Proper 11A

July 14, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Genesis 28: 10-19a

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    We say that we believe God is everywhere. You cannot escape the eyes of God. There is no place you can go where God cannot still find you, get at you, see you. We believe that. Or we say we do. We say that God is everywhere in general, and yet sometimes we behave as though God is nowhere in particular. We come to church anticipating some kind of encounter with the living God. Yet sometimes, whether we felt the nearness of the Almighty at church or not, we often go home, sit down to Sunday noon dinner, and proceed to complain about the music or disparage the way Mrs. Henderson raises her children (“They were all over that narthex, just running wild!”) and we do this as though we think that even if God is sitting around our dinner table, he doesn’t hear what we say.

    We believe God is everywhere and yet we confess that there are times when we hope to high heaven we won’t run into our elder or anyone else from church. God himself may or may not be seeing us, but there are moments when we’d just as soon not have any of God’s more official-looking representatives spot us.

    At times we are desperate to find God and at other times we’d just as soon not run into God, and it’s usually our circumstances that determine which way we feel at any given moment. For instance, if your name is Jacob and you recently hoodwinked your father and brother, necessitating your taking it on the lam so as to save your own neck, then you maybe hope you won’t run into God in whatever place ends up serving as your hideout. If you have the misfortune of bumping into the Almighty anyway, you have a pretty good idea of what you may be in for (and given your recent crimes, you suspect it won’t be pretty).

    Prior to Genesis 28, there is nothing in the Bible about Jacob’s faith or piety. Until now the only time Jacob ever mentioned the holy name of Yahweh was in a story in which Jacob used God’s name to bolster a bold-faced lie. That incident, however, may serve to show how little Jacob knew about the God of Abraham and Isaac. Otherwise we have no examples of Jacob’s praying to God. In fact, at the end of Genesis 28 (in some verses the Lectionary would have us stop just short of for some reason), Jacob says that if Yahweh comes through on the promises made in that dream he’d just had, then Yahweh would become Jacob’s God.

    But that last sentence surely implies that as of that particular moment, Yahweh was not yet Jacob’s God.  Or at least Jacob is hedging his holy bets.

    That alone ought to be a bit surprising. It’s not the only bracing truth of this famous story, though. The first surprise is the fact that once God catches up with this crook on the run, he makes no mention whatsoever of the devious deeds that brought about Jacob’s flight. Yahweh does not judge what Jacob and his mother had done but instead actually promises great blessings to Jacob. It almost like one of those old comedies where a man is terrified to see another person pointing a pistol right at his chest but then, when the trigger gets pulled, a bouquet of flowers bursts out of the gun’s barrel!

    God promises Jacob the west, the east, the north, and the south (he could just as well have thrown in the moon for good measure). In return, Jacob gives God a rock!   In verse 11 we were told that Jacob picked up a stone and used it for a pillow. Presumably it was not a very large stone because: A) Jacob’s head was only so big, and B) How large a stone could just one person lift in the first place? But after his dream, Jacob takes this same stone, sets it on end (in what the text somewhat grandly calls “a pillar”), drizzles some oil on it, and says, “This can be ‘God’s House’ or ‘Bethel’ for short.”

    No sooner does Jacob do this, and the wheeler-dealer part of Jacob’s crafty character re-surfaces. Jacob says, “For now I’ll call this God’s special place. Eventually, if and only if God comes through on what I heard him promise in the dream, then I’ll come back here, let Yahweh be my God, and I’ll even give him some tithes.” Jacob is taking a “wait and see” attitude toward the Almighty.  It’s maybe not quite the response you’d expect, but it is typical of crafty old Jacob!

    The next day Jacob continues his trip to Haran. Did he think he was leaving this Yahweh God behind him? Or did he believe Yahweh was accompanying him such that he would find lots of other Bethels, lots of other places, where he would encounter God again in future days? We don’t know. The text is silent on such matters. What we do know is that this dream did not exactly mark Jacob’s decisive conversion. There is a lot more wheeling and dealing, deception and craftiness, still to come. God is going to break into Jacob’s heart eventually. But this dream was more like God’s first knock on the door of Jacob’s heart: Jacob opened the door, saw who it was, exchanged some pleasantries, but he did not yet invite Yahweh in.

