Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 11)

Text: Genesis 28:10-13
Jacob left Beersheba and started toward Haran.  At sunset he came to a holy place and camped there. He lay down to sleep, resting his head on a stone. He dreamed that he saw a stairway reaching from earth to heaven, with angels going up and coming down on it.  And there was the Lord standing beside him.

What was God thinking?

What was God thinking?  Jacob falls asleep and he has a dream about a stairway reaching down from heaven and suddenly we hear that the Lord is standing right there beside him. And what does God say to Jacob?  ďI am the God of your grandfather and your father.  Iím going to give you this land and I will fill it with your descendants.  I will be with you and protect you.  In other words, whatever disaster comes your way, Jacob, or whatever unexpected turns your future might take, I will promise to be with you and bless you.  And in the end, I will bring you back homeĒ. 

Where is the justice in this?  How can God call this fair? 

When I read a book or watch a movie about a person who is really a bad egg and has treated others terribly, all the way through the story Iím hoping that by the end of the book or the movie the bad guy will get what he deserves Ė justice will win out.

In the story of Jacob there is no justice. Godís promises of blessing and reward completely blow away any idea that of fairness.  Jacob doesnít deserve that kind of respect and love.  He is a man on the run because of the nasty things he has done to his family.  The story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis is like a long running soap opera. Heís a dyed in the wool crook who goes from one cunning act to another and seems to get away with it.

Let me go back a bit.  Jacob has a twin brother who is minutes older than him.  That means his brother will inherit everything from their father, Isaac.  Jacob is not happy with this so he cheats his somewhat lame-brained brother out of his birthright and gets away with it.  Years later, he cheats his brother again by tricking his blind father to give him the inheritance that rightfully belonged to Esau.  He not only gets away with it again but both his mum and dad cover up for him.  When Rebekah, his mum, discovers that Esau is angry, really angry, and that heís about to slit his brotherís throat, she makes up a lame excuse to her husband that it would be a bad idea for Jacob to find a wife among the local foreign girls now that he will soon be head of the family.  Itís just what his father needs to tell Jacob to get away until Esau calms down.

Jacob knew he was no match for the much stronger Esau so he quietly slips away.

Instead of being a ruler, the head of the clan, heís now a fugitive, an exile, taking with him only the things he could carry.  You might think that finally Jacob is getting back some of what he had given.  Alone, out there in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Beersheba and Haran Ė feeling guilty, defenceless, scared; not a friend in the world; worn out and strung-out.  This shabby little man only has a rock for a pillow.  Something inside us says, ďServes you right, Jacob!Ē

Now you would expect that if Jacob were to have a dream it would be the kind that would be more of a nightmare having just deceived his father, been threatened by his brother and now alone in a desert place.  Nothing like it! Jacob has a dream that is way too beautiful for such a scoundrel.   He dreams of a stairway between heaven and earth with angels going up and down.  Itís suggested these are the angels who will be watching over him in the years ahead.  And then God is standing right beside him.  Heís not angry; he doesnít condemn Jacob.  He only has promises about land and many descendants and then says, ďRemember, I will be with you and protect you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done all that I have promised you.Ē

Has the writer of the Book of Genesis really got this right?  If he has then what was God thinking?  Here is the meanest, money-hungry, scheming, swindling cheat whose need for wealth and power became so great that he didnít care that he hurt his own family along the way, and now God promises to give him more land, more wealth, more honour than he had ever dreamt about.  What is more, Godís promises protection and a safe return to his family.  That hardly seems right!  It definitely isnít fair! 

Why does God do this?  The only answer I can give is Ė thatís how God is.  Jacob didnít deserve to be showered with such an outrageous amount of blessing but God is gracious and merciful.  God wasnít put off by the misery that Jacob had caused his family.  He wasnít side-tracked by Jacobís meanness and greed.  God came only in love and mercy. This is the contradictory and disturbing nature of Godís grace.  It doesnít fit in with our way of dealing with troublemakers and those who offend us. 

