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"The God of Jacob" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on July 19, 2020 by Kathy Miller

The God of Jacob

Scripture—Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He 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. And 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. And 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; and 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. 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.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And 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.”

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. He called that place Bethel.

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.



Were you to pick up the Bible for the very first time and turn to this morning’s passage, I suspect there would be little that would be surprising. The story of Jacob and his ladder presents a conventional image of faith and the Christian religion—it is what we expect from a religious text. There is a man and he’s on a journey. He spends the night in the wilderness with only a rock for a pillow and has a dream in which a ladder appears extending between heaven and earth and it is full of angels. God shows up and identifies God’s self with formulaic language (I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac), makes promises that seem so vague as to be unremarkable (the families of the earth shall be blessed through you), and politically problematic (I will give you land, which by the way other people currently live on), and the passage ends with a promise of presence that could possibly be used as proof that religion exists only to comfort us (I will keep you wherever you go). When the man wakes up from his dream he performs a bizarre ritual involving stones and oil and the place gets a strange name.


A journey, wilderness, deprivation and hardship, a dream, a mystical vision, problematic and vague promises, and bizarre rituals. It is, in many ways, what lots of people expect from a centuries old religious text. I won’t ask you to raise your hand if I just described what you expect from the text as well. Honestly, it’s not all that different for those of us who find ourselves in worship on Sunday mornings. We might be more familiar with the stories, but familiarity breeds comfort and comfort can make our eyes glaze over as we assume we already know what the story has to say.


However, if we back this morning’s story up a few chapters, the story begins to sputter a little. Because this text doesn’t tell the story of God showing up in the dreams of some guy on a journey. The text tells the story of God showing up in the dreams of a fugitive on the run.


Jacob’s “journey” is actually him fleeing from his twin brother who is out to kill him. And lest we imagine that God is simply looking out for the underdog and siding with the persecuted, the text makes perfectly, almost embarrassingly clear, that Jacob is a conniving, cheating thief who puts his own desires above his relationships with his family.


Indeed, it is almost as if the biblical authors knew that over time Jacob would become a patriarch of the faith and we would be reluctant to cast him in a negative light, because the text recounts not one but two occasions in which Jacob cheats his own family.


On the first occasion, Jacob’s twin brother Esau comes in from working on the fields and is so hungry that he agrees to sell Jacob his birthright in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew. Admittedly, Esau’s short-sightedness rivals Jacob’s self-serving behavior, but still.


On the second occasion, Jacob ups his game. His father is dying and wants to bestow his final blessing on Esau, the firstborn son. Jacob, however, dresses up like his brother (going so far as to put the skin of goats on his arms so that they will feel hairy like Esau’s arms) and deceives his father into giving him the blessing instead. He both completely disregards the dying wish of his father and steals the blessing from his own twin.


When Esau finds out he, unsurprisingly, wants to kill his brother.


So Jacob takes off at a run.


This is the person that God chooses to reveal God’s self to. Of all the people in the world, God shows up in the dream of a conniving, scheming thief who tramples his own twin just to get ahead in life.


Can you imagine? I mean, there are people like Jacob in our world. We have read about them, hear about them in the news—people who steal birthrights and cheat their families. They’re the ones whose punishments we celebrate. They are not the ones we want to win in the end. This is one of those stories that I hesitate to read to my children for fear the lesson they’ll walk away with is that God chooses the cheater, or to put it in more benign terms, God helps those who help themselves (… to other people’s things).


Either we have been extracting all the wrong morals from the Bible or there is something else going on here.


No matter how you look at it, and I’ve looked at it a lot of different ways, there is no getting around the fact that Jacob is, at best, a less-than-savory character. Assuming the message of the story isn’t that stealing from your family leads to promises of grandeur from God, it begs the question, what exactly are we meant to take-away from this passage?


I want to suggest that Jacob is portrayed in such a negative light so that we can’t help but question what kind of God would choose to appear to a man like Jacob. I think the key is in recognizing that Jacob’s story is not actually about Jacob. It’s about God.


And there are four things I think the story from this morning teaches us about God:


First, God’s presence and God’s promise are for the whole world. If God shows up in the dreams of a conniving, heel of a man like Jacob, a fugitive on the run, do you really think God won’t find a way to appear in your life? If Jacob warrants God’s attention, the rest of us are sure to be included. Moreover, God says this very thing in Jacob’s dream. The whole world, God says, all the families of the earth, shall be blessed through you.


God’s presence and promise are for everyone.


Second, The God of Jacob is a God of abundance. The whole of Jacob’s family drama and the reason behind his current plight stems from a sense of scarcity. Jacob steals because there is no blessing or birthright for him. Esau and Isaac are devastated because, once given, the blessing is gone and there is no recourse. But if you pay close attention to God’s words to Jacob, you’ll notice that God neither acknowledges nor seems to abide by this belief.


God declares that blessings will be as widespread as dust on the earth. There is not, in God’s eyes at least, a single blessing that can be stolen. Rather, it’s something like an Oprah moment: You get a blessing and you get a blessing and You get a blessing. Everyone gets a blessing. Blessings upon blessings.


The God of Jacob challenges the pervasive belief that there is not enough. The God of Jacob is a God of abundance.


Third, God encounters each of us individually. As abundant and universal as God’s promises are, they are equally personal. God does not presume that Jacob will know who God is because God appeared to his parents and grandparents. God does not rely on God’s history with our ancestors. Instead, God introduces God’s self to each of us.


Let me say that again: God does not rest on the laurels of past relationships and assume that we will know God or know that God’s promise is meant for us as well.


God says to each of us, “know that I am with you and I will keep you wherever you go”


The God of Jacob encounters each of us individually.


Which leads me to the last thing I think this text teaches us about God: God is present in our midst. I could be wrong, but I think the majority of people tend to assume that visions of God are the things of mystics, lunatics, con artists, or clergy. Popular images of God are often depicted as involving angels and radiant beams of light. They are described as life-changing and undeniable. If they’re real at all, they’re so rare as to be a non-issue for the majority of sane people.


But the Jacob stories describe a world in which the boundary between heaven and earth, between that which is holy and that which is profane, between God and ourselves, is far thinner than we think. The God of Jacob meets us in our dreams, speaks to us through our intuition, whispers to us in the deepest recesses of our hearts, shows up in the presence of friends, can be heard in laughter and seen in tears


The God of Jacob is a God who is in this place, whether we know it or not.


Four things Jacob’s story teach us about God:

1)      This is a God whose presence and promise is for the whole world, even the no-good scoundrels like Jacob.

2)      This is a God who challenges our assumptions of scarcity with overflowing abundance.

3)      This is a God who encounters each of us individually.

4)      This is a God who is present in this place.


What might you notice if you went about your day assuming that God was in your midst, if only you had eyes to see?


What would you do if you believed that there is more than enough …
… more than enough time?
… more than enough gifts?
… more than enough faith?


The God of Jacob meets each of us where we are, points to the abundance in our midst, and calls us to be a blessing to the world. And if a scoundrel like Jacob can recognize God, surely we can as well. So, may the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob and the God of you and me, meet you where you are, and keep you wherever you go.



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