“The Lord is in this Place”
Belmont UMC—July 20, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
The Lectionary readings for several weeks have us visiting with a man named Jacob. These passages contain rich stories about this rather flawed Biblical character,
Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekkah and fraternal twin of Esau (first born). Jacob is favored by his mother but because of being second in birth, he is not in line for his father’s blessing. His name means “heel grabber” because he is born clutching his brother’s foot. And throughout his life, this man who would become the patriarch of a nation, uses dishonest scheming and deceit to grab everything he can, including his brother’s birthright . He cheats his own father and cheats his equally deceitful father-in-law through some unexplained and clever animal husbandry.
As one writer said, “Jacob was never satisfied. He wanted the moon, and if he’d ever managed to bilk Heaven out of that, he would have been back the next morning for the stars to go with it.” (Peculiar Treasures, Frederick Buechner, p. 57)
The Bible gives us many characters in their true colors. We see their imperfections and flaws: Noah and his indiscretions, Abraham in his lack of faith, Sarah in her jealousy of Hagar, Isaac in his naïveté, Moses in his self-doubting, David in his infidelity, Elijah at the point of giving up, Simon Peter in his impulsiveness and Judas in his betrayal. Today these leaders would have a front team, handlers, speech writers and spinners to help them present a better self.
Barbara Brown Taylor described her relationship with the Bible as a marriage, not a romance, “one I’m willing to work on in all the usual ways.” She writes, “What the Bible isn’t is a collection of stories about admirable men and women who loved and served their Lord. It is an encyclopedia of human life on earth, with a few saints and far more scoundrels who lied and cheated their way into the annals of sacred history. Hearing their stories, I listen for family resemblances. . . But throughout all their stories, which are also my stories, I hear God’s story, and that is something else altogether.” (The Preaching Life, “Bible,” pp. 51-62)
Do we see ourselves in these stories? Do we see ourselves in their everyday struggles with life and faith that may mirror our own experiences?
There are two parallel and comparable stories of Jacob’s encounters with God. The first story is the one we read today. Jacob’s mother has encouraged him to go to her family’s home in Haran to find a wife. She is worried that Esau will kill him and she’s sending him away. He’s running away, running from the consequence of his actions, running from the past, running for his life, and hopefully, running toward a fresh start and a brighter future.
So Jacob runs to a place of rest and he takes a stone to use as a pillow and he dreams. He dreams of a ladder extending into heaven and the angels of God are ascending and descending. And the Lord stood beside him and made a covenant with him. He takes the stone used as a pillow and makes a marker out of it and he names the place Bethel, which means ‘house of God.”
Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” He ran away but he ran into the very presence of God.
The story causes us to ask ourselves if we can run away from God. And we can certainly try. We run from our mistakes, our painful memories, we run from our disappointments, our failures and our struggles.
But the Biblical image of God is a pursuing God. God pursues us to reveal God’s love to us and to be in relationship with us. We run away and often find ourselves running into the very presence of this pursuing God of grace.
I recently reread sections of Ann Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, in which she describes her spiritual journey. As an adult she found herself living near San Francisco, writing some to pay her bills, but mostly drinking to escape, to run from her past, her fears and insecurities.
On Sunday mornings, still dizzy and hung over, she would find herself wandering around a flea market near her home. One day she was drawn toward a little Presbyterian Church near the market. The sweet sounds of music appealed to her in her weariness. The sounds of hymns sung by older women floated through open windows and the sounds of music drew her in.
One day she entered the church and stood in the back and listened to the singing. She repeated this on many Sundays, always careful to leave before the sermon. She would sing along with the hymns, writing, “I could sing better there than any where else.” The people did not push her. They loved her and gave her room to find her way. Through their love Lamott found healing and transformation. Ann Lamott continues to be a part of this congregation to this day.
I often wonder who may enter this place, like Ann Lamott, on a Sunday morning, needing to hear the music of God’s grace, needing to find their way, and needing our love and gentle encouragement to find healing. In this place, that may be a running away place, may we come to discover God’s presence and say, “Surely the Lord was in this place and we did not know it.”
The second story comes on the eve of Jacob meeting with his brother, Esau. He’s afraid and he goes to place by himself to be alone. There is a man there, a mysterious representative of God and the two of them wrestle all night long. At the end of the night the man blesses Jacob with a limp and a new name, Israel, which means “one who strives with God.” Jacob names this place Peniel or “the face of God.”
Jacob wrestles with the man, but he also wrestles with the truth about himself. He is wrestling with his faith in God. We must do the same spiritual work as we become honest about who we are. This can be painful and difficult work.
Years ago I saw a cartoon of 2 little boys who were looking through an anatomy book and seeing drawings of internal organs. One little boy says, “It’s not very pretty but it’s who we are on the inside.” We try to put up a good front. We avoid being vulnerable. We are afraid of what people will think of us. But to encounter God, we must be honest and confessional.
We wrestle with our faith, where there are no pat answers to the difficult questions of life. We work through our faith with fear and trembling, but God is there to help us. This is a good place to wrestle with our faith and find people who will love us and walk alongside of us and give us room to question and learn and grow.
These Jacob stories are about places, but they are not merely geographical places or places where Jacob has run to hide, but they are places where Jacob is surprised by the presence of God. They are sacred places where God turns the ordinary into something holy.
They are the places where Jacob is able to move forward in this covenant with God. Each encounter changes him and moves him forward in his faith and prepares him to be the leader of a nation. The stories invite us to remember and revisit those places, those moments, those turning points, which moved us closer to God.
There is a lot of grace in these Jacob stories. If we had met Jacob at his running away places, we would have given him a good tongue lashing, but God meets him there and gives him a blessing and a promise and a beautiful vision of ascending and descending angels.
Grace always surprises us! Maybe we came here this morning expecting judgment and condemnation. Maybe we felt we deserved that. But we were surprised to find God in this place and our God meets us here with love, grace and forgiveness. It is in God’s extravagant grace that we find healing and transformation.
Maybe we came here as ones who are running away and were surprised to run right into the very arms of God.
Maybe we came here wrestling with some truth about ourselves or we are wrestling with issues of faith (or doubt). We found a safe and grace filled place to be honest and vulnerable. We found blessing and hope for new way forward. We found God and said with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place!”