Monthly Archives: July 2008

07-20-08 THE MESSAGE OF JACOB’S LADDER

THE MESSAGE OF JACOB’S LADDER

Genesis 28: 10-19

 

There are cases of fact and of fantasy, of fiction and of non fiction, of Biblical and non-Biblical writings which include stories about mortals getting to Heaven and returning to tell about it, or seeing it’s splendor in a dream.  Some of you will remember that almost 30 years ago, Dr. Raymond Moody, in his book LIFE AFTER LIFE, chronicled patients who, by medical measurements, had stopped living. Then, as if by divine decision or personal willpower, they came back to life with amazing stories of well-being, and light, and a tunnel, and warmth, and all the things that would make people’s fear of death dissipate. They had more living or work to do before they were finished on earth.  On the paranormal side, the Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore film GHOST looked at how a man who dies is able to communicate with his still living soul mate, an extraordinary experience that was either grace given or love driven. Although the film is fiction, I can tell you I have heard from more than a couple of people that they experienced a loved-one returning from the dead, (not resurrected, but reappearing) in powerful images in the corner of a room, a bed crushed down in the shape of a body, or the feeling in one’s soul of the real presence of the loved one.  In the Bible we have the famous vision that John had which he called his Revelation from God.  In Revelation 1:10, John told his readers: – “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day…” “In the Spirit” meant transported into the presence or realm of God;” “the Lord’s Day” means Sunday.  At a time like this and in a place like this, John experienced a vision of and the presence of his Holy God; not unlike the prophet Habakkuk described ages before (that we heard in the Call to Worship) and Jacob described in today’s passage. In Luke we also find in the 16th chapter the story of a rich man who goes to Hades and is tormented in the flame, who hopes to come back and warn his brothers to repent and avoid his anguish. Yes there are prophesies, dreams, visions, and circumstances that take us into the presence of the Holy, and sometimes they can foreshadow a place of burning torment. Today, however, we are focusing on the times when Heaven touches Earth or when mortals get visions of Heaven; it happens when a bridge, a ladder, a cross, or a Savior connects the seemingly great divide between Earth and Heaven. But sometimes I think I see little slivers of Heavenly light here on Earth, if I just have the eyes to see it.  Then I don’t think Heaven is light years away, but very close, a new dimension of living. Have you too seen moments of Heaven on Earth?  Of course some of the most famous accounts of God’s connecting with someone on earth are from the stories of Moses on Mount Sinai, of Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, of Mary the mother of Jesus, and today’s text of Jacob’s ladder. Perhaps a little recap is in order so we understand today’s story at a deeper level than a children’s song. One Rabbi recaps the story this way:

 

“When Jacob flees his father’s house [heading for his Uncle Laban’s] house, his mood, we have reason to suspect, is fearful and depressed. True, Jacob has succeeded in deceiving his father into thinking he was Esau, and thereby gaining the ‘innermost blessing’ intended for his brother. But at some level this must have been a [hollow] victory, for Esau has now resolved to kill him and so he must run for his life!  His first night on the run, Jacob stops in a field and goes to sleep, his head resting on a stone. One can imagine his dejection—this somewhat spoiled son of a loving mother now using a rock for his pillow. He has a vivid dream, the first dream recorded in the Bible. Jacob sees a ladder set on the ground, its top reaching to the sky, and angels going up and down its rungs.” [Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, BIBLICAL LITERACY, William Morrow, p. 55-56.]

 

In that dream, our holy God blesses this rather unglued and fretful young man, with words that come to Jacob in that dream: “Remember Jacob, I am with you and will protect you wherever you go; I’ll bring you back to this land and not leave you until I’ve done what I’ve promised you.” [28: 15]. Jacob awakes, as you may awake from either a dream or a nightmare, wondering whether it really happened or not; had he really encountered God and had God really promised protection for him?  He is exhilarated from the holy encounter and, there with his head on a rock, his body on dirt, and the sound of wild animals howling around him, he proclaimed “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it! This place is awesome! This, this place looks like a field, but this is the house of God!” (and perhaps picking up his rock pillow and standing it on end in the manner of a pillar said) “and this is the gate of Heaven!!” 

