A Sacred Place, Genesis 28:10-19a
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, July 19, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
We’re going to hop back into the book of Genesis this a.m., with the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau were twins, born to Isaac and Rebekah. Even before the twins were born, it seemed to her that there was a wrestling match going on inside her belly. There was a rivalry between those two boys long before they were ever born. And when they were born—though Esau entered the world first, Jacob was clutching the heel of his brother, following behind, a close second.
Jacob—the younger twin—was his mother’s favorite. Esau, the first born-was a man’s man: he was red-haired, a big guy who loved to hunt and fish and trap. He was favored by his father.
One day Jacob persuaded his hungry brother Esau to surrender his birthright—which consisted of a double share of the family inheritance—in exchange for a bowl of soup. Later, Jacob pretended to be Esau, put on animal skins to make his blind father think that he was his older, hairier brother. He tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing that should have gone to the oldest son. Jacob, urged by Rebekah to carry out this plan to deceive his dying father, was an ambitious, greedy, and manipulative man.
When Esau came in from the fields and discovered what his younger brother had done, he vowed he would kill him. As soon as Isaac is dead, Esau swore to himself (and others), “I am going to get rid of that greedy little lying cheat of a brother!”
Rebekah hears of Esau’s promise to kill Jacob, and she suggests to her younger son that he leave town for a while. Let his brother cool down.
So, this is where we join the story of Jacob in Genesis 28.
Jacob is on the run. He has left Beersheba in the south of Israel and is headed toward Haran to the northeast. Haran is about 500 miles away from the wilderness region of Beersheba.
The heel-grabber (the literal meaning of Jacob’s name) has gotten up into the hills of Galilee, about 50 miles north from where he started. Jacob has a long journey ahead of him, but the sun has gone down. In that day and age, when the sun goes down, that’s when you stop.
Today’s International Version of the Bible says that Jacob stops at a “certain place” (Genesis 28:11). It’s just an ordinary place—no place special.
You can tell Jacob is running for his life and that he left home in a hurry. He didn’t pack a pillow. So he lies down on the ground to sleep and takes a stone and puts it under his head. I’m not sure why he does that…seems like a shirt or something rolled up would have been a little softer—but that’s not what he does. He uses a stone as his pillow.
There are all sorts of reasons why we sleep. The most obvious reason to sleep is because we’re tired. It’s been a long day, the road from Beersheba to Galilee is long and hilly. But there may be other reasons why Jacob is eager to stretch out on the ground. Maybe, when he sleeps, he can forget—for just a couple of hours—the memory of his deception. Living with the knowledge that you have betrayed your brother, stolen his birthright and blessing, and tricked your dying father to do it—if you have any kind of conscience at all, that ought not be an easy load to carry. I’ve talked with folks dealing with difficult times, and often people will say they find themselves sleeping a lot. Because when they sleep, they forget.
Jacob sleeps. And as he sleeps, he dreams.
In his dream he sees a stairway that is resting on the earth, and the top of the stairway reaches all the way to heaven. The messengers of God—angels—are ascending and descending on the ladder.
When you know you’re a liar and a cheat, an ambitious deceiver—you assume there is a million mile wide chasm between your sinful earth (and existence) and God’s perfect heaven (and presence). If there ever was a bridge between where you are and where God is, you have burned that bridge to the ground with your sin. You figure, God won’t want to get close to you. God won’t want to dirty God’s hands with you. You can’t help but think that.
There are so many things in this dream that are worth noticing, but one I want you to see is in verse 13. In this God-given dream, where would you think Jacob would see God? Where do you think God would be located? My first thought, is that he would at the top of the ladder—in heaven. Would that be your thought?
But look again at verse 13. There’s actually a variation in texts: The New International Version says “There above it (the ladder) stood the Lord…” But 3 other translations, including the New Revised Standard Version, Today’s English Version (Good News) and the New English Bible all say—in verse 13—that God is standing beside Jacob.
God is down there at that ordinary place with Jacob.
God is down there in that darkness with Jacob.
God is standing right there beside the heel-grabber, the deceiver, the liar, the cheat.
Then God turns to Jacob—this man who has done so many things wrong—and he makes some amazing promises.
God promises Jacob the land of Israel. God promises the heel-grabber that he will have a house full of children and his descendants will be so numerous they will be like the dust of the earth, and God promises to be with Jacob—wherever he goes. God promises to watch over Jacob.
The final promise God gives to Jacob in the dream is that God is going to be at work in Jacob’s life. In everything that happens. God says God will not walk away from Jacob until these promises have been fulfilled. God says that God will finish what God has started in Jacob’s life.
When Jacob wakes up, he looks around at that ordinary place, that hard ground on that hilltop in Galilee and he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it” (v. 16). He’s overwhelmed with this encounter with God, and he goes on to say, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven” (v.17).
God shows up—and an ordinary place, a little patch of hard ground in Galilee, a few square yards of nothing in the middle of the dark night—becomes the house of God. The gate of heaven!
Jacob takes the stone that he used as a pillow, and sets it on a pillar of rocks. To mark the place. And then he pours oil on top of it and names that ordinary place—that wide spot in the road, “Bethel,” which means “house of God” in Hebrew.
There are times when we feel a million miles away. But in this little story about Jacob, and in the greater story of the Bible, we are reminded that God is closer than we realize. The story is about a God who loves us so much, no matter what we’ve done, God is with us.
No matter where we are, God is with us. An ordinary place becomes a holy place…a sacred place. Our homes: our living room, back porch, or yard…wherever you are, slow down, take a breath and look around. God is right next to you in that ordinary place. That’s the good news. Amen.