A line in one of my favorite songs is, “I’ve been searching for grace and grace ain’t so easily found.” Jacob could have written that line. The son of Isaac and the grandson Abraham should have been the son of destiny. He should have had the road paved and the wind at his back. But nothing was easy for Jacob. He was born a moment too late. That minute cost him the privileges that could have naturally been his. He was sixty seconds from being the king. Instead, he was destined to always be a contender.
Last week we talked about how Jacob decided to take destiny into his own hands. I have to admit he showed initiative. The misfortune of being born second was not going to stop Jacob from securing what was supposed to be his. No one, not an older brother, and certainly not an aging father were going to keep Jacob from being the head of the family. He schemed and succeeded. The birthright and the blessing were his. All Jacob lacked was a place to lie down and peacefully sleep. But a peaceful rest was the last thing Jacob was about to experience.
Am I the only one here who has trouble sleeping at night when something is eating at me? Maybe that is just a Southern white male thing? During the day we Southern men proudly stick out our chest and dare anyone to knock the chip off our shoulder. But at night, when we are captive to the intense scrutiny of our thoughts, our insecurities begin to rise. Pride, our last bastion of defense, crumbles away exposing our fears and anxieties. Jacob, for all his scheming in the sunlight, struggled to make it through the night. He had sold his soul for a birth right and it was about to catch up with him. Jacob was going down to the crossroads and he wasn’t going there to meet Robert Johnson.
Mary Gauthier (pronounced Go-Shay) has just released a new CD called Trouble and Love. It is so dark you had better turn the lights on if you are going to give it a listen. She might have been thinking about Jacob when she wrote,
When you sell your soul, it opens a deep dark hole;
When you sell your soul, drink will leave you thirsty,
And fire will leave you cold.
Jacob lay down to sleep and that is when his mind began to churn 1,000 miles an hour. Jacob is not the first person to suffer from insomnia. I suspect guilt is not the only thing that keeps us awake. Sometimes it is a problem that seems to have no solution. Sometimes it is a relationship that has gone sideways. Sometimes we worry about our children and grandchildren. Sometimes we are perplexed by the unknown. Our world is filled with such complexities and at night, when there are no chores to finish and no games to play, our anxieties flood our brain just when we are so desperate for sleep. But no sleep is forthcoming. The next morning we awake but are not refreshed. Jacob was about to have one of those nights.
Jacob had a dream of a ladder that extended into the heavens. Many of us have been singing about that ladder most of our life. Because of that song we may have lost the intention of the story. Jacob, conflicted, tired and lonely lay down on the hard ground. With his mind churning, he imagined a ramp opening out of the heavens. Contrary to the words of the song, Jacob was not about to do any climbing that night. God was the one on the ladder and God descended down the ladder to have a word with Jacob. Jacob had tricked his brother, Jacob had deceived his father. He had run away from home and showed hardly any remorse. Can you imagine what was going on in his head when God Almighty decided it was time to pay him a call?
In the age that Jacob lived, gods did not make social calls. Should a god appear, usually it meant something really bad was going to happen. A thunderstorm was understood as the anger of God. A whirlwind depicted the rage of God. Jacob looked up and figured this was going to be the last night he spent on earth. Then two extraordinary things happened. God spoke, not through the fire or the fiery wind but with words. Second, the words God spoke were not condemning but rather words of comfort.
In the days of Jacob, the relationship between the gods and humans was basically a one way street. Humans were created to be at the disposal of the gods. People believed wars were actually games played by the gods and humans were no more than pawns in these celestial competitions. In the cultures surrounding Israel, specifically Egypt, Babylon and Syria, their gods had no relations with humans unless humanity sought them out, usually to beg for mercy. Some of the great stories from those traditions depict the quest of one man climbing a mountain or traversing a great sea in search of either a blessing or forgiveness.
But in the Jewish tradition the relationship between God and humans was far different. True, the God of Sinai had high expectations but this God also cared and protected these wayward souls. Nowhere in the Old Testament tradition is this more obvious that the story of Jacob and the ladder. In case you were sleeping let remind you what has happened. God is descending to Jacob. God is going to have a personal conversation with Jacob. And unbelievably, God is about to tell this no good wretch of a man that God will watch after him and be with him no matter what.
This radical concept is one I fear we now take for granted. We hardly think twice about laying our burdens upon the Lord. Unfortunately, when nothing happens, often our next response is to question the very existence of God. The One who understands anguish better than any of us is pushed from our consciousness as we begin to travel a new road……...alone. And that is sad.
An old Jewish fable tells of a Rabbi who concluded human suffering was beyond endurance. He went to heaven and knocked at the Messiah’s gate. “ What is taking you so long? Human kind is expecting you.”
The messiah answered, “It is not me they are expecting. Some want good health and riches. Others desire serenity of riches. Many want peace at home and happiness. It is not me they are awaiting.”
The rabbi cried, “But you are bread for those who are hungry. You are a voice for an old man without an heir. You are sleep for those who fear the night. You are the truth that rarely is told. You are hope for those have nothing. If you can’t understand that, then stay here. You are not what humanity really needs.”
The Rabbi came back to earth, gathered his disciples around him and forbid them to despair. “Now”, he said, “the real waiting begins.”
We who live on this side of the resurrection of Christ have based much of our religious beliefs on the concept of the Messiah. He is the one who has redeemed, he is the one who has saved and he is the one who offers life everlasting. New Christians revel in those promises. We older Christians look at our situation or perhaps we look at the world, and too often we ask, “God, what have you done for me lately?”
Perhaps we need to return to the story of Jacob. Perhaps we need to hear the words spoken to the wayward son. Perhaps we need to be reminded the promise God gave was, “I will be with you.”
Remember when Jesus was on the boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. The waves were crashing against the boat and the disciples were afraid for their lives. With a word, Jesus calmed the waves and said, “I will be with you.”
Remember when Jesus was talking with the disciples recorded in the 14 chapter of John. He told them he was leaving. The disciples responded with utter anxiety. Jesus said, “Don’t worry, I will be with you.”
Remember Jesus hanging on the cross, moments from death. One of the criminals turned and made a dying confession to which Jesus responded, “I will be with you.”
Remember the words of Paul who in that monumental 8th chapter of Romans summed up the very essence of grace by stating, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God will be with us.”
Sometimes the search for grace is difficult because we expect to find an elixir that will eliminate all our problems, all our confusion and all our pain. That is not the way grace works. Instead we are promised that in the midst of our problems, in the midst of our confusion, even in the midst of our pain, God will be with us.
Many years after Jacob’s first midnight encounter with God, a young man was hiding out in the caves below the city of Jerusalem. The King declared him a traitor and there was a bounty placed on his head. David had been pulled into the intrigue of the court by an old man who had anointed him and by a giant that proved to be less than a capable adversary. But David’s popularity challenged the ego of the deranged King Saul and the young poet was banned from court. Alone and frightened, David prayed and then be began to write his own answer to that prayer. Using words that mirrored his former occupation David wrote a song that is been imbedded in the hearts of all believers.
God is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
God leads me to still water and restores my soul.
I will not fear even as I walk in the darkness,
for God is with me.
Even if I am among enemies God prepares a table.
Surely grace will be upon me as I dwell in God’s house
all the length of my days.
Jacob got up the next morning. There was no great reversal of his sins Truth is there will be seldom be a great reversal of the pain and anxiety with which we live. But Jacob took the first step toward a new life knowing he would never be alone.
And neither will we.