 

I hope you have noticed Jacob shifting the real presence of God from his dream to reality!  He does not refer to the dream as awesome, it is the physical place where he had curled up that is now awesome, because God connected with him there; he erected what the Jews would later call a “standing stone,” an obelisk erected at sights around the Holy Land where God came down and touched the life of someone. The presence of God is often accompanied by fire, such as in God’s appearance on Mount Sinai, but sometimes people are so moved by their encounter that they consecrate ground where it happened, setting it apart from a common use to a place where holy things occur. As you enter the sanctuary of Westminster from the front, you go by pillars that remind you God has touched lives and God is still touching the lives of those who enter here. On common pews with wood backs, a hungry or troubled soul can be visited here by the voice of or an angel of God, and be renewed and guided before entering the world again. As one prepares for worship as Jacob did, silence is only intended to be broken by the sounds of the world around us. And as fire enters the sanctuary in the mode of a lighted taper, it is a reminder of the presence and promises of God. God is with us even now, still wanting to bless and guide us. It takes a relinquishing of our will to God’s will, and a willingness to trust in God to carry us through the dark or uncertain days.

 

We read a few verses later that Jacob held God to his promises, but in return, Jacob also kept his promises: he put God first in his life, and from that day forward, he returned a tithe, the first tenth of all he got,, to say to God: “You kept your promises; I will keep mine.” Jacob, who did not have all redeeming qualities, at least had some. Perhaps the most important reason God picked Jacob was his unfailing willingness to keep his promises to God as God had kept them toward him. If God could turn Jacob into an example a promise keeper, how much more could God do with our surrendered wills? God is in this holy temple right now! It does not mean that God will vanish as you leave this sanctuary. But Jacob honored a place where he especially felt God’s presence. This also is such a place. Lanny Wolfe characterized it beautifully in the chorus of his contemporary Christian song: “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, I can feel his mighty power, and his grace. I can hear the brush of angel’s wings, I see glory on each face; surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” You may have other places where you have been awed by God too: it may have been a cathedral or an out of the way chapel; but it may also have been a night on a youth retreat or at a summer camp; or while walking on the beach or even in your very own room.  Many who were here before me erected this standing stone of a church building here on what was once a piece of palmetto scrub land on South Peninsula Drive. If you have found God elsewhere, you need not build a huge sanctuary there (although you could!) but at least, leave a mark, a pillar, a candle, a book, a visual reminder to yourself and others that you felt the awesome presence of the Holy One; made manifest in darkness or rain, night or day, rainbow, or sunset. Long ago God in Jesus Christ came down and touched countless people with the power and reassuring presence of God. I have been in God’s presence here, and in our chapel, and on mission trips, and retreats, and hospitals, and in my room. You have too. Be mindful of the Holy places, and the Holy God, who is willing to, at times, even bend the rules of science to let you know that the Lord of Heaven and of Earth, still cares very much about you.

Jeffrey Sumner                                                                                            July 20, 2008

07-13-08 THE COST OF DESPERATE DECISIONS

THE COST OF DESPERATE DECISIONS

Genesis 25: 19-34

 

 The saying “Desperate times call for desperate measures” occasionally has made an action-taker into a hero, but more often than not it has led to a choice among regrettable choices. Sometimes people do very dark deeds—or ones that torment them later—in the pressure caused by making a desperate decision. Ages ago, a story called FAUST describes a man who tells people he psychically talked to the dead. In an effort to know more about people’s personal lives, he agrees to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for that paranormal knowledge; knowledge he could use for hurtful power or for blackmailing others. Later versions of the story made some changes in the Faust character; the newer editions were written by Goethe, and, in this century, Thomas Mann in his work called Doctor Faustus.” In my college English Literature classes I also remember reading Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, in which the New Hampshire farmer, Jabez Stone, receives a decade of wealth from selling his soul to the devil, who Benet called “Mr. Scratch.” These stories didn’t just come from the fervent imaginations of their authors; they are morality plays and stories, whose lessons and consequences are rooted in our human decisions between right and wrong. The spotlight especially shines on the actions people choose in times of great duress: facing time pressure, carnal lust, extreme hunger, or torture to name a few; some make decisions that they often regret later, sometimes for a lifetime. If they have a conscience, they most often feel isolated from God and others by their actions: for example: persons overcome by sexual desires and act on them may regret their actions in the morning, actions that make them feel cheap and causing others to feel hurt, angry, or betrayed. Some people, under tormenting peer pressure, may decide to try crack cocaine, letting its hellish tentacles squash good moral judgment and replace it with an addiction.  Still other persons, marooned in a small boat heading to America for freedom, may run short of provisions, and with the heat of the summer and the length of the voyage, get so thirsty that they drink seawater, an action that does not quench thirst but hastens death. Yes, sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, but the results often radically change or end one’s life.

