Good morning, Friends! I hope you’re all doing well!
A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the story of Jacob and his brother Esau. These two brothers quarreled over who was going to get the blessing from their father Isaac. Jacob and Esau were twins, and they should have been each other’s best friends.
They should have realized that God loved them both, that God has enough love and blessing for everyone, that they could have both been blessed. Blessing isn’t something that comes as a limited supply – God’s blessing is generous and overflowing, like a fountain or an ocean.
People today make the same mistake those two brothers made in the story. We think there isn’t enough of God’s blessing for everyone. Even worse, we think that we’re the ones who decide who God loves and who God doesn’t. It’s so foolish.
Anyway, that’s the story we looked at two weeks ago. Today I want to read another Jacob story.
In the last story, Jacob’s brother Esau was so enraged at him for stealing the birthright, that he was going to kill his brother as soon as their father was dead. Jacob had to flee for his life to another country. This is how it all went down.
Jacob left Beersheba where he was born and set out for Harran, where his uncle lived. When Jacob reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and he lay down to sleep.
Jacob had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
There above the ladder stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!”
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, [which means “The House of the Lord”] though the city used to be called Luz.Genesis 28:10-19
After the fight with his brother Esau, Jacob was fleeing the country, running for his life. Jacob’s mama told him to go stay with his uncle for a while. Maybe find a wife there. Maybe settle down. Maybe don’t come back.
Jacob was traveling on the road one night and it got dark. It was a long way from where he was heading, so he pulled over to the side of the road, and he laid down for the night. He opened out his bedroll and forgot that he didn’t have a pillow, so he got him a stone to use a pillow. He fell asleep, and he had a dream.
Jacob dreamed he saw a ladder, going all the way up to heaven. This was no little 12-foot extension ladder from Home Depot – this ladder was miles and miles high. It reached almost out of sight. Angels were climbing up and down along it. This is the story where we get that old hymn, We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.
It doesn’t say, but I wonder if Jacob was scared of heights. A lot of people are. And I’m not just talking here about physical heights. Some people are scared of spiritual heights. They’re ready to go to heaven, but they won’t even stand up on a kitchen chair!
In his dream, Jacob dreamed that at the very top of the ladder, he saw the Lord. And the Lord said, “Hello, down there! Remember Me? This land is what I gave to your grandparents. And I give it to you, and to your children, and to your children’s children. Everyone in the world will know it, and they will know you, and through you, they will know Me. Your very name will be a blessing. People will bless themselves by your name. And wherever you are, I will be there. No matter how far you go, I will bring you back.”
And Jacob woke up, and he said, “Wow! God was here, and I didn’t even know it!” And Jacob took the rock that he laid his head on for a pillow, and he set it apart, and he made it holy. And he named the place Beth-El, which means, “The House of God.” And Bethel remained a holy place, for hundreds of years afterwards, and people came to Bethel and worshiped and prayed.
This is only one of many stories in the Bible where people set up a stone as a marker or as a memorial.
There’s the story of Samuel, who set up a stone after a battle with the Philistines. Samuel called the stone Ebenezer, which means “The Stone of Help.” “Up till now,” Samuel said, “the Lord has helped us.” (see I Samuel 7:12)
Or there’s the story of Moses, when he and the people of Israel were out wandering in the desert. They didn’t have any water, and they blamed Moses for it. They said, “What were you thinking? Did you bring us out here in the desert – so we could die of thirst? Weren’t there enough graves back in Egypt?”
The Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, and take with you some of the elders of Israel. And take in your hand the rod with which you struck the river Nile. And I will stand before you on the rock, and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”
And he did. And it did. God opened up a waterfall in the rock, a waterfall in the desert. So they called the place Massah and Meribah, two Hebrew words which mean “proof” and “contention”, because that was the place where people found fault with Moses, and that was where they said, “Is the Lord here among us, or not?” (see Exodus 17:1-8)
Or maybe you’ve heard the story of when Jacob had an argument with his father-in-law. The story’s too long to tell here, but it was a fight that threatened to end in bloodshed. Family fights can be the worst of all. They were all set to wipe each other out.
But they made peace. They made an agreement, and to mark it, they put up a stone. And they sat down and ate their lunch by it, together in peace. And they called the stone Mizpah, which means “watch post”. And they said, “The Lord watch between me and thee, while we are absent one from the other. . .”
They set up the stone to be the reminder of their agreement, and to mark the border or the boundary of each other’s land. And Jacob’s father-in-law said, “This place is a witness. I will not pass this place to you for harm, and you will not pass over this place to me for harm, and God will watch and judge between us.” (see Genesis 31:25-55)
There are a lot of stories like these in the Bible, where people set up stones, or built altars, to remind themselves of what God had done, or that God was there, or to remind themselves of promises that they had made.
