Surely God is in this place – Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 134:1-12,23-24
By any measure, here in our Genesis passage, Jacob is not in a good place.
He has taken his brother’s birthright, those firstborn’s rights that Jeanette spoke about last week, and, in Genesis 27, his brother’s blessing (the Hebrew writer plays on the similarity of these two words – ‘bekorah’ and ‘berakah’) and his brother now wants to kill him. He is separated from his beloved mother. She farewells him, hoping it will be for a short time, but it is uncertain they ever meet again. He has to flee the family’s encampment in Beersheba, his only source of security in this culture, and sets out on a journey which, the text intimates, takes him in the opposite direction to the journey of faith his grandparents took from Haran to the promised land. He goes back to Haran! Something that was such an anathema to Abraham that he forbade Isaac taking that journey to find a wife and sent a servant instead. Everything, in fact, about Jacob’s life at this point spells failure. He has, well and truly, hit rock bottom!
How fitting then that on this fraught journey towards Haran, he stumbles (literally ‘strikes’) upon no particular place and because it is dark, goes no further, but lies down and uses a stone for a pillow.
Things are really not looking good for our – we can’t really call him a hero – for our very human Jacob.
(Thank you so much to the kids for sending those pictures showing just how awful sleeping on a stone pillow would be. But you can trust a monk to have given it a go! The biographer of St Columba, Adonman, writes in the 8th century, “the saint went to the church to the nocturnal vigils of the Lord’s Day; and so soon as this was over, he returned to his chamber, and spent the remainder of the night on his bed, where he had a bare flag for his couch, and for his pillow a stone, which stands to this day as a kind of monument beside his grave.” (VG.3.23). And Columba wasn’t the only one. Other monks too had rocks under their heads, sometimes carving them with crosses, so they weren’t mistaken for regular rocks. Image – Here’s one that was excavated from a blackhouse on Eilean an Tighe in the Shiant Islands, off the west coast of Scotland.)
But here in Genesis, caught between a rock and a hard place, a hard place of broken relationships and vulnerability and failure, Jacob has an extraordinary dream. He dreams of, “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God [were] ascending and descending on it.”
Now we tend to imagine this ladder as a ladder, but what the ancients pictured was more like Led Zepplin’s ‘stairway to heaven’, like the stepped ziggurats found in Mesopotamian cities such as Babylon, a city whose name means ‘gate of the gods’. Image – I have shown you this image before. It’s not an ancient ziggurat, but a contemporary building currently used by the Californian Public Service. Good to see the public service so elevated! And the angels, ascending and descending, are God’s envoys, God’s messengers, bringing God’s messages to earth and returning to God again.
In his dream Jacob realises that this ‘no particular place’ where he is lying is “the house of God and this is the gate of heaven”, that even though he is not in a good place, in his life, he is in God’s place, and although he is not a priest or a king, but a man on the run, God appears, bypassing the angelic communication network he’s seen in action, and speaks directly to him.
If you know the song, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ you will also know, “sometimes words have two meanings”, and here in Genesis 28, verse 13, the Hebrew word ‘alav’ can be translated ‘above it’ – God spoke from above the stairway to heaven – or, as we heard it read this morning, ‘beside’ – God stood beside him. The second reading reinforces the sense that this vision was not only awe-inspiring, but also personal and intimate, that this God spoke as a God who knew and cared about Jacob’s individual circumstances.
And God reaffirms to Jacob the promises that were made to Abraham and Isaac. It is no longer a covenant that Jacob inherits, but a covenant that is his and God’s own, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham…and the God of Isaac, [and I will give to you and your offspring] the land. And God also reaffirms that through this blessing, others will be blessed. Unlike the one blessing Isaac, his father, had to give, a blessing he has stolen from his brother – this blessing could be – would be – shared with all the families of the earth. A promise of blessing through Jacob’s descendants which we see fulfilled in Jesus.
But God goes on to make new promises to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…” An important promise for a man on the run! And even more pertinently, “I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
These are promises of hope and a future for Jacob, but they are also promises of hope and a future for the community among whom these stories in Genesis, in the Pentateuch, probably took their final form, the exiled community of Israel in Babylon. For them, this account of a broken home, extreme vulnerability and a sense of failure, of having reversed the journey of faith that their ancestors had taken, resonated deeply. But equally deeply resonated the awareness that even here, even now, even among them God was speaking directly and intimately to them. That God was their God. That God would bless them and make them a blessing. That God would be with them. That God would bring restoration. They, therefore, share in Jacob’s exclamation, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and we did not know it.”
Or the psalmist’s mock complaint:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
By any measure of our situation, we are not in a good place either.
I have been reading this week a reflection by Helen Wright, a pastor at Newtown Mission, about the start of the corona virus emergency when, she writes, there was a “weird sense of grief when overnight we had to shut everything down.” In the weeks that followed, she says, as they sought to connect people in new and different ways, she began to reflect on her feelings of displacement from the church buildings, to recognise in that an echo of the story of Aboriginal displacement, and to reflect deeply on her sense of possessiveness around those worship spaces and the way things had been done.
She writes, “Over the past month[s] my to do list has been full of COVID safe information, agendas, policies, proposals, procedures, strategies and a deep anxiety about getting it right. Throughout the months of restrictions, I’m thankful for a number of supported spaces where I was encouraged as a leader to think about some of the bigger questions of these times. What are we learning about ourselves? What are we learning about what matters in this world? What will we take with us and what will we leave behind?”
As the momentum for returning to face to face gatherings began to build, she did not want to simply return without, she says, “allowing God to bring redemption out of the darkness…. [without] allowing our relationship to place to be reconsidered.” So a small group gathered (“with plenty of distance, hand sanitising and contact recording to be clear!” she says), with Aboriginal Christian Leader Brooke Prentis and took time to acknowledge country, to acknowledge history and to pray as step one in re-entering the church buildings and recommencing their activities. They ended that night by projecting on the façade of the building an Acknowledgement of Country and the words ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’. “We let the community know and reminded ourselves,” she says, “that the space was slowly coming to life again and this was the story that mattered.”
As I read her reflection, it seemed to me that this was another example of a group of people finding, as Jacob found, as the people of Israel found, that even in a not very good place, God is present, that God is our God, that God blesses us and blesses us to be a blessing, that God walks with us and restores us. That those at Newtown Mission were able to exclaim, “Surely, God is in this place!”
And God is with us collectively and individually too. And so I want to finish with an exercise this morning, by inviting those of you who are ‘ in house’ here today, if you would like, to simply and briefly say where’ll you be this week and what you’ll be doing and after each person speaks, we will all respond with the words. “Surely God is in this place.”
I’ll begin by way of example, “This week I will be in the office. I will be spending time with members of the church. I’ll be preparing for our discussion on Wednesday on Covid recovery… Surely God is in this place.” (Give a space for others to share too.)
For those of you worshipping with us from your homes – you are on mute – so you don’t need to be nervous, take a moment now too to say what you will be doing…
Let’s respond, “Surely God is in this place”….”How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”