Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon: The Crack Where the Light Gets In

Genesis 28:10-22
The Crack Where the Light Gets In
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 23, 2017

Jacob is alone and on the run. The con-job that stole Esau’s blessing has backfired. Now his brother seeks to kill him, and he must flee for his life. He runs toward Haran, the homeland of his mother. Presumably her family will take him in.
Jacob is in grave danger, but he is not the only thing at risk. God’s original promise to Abraham and Sarah is in jeopardy as well. When God first spoke to Abraham, saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” the country God told him to leave was Haram. But now Jacob has left the land of promise, returning to the place Abraham and Sarah had left.
This danger to the promise was spoken by Abraham a generation earlier. When Abraham was old and near death, he sent one of his servants to Haran to find Isaac a wife. But he made that servant swear a solemn oath that he would not let Isaac accompany him, would not let Isaac journey back to Haran. And so our story speaks a double sense of threat, of danger, the threat to Jacob’s life as well as the threat to God’s plans.
Jacob may be unaware of that second danger. Up to this point, the story has been silent on Jacob’s knowledge of the promise, or of God for that matter.
And so Jacob, alone and on the run, stops to rest for the night. He must have been terribly frightened. Perhaps Esau is in pursuit. And if Jacob knows about God and the promise, he likely fears that God is angry with him as well.
In the midst of the threat of his brother and possible divine punishment, sleep must have been difficult. But harried and worn out by his journey, he takes a stone for a pillow, and somehow falls asleep.

Surely this is the absolute low point of Jacob’s life. His scheming to steal Esau’s birthright has gone horribly awry. He is in mortal danger, and there is no one to help him, no one he can count on has he journeys far from his home to a land and people he does not know. His future looks dim. Even God may be against him.
In this moment of fear and desperation, God appears. Jacob has a dream, one depicted by countless artists. He sees a ladder, or more accurately, a ramp or a stairway ascending to heaven, an image likely drawn from ziggurats, temples in the ancient Near East with exterior staircases used by priests to ascend closer to the divine.
This staircase is traversed by angels, messengers from God, but neither they nor the staircase play any part in the story. They seem little more than markers, alerting us to the presence of God, a God who now stands beside Jacob. Indeed when Jacob speaks of the encounter afterward, he says nothing of a dream, rather that Yahweh is in this place.
Encountering God could not have seemed a good thing to Jacob. Aside from Esau, no other meeting would have frightened him more. Even if he knows nothing of the promise to Abraham, Jacob has to assume that God comes in anger, perhaps to punish him for his deception and thievery. Or perhaps Esau has sworn a curse against Jacob and God is there to exact vengeance. Either way, it is not good for Jacob.
Then God speaks. “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth…  and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land…
Not at all what Jacob expected. No anger; no talk of punishment; no threat to reboot the promise with Esau or some other family altogether. No, God sticks with this scoundrel who is headed in the wrong direction. God apparently sees no need to find someone purer, more faithful, or of better character. Jacob will do just fine in God’s risky plan to bring blessing into the world through messed up folks like Jacob, and like me and you.
I wonder if there are not a number of lessons for the life of faith in this story. One is that the lowest points in our lives may present the greatest openings for God. When Jacob or we think that we can make it by our own wits and cunning, God’s presence remains elusive. But in the midst of pain, failure, and brokenness, an opening for God appears. Perhaps that’s why Jesus speaks of the need for denying self, or the Apostle Paul says that the old self must die. Or as Leonard Cohen sang, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
The story also addresses the sort of person who’s cut out to be God’s agent in the world. In American Christianity, the idea that faith is about belief and knowledge is so prevalent that people commonly speak of not knowing enough to share their faith or teach or serve in a significant way. Yet Jacob, who knows little of God and whose life offers little evidence for faith or morals or good character, turns out to be is God’s choice.
Finally, the story says that when we do genuinely encounter God, nothing is the same again. Jacob is still Jacob, but he is a new man. He has a focus and purpose he has never known before. He is not yet sure how much he can trust this newness, and so the vow he makes is conditional. “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I may come again to my father’s house in peace…” If… Jacob does not yet know if God is to be trusted, but the story already knows, and so we know that Jacob’s life has just taken an entirely new trajectory.
If this story is true – not historically true but true in what it teaches about God and faith – then we Americans may struggle to embrace it. If it is true that the place God gets in is our brokenness, our suffering, our failure, our woundedness,  that poses real problems because many of us will do most anything to avoid suffering and failure and pain.
We’ve gotten quite good as such avoidance. We don’t fail. It was someone else’s fault. And we have an arsenal of weapons to help us avoid feeling pain or suffering. We drink or use other drugs. We come home and flip on the TV. We constantly check emails, Facebook, texts, and Twitter feeds. We consure a never ending stream of stimulation that numbs us.
I wonder if the busyness of our world isn’t simply one more avoidance technique. We complain about how busy and harried our lives are, yet we keep on going. What are we afraid might happen if we stop?
The centering song that we used to ready ourselves for worship contains a quote from God found in Psalm 46. “Be still, and know that I am God!” But if we are still for very long, we may just encounter our own pain and loneliness. Our hurts and fears may bubble to the surface. Grief we’ve suppressed may come pouring out. And that crack may open just enough for the light to get in.
All praise and glory to the God who patiently waits for us to arrive at that place where we can say, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”

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