    Again, it’s all rather surprising. But what we have not yet thought about was the content of the dream itself. We know that in this dream, God singles Jacob out as the heir apparent to the covenant promises made first to Abraham and then again to Jacob’s father, Isaac. The language in verses 13-15 is a clear echo of the very same things God had said over and over to Abraham many years before. But what about that image of a ladder to heaven? Is there anything significant about this particular image?

    At the very least, it perhaps shook up Jacob’s world a bit. Until then, he maybe thought he was mostly alone, with little more than his own wits to rely on. Now he sees a connection between this earthly life and the life of God’s heaven–in fact, heaven and earth may not be so very far apart after all. Granted the ladder went up, but the fact that Jacob was able both to see and to hear Yahweh lets us know that this ladder was not infinitely long.

    Yahweh was not a small pin-prick of light way off yonder, well out of earshot. Yahweh himself did not descend the ladder but Jacob was not exaggerating when he concluded that God himself was in that place. Apparently the realm of God is closer to hand than Jacob had ever realized.

    It all served to make Jacob a lot more mindful of spiritual things than had been true during the first 40-some odd years of Jacob’s life until then. True, he still hedges his bet, still puts God on hold a bit in verses 20-22, but he didn’t forget this dream or what he himself promised God. His world had changed. Maybe the old stories about Grandpa Abraham’s conversations with God were not so far-fetched after all. Suddenly it all seemed a little more possible than Jacob had previously believed. He used to think those were just bedtime stories, but now . . . well, he was leaving the door open a crack to other possibilities.

    Based on everything we know from the text of Genesis itself, Jacob hardly deserved an encounter with God, much less such a gracious dream vision chock-full of promises. But maybe it’s not so surprising after all.  As is so often true in Scripture, the extraordinary things of God come through the ordinary trappings of life. In this case we have a stone, a weary body laid down to sleep, a dream, some oil. Yet it is full of God.

    Uncle Laban’s ranch over in Haran was a refuge, an escape from Esau’s fury, the kind of locale to which you go when you’ve got something to hide. Yet Jacob finds God. Or God finds him. Either way or both ways it was an encounter Jacob did not expect. “God is in this place and I didn’t know it!” he said as he slapped his hand to his forehead. He thought he was near a place called Luz but it turned out to have been Bethel all along.

    Commentators note that the object Jacob saw in his dream is probably less like some wooden ladder with rungs on it and more like the ancient ziggurat–a pyramid-like stone ramp with chiseled steps in it every few ascending feet. That kind of stairway to heaven was common in the ancient world, and no matter which culture built it, the Tower-of-Babel-like assumption was that if we wanted to get at the realm of the gods, we’d have to climb up this ramp into the skies.

    But Jacob wasn’t invited to climb, and maybe we aren’t either.  In fact, the wonder of it all is not the God whose shining splendor we see at the top of the ladder but rather the God who makes us jump half out of our skin when he quietly comes up from behind and taps us on the shoulder! Because if there is a “ladder” between God’s kingdom and this world, then its grandest use was not when some Promethean mortal tried to scale those heights of glory. No, the most wondrous use of the ladder was on a starry night long ago when—to riff on a classic George Buttrick image—God himself delicately climbed down the ladder, a swaddled baby in his arms. He dropped that child into a manger and ever since, the proclamation of God’s people has been that the love and glory of God have come down to us.

    Illustration Idea

    First, something about what I wrote above about God’s giving Jacob the north, south, east, and west only to have Jacob in turn dedicate a rock to God reminded me of this lovely little Billy Collins poem:  Billy Collins reading The Lanyard

    Then second, a character sketch on Jacob from Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper San Francisco, 1979) pp. 57-58.

    “[In his dream] it wasn’t Holy Hell that God gave [Jacob] but Holy Heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure.  The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world you can’t get but can only be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular.  Jacob didn’t have to climb his ladder to bilk Heaven of the moon and the stars, even if that had been possible, because the moon and stars looked like jelly-beans compared to what God and the angels were using the ladder to hand down to him for free.  Another part of the lesson was that, luckily for Jacob, God doesn’t love people because of who they are but because of who he is.  It’s on the house is one way of saying it and it’s by grace is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel but the many times great grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as it was by grace that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all.”

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 8:12-25

    Author: Stan Mast