Weekly Bible Devotional
“What Is Saving Your Life Right Now? Waking Up to God”
April 19, 2020
Scripture for Sunday: Genesis 28:10-19
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was 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. 13 And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, 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; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place-and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
Notes on the Text:
This is part of the story of Jacob whose name later became Israel. He was the father of the twelve sons who later became the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. He was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. Jacob had a twin brother, but right from their birth, the brothers were set up for competition. The first one to be born was Esau which made him the firstborn in the eyes of his parents. The firstborn place came with a lot of social and financial privileges for male children. Jacob came out of the womb gripping his brother’s heel. Therefore, the parents named him Jacob because the name Ya’aqov in Hebrew means “to follow” or “to come behind” while as a noun it means “heel.” So, Jacob lived most of his childhood in the shadow of his “older” twin. He lived trying to become someone important and to prove himself. As a result, when he got the chance Jacob cheated his twin brother out of his birthright and his blessing. The birthright included not only the traditional biblical birthright, which granted superior rank in the family (Genesis 49:3), a double portion of the paternal inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17), and the priestly office in the family (Numbers 8:17-19), but also the Abrahamic blessing, which promised that his descendants would be a source of blessing for all the nations of the earth. His brother Esau was so upset with him that he was going to kill him. Jacob had to run for his life. On the way to Haran, to his uncle’s house, when Jacob was at one of the lowest points of his life, he received an amazing vision of God’s love.
Jacob reached this place where he had to stop and sleep because it was getting dark. Jacob lied down at night to sleep. Yet, In the midst of alienation, danger, isolation and unfamiliar location, he encountered God. As a result, his flight and self-exile were reframed as places of new possibilities. He dreamed of a ladder and God’s presence. God graciously appeared to him and renewed the promises made previously to Abraham to provide land and descendants.
There is an important detail for us in this story about Jacob’s dream. Jacob saw in his dream a stairway to heaven where the messengers of God were going up and down. The old translation of the stairway is “ladder.” But biblical scholarship shows us that in that region of the world, a ziggurat would have been a more appropriate way to identify this stairway to heaven. Ziggurats in that part of the world were used as sanctuaries with an altar for sacrifice at the top level because people believed that the higher you got, the closer you got to heaven and to God. So, this makes it even more amazing to pay attention to how Jacob experienced God in the dream. God did not appear to Jacob where he would have expected: at the top, on the highest place on earth. The angels were both ascending and descending. Then God appeared to Jacob right beside him at the bottom of the sanctuary in the most ordinary of places. At the lowest point in his life, Jacob received the amazing and sustaining presence of God. Not only that, but he also received the blessing he had worked so hard to get without even earning it. This became a turning point for Jacob.
As we begin a new sermon series this week pondering this question, “What Is Saving Your Life Right Now?”, we look at what our lives depend on not just to survive but also to thrive and grow. Considering the current pandemic, this question carries a lot of weight because our safety and the safety of our neighbors is dependent on our letting go of our normal way of life. As a result, our lives may feel empty, much like our empty streets and churches. At the same time, there is a new depth to being alive today that we have not experienced before. We are more alert and aware of our surroundings, our neighbors (near and far), our actions, and our own feelings. This awareness is saving our lives. We are no longer taking things for granted. The basics of compassion, care, prayer, and mindfulness are more important than ever for each one of us and for humanity.
We are also expanding our vision of where we encounter God. I know that we all know that God is not limited to a building (a church or a house of worship), and yet, we tend to forget that. Even the shape of many church buildings conveys a theology and teachings that tell us that God is up in a high realm, separate from us. Church historian and writer Diana Butler Bass talks about the concept of God that church buildings with tall steeples or towers often convey an image of God that is vertical and otherworldly. She notes a very positive shift happening in our world which is seeing God horizontally. So instead of looking up, we are looking around and within us to see God as being in the world. I believe this current crisis where many of our church buildings are empty has been a strong reminder for us to wake up to the presence of God in all of life and not just when we are gathered in specific places. While I long for us to go back to worship together in the church building, I know that there is wisdom for us to learn from this time.
This week the invitation is to learn from Jacob’s story about God’s presence being everywhere. My favorite part of the story is when Jacob says, “Surely God is in this place –and I did not know it.”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”
I invite you to embrace how you are waking up to God in all of life during this unsettling time. We are certainly at a low point in our lives and in our world today. We are at a point where we have to use a stone for a pillow. Much like Jacob, our old certainties and grasping ways have imploded. Yet, just like Jacob we are waking up to the reality of God being with us.
A legend tells how, at the beginning of time, God resolved to hide Godself within creation. As God was wondering how best to do this, the angels gathered round God. “I want to hide myself in my creation,” God told them. “I need to find a place that is not too easily discovered, for it is in their search for me that my creatures will grow in spirit and in understanding.” “Why don’t you hide yourself deep in their earth?” the first angel suggested. God pondered for a while, then replied, “No. It will not be long before they learn how to mine the earth and discover all the treasures that it contains. They will discover me too quickly, and they will not have had enough time to their growing.” “Why don’t you hide yourself on their moon?” a second angel suggested. God thought about this idea for a while, and then replied, “No. It will take a little longer, but before too long they will learn how to fly through space. They will arrive on the moon and explore its secrets, and they will discover me too soon, before they have had enough time to do their growing.” The angels were at a loss to know what hiding places to suggest. There was a long silence. “I know,” piped up one angel, finally. “Why don’t you hide yourself within their own hearts? They will never think of looking there!” “That’s it! God said, delighted to have found the perfect hiding place. And so it is that God hides secretly deep within the heart of every one of God’s creatures, until that creature has grown enough in spirit and in understanding to risk the great journey into the secret core of its own being. And there, the creature discovers its creator, and is rejoined to God for all eternity.
Prayer by John Philip Newell:
I awake this morning
In the presence
of the holy angels of God.
May heaven open wide before me
Above me and around me
That I may see
the Christ of my love
And his sunlit company
In all the things of earth this day. Amen.