Isaiah 44:6-8 and Genesis 28:10-19a
Do you know the chorus popular across the Christian community– when I say, “God is good All the Time,” you respond, “And all the time God is Good!” I don’t know where it comes from, but in some churches, particularly black churches, everyone knows it. It’s heartening, hearing people, without missing a beat, echo back enthusiastically their faith in God’s goodness.
I still remember a meeting in Orlando, Florida where Sherry Taylor, the UCC’s NJ Associate Conference Minister was relating the difficulty she was having getting congregations NOT to hire their interim ministers. Sherry started her lament by saying, “I know God is good all the time,” and before she could finish her sentence, the room full of a couple of hundred colleagues, boomed “And all the time, God is good.” Sherry, without missing a beat, asked, “Yes, but is God good to me all the time?”
The question posed by the promise of our text today is similar. “God is with us always. Always God is with us. But is God doesn’t with me all the time.”
Jacob’s a rascal– here I go dating myself, but he’s the Eddie Hascal of the partriarchs (that was a “Leave it to Beaver” reference for you youngens)… the Eddie Hascal of the partriarchs, none of whom were all that close to perfect. But Jacob’s lies are astonishing in their brazen self-service and greed– he robs his hungry brother and bald-faced lies to his blind father!
Maybe Jacob’s the patriarch for any of us nervous about how far we are from perfect. He’s also not a bad guy to draw strength from those of us who sometimes struggle with God.
Still, his situation– even though it’s all of his own making, elicits pathos for me. I’m the kind of city person who feels safer lost on the meanest city street in the middle of the night than in someone’s weekend house at the end of a deserted country road with no one else around. And as recently as yesterday, I got myself lost out in the Pine Barrens, and it’s not long before I get kind of panicky that I may never find my way back to civilization.
I’ve gotten lost in life in more dramatic and long-lasting ways too. So I can imagine how alone Jacob could have felt. Anxiety was really his only companion. Surrounded by risk– from the known behind and the unknown before him. Jacob is in-between times and places, in a limbo albeit one he created himself.
We could just dismiss him as an immoral and irrelgious rogue who no one but his mother could love. A guy who pushed his luck too far, didn’t get away with his scheme, and now needs to pay the consequences.
But it’s important to notice, God doesn’t dismiss him like that.
Anyway, how many of us have been– at one time or another– in a mess of our making? Running away from some situation that no one but ourselves created in the first place?
Relying on the metaphor in our story here, you might try to remember the kinds of nights when for one reason or another, you haven’t been able to sleep comfortably where you normally find your rest. Jacob puts a rock under his head, and curls up as best one can on the open ground of an unforgiving wilderness of his own making.
And there is exactly where God meets him. In that unplace.
God is present to him. Talks to him. Reassures. Renews the promises that were first made to his grandparents, and later again to his parents.
How many times would we wish God to show up and end our loneliness or fear. And alongside our thankful lists of when and where God was present, we might have another list, of the times and places we’d say God was nowhere to be found. It has to be said, the initiative, no matter how much we might wish by faithfulness, prayer, earned brownie points, karma… no may how much we might wish we could wrangle the initiative into our control, it always remains with God. This isn’t exactly one of those completely mutual relationships.
Still is it too much to conclude from this story that all our colorful histories, even our outright misdeeds don’t matter a stitch, when God decides to come to us?
…Because God’s seeking after us, running after us even as we try and run away. Remember Jonah!
In the middle of everything and nowhere — it’s right there that the dream or the ladder or God Godself touches down. Not where we expect or would like such blessings to come, but where we are. And where we need God to be.
I imagine a rope ladder with wooden runs let down from heaven. But some translations talk about a stairway. I like that: a stairway to and from heaven. And angels in constant running up and down, like a group of of kids loose in a mall– running up and down the escalator over and over again.
Remember, angels is just the biblical word for “messengers,” so we’re talking a highway to heaven, connecting earth to heaven and back again. We’re talking traffic, rush hour on the Schukyll, but moving faster– as Jacob sees the angels coming and going, bringing humans messages from God and God messages from humans.
And suddenly the gulf between heaven and earth, between our mortal lives and the celestial realm doesn’t seem so great any more.
Imagine what good news this must have been for the people of Israel, so far from home, in exile in Babylon, with little hope of ever coming back. Day to day the distance that plagued them was just as great, but to imagine there are ladders and stairways, and beings traveling them constantly… Jacob, who later is renamed Israel– wherever his goes is not too far for God.
Imagine the comfort for some one here who fear he or she has gone to far. Fallen away too much. Someone so frightened or overwhelmed. In a mess of her or his own making. In in-between times that seem will go on forever. Without hope. Feeling like you’ll never get back home, if you ever knew what home was in the first place. In one of those “unplaces.”
