Sunday, July 23, 2017

Love Changes Us

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.  Genesis 28:10-19a (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The story of Jacob continues this week. You remember Jacob from last week, don’t you? Son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. Jacob. That trickster. A cheater. The one whose name, literally, translates “heel.” 

Last week, we heard the story of how Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of both the birthright and the blessing to which he, as the oldest son, would have been entitled. The birthright, which would have given Esau double the inheritance of Jacob. And the blessing from God--you remember it, don’t you? The same promise given to both Abraham and Isaac--that God would give them their own land, would make them into a great nation, and would bless them so that they might be a blessing to others.

Both of these--the birthright and the blessing--stolen by Jacob from Esau.

One can only imagine how angry Esau must have been at his brother. In the verses that precede today’s story, we read that Esau said to himself, “When the period of mourning for the death of my father is over, I will kill my brother.” Esau was so angry that he plotted to murder Jacob, his own brother, after the death of their father Isaac.  

Somehow, Rebekah, their mother, got wind of Esau’s plans. And so, she called for Jacob--her youngest and her favorite.  She told him of Esau’s plan. She told him he needed to leave. That he needed to go to Haran--back to Mesopotamia, the land from which Abraham had traveled at the very beginning of all of these stories. Rebekah told Jacob to go to Haran and to live with her brother, Laban, for a short while. For, literally, just a few days. Until Esau’s anger might dissipate and his murderous plans might, perhaps, be set aside.

So Jacob left. Quickly. Leaving his mother and father and his own homeland with his life. He traveled all alone. Vulnerable. Sleeping under the stars at night. Day after day, traveling far, retracing the steps of his grandfather, Abraham. All alone. Running away from his past and what lay behind and forward into his future, uncertain of what would lay before him.

It was on one of these lonely nights under the stars out in the open, perhaps in one of his most vulnerable moments, that God appeared to Jacob in a dream and spoke to him for the first time. Calling himself “Yahweh,” translated “the Lord,” God describes himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac. Notice that God does not call himself the God of Jacob. Not yet.

It is in this dream that God makes himself known to Jacob. This God who has a history with Jacob’s family. Who has made himself known through these relationships. As he speaks, God gives Jacob the same family promise. The one given to Abraham and to Isaac. The promise of land. The promise of offspring. And the promise of blessing. 

And, then, God goes one step further. In verse 15 of our text today, we read God’s additional promise to Jacob: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

“I am with you.” Jacob is the first of many more, including Moses and Joshua, to hear this promise of “God with us.” Emmanuel. God with us. The promise of God’s continuing presence with God’s people.

A promise first given to Jacob, who has cheated his brother. And deceived his father. And who is now running for his life. Do you hear the grace in this promise of God? Do you hear the love? 

Jacob’s reaction to this revelation of God is mixed.

He does acknowledge the holiness of the moment and of the place. This place where he has first experienced God’s presence. He marks it. By setting up a pillar of rock and by naming it. Beth-El. Meaning “the house of God.” The place where he has experienced God in all of God’s fullness. A place of awe. A holy place.

Jacob recognizes this moment of awe and holiness. And, yet, he cannot yet fully seem to grasp the magnitude of God’s love and grace. And so, he bargains and wrestles with God. Just as has bargained and wrestled with everyone in his life so far, Jacob negotiates with God. It doesn’t matter that this god is the God of his ancestors. Jacob will claim him if and only if God protects and prospers him.

“IF God is with me, and IF God protects me, and IF I am able to safely return home, then Yahweh--the Lord--will be my God.” Do you hear the conditions that Jacob is placing upon God? The “if...then” that is part of Jacob’s bargain with God?

How often do we do that? Bargain with God. “God, if you heal me from this disease or this illness, then I will be more faithful.” Or “God, if you save me in this storm, then I promise to put you first in my life.” Oh, the conditions we place upon God. Just. Like. Jacob. 

Perhaps that is why it is so important for us to hear these stories of the patriarchs. Not to hear of their greatness and of their deep faith. But, to hear of their weakness. It's as Luther writes in his commentary on this very chapter in Genesis, “ pleases me greatly and is saving for us to hear of the weaknesses of the saints, for these examples of weakness are more necessary for us and bring more consolation than the examples of that heroic and very great fortitude, and other virtues.” 

These saints are weak. Just as we are weak.

But, ultimately, this story isn’t about us. Or about what we should do. Or what we shouldn’t do. This story isn’t even really about Jacob..

This story is about God. And about what God has already done. We’ve seen and heard it as we’ve read these stories in Genesis. How God has made and fulfilled promises to Abraham. How God has made and fulfilled promises to Isaac. And, now, how God is making promises to Jacob. Overwhelmingly gracious promises to Jacob. A cheat. A trickster. A heel. At his most vulnerable moment, as he is running away in fear for his life, from troubles of his own making. In the midst of this. God makes promises to Jacob.

We will see in the next two weeks how God fulfills these promises to Jacob. Just as God did with Abraham. And with Isaac.

It is worth noting the effect of God’s promises on Jacob. The effect of God’s graciousness. The effect of God’s love. It changes Jacob. Self-centered, scheming Jacob. 

Twenty years later, Jacob will return home from Haran, accompanied by his family and his flocks and herds. As he prepares to enter Canaan and to meet Esau after all these years, Jacob prays to God. This time, though, he doesn’t bargain with God. He acknowledges his own unworthiness and God’s faithfulness. Even as he reminds God of God’s promises. There is no “if...then” in his prayer twenty years later. There is only a “because...therefore.” “Because you, God, are faithful, because you have made these promises...therefore I am trusting you to help me now.”

The change isn’t Jacob’s doing. The change is God’s doing. Jacob is changed from a shallow and selfish young man into a man who founds a nation and who, on his deathbed, claims the God before whom his ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked and who has been his shepherd all his life. God’s grace has changed Jacob. God’s love has changed Jacob. 

From that moment on in Jacob’s story, God will begin to identify as “The Lord...the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Jacob’s story is our story, too. Transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Transformed by God’s faithfulness. We are changed. By God’s love.

And, we, like Jacob, are claimed by God. The God of Abraham. The God of Isaac. The God of Jacob. The God who has claimed us and who has claimed all people. Everywhere. 

Claimed, changed, saved. For this, we give God our thanks and praise. Amen.

Preached July 23, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

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