Good News of Home
Fourth in the series,
Family, Failure and Faith:
A Walk With Our Spiritual Ancestors
First Lesson: Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
Second Lesson: Genesis 28:10-19a
Rev. Scott Dickison
Abraham is thought of as the father of faith, but it’s his grandson, Jacob, that would come to be called Israel, who’s the namesake of the people of promise. And where Abraham is remembered for his great faith to follow God out into the great unknown, Jacob is remembered for being something of a scoundrel.
As we heard last week from our guest preacher, Erin Robinson Hall, Jacob enters this world literally on the heels of his brother Esau, from whom he would swindle the family birthright. Not content to have Esau’s birthright, with the help of their mother, he also stole their father’s blessing, too. And depending on where we stand and how we view ourselves, this is either one of the great comforts of Scripture and especially these stories in Genesis, or one of its great challenges, which is that God works through scoundrels.
And yet it’s probably more accurate to say not that God works through scoundrels, but that God remains faithful to us even in those times or season when we’re less than we ought to be. God sees us through even those dark or embarrassing periods of our life. Those seasons of our youth that we would like to forget, that we struggle to explain to our children, if we mention them at all. It’s more accurate to say, when we look at the story of Jacob, that in God’s eyes we’re not defined by a certain season of our life or the worst thing we’ve ever done. God sees in us something we do not. Something God can work with.
Jacob was a scoundrel, but he didn’t stay a scoundrel. In time he became a person of character and even faith—a person worthy of the blessing he stole, and this is the turning point of when that happened.
Jacob is on the run. Esau, heartbroken and enraged that his brother and mother have conspired against in him this way, threatens to kill Jacob, and so Jacob’s mother sends him away to live with her people. He’s traveling alone, having hastily prepared for this journey. In some sense a fugitive, in another sense in exile. And it’s here, out on his solitary journey of exile and guilt and shame that he encounters none other than God Almighty.
We’re told that he comes to a “certain place.” And whenever these words appear in Scripture a “certain place” or a “certain time,” we should hear alarm bells that something peculiar is about to happen. Tradition has it that this “certain place” where Jacob stopped for the night was Mount Moriah, the same “certain place” where years before his father Isaac had been placed on the altar by his father Abraham to be sacrificed. Tradition also says that Mount Moriah would later become the site of the Temple mount in the center of Jerusalem. Things have a way of circling back around in Scripture.
“He came upon a certain place,” we’re told—the word here in Hebrew translated “came upon,” too, has a deeper sense, not of mere happenstance but of divine purpose: He encountered a certain place, we could say. The rabbis even translated it to say he collided with a certain place. That Jacob’s life and the life of God were running head-on to this moment in time. In the biblical imagination, Jacob didn’t just happen to stop in this place on that night, there were forces conspiring to lead him there. Have you felt this before? This sense of your life colliding with a certain moment in time, a certain person? Maybe you long to feel this.
Jacob collided with this certain place and stayed the night, because the sun had set.
And strange things happen when the sun sets—you know this. Things come upon us at night. Fears, doubts, shame, guilt. Isn’t nighttime when the worries come? It is for me. Little things that in the daytime hours seem insignificant or under control, suddenly in the cloak of night take on a life of their own. Old memories come alive again, mistakes long made seem fresh, indiscretions long reconciled, wrongs thought to be resolved suddenly reopen. There’s something about the nighttime that renders us vulnerable to all these parts of our psyche that we manage to subdue during the day when our mind is on other thing. At nighttime our defenses are down, to those recesses of our subconscious, but also to the Almighty.
The testimony of Scripture is that God comes to us in the darkness. The metaphorical darkness, the darkness that Jacob surely knew, the darkness of fear and uncertainty and guilt. But also the literal darkness; the darkness of night. Jacob, the trickster, the deceiver, wasn’t ready to receive these things from the Lord in the waking world, where his mind raced with so many other things. So God comes to him in the darkness of a dream, when Jacob can’t protest, when he can’t distract himself, when he has no other choice but to listen to what God would reveal. And it comes in the form a promise.