Like Jacob and thousands of other ancestors, some of us have wandered and gotten lost. Ended up where we never expected. Set out, not even sure where we were headed or what we were seeking. On some kind of pilgrimage or in some sort of exile.
No place is too far for God. That’s why we’re going to use Romans 8 again for our Affirmation of Faith this morning. Even if you can’t see the ladder, let others who have or do, let them reassure you:
No mistake can break the relationship.
No lack of experiencing God means that God’s left you.
People ask me all the time– I suppose because I’m a minister– “what can I do to know God, to experience God?”
Maybe the answer is “Nothing.” That’s sort of the opposite side of the coin about “nothing being able to separate us from the love of God…”
Realize “meeting God” is not something that’s in our human power. By definition. That’s what I was trying to say in this week’s E-pistle. We can’t make it happen, any more than we can determine how it will happen.
Don’t try to be religious. Don’t try to be religious like someone else. Be yourself. Let your life unfold. That it comes and how it comes, these are only of God.
Of course, you can ask, you can pray, you can believe.
But a gift is something one receives. A gift that can come anywhere and at anytime. To anyone.
So, in this sense, if you’re not feeling God close by, maybe the first thing to do is to let yourself off the hook.
Sure, we get in our own way. We put up walls. We wander off in search of other gods.
We miss God walking right by us like the neighbor we never notice much.
If you want to open yourself to God’s presence, slow down and pay attention. Spiritual wisdom suggests we should attend, even linger in those places in life we’d rather speed through on the way to some place more comfortable. When you have a rock for a pillow. Or dreams that interrupt your sleep. Where you find yourself on the edges, feeling unsure. That dislocations, where the borders aren’t so clear:
~Between what has been and what will be. ~Between yourself and another. ~Between earth and heaven.
Considering the human condition, we might say that whenever God appears, well, it’s God intruding on or interrupting our lives. Crossing over. Bridging the divide. Covering the distance. Making a home in our midst.
Our passage today is the 8th time God promises the land to the people of Israel.
It’s the 7th time the patriarchs’ have been assured progeny, to become a multitude.
And the 5th and final time God explains that Israel’s service is to be a blessing for all nations.
Right where his grandfather Abraham first entered the holy land, Jacob now renames that place: “Beth-el,” the house of god, the gate of heaven. The threshold where earth and heaven meet– what the Irish call “a thin place.”
The blessing of Jacob’s dream, however, is not just some individualized, spiritual experience… solace, though we all need solace. Remember: it’s the 5th time God’s explained that Israel’s service is to bless the whole world. As the church, we inherit a similar vocation.
It turns out that our whole world, all of our lives are a threshold between heaven and earth. Beloved, God’s promise is also communal — a blessing for all nations. Ours is no tribal god, associated with specific place or land. Or belonging to one class or clan. We often claim God for our own. For our people. Our way. Our advantage. But this God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob himself, will not be limited to one place or time, to one people or purpose. God is everywhere and everyone’s. Or better, everywhere and everyone are God’s.
The God of Israel and Egypt too.
The God of Pharoah and the slave.
The God of people who have been wronged and of people who take advantage.
Of momma’s boys and their outdoorsman brothers.
Of folks who’ve found their place in their families and others who’ve set out on their own.
No social distance. Or political geography. Or difference of lifestyle. No people’s history. Nor misdeed is too much to disconnect us from God’s care or free us from God’s concern.
That means there’s a ladder let down from heaven with the person incarcerated for crimes everyone else believes deserve the sentence.
And that God’s talking with the undocumented immigrant who some are shouting has no right to be in “our” country.
It means the life of the pensioner and the disabled person whose fixed income is on the political chopping block is right on the threshold of heaven.
And that the corporate boss polluting the planet for profit and the environmental activist trying to save it– and all the rest of us in between it– have to find a way to live together in the house of the Lord.
And That God can come, does come equally to the Muslim, the Jew and the Christian– not to mention the Hindu and the Buddhist and the rest of the long list of human faiths.
The promise of “God’s closeness” can’t be misunderstood, church– and this is important because we are church, to mean “God’s preference.” In fact, it’s just the opposite: God’s proximity to one is also a promise about God’s reach to all.
Black and white, rich and poor, female and male, gay and straight, God’s got us all. And can get to us all.
So think about what this ladder promises– God here for each of us who can never be separated from God here for all of us. When you think about that, you start to see the world, and your neighbor and yourself differently.
Jesus, referring to the image of Jacob’s ladder, in John 1:51, says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
As Christians, let us rely on Jesus as our unbreakable link between heaven and earth.