Rev. Elizabeth Michael
Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
July 23, 2017
Old Testament scholar Renita Weems says Jacob is the first “real human” in the Bible. Before Jacob, she notes, the characters of the scriptures are fairly one-dimensional. They are generally obedient; they offer no real protest when confronted by divine commands. Noah asks not a question when God tells him to build an ark, nor Abram when God tells him to leave his country and kindred for a foreign land, nor even, for that matter when God tells him to offer up his son as a burnt sacrifice.
But Jacob introduces a whole new vocabulary to the scriptures. Here are adjectives we can work with, Weems says: deceptive, shrewd, trickster. Here is the complexity of a human being in all its glory.
Jacob’s deception goes all the way back to his DNA. For her whole pregnancy, his mother Rebekah had complained that the twins she carried were constantly wrestling within her womb. When the day came that they were born, it was Esau’s red head that appeared first, but Jacob was right on his heels. Jacob came out clutching the back of Esau’s foot and from that moment on set out to prove he would never settle for second place again. So his parents named him Jacob, which means heel-grabber, supplanter, trickster…and Jacob seemed determined to live into his name.
Jacob’s mischief was always good grist for the neighborhood gossip mill, but on the day that found him running away from home, even the crustiest old women had to admit that he’d outdone himself. It all happened because Isaac was getting older and his cataracts had left him nearly blind, and one day he woke up and felt his age and knew it was time to pass on the blessing. The blessing: that mysteriously powerful union of ritual and word which confers on the one who receives it—and only that one—a transforming power which shapes the life for the better.
So Isaac calls Esau, his first-born son and thus rightful heir to the blessing, and he tells him to go out and hunt game to prepare a meal for the blessing ceremony. Esau strides off into the wilderness with his bow and arrow and fails to notice that Rebekah has been standing with her ear pressed up to the door. No sooner is Esau out of sight, then Rebekah runs to Jacob and hatches a plan. Jacob is to grab a couple of sheep from the nearest pasture, Rebekah will whip up a quick stew, Isaac’s blind eyes won’t be able to tell the difference between his sons, and Jacob will walk away with his father’s blessing.
There’s only one thing, Jacob says, if he reaches for my arm, he will catch on in an instant, for Esau is a hairy man, and my skin is smooth. But Rebekah has a plan for that, too. She puts the skin of lambs on Jacob’s arms, and together they pull the wool over Isaac’s eyes. So Jacob the trickster comes out ahead of his brother in the end, walking away with the blessing and leaving Esau red in the face.
And that is why Jacob is now a man on the lam, no longer able to stay in his hometown, because a blessing will do you no good if you are dead, and dead is what Esau wants for Jacob.
This is Jacob, a real human being. A man battling his own demons and dealing with family dynamics complex enough to grant any good therapist job security for years. He walks out into the desert wondering what has happened to the life he’d imagined for himself.
Jacob is between Beer-sheba and Haran when the sun starts to set. Beer-sheba and Haran are two safe, identifiable places that are named, known, and plotted on a map. But Jacob is somewhere in the vast expanse of “between,” where nothing is known, where everything is risky. He squints into the fast-setting sun and still can make out nothing between himself and the horizon. He might as well be walking to the end of the earth and then over its edge.
One commentator calls it an “unplace.” Perhaps you have known it yourself. The unplace, where the familiar markers that gave structure to your life have suddenly vanished, plunging you into disorientation. The unplace, where try as you may to see what is ahead, you can make out no guarantee of a safe arrival. The unplace where you are so alone.
It is in the unplace that God meets Jacob. Here where the landscape is so unfriendly that a rock passes for a pillow, Jacob lays down his head and gives himself over to sleep. And here, with not a single defense left, Jacob becomes vulnerable to God.
He dreams of a ladder that stretches all the way from the ground on which he sleeps to the heavens above. Angels ascend and descend the ladder, like some sort of heavenly escalator peopled with divine messengers.
And the message that echoes in Jacob’s ears comes from the very voice of God: “I am the Lord your God…I am with you…I will keep you wherever you go…I will never leave you…I will bring you home.” Hear how the ‘I’s and ‘you’s intertwine, each pronoun weaving itself into the other. Listen as this sovereign God takes the cord of covenant and wraps the other end around Jacob. In this amazing new revelation, Yahweh closes the gap between heaven and earth to stand with this fugitive in all his vulnerability and need.
Sometimes the gospel comes to us when our guard is down. When the trickster has run out of tricks. When the image so carefully constructed and projected to the world crumbles, and people see the hot mess of a human being underneath. When the tears come surprisingly and inconveniently. When our last defense mechanism has fallen and our final coping device done its best, just there where we feel completely and totally alone is when we meet the One who says to us, “I am with you…I will keep you…I will never leave you.”
