by David Baer, September 24, 2017
It was our wedding day, during the reception, I think. The minister who had married us, a dear friend of ours, greeted our parents and said, “What a great celebration this is! And everyone’s so well behaved!” This caused our parents some confusion, and one of them asked what she meant. “I mean there’s no fighting, no hostility on display. It’s wonderful!” “We don’t understand,” they said. “Why would anyone spoil a special occasion like this? Is that typical?” And she said, yes, yes it was very normal to see families in conflict at a wedding, and all manner of bad behavior.
So, here’s the thing… Our wedding was a wonderful occasion, and our families were able to enjoy each other’s company. That’s not a small thing—apparently!—and something I’m grateful for. But I later found out that among our guests were a couple of family members, seated next to each other at the reception, who weren’t on speaking terms—which explained why it was so hard to get one of them to RSVP. And through the years I’ve come to see the anxieties, hurts, and disappointments of those people who are closest to us reflected here and there in the events of that day—not because they were trying to cause trouble, but because we just are who we are, wedding or no wedding. Still, in spite of all of that, it was a moment of grace. But there’s no getting around it—our families, the communities that love and nurture and form us, are messy and complicated, aren’t they?
You might expect families in the Bible to be different. You might expect the Bible to show us models of good, moral behavior that we should follow. You might look there for heroes who always make the right choice and never let anyone down. But that’s not what we find when we open our Bibles. We find families that are just as messy as the ones we experience today.
This fall we have started again to listen to the story of God in the order the Bible tells it, starting with the book of Genesis. Last week we heard a story about Isaac, and how his father Abraham followed God’s instructions, taking Isaac to a mountain, tying him up like a sacrificial animal and drawing the knife to kill him, when God intervened, sparing Isaac and sending the two of them a ram to be offered in his place. We talked about the hints in the story that maybe Abraham knew and trusted in his heart of hearts that it was going to be OK all along, and the hope this gives us that God’s words of promise and blessing are weightier and truer than any threat to them, even if that threat comes from God.
In today’s story, Isaac is an old man. His eyesight is failing. He seems to be feeble enough that he can only sit and lie down. Isaac inherited God’s blessing from his father Abraham, a promise of many descendants, a promise of land, and a promise that all the families of the earth will be blessed through their family. And now it’s time for him to pass on that blessing to his own son.
Isaac has two sons, twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Technically, Esau is the eldest, because he was born first. Now, Isaac has a taste for wild game, and Esau is a skilled hunter, so he is Isaac’s favorite, while Isaac’s wife Rebekah favors the other son, Jacob. Isaac calls his son Esau, tells him to go hunting and to prepare a meal for him. After Isaac eats, he will offer Esau his blessing.
But Rebekah overhears their conversation, and she has other ideas. She prepares a meal from two of their goats. She dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and she puts the goat skins on his hands and the back of his neck, so that he will seem to be hairy like his brother. Then she sends Jacob in with the meal to ask his father for a blessing. Isaac isn’t certain. If this is Esau, he has come back awfully quickly. And it sure doesn’t sound like Esau. But his doubts vanish when he touches the goat skins. The deception works, and Isaac gives his blessing to Jacob, rather than Esau. And when Esau comes back, Isaac tearfully tells him that the blessing has already been given to his brother, and it can’t be taken back.
Now, in our own time it’s hard for us to understand how this could work. A smart lawyer might point out that there was no meeting of the minds here. The blessing couldn’t have been truly given, because it was given under false pretenses. But in the ancient world words had power. A couple of weeks ago we read about how God’s words didn’t just describe the world: they actually created it. When God says, “Let there be light,” light actually appears. Words have power to perform what they promise. And so when Isaac gives Jacob his blessing, even under false pretenses, he can’t take it back. It belongs to Jacob now.
You might guess that Esau wasn’t happy about being displaced, and you’d be right. Esau makes plans to kill his brother, as soon as his father is dead and buried, and when Jacob gets wind of this he flees. His mother sends him from Beer-sheba, in the south, up to the country of Haran in the north, to stay with her family. And Jacob leaves with literally nothing but the clothes on his back. He has lost his home. He has trashed his relationships with his father and his brother. He’s all alone in the world, a homeless exile, a wanderer. As the sun is setting in the place that becomes known as Bethel, Jacob literally has nowhere to lay his head. He makes the best of it, taking a stone for his pillow. Things really couldn’t get any worse.
What a mess this is! God’s blessing has been wrested away from a father through deceit and fraud by an overlooked son. What’s worse, this blessing, something good and beautiful, has been twisted into a source of alienation and estrangement in the family that received it. This is a crucial moment in the story of God’s blessing, because it confronts us with the question of whether human beings can wreck God’s plan, God’s dream. Is human brokenness, human sin more powerful than God’s blessing?
But it’s in this state that God appears to Jacob. He dreams of a great ladder, which we should really imagine as more of a ramp, with its base on the earth and its top in heaven. And there are angels going up and down on it. These are God’s messengers, and they don’t have wings (because if they did, they wouldn’t need the ladder, now, would they?). Jacob has found a place where heaven comes into contact with earth. And then God is standing beside him, confirming the blessing that was given to Jacob’s ancestors: land, descendants, a blessing for all the families of the earth. Jacob wakes up and shakes his head in wonderment: “Surely the Lord is in this place,” he says, “and I did not know it.”
Almost five years after my wedding, my family was gathered for a different purpose. My uncle had passed away after suffering from cancer for a number of years. He’d been diagnosed just shortly after his retirement. And I remember that gathering, being in his house with my aunt and my parents and grandparents and my cousins and my uncle’s stepchildren. And I remember holding my grandmother’s hand as we listened to everyone sharing stories about him. I remember how the tears flowed and everyone just seemed kind of vulnerable and raw and yet at the same time so very, very honest and tender with one another. It was a place where heaven touched and blessed our earthy, human experience of mortality and loss and grief.
Surely the Lord was in that place, just as surely as God was in Jacob’s place of exile and loneliness and fear. And God’s presence with us in our messiness, in our grief, in our guilt, speaks volumes about who God is. A god who was only interested in winners who do what it takes to get on top would have appeared to Jacob at his moment of triumph. A god who was only interested in perfectly good people who do the right thing would have abandoned Jacob until he made things right with his brother. (And in fact this is what Jacob does, eventually!) But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob finds a way to preserve God’s blessing, God’s promise, in the face of everything that threatens it—even when the threat comes from ungrateful and quarrelsome and exasperating recipients of that promise like Jacob. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God who puts down a ladder into the messy and broken places of human life, who speaks words of promise and reassurance to us there, where we’re hurting and alone.
It’s no accident that this image of grace, of heaven touching earth in a broken and lonely and messy place, is the one Jesus reaches for to explain who he is. “You will see heaven opened,” he says, “and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Jesus opens the way for God’s blessings to make their way into our world and our lives. He makes Jacob’s dream real.
God says to Jacob, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” On the one hand, that’s just good sense. If you turn your back on Jacob or anyone else in this family, they’re liable to screw up again. Like the unruly schoolkids that the teacher moves up to the front of the class, Jacob needs some supervision. But on the other hand, it also means that God’s response to human brokenness and failure is to close the distance between us, again and again. God keeps coming, into our sadness, into our abandonment, into our exile. God’s love won’t let us go. The Lord is in this place.
May you, in your moments of grief or loneliness or guilt, dream of God’s realm touching down in your stony and wild place. May you hear God’s words of promise and reassurance, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” May you realize, with Jacob, that in times of joy or sadness, loss or triumph, that the Lord is in this place. Amen.