Jesus explains the contradictory nature of grace in his parables.  When a father should reject a son who had dishonoured not only him but his whole family by demanding his share of the inheritance and blowing it on wild living, Jesus describes how the father ran down the road to hug him.  He doesnít treat his wayward son the way everyone expected but rather reinstated him to his honoured position as son and threw a welcome home party.  Grace accepts the sinner even though it is completely undeserved.

Donít we see the same thing happening to the thief who was crucified alongside of Jesus?  We donít know a lot about him but we do know that he was a criminal. He had lived a life of crime and deserved the punishment that was being dealt out to him.  And what does Jesus say to him, ďI promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.Ē  Now that hardly seems fair. 

Godís love is undeserved, unfair and unjust.  Philip Yancey uses the word ďatrociousĒ describing Godís love because it is so different to what he calls ďour tit-for-tat world of ungraceĒ.

At our baptism God came to us.  We didnít do anything particular to warrant any favours from God.  Many of us were baptised at an age when we werenít able to do anything to earn or deserve the promises that God made to us that day. We donít remember the occasion but then God doesnít need our ability to remember to give us his unconditional and undeserved grace.  (If we should suffer from memory loss in our old age, and no longer recognise our family or even remember who Jesus is and his love for us, God's grace will still be as strong as ever.) 

The fact that we were born into a fallen world and are at one with the rest of sinful humanity, didnít put God off.  He gave us his love and all that Jesus had done for us on the cross and through his resurrection. He gave us his grace fully and completely Ė it doesnít come in instalments at various points in our lives.

Godís grace for us is not any different for us today as it was for Jacob.  God could have let the young rogue Jacob simply disappear during his journey through wild country.  But thatís not God's way of doing things!  He doesnít abandon us.  He gave Jacob a second chance; we are given as many chances we need to make new starts. And in spite of everything, he still loves us and sticks by the promise that he made to us at our baptism, ďI will be with you and protect you wherever you go.Ē 
Through the Holy Spirit we are reminded that we have a Saviour whose love went all the way to the cross.
We are given the confidence that our heavenly Father will help us, heal us, comfort us, forgive us and reassure us of his presence when we are feeling unloved and unlovable.

There will be rocky times in your life, when it seems that you are on your own (like Jacob).
There will be unfortunate times in your life when you (like Jacob) have acted badly towards others, and suspect that God might want nothing to do with you. But God will be there.

When you are feeling especially vulnerable and lonely, God is there.
When you see only the mess you have made of relationships and opportunities, God is there.
When shame, guilt, embarrassment, anger and disappointment overwhelm you, God is there.
When you are speechless with fear and afraid of the future, God is there.
Even when you are self-righteous, certain and self-assured as Jacob was, God is there.

The commitment of God is total.  Our God is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  Even if you should turn his back on him, his commitment is total and will wait until you come to your senses.  He says to you and me as he said to Jacob, ďRemember, I will be with you and protect you wherever you go. I will not leave you until I have done all that I have promised you.Ē

What was Jacobís response to all that he had seen and heard?

After waking up from that wonderful dream, Jacob got up from his stone pillow and said, ďThe Lord is here! He is in this place, and I didn't know it!Ē  He realised that even though he had been a terrible person and he was now cut off from everyone who loved him, he was not alone.  God still cared about him.  He worshipped God and dedicated his life to serving God.  That doesnít mean he did everything perfect from then on Ė far from it Ė but he did recognise that God doesnít go back on a promise.  Iím sure when things were going pear-shaped later on, he reflected on Godís promises to him and reminded himself that God loves even the most unworthy people in this world and will not give up on them.

I could finish by asking, ďHow have you responded to Godís grace?í but I think that would take away something of the impact of this Old Testament story. 

I started by asking, ďWhat was God thinking when he showed so much kindness and grace to the scoundrel who had just robbed his own family?Ē 
Iím glad God dealt so seemingly unfairly and atrociously with Jacob.  We really arenít all that different to Jacob.  We thank God for his generosity to us.  Like Jacob, our encounter with God's grace changes us.  We are refreshed, renewed, reassured, thankful and recommitted to be his disciples.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
20th July 2014

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