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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 07/23/2017

Having tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright and out of his blessing, Jacob now has to live with the consequences.  Knowing of Esau’s vow to kill him, Jacob has to leave home, so Mother Rebekah makes arrangements for him to go and stay with her brother Laban, in part for Jacob’s safety but also in hopes that he will find a wife among Laban’s daughters.  That’s where the story picks up today, with Jacob having begun his journey.

Stopping for the night, using a stone for a pillow, Jacob goes to sleep and he dreams.  You know that dreams are a common feature in many Bible stories, often with God’s presence being made known in dreams.  We of course wonder about that, seeing it all as part of a pre-modern understanding of things or perhaps just seeing a dream as a device the author uses to let God speak.  As modern people then, we can be pretty dismissive of dreams and their significance but I’ve come to think there’s more to them than we might think. 

For most of us, we are constantly influenced by outside stimuli that hinder our receptivity to spiritual things.  Some of it is just part of our world, things imposed on us, distractions and noises that are hard to avoid.  Some of the distractions though, are self-imposed; if there’s silence, we want to fill it with something.  As much as we might say we long for peace and quiet, if we actually get it, it kind of makes us a little nervous and restless, especially as our mind becomes restless bouncing from one thing to another. 

About the only time that’s not the case is when we’re asleep.  Then, our internal and external defenses are down; it is quiet and our mind is at rest.  Doesn’t it make sense that that’s when God might try to slip in there and visit us as we dream?  I’m not saying that all dreams have great meaning, at least I hope not, only that sometimes a dream might provide an avenue to communicate divine information and guidance that we wouldn’t otherwise get.  One can’t say for sure, but I’m certainly more open to such ideas than I once was.

I digress a little bit, but maybe not; let’s think about Jacob.  He wouldn’t have been subject to the same kind of technological stimuli that we are, but internally, as he journeyed from home into the unknown, his mind had to be reeling with a combination of fear, loneliness, terror and, one would think, guilt about what he had done and how that would impact the future he’d been promised.  That was the reality of his waking life, a reality filled with uncertainty.  It would take a dream to reveal an alternative to him.

So Jacob dreams; the dream includes an encounter with the Lord, but before that there is the vision of a ladder, Jacob’s Ladder, set on earth but reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it.  Some dreams you might chalk up to indigestion or something that happened that day, but this one cries out for interpretation.  But…no interpretation is provided, no explanation.  The story moves immediately to the encounter with the Lord in which the Lord reiterates promises made previously, promises of land and offspring. 

But what about the ladder?  In the gospel today an explanation is provided for the Parable of the Weeds just as one was provided for last week’s Parable of the Sower; with Jacob’s Ladder though, nothing.  We’re on our own, with a little help from people like Walter Brueggemann.  He suggests that the vision of the ladder shatters the presumed world and reality of Jacob who at this point feels alone with his only goal being survival.  What he sees in his dream of the ladder though, is that he’s not alone. that there is a connection between earth and heaven.  Earth and those who inhabit the earth are not simply left to depend on their own resources; heaven is not just the remote realm of the gods.  Instead, earth is a place of new possibilities because it is not cut off from the heavenly presence of God and God’s messengers, those angels ascending and descending.

If this interpretation is correct, it introduces a new reality for Jacob, one that is not governed by loneliness and fear, but one which is infused with hope.  It is just an interpretation and others are possible, but it’s one that is supported by the words of the Lord that are spoken to Jacob, words that are words of promise.  When the Lord speaks, it’s pretty much a reiteration of the promise given to Abraham and repeated to Isaac, the promise Esau thought was his but which Jacob had received instead, the promise of land and offspring, a nation that would be blessing to all the families of the earth.

That’s in verses 13 and 14, nothing really new.  Verse 15 though moves into words addressed more specifically to Jacob.  It’s another instance of the English translation not quite doing justice to the verse.  What Gary read was “Know that I am with you.”  That’s OK, but in Hebrew the first word of the verse is “Behold!”  I remember way back when Walter Brueggemann was here he said to pay attention to little words like that because they are often more than just conjunctions or filler words that move you from one thought to the next.  What the Hebrew word here means is “Pay close attention, because what comes next is really important.” 

What comes next, after “Behold,” is “I am with you.”  I am with you; those are words we are probably more familiar with from the New Testament, words spoken indirectly to Mary concerning the birth of Jesus, “Greetings favored one; the Lord is with you.”  Jesus is referred to as Emmanuel, which means, God with us; Jesus’ last words in Matthew are “I am with you always.” 

We have heard these words and they are important in our understanding of a God who provides new possibilities.  They are words that tell Jacob that there is more for him than what he experiences as his waking reality.  They are words that tell us that there is more to our world than the pessimism and negativity that seems to be the dominant message.  There is more, because God says, “I am with you.”

I am with you is a promise of presence.  The second promise to Jacob is about action: “I will keep you.”   “I will keep you wherever you go.”  The thrust of the Hebrew verb used here is to take care of, to protect.  These too are familiar words that we hear every Sunday in the words of the benediction, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  Addressed to Jacob and to us, they again are words that tell us that we are not alone.

The third promise to Jacob is about homecoming: “I will bring you back to this land.”  Knowing of Esau’s vow to kill him, could Jacob even dare to believe this?  It all comes in a dream, but as he awakens, he doesn’t just say, “Boy, that was weird!” and dismiss it, but instead resolves to embrace this new vision of reality with the Lord’s presence at the center of it.  Trusting in the vision and the word of the Lord, there is reason for him to hope, reason to carry on despite all the scary unknowns that are still part of his waking reality. 

Having been made privy to Jacob’s dream and knowing about Jacob’s Ladder, we too can embrace the vision and the promise despite the unknowns that are part of our waking reality.  We have even more reason than Jacob did to live in hope because we know more than he did; we know the story of Jesus which is one that is always about hope and new possibilities.  We are called to embrace a vision of the world that has Jesus at the center of it and with that, we too carry on not bound by or limited by the many voices of fear and despair that are out there.

Worth noting is that after what seems to be a transformational experience for Jacob, he shows that he’s still not quite there.  After receiving this unconditional promise from God, “I am with you, I will keep you, I will bring you back,” and after Jacob seems to have embraced the promise, he’s back to the kind of if/then bargaining that’s true to his former nature.  “If you are with me and bring me home…then you will be my God.”  If/then transactions represent the reality of Jacob’s waking world, a world of “you get what you deserve,” and the dream hasn’t quite broken through that yet.  Jacob is unable to fully accept the grace of the promise, still imagining God as a practitioner of the same kind of bargaining that Jacob himself would engage in.

Jacob does get past the need to bargain with God.  It takes about twenty years when he is finally headed home with family along with flocks and herds.  In a part of the story the lectionary skips over, Jacob offers a prayer that is no longer if/then but is now because/therefore:  “Because you are faithful,” he says to the Lord, “therefore I trust your promises.”  It’s all part of why we can relate to Jacob.  He’s far from perfect, but he gets there.  God doesn’t give up on him and he doesn’t give up on God.  It’s not that all hardship is removed from his life but he does come to know that God is with him, God will keep him and God will bring him home.      

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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