Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 11)

Text: Genesis 28:11-13
At sunset Jacob 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 the earth to heaven, with angels going up and down on it. And there was the Lord standing beside him.

Thatís the way God is

There were two brothers, one named Jacob and the other Esau. Jacob was a schemer. He wasnít happy that he was the younger of the two. It meant that his brother Esau would inherit everything from their father Isaac. With his poor old father Isaac blind and on his deathbed, Jacob dressed up in Esauís clothes and put goatís skin on his arms and neck and tricked his father into blessing Jacob and not his hairy-skinned brother. In this way he grabbed every cent of the inheritance that should have gone to Esau.

Thatís the way it was with Jacob. He liked nothing better than to trick his dumb brother. By hook or by crook he was going to get his own way and he did. Getting the blessing from father Isaac was really important to him. This blessing would mean that he was now head of the house. Esau and all the other relatives would now be subject to him.

Jacob got what he wanted but as he gloated over his success, things suddenly turned sour. You donít have to be a genius to work out how Esau would react. He was angry, really angry and there was no telling what he would do. Esau promised, "After dadís funeral, Iím going to kill that little shyster." Besides Esau was a strong outdoors kind of person and Jacob would be no match for him if it ever came to a fight. So he gets out of town, slipping out the back door.

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. He had wanted more than anything to inherit the old manís estate, to have it all, to be the head of the family and put his older brother in his place. Now look at him. Out there somewhere between Beersheba and Haran which is to say he was out in the middle of nowhere.

Jacob, once the schemer, the grabber, so smart and cocky, is now defenceless, alone in the night, without family for protection or support, homeless, a fugitive, banished, with only the shirt on his back, sleeping on the ground with a stone for his pillow.

As we visualise Jacobís situation, letís not start to feel sorry for him. He is a shabby little man who tricked his brother, deceived his blind father. It served him right that he was now all alone resting on a rock pillow.

What is more Ė does Jacob toss and turn all night because his conscience bothers him and he feels bad because of the way he has treated his family? I donít think so. Jacob falls into a deep sleep and dreams.

He dreams about a great stairway that is thrown down from heaven right to where Jacob sleeps. "And the angels of God were ascending and descending on it... . And there was the Lord standing beside him" (28:1-2). And God makes a promise to Jacob. He repeats the promise made to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. He reminds him that he will have many descendants and will be given the land on which he was lying. And then God says to Isaac, "Remember, 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" (Gen 28:15).

Just think about this. Here is the meanest, money-hungry, scheming, swindling low life sleeping on the ground in some unknown place because he is afraid of his own brother. God comes down and appears to him in a dream and tells him that he is blessed and that God would always be with him and protect him. That hardly seems right. And it definitely isnít fair.

I canít explain it, but God showered outrageous blessings upon this mean unscrupulous low life. Jacob didnít deserve it but thatís the way God is. He is gracious and merciful to the worst sinner. God wasnít put off by the misery that Jacob had caused his family. God doesnít abandon his people Ė even the worst of us, even the meanest and greediest amongst us. Just as God came to Jacob he comes down and assures us that he will never leave us, will always keep us and will always protect us.

Donít we see the same thing happening to the thief who was crucified along side 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, "I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me." Now that hardly seems fair.

Or what about Saul, the man who so enthusiastically went about getting rid of as many followers of Christ as he could? God came down and called him to be his messenger. He was baptised and became an apostle and took the good news of Jesus far and wide.

At our baptism God came down to us. We didnít do anything particular to warrant any favours from God. I was baptised when I was 3 weeks old. My godmother tells me that I screamed all the way through the baptism service. You can be sure at that age I hadnít done anything to earn or deserve the promises that God made to me that day. I donít remember the occasion but then God doesnít need my ability to remember to give me his unconditional and undeserved grace. (If I should suffer from memory loss in my old age, and no longer recognise my family or even remember who Jesus is and his love for me, I know that God's grace will still be a strong as ever.) The fact that I was a sinner as small as I was, born into a fallen world, at one with the rest of sinful humanity, didnít put God off.

Our sense of fairness suggests that it is only right that we should do something before we receive so much from him. But thatís the way God is. He knows that we are caught in sin and like Jacob try to get away with as much as possible. 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! Thatís not how God sees us; we are given the chance to make a new start. And in spite of everything, he still loves us and sticks by the promise that he made to us at our baptism, "I will be with you and protect you wherever you go." He even sent us his Son to be our Saviour
to reassure us of his love for us,
to help us in our sinfulness,
to heal us of our diseases,
to comfort us in our troubles,
to reassure us of his presence when we are feeling unloved and unlovable,
to forgive us for our evil and wrongdoing.

An important aspect of this story is that God came to Jacob when he was in deep trouble. You might say he was caught between a rock and a hard place. This is symbolised by the rock pillow that Jacob rested on.

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 you life when you (like Jacob) have acted badly towards others, and suspect that God might want nothing to do with you. But that will not be true.

God will be there in the rocky place.
God will be with you in your shame.

The commitment of God is total. God is a covenant God who remains faithful to the promise to be there for us. God is present in every place and situation. Sometimes you may be aware of his holy Presence. But most often you will have no such awareness.

Donít be misled by your feelings. Feelings are treacherous things, totally unreliable as a barometer of Godís presence. Jesus the living Word of God promises to be with us always, and where Christ is, there is God. That is a covenant we can rely on.

No matter how harsh the territory you are in, no matter how alone you feel, no matter how much anguish or grief you suffer: "Surely the Lord is in this place; though I did not know it."

After waking up from that wonderful dream, the mean, greedy, scheming Jacob got up from his stone pillow and worshipped God with a thankful heart. He promised to give to the Lord a tenth of everything God gave him.

What is your response to the grace that God has shown toward you?
Have you heard about God's grace so much that the wonder and amazement that God should do this for you has all but vanished?
What will change in your life this week because of the promise that God has made to you to be there with you and for you, when you are resting on a rock pillow?

We know how Jacob responded to this fantastic dream and the promises of God. The heart of Jacob was changed. He realised that even though he had been a terrible person, 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 does not go back on a promise. And like Jacob we are also changed after our encounter with God's grace. We are refreshed, renewed, reassured, thankful and recommitted to be his disciples in the church and out into the world.

Like Jacob by nature we are selfish and tight-fisted. But thank God for his generosity. Thank God for the generosity of his Son who went to the cross for us. God is good; he has given us everything.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
17th July, 2005


Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.
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