 

In today’s story from Genesis, we have an ancient description of a desperate situation. It reminds us that boys (and girls for that matter) have different temperaments, aptitudes, natural abilities, and interests. One son loves football while one loves music; one daughter loves dolls while one wants to be an astronaut. One man loves hunting while another despises it; one woman loves working in the home while another loves the work place. We have such a situation with Jacob and Esau. Some have even suggested that the story is an allegorical portrayal of the tension between Jews and Arabs: Jacob is portrayed as the status-climbing and intelligent Jew, willing to do what is necessary to receive a reward and a sense of status; Esau, they suggest, caricatures the Edomites, who were the darker skinned inhabitants of the desert who some perceived to be less schooled, more rustic, and generally uncouth warriors. Setting that image aside for now, lets go to the story:  One of two sources for this story says that Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebekah as his wife; since children were seen as God’s blessing, it is a likely assumption that they tried to have children right away. According to one source, it was actually twenty years before Rebekah began her difficult pregnancy. The Bible says that God told Rebekah in a prayer that she not only was carrying twins, and that they were certainly not identical, God said that she was carrying two nations, which meant that they would be competitors, against each other in all things. In fact, God said they not only would become two nations, God had already seen the future and the younger one, almost like Joseph in Genesis 37, would be the greater than the older one.  When Rebekah (who knows God’s preference) later expresses a preference for Jacob (whom she and Isaac descriptively named “he who grabs the heel,” for that’s what “Jacob” means) over Esau (with the equally endearing, name: “The red one”), she ends up disagreeing with her husband, even usurping his authority, to honor the greater authority told to her by God. What an unusual turn of events!  So this isn’t just a story about a hungry hunter and a feisty farmer; this story describes the birth of two nations, told about one of the branches of Abraham’s family tree! 

 

In spite of being a chosen son of Abraham, Isaac doesn’t have the ambition or skills of his father. He seems to like Esau, either because he loves the barbeques that his son’s hunting made possible, or he admires his skills that he himself didn’t have. Isaac had not been privy to the divine explanation about his sons shared with Rebekah, so naturally he poured his nurture and encouragement mostly into son number one: the inheritor, the good son who, by the way, looks like a rough, raw woodsman in the slight interaction we get from him.  Hunters, like wolves, and bears, and lions, go for a kill and live off of it for days; but the ones who go without a kill can get desperately hungry. If a hunter captures and kills no animals on which to survive, while an animal might do something desperate like eat it’s young or eat unnatural foods, Esau also did a desperate things as he came upon the aroma of a pot of food: not used to asking his farm-loving brother for anything, he, in a delirious sentence said, (according to one translator of the original language) “Let me cram my yaw with this red-red!” No wonder God wanted the other son to lead his people! Jacob, who must have let it be known that he wanted the blessings of the first born, would do whatever was necessary to get them. He saw an opportunity, staring him right in his face! Perhaps he made his offer in a cunning manner or in an off-handed way: “Let’s trade what dad plans to leave you, and what dad plans to leave me!” Jacob knew the custom of the first born getting the blessing; he also knew that dad liked Esau best! Esau, perhaps without giving it much thought so he could eat, simply said “Okay.” Jacob knew that Esau was physically stronger than he, and their father was on Esau’s side, so his brother might renege on his offer.  Therefore, he made him promise with an oath- a binding agreement- which was as good as having him sign papers in the presence of a notary. The birthright with all of its privileges was transferred by Esau, who had it as the older son, to his younger brother who had no hope of getting it without being sly. Jacob’s mother would soon conspire with him to trick his father into passing God’s blessing and his own possessions on to him.

 

There are plenty of Esaus in this world: people who will do something that they can’t undo: in it they gain instant gratification, but they lose connection with and respect from others, and their soul feels heavy. Could Esau have gone to his father instead and asked some food? Could his father have told Jacob to share? We’ll never know; nations are divided over that fleeting decision. In the decisions in your own life, as you are able take a step back, seek wise counsel, consider well, pray, and then make your choices. Our life choices can change our lives forever: for better or for worse. Choose wisely.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                               July 13, 2008