We like stones and markers and special trees. They’re a way of saying, like the stone in the story of Jacob this morning, “See, something special happened here. And we were here to witness it. We want to remember.”
Do you remember what Jacob said when he woke up from his dream? He said, “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I didn’t know it! . . .This is none other than the house of God! This is the very gate of heaven!”
Jacob was impressed. He was more than impressed, he was hornswoggled! He was overcome by the thought that God was near him. Instead of being a refugee, Jacob became a young man with a promise to live by. Instead of being a thief, fleeing for his life, with nothing but the clothes on his back, he became a child of God Most High.
Jacob’s quarrel with his brother was his own fault. Jacob was to blame for it. But God lifted Jacob up. God restored him. God gave Jacob a promise to live by.
If you read on to the end of the story, Jacob said: “If God will be with me, and if God will keep me in this new place that I’m going to, if God will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord will be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, will be God’s house; and of all that God gives me I will surely give a tenth back to God.” Jacob’s life had turned around!
This story is just one of the many turnaround stories in the Bible. Over and over again, the Bible tells us about people who were exiles and slaves, who became a free nation again. The Bible tells us about people who were lost and wandering, who came home.
The Bible says, over and over again, that God will be with us, no matter what happens, no matter where we go. The gospel says that Jesus not only came down to earth to be one of us, but that Jesus experienced everything that we experience. God knows our hurts and sorrows. God knows our pain.
It may feel sometimes that God is a million miles away, at the top of an unreachable ladder, and that only angels can climb up or down.
But turn it around! The oldest stories in the Bible say that God is near to us, that God hears when we cry, that God is moved by our suffering and still cares for us, even when we’ve forgotten who God is or when we don’t know how to pray.
Jacob was an outcast from his family, on the run to another country, when God came to him in this dream. He didn’t think he was blessed. He wasn’t living like a person who God loved. He had no money, no home, no clothing except what he was wearing. If he went home, his brother was going to kill him.
But God turned it around. God said, “I am with you. I am the Lord. I knew your ancestors, and all the stories you heard about me and them are true. This place where you’re lying on the ground, I’m going to give to you, and to every descendant you have – and, oh, yes, I’m going to make sure you have lots of kids and grandkids!”
“Your family will be found all over the earth,” the Lord said. “Your name will be a blessing, and people will bless themselves because they bear your name. I am with you, and I will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this place again, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
When God makes a promise, God doesn’t hold back. When God blesses you, you are blessed all over. You’re blessed now, and you’re blessed way into the future. God never forgets what God has promised, and God never takes back a promise of salvation.
God hears all the time. And God is never far away. What seems to us like a ladder a million miles high, is just a short step for God. What seems to us like years of suffering, is just an eyeblink for God. God can wipe it away like nothing, and God can restore and heal in a moment.
Even the worst losses, the unimaginable losses, are not outside God’s reach. And while we are being healed, God is never far away. “Surely, the Lord was in this place, and we never knew it.” Even a bare patch of ground, with a stone for a pillow, can be a place where God makes a new home.
God is always in the business of opening a way, where we don’t see a way, where we can’t even imagine a way. God is in the business of promising, and delivering. God remembers, even when we’re so mixed up we can’t even think.
Jacob said, “If God will be with me, and if God will keep me in this new place that I’m going to, if God will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come back again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord will be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, will be God’s house.”
God is the God of the turnaround. God is the God of restoration. God is the God of unlimited blessings, of blessings even for people with nothing, even for people with no home of their own.
I know this story seems like an old story, just as the Bible seems to be an old story book. But these are stories and promises for today. They’ve been passed down to us, by people of faith, renewed by Christ, and these stories and promises are ours to claim.
The place where we are isn’t abandoned. The place where we are is awesome! Jacob thought he was out in the desert, but he woke up and saw the place where he was as the House of God. He was in the Promised Land, and he didn’t know it!
May God bless us, even as God blessed Jacob. May God turn things around, for us and for our congregation. God can take the most desperate situation, and turn it around.
Remember that God is never far away. God is as close as our hopes and our dreams. God is as close to us as our prayers. God never forgets his promises. And his promise to us is that we are going to be a great people.
Lift up your eyes, and see it! Lift up your hearts – you are God’s people today! You are people of God’s promise, and God’s blessing is upon you! Things can turn around, and God is the one who does it. Remember this story, and let God bless you.