The utterly gracious and thoroughly maddening truth about Jacob’s encounter, however, is that it happens completely at God’s initiative. Jacob certainly does not earn God’s presence or God’s promises. He does nothing to conjure them up; he leaves us with no clear formula for gaining them for ourselves. The gift, the dream, the promise is wholly God’s to give.
Scholars think that the ladder in Jacob’s dream had its origin in the ziggurats that were scattered across the landscape of the Ancient Near East: massive brick temples with staircases that stretched up up up into the heavens, creating a pathway for priests to ascend toward the gods. But in Jacob’s dream of the ladder connecting heaven and earth, humans do not ascend. No, God descends.
Down comes God to stand beside Jacob that night. Down comes the God of all creation, stepping out of the heavens and into a manger. Down comes the Spirit, descending as a dove at baptism. Down comes the lifeless body of Jesus from the cross, and down comes the resurrecting power that says death, where is thy victory? Down come the tongues of fire and the rushing winds, and down comes the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, to the new creation.
It comes as gift, every piece of it. But the other truth of Jacob’s story—and of the story of Jesus many years later—is that every bit of soil on this earth is alight with the potential of God’s promised Kingdom. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” swore Jacob. He had assumed he traveled alone; his only purpose was survival. But after that dream, the earth—and Jacob’s future—are full of possibility, for God has descended to touch them both.
That is what dreams do—they create possibility. They interrupt the story of our lives or the world as we have been narrating it to ourselves and, like a heavy wooden door swinging open to let sunlight pour in, they offer us a vision for a new way of life. They give hope where there was no hope. They issue challenge where there was only complacency. They beckon us to a future we could not have imagined for ourselves.
I know a Presbyterian pastor who, three years ago, woke up with a start in the night, having dreamed a dream as clear as day. In the dream he was still a Presbyterian pastor, but in the place of pews were rows of tomato plants and sweet potato vines, and the liturgy was such that, after people came forward for communion, they went out bearing bounty into the world to feed the hungry. He lived in Wisconsin when he had the dream, but now if you head ten miles northeast, you can find him and his church, tomato plants and all, on a plot of land at the corner of Watts St. and Green St. in Durham. If you come to the congregational retreat this September, you can hear Ben Johnson-Krase tell the story for himself.
Ben’s was a literal, wake-up-from-a-deep-REM-cycle kind of dream, but there are other dreams as well—perhaps none more renowned in our corporate memory than that given voice by a black preacher who climbed up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 54 years ago and looked out on a quarter of a million people. The organizing, the movement-building, the strategizing and the resistance that won some victories in the civil rights movement were far deeper and lasted much longer than that one moment, of course. But these years later, when we think about how the imagination of a nation was ignited to conceive of an alternative future, we remember Dr. King’s response to Mahalia Jackson’s shout from the sidelines: “Tell them about the dream!”
These are not easy days for dreaming. In part, that is because there is so much that demands our attention—to-do lists and inboxes, voices and causes that compete for our ears, and the ubiquity of screens that offer us one endlessly scrolling and mercifully numbing feed of information. They are not easy days for dreaming, when the world seems a cruel and unfriendly place, when all our energies are focused on survival, when hope is hard to come by.
But if the life of a con artist turned fugitive can be interrupted by a gleaming ladder bearing angels from above, then perhaps a picture of the realm of God might make its way into our consciousness despite ourselves. Perhaps, we like Jacob, will be shaken from our sleep and realize that the desolate place in which we laid our head has become the gateway to heaven.
So I leave you with this invitation penned by Barbara Brown Taylor: “Do not be surprised if the ragged curtains of your sleep are drawn aside some dark night, and a warm breath makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and the sound of high, tinkling voices fills your ears, and you begin to see something where there was nothing just a moment before: first the light, then the shape, then the dawning of the dream in full color—not your dream, but God’s dream—more vivid than life, showing you what no one could have ever told you to your face, revealing to you what you would never have believed. Strain to hear the words that go with the pictures, the voice that is always calling you, saying “I am with you…I will give you…I will not leave you…I have promised you. Look and listen well, because this is the voice that tells the truth. This is the vision that reveals the promise.”
 “God Wrestling,” a piece of Genesis, A Living Conversation, available at http://billmoyers.com/content/god-wrestling. Accessed July 22, 2017.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, p. 243.
 Personal conversation with Ben Johnson-Krase, autumn of 2016.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Dreaming the Truth,” in Gospel Medicine.