness.  God loves us despite our hatefulness.  God forgives us despite our addiction to pride, greed, and other wicked tendencies.  We are beneficiaries of grace in a world that falsely thinks and behaves as if justice results from personal achievement, merit, and responsibility.  

 

That is why Jacob awakened from his dream and exclaimed at Genesis 28:17, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!  God’s grace shows up whether we know it or not.  God’s love is present whether we know it or not.  God’s purposes are real and operating even when we do not know that is the case.  

 

Now let us ponder the deep and wide implications of God’s grace and justice. Jacob illustrates that God bestows goodness upon undeserving characters because God is determined to bless the world even though the world does not realize God’s presence or understand God’s justice.  

 

We suffer from what Dr. Raphael Warnock eloquently described in a recent sermon as a “pre-existing condition” called sinfulness.  We cannot afford coverage for our personal or collective sinfulness.  We cannot afford a deductible.  We cannot afford to make a co-payment.  

 

Despite our personal and collective sinfulness, God covers us!  Despite our known and secret sinfulness, God covers us.  Despite the lies we tell ourselves and tell the world about ourselves, God’s goodness and grace cover us.  Despite our irresponsibility, God covers us!

 

God does not call this coverage evil.  God calls it salvation by grace!  God calls it justice!  God does not refuse to cover us.  God does not try to cut us off.  God refuses to turn us away because we are weak.  God refuses to disown us because we are sin addicts.  God refuses to consider us worthless.  Instead, God claims us!  God’s grace covers us because God refuses to break faith with grace in order to do justice.  

 

Because this is how God treats us, we who claim to be followers of God’s grace and disciples of Jesus should behave towards others with the grace of God.  In the spirit of God’s grace, we should be agents of mercy, healing, liberation, justice, and peace.  In obedience to the example of God with Jacob, we should remind ourselves and the world that justice always requires grace.  

 

God’s goodness to Jacob did not mean God was unconcerned about what Jacob did to Isaac and Esau.  It merely means that Jacob, despite his wickedness, was covered by an ancient grace bigger than his guilt.  And that doesn’t mean God would leave Esau unprotected from Jacob’s wickedness.  

 

Not only was God present where Jacob slept and dreamed without Jacob knowing it.  God was present and had a purpose for Esau Jacob did not know!  

 

We must be careful to not think God’s justice is finite.  Grace for Jacob did not mean God condoned or condemned Esau to live without grace and justice.  God did not condone Jacob’s treachery and thievery.  God did not condemn Esau to be Jacob’s underling.  God’s justice for Jacob and Esau was based on goodness and grace far bigger than either of them imagined, and bigger on their combined understanding.

 

God is present—and we do not realize it.

 

God’s purposes are present—and we do not know it.

 

God’s provision is present—and we do not know it.

 

God’s protection is present—and we do not know it.

 

God’s power is present—and we do not know it.

 

God’s peace is present—and we do not know it.

 

God’s justice is always more present than we know, bigger than we know, and more certain than we know!

 

Thank God for dreams and visions that help us realize that God is with us.  God is with us!  God is with us!  God is with us!

 

Hallelujah!  Amen.

 

©Wendell Griffen, 2017