Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Waking Up to God
I don’t know about you, but I grew up singing We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder in Sunday School. I’m pretty sure we occasionally incorporated motions, imitating climbing a ladder to heaven. I knew my Bible stories pretty well when I was little, but still I don’t think I really think I knew why we were singing about Jacob’s ladder exactly, or soldiers of the cross, or exactly what would happen if we ever got to the top of the ladder. Jacob’s Ladder is actually an African-American spiritual, first composed and sung by slaves in the fields in the US - and so we don’t know its exact origins. But we know it was sung call-and-response style, and that the imagery suggested that those who persevered in faith would eventually be able to rise up out of slavery - whether in this life or in life eternal. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Are_Climbing_Jacob%27s_Ladder)
The scriptural foundation for the hymn, of course, comes from our text for today from Genesis, where Jacob - Jacob who is eventually named “Israel” by God, who is the father of the twelve sons that become the twelve tribes of Israel - Jacob has a dream, a vision of what it is sometimes called a ladder, a staircase, or a ramp that goes from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. Although the spiritual is inspiring and hopeful, particularly for the slaves who were oppressed and abused, Jacob’s dream doesn’t actually include Jacob ascending to heaven. Rather, the dream seems to be more about movement in the other direction: It’s a revealing of heaven’s closeness to earth, a reminder that God comes to us where we are, that the divine has left heaven to be with us. We experience that in particular - the divine with us on earth - in the person of Jesus, but for Jacob and his contemporaries, before Christ’s birth, a dream like his was a powerful reminder of God’s closeness. We might picture a regular old giant ladder running up to heaven - in our mind and in artwork of this text. But some biblical scholars suggest that what Jacob sees in his dream might have been more like a ziggurat, a structure found in many ancient cultures that were meant to bring earth as close to heaven as possible. (Haslam, Chris, Comments, http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/apr16m.shtml) Whatever Jacob saw, though, the most important part of his vision is that God speaks to him in his dream. God says to him, “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.” God tells Jacob his descendents will spread in all directions, and because of him, because of and through Jacob, “all the families of the earth” will be blessed.” God says, “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.” That’s a lot of promise and blessing in one dream. So it is no wonder that when he awakens Jacob concludes, “Surely God is in this place and I didn’t even know it.” He’s afraid, overwhelmed by his experience, and after our text ends, Jacob takes the stone that had served as his pillow the night before, and makes it into a marker of the holy place, and names the place Bethel - “House of God.” Jacob says the ladder he saw in his dream is the gate of heaven.
To fully understand this scene, this vision we call “Jacob’s ladder,” we have to find out who Jacob is, what’s gone on up to this point in the story. And to fully understand Jacob’s story, it’s helpful if you know a little bit about sibling dynamics. I have three brothers, as you know. I’m close with all my brothers, and each relationship is unique. I grew up wanting to be just like my older brother Jim. He’s six years older, and I wanted to do everything he did, even if he always did make me play the “bad guys” whenever we played Star Wars together. Most of you got to know my brother Tim pretty well. We tease and kid, and occasionally drive each other crazy, but we’ve mostly gotten along fairly well. And then there’s my youngest brother Todd, the actor, who has come and performed monologues here at Christmas sometimes. If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality inventories, I can tell you that Todd and I have the same personality profile, although it comes out in different ways. And Todd and I understand each other pretty well, and we have a long history of dealing with each other through careful negotiations. If I need a favor from one of my brothers, Jim will do it if he can or wants to, otherwise he’ll just tell me no. Tim will almost definitely do it, or he’ll feel guilty for not helping. But Todd - Todd will try to figure out what he can get in exchange for helping me. Todd is always ready to make a deal. It drives my mom crazy that Todd and I will negotiate like this. She doesn’t want any strings attached - family is just supposed to help each other! And of course, if I was truly in need in a significant way, I can depend on all of my brothers. But otherwise, Todd and I have perfected the art of the deal. Yes, he’ll run to the store for me if I buy him a snack or two or three. That’s a simple version of our deals. If I’m asking for a favor, Todd just wants to make sure he can get something out of it too.
Jacob, who we meet here in Genesis, channels my dynamic with Todd times ten, or twenty. Jacob is at best kind of obnoxious, at worst, a cheat, a scoundrel, kind of a rotten guy. And at the heart of it is his relationship with his sibling. Jacob is a twin. His twin brother Esau was born first, but Jacob was gripping his brother’s heel as he was born, and so Jacob is given his name because it means “grasps by the heel” but also “He supplants.” From birth, Jacob seems to want to take the place of his brother. See, in the law of the Israelites, the firstborn son had special responsibilities and privileges. The firstborn was given a double share of the inheritance of his father’s estate. They were set apart, especially blessed by God. And even though Jacob and Esau are twins, Esau, born just seconds before Jacob, is still the firstborn. When they’re a bit older, Jacob makes a bargain with Esau - Esau wants some of the stew Jacob is making, and Jacob says he’ll give him some - if Esau gives up his birthright. Esau quickly agrees, saying a birthright can’t do much for him right then when he’s about to die from hunger. It’s very over-the-top - think today’s teenagers and their hunger level when needing an after-school snack. This exchange isn’t meant to be binding exactly - Esau can’t really entirely give away his firstborn status in this manner. But we’re meant to understand that Esau doesn’t hold his birthright in particularly high regard.
