Text: Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-19
If you were with us last Sunday, we looked at the story of Jacob and Esau – brothers who had been in conflict even before they were born. The family is dysfunctional; their parents Isaac and Rebekah only add to the rivalry and conflict between the brothers.
In a moment of what had to be delirious hunger, Esau sold his birthright – the right of the eldest son to receive a double portion of the inheritance – to Jacob, who was the younger brother by a few minutes. Esau given away his birthright - for a bowl of stew.
The birthright is gone, but there was still the blessing that Isaac would pronounce on Esau, the oldest son. In our first reading this morning, we learn how Esau lost that as well.
Feeling the time was near, Isaac asked Esau to prepare some food and bring it to him so that he could give his blessing before he died. (As it turned out, Isaac had many years of life ahead of him. Nevertheless, his eyesight was gone and he felt that it was time to pronounce the blessing that a father gave to the oldest son.)
Rebekah overhears the conversation. And she intervenes to make sure that Jacob is the one who actually receives the blessing. While Esau is out hunting game, Rebecca prepares a meal from their own flock. She has Jacob dress in Esau’s clothes, with goat skins around his neck and on his hands.
It’s almost a comical story. Jacob goes to Isaac, who is blind, and tells him he is Esau. He smells like Esau and he feels hairy like Esau. But he sounds like Jacob. He asks how he came to have returned with game so quickly and Esau, who is actually Jacob, says that God gave him success.
There are obvious red flags – I mean, it almost reminds you of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf dressed up like grandma. But in the end, Isaac buys it. He says, “Oh well, I guess it’s Esau.” And he gives Jacob the blessing. He says, “May peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. You will be lord over your brothers… cursed be those who curse you and blessed be those who bless you.”
Of course, Esau returns soon afterwards with the food that Isaac had asked for. When they realize what has happened, Isaac is beside himself. But Isaac says, “The words have already been spoken; I can’t take the blessing back.” And Esau cries out, “Father, is there no blessing left for me?”
Isaac is furious by what has happened. Esau, even more so. He plots to kill his brother, but decides to wait until after the old man dies – which he assumes will not be long.
Rebecca’s role is interesting. She always seems to know exactly what is going on. She was the one to whom God gave the prophecy that the older would serve the younger, and it’s not clear that anyone else knew this. As a person with no formal power, was she working toward the fulfillment of that prophecy, helping it along, you might say, in the only way she was able to? Or was she just playing favorites in a destructive way? I don’t know. Maybe the answer is “yes.”
At any rate, at this point she knows that there is a serious problem. She tells Jacob that for his safety, he needs to get out of Dodge. She sends him to her brother Laban, back in the old country. To get Isaac on board with this plan, she tells him that Jacob must marry one of their own people. And so Jacob flees.
Before this, Isaac had given Jacob the blessing intended for Esau. But just before he leaves, Isaac pronounces another blessing on Jacob, this time knowing that it is him. If this is the way it is going to be, then he is getting on board with it. He says to Jacob,
May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, so that you may take possession of the land… that God gave to Abraham.
So Isaac sends Jacob off. The text says that “he came a certain place” and stayed there for the night. Now, place names were very important. Again and again, we read that Biblical characters gave a particular name to a place. But Jacob came to “a certain place.” An unnamed place. Which basically means, no particular place.
And here, in the middle of nowhere, running for his life, Jacob stops to rest. He was no doubt feeling loneliness, anxiety, terror, fear of what might lie ahead.
There in a certain place, no particular place, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, Jacob lays his head down to sleep on a stone pillow.
Do any of you have trouble sleeping? Maybe you once in a while have a little neck pain or shoulder pain and you try to find the right pillow that will both give support and comfort. Maybe you prefer a down pillow, or a supportive foam pillow. Maybe you have spent a lot of money on a particular orthopedic pillow. But you know what? Nobody chooses a stone pillow. You lie down on a stone pillow when that is all you have – when you have no other choice.
It occurs to me that we may have to lay our heads on a lot of stone pillows. Like Jacob, we may be running from something. From the past, from a decision we need to make, from a commitment, from a relationship we need to repair. The stone pillow we are looking at may be a financial crisis, an illness, it may be grief, it may be loneliness, it may be wrenching conflict.
Jacob lies down to sleep on a stone pillow and he has a dream. It was an odd dream. In his dream, there was a ladder, or ramp. We usually call it Jacob’s Ladder, because “Jacob’s Ramp” just wouldn’t sound the same. (I might add that Led Zeppelin used the imagery in “Stairway to Heaven,” but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Jacob.) We did sing that great spiritual, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” a song of hope and promise, that draws from this dream of Jacob’s.
In his dream, this great dream, there is traffic between heaven and earth, angels ascending and descending. Jacob had felt that he was traveling alone, but in reality he was not alone at all. Heaven and earth are connected, we are all children of God, and God is with us.
Jacob’s dream brought a promise for the future. A roadmap. Before, he knew he was heading toward his Uncle Laban’s house. But now, his traveling would be different. His journey was purposeful. Now he not only knew where his feet were going, he knew where his life was going. Just as God had promised to Abraham and Isaac, God now promised to Jacob that his descendants would be like the dust of the earth, spread in all directions.
…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…
Jacob had received the blessing intended for Esau. And then Isaac had again pronounced a blessing on Jacob, knowing that it was him. This third blessing comes directly from God, and it seals the deal.
It was at a particularly low point in his life that this dream comes to him. It may be that in those difficult times, those desperate times, we are open to the dreams and the visions God has for us, dreams that can bring an infusion of hope and promise.
Arthur Gossip was a Scottish preacher of years gone by. His wife had died suddenly. He preached at his congregation shortly after her death. The title of the first sermon he gave after his wife died was, “When Life Tumbles In, Then What?” He said, “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.”
In those times when we live in the shadows, when we most need a word from God, we can find that God is there. It was in a time like that that Jacob had his dream.
Jacob was a scoundrel. A real piece of work, as they say. What had all of his scheming really got him? He had the birthright and the blessing, but at the cost of having to leave behind his family and run for his life. The words of blessing intended for Esau but given to Jacob might turn out to be just words. And it is hard for a dead man to receive an inheritance, whether it is a regular portion or the eldest brother’s double portion. At a low point, God gives Jacob a dream that would guide him his whole life. And Jacob said, “Surely the Lord is in this place!”
Now, Jacob had his moments. There were those times when he seemed to forget about the dream or doubt the dream. There were those instances when he seemed to resist living out the dream. But the dream was always there, a dream of hope and promise and of God’s presence.
Richard Farmer tells of something happened when he was around 10 years old. His grandparents gave him a Christmas present, a little cartoon projector, that required a bit of assembly. His grandfather explained how it worked, and Farmer was able to put it together himself.
He said that he never forgot his grandfather’s words: “I have the smartest grandson in the world!” Years later, his grandfather didn’t remember the incident, but Farmer certainly did. He said that for all of the years following that day he thought that he was bright, skillful, teachable, quick to catch on. He said, “I would probably have remembered if grandpa had said, ‘I have the dumbest grandson in the world.’ And my life might have demonstrated my belief.”
Jacob’s dream changed the course of his life and blessed him all of his days. What a powerful thing to hear God say to us, “I am with you.” Jacob took that stone and built an altar and named that place Beth-El, which means “House of God.”
From his birth, God had chosen Jacob. From this point on, Jacob would also choose God. This morning, God would say those same words to each of us. “I am with you, I will keep you, I will not leave you.” And wherever we may be, we can all say, “Surely the Lord is in this place.” Amen.