And at first glance, the promise to Jacob seems like a rehashing of the promise given to his grandfather Abraham, that God will make him prosper and have land and give him children so numerous as to fill the earth—but then the promise continues. Something new is introduced in the history of God’s promises to this point: from Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Isaac. God says, “As you go, know that I am with you and I will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.”
I am with you.
I will keep you.
I will bring you home.
This is new. In fact, you could say this is good news. Before, God promised land, and children and even a great nation, but now God promises presence. Perhaps God sensed that in that moment when Jacob’s life was unraveling before him, out there in exile from his own family, without a home, without a people, without a future, the grand promise of land and generations of children wasn't really connecting with him, so God regrouped, got down at eye level and said, “Listen, before all of that, know that I’m with you.”
And not only will God be with Jacob, but God will protect him. God will keep him—one of the most powerful verbs in Scripture: to keep. We’ve noted this before. Shomar is the word in Hebrew, and it shows up at some of this most critical passages of all of Scripture. It’s the same word that’s used in the book of Deuteronomy when Moses tells the people to “keep” these words that I’m commanding you today on your heart—remember them, live by them, teach them to your children: keep them. It’s the same word that’s used over and over in Psalm 121 to describe who God is for us: I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
God promises to be with Jacob, and to protect him from harm, but also to bring him home. This is the culmination of the promise: the promise of homecoming. Jacob, who is in exile, with no clear way out of the mess he’s in—the mess he’s made—will one day return home. Isn't this what he wanted most in that moment? Isn't this what we all want most? It may be that this is what binds us together as human beings, not simply the notion of home, but the experience of losing it in some way, and the longing to one day find it again.
In fact, you could take this to be the great hope of Scripture, what’s behind the whole story of creation and fall and redemption—the promise of finding our way home, of finding our way back to God. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that the great promise of Scripture is that as much as we’re stumbling around trying to find our way back to God, God is looking for a way back to us. It’s not Jacob who goes out in search of God. It’s God who comes to him. It’s God who sends down this ladder—which is really meant to be more of a staircase—that connects heaven and earth, as if to say, “all of this is connected.” These things, these places that you would separate and believe are so far away from each other, in reality they’re so close. I heard someone point out once that the sky isn’t some distant void, the sky is right here, the sky begins where the earth ends.
All of this is connected—the world, us, our neighbor, our ancestors, our successors, God. We come here, to this place, and we read from this book and look in these faces to remind ourselves of just how connected it all is—how connected we all are. Did you know that the word religion comes from the same root as the word ligament? It’s the stuff that binds us together, with each other and with God.
Was this the part of the promise that changed Jacob, literally, for good—that led him to lay aside his dishonest ways and take up the narrow path?
Is this the promise that could change our life, too, if we could be sure that it were true:
That God is with us.
That God is keeping us.
That we will one day go home.
One the weekend, Audrey and I took the boys down to her family’s placeoff of 121 outside of Metter, GA. Her father’s cousin has a little cabin there on a pond we took the boys fishing and let them run around and get some dirt under their fingernails. And some of her cousins were there, too, one of them a little boy named Price. Now Price is nine, but about to turn ten, but this weekend I was reminded of a time some years ago when he was about 4, the same age Billy is about to turn, we were out with him on that same pond one night for a big oyster roast her family does around New Year’s.
All of the family was gathered there in front of the cabin around these giant charcoal grills made from the ends of old propane tanks, where we roast the oysters, and Audrey and Price were sitting together looking up at the stars and pointing out constellations when out of the blue Price paused and asked Audrey, “Do you think heaven’s up there?”
Audrey was a bit caught off guard and wasn’t sure what to say exactly, but managed to turn the question back to him—“Well, where do you think heaven is?” Price paused for a second, looked up to the sky again and then back down at the ground, and around at his family and the woods and the pond that surrounded them, the pond that reach out over the horizon there, the moonlight reflecting, and bleeding into the night sky so that you could really tell where the water ended and the sky began, Price looked at all of this and said, “I think heaven might be down here.”
He’s right, I think.
There are staircases everywhere.
 I’m indebted in the following section to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s work in commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire. 187-190
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Series, 243