Still, though, nothing prepares him for what eventually happens later on. When the twins’ father, Isaac, is near death, Isaac gets ready to bestow blessings on his sons, and especially the blessings for the firstborn, Esau. Esau is Isaac’s favorite, but we’re told that Rebekah, their mother, prefers Jacob. Isaac is nearly blind, so Rebekah plots with Jacob to masquerade as Esau to get the firstborn special blessings from Isaac. He succeeds - he gets blessings from Isaac that set him up as ruler over his brother, as beneficiary of the best of all his father has. Esau is devastated - and enraged. He vows to kill his brother - and now he’s not just saying it in the way of exasperated siblings. He means it. Rebekah encourages Jacob to run away, and try to make a new home for himself with his Uncle Laban.
It is on the way, on the run, that Jacob has the dream that makes up our text for today. That’s the context. When Jacob sees this ladder or stairway or ramp between earth and heaven, he’s just come from doing a really awful thing to his brother and father, and he’s on the run for the sake of his very life. Jacob eventually comes to have a relationship with God, but this event doesn’t mark a turning point in Jacob’s behavior. He continues to engage in trickery and swindling and eventually the Uncle he’s running to now will be someone he is running from later. The Jacob that has this dream is a schemer and manipulator, someone who is always looking out for himself, looking to get ahead no matter the cost.
It is no wonder, then, isn’t it, that he seems surprised to encounter God. God has been very present in the life of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. But we mostly read about the righteous acts of faith of someone like Abraham. The only stories we have about Jacob are ones where he’s trying to trick someone. So I don’t think Jacob expected to have an encounter with God. I certainly don’t think he expected to have God pledge to be with him, to bless him and all his descendents, to never leave his side. And I think we don’t expect it either or appreciate it when we think about it too much. Why does God show up for scheming Jacob? How unfair! Why isn’t it Esau who gets to be comforted by God’s presence, regardless of who got the firstborn blessing?
We have to remember, first, that we don’t really hear Esau’s story. The scripture is telling us one story - the story of God at work in Jacob’s life. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t at work in Esau. It just means that that isn’t the story the scripture wants us to focus on. The other thing we have to remember - the thing we’re always forgetting because it is truly amazing - is that God’s love, God’s promises, God’s presence, God’s blessings - those things aren’t available to us because we deserve them, because we’re good enough to get them. They’re given as gifts to us because of God’s goodness. And God chooses to love saints and sinners, amazing folks, and average folks, and siblings that we vow we’ll never speak to again, and even, like we talked about last week, our outright enemies.
That’s really hard for us to get our heads around, because we don’t think “bad” people deserve good things, maybe and even especially perhaps good things like God’s presence, love, and blessing. In our cultural climate today, we’re really quick to decide who is good and bad - usually that corresponds with folks who think like us and those who don’t - and we’re really good at writing off people who fall into our “bad” category. We’re done with them. We cancel them from our lives and our hearts. And to know they get God’s blessing? Infuriating! But at least we’re consistent: we also often don’t truly feel worthy of God’s presence and God’s blessing ourselves either.
In the scene after our text ends, after Jacob acknowledges God’s presence with fear and amazement, after Jacob has received God’s incredible promises, Jacob responds. And in character, Jacob’s return promise to God is conditional. He negotiates a bit, kind of like me and my brother Todd. “Listen, God, if you go with me and keep the way that I go and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and bring me back to my father’s house in peace someday, then you shall be my God, and I will give a tithe, a tenth to you of all that you have given to me.” God’s promise to Jacob is unconditional, but Jacob can’t seem to help but bargain with God. Jacob’s promises are conditional, and he doesn’t seem sure that he can accept or trust all that God wants to give. Jacob seems to expect that God will act with him just like Jacob acts with others, and Jacob’s promises are never unconditional. He’d never promise something for nothing, and he can’t believe God will either. (Schifferdecker, Kathryn M., “Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19”, The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3355.) Eventually, a long eventually later, Jacob’s prayer to God loses the conditional. God keeps showing up for Jacob, and eventually Jacob trusts. But God doesn’t wait until Jacob’s response to God’s love and blessings is perfect to be faithful to Jacob. And God doesn’t wait until we get it all figured out either. We can count on God’s love and presence - even when we don’t deserve it, and even when we can hardly accept it. God is there, unexpectedly, even when we’re on the run from everyone and ourselves, even when we’re in the midst of making the dumbest decisions of our lives, even when we’ve hurt people and broken relationships. Always, we’re in the presence of God. Jacob didn’t find God because he managed to hit just the right spot, the right location. We don’t need some magic place to encounter God. God is here. God is with us.
So, we’re called to practice a discipline of waking up to God’s presence. We might anticipate finding God at church, or out in nature, or when our hearts are open because we’re serving others or being served by others. But I think we forget to be on the lookout for God when, like Jacob, we’re on the run from our troubles because we’ve screwed up badly. And we forget that God is showing up for the people who are on the run from us because of their bad decisions. And so that means that God loves unconditionally and will be faithful in God’s promises to each one of us: even, say, Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump - whichever part of that sentence is harder for you to hear! God loves unconditionally and will be faithful in God’s promises to the little brother, the sibling, the family member, the co-worker or classmate that always drives you crazy. God loves unconditionally and will be faithful in God’s promises to your enemies. And God loves unconditionally and will be faithful in God’s promises to you and to me. Always. So the hard work of our discipline of waking up to God is waking up to the ways our response to God is often conditional, like Jacob’s was at first. We want to put conditions on the way we respond. We’ll give God just so much of our hearts. We’ll love God as long as God loves us and not our enemies, as long as we succeed in the end. We’ll love God as long as our way forward is clear. Thankfully, God loves us unconditionally despite all our conditions! But when we wake up to God, we realize that God isn’t going anywhere. And there’s nowhere we can go without God. No negotiations required.
Let’s wake up to God’s presence. For God says to us, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and ... I will not leave you.” Thanks be to God. Amen.