The collect and readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11A, may be found here. The following sermon is based on the Old Testament reading, Genesis 28:10-19.
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 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. 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. 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; 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. 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.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!” 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.”
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. He called that place Bethel.
“He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set.” Jacob is a man on the run. He is either chasing or being chased. It started in his mother’s womb with his twin bother Esau. As Esau is coming out there is Jacob’s hand reaching for Esau’s heel. It’s as if he is trying to trip his older brother. Their birth foreshadows events to come.
One day Esau comes home from hunting. He is famished and wants the stew Jacob has fixed. Jacob offers a bowl for a birthright. Both men are hungry and the deal is done. Esau gets a bowl of soup and Jacob gets a birthright, his older brother’s right to a double share of the inheritance and the title of number one son. But Jacob is still hungry and wants more. He wants his father’s blessing, the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau as the firstborn son. He lies to and deceives his father, Isaac. “Yes, it’s me Esau, your firstborn” Jacob says to Isaac. Jacob steals Esau’s blessing. There are no leftovers for Esau. The blessing has already been given away. He gets nothing.
Jacob has certainly lived up to his name as one who supplants. Deceitfully he came and took a birthright and a blessing that did not belong to him. Esau consoles himself with a plan to kill Jacob. Jacob is in danger. So he leaves Beer-Sheba and goes toward Haran. He is a wanted man not just by Esau but ultimately by God. This journey is not just about Jacob’s physical survival. It is a spiritual journey. Jacob is running for his life.
Most of us, I suspect, know what it is like to live life on the run. Some of us are running from our past, trying to escape guilt, regret, failures, disappointments. Some are trying to get away from the pain, losses, and brokenness of life. Sometimes we just want to leave behind the parts of our lives or ourselves we dislike.
Other times we are running toward the future. For some life on the run is a search for something or someone new; a job, a relationship. Maybe it is the search for answers. Who am I? What is this life all about? What’s my purpose? Others, driven by a mid-life crisis, chase after meaning and youth. Surely what we are looking for is out there in the future somewhere if we can just get there.
Most of us know probably know what it is like to live life on the run due to schedules, chaos, and the busyness of life. Life is measured by accomplishments and to do lists. Demands and expectations chase us. We tell our selves, “As soon as I get caught up then I’ll….”
We could each tell a story of life on the run. It may be specific to us but it is really just another version of Jacob’s story. Life on the run keeps us living on the horizontal axis. Reality and life are limited to the physical universe; time, space, matter, energy. We miss the spiritual and transcendent aspects of life, the vertical axis, because we are so busy running. Jacob will soon learn he can run but he cannot hide.
Life on the run eventually takes us to that certain place somewhere between Beer-Sheba and Haran. This is not so much a geographical location as it is a spiritual orientation. Jacob has left Beer-Sheba, the people and place that are familiar. He is not yet in Haran, the new place. He is in a certain place, an in between place, a place of liminality, neither here nor there. This is the place where we are most vulnerable and open to seeing and hearing God in new ways.
That certain place is a nighttime place where the sun has set. It is a place of darkness illumined by the unknown. It is a place of emptiness filled with presence and mystery. It is a place where physical eyes can no longer see and God-dreams now lead the way. Enlightenment is not about what you know but who you know, trust, and follow. It happens not in the mind but in the deep heart.
This is a hard place, full of stones. Yet it is a place of grace. When the sun has set and darkness takes over you can longer go on. You can only stop and lie down. It is a point of surrender but not a place of giving up. We stop running from life, ourselves, and more importantly from God. The darkness teaches us that we are no longer in control of our own destiny. Now God can appear and speak. We see with new eyes and hear with new ears. The vertical axis of God’s life, Jacob’s ladder, intersects the horizontal axis of our life and running. That point of intersection is always an awesome place, the house of God, and the gate of heaven.
Jacob’s ladder reveals the connection between heaven and earth, divinity and humanity, the uncreated and the created. It appears at every moment in our life, even life on the run. The ladder Jacob saw was not in a physical location. It was within him. It was not a vision but a dream.
Through Jacob God reveals that the ladder of his love, his life, and his connection to us is found deep with in ourselves, a place so deep that it is seen in the gift of a dream. We call it Jacob’s ladder but it is not possessed by Jacob. It is God’s ladder placed in each one of us.
The miracle is not that God shows up and breaks into our lives. That is always happening. The miracle is that we recognize it within ourselves. The ladder is revealed in the lives of fugitives, in the dark places of life where the sun has set, in people who have lived up to their names, in the hard stoney places, in the in between places – in places we never would have expected. “Surely the Lord in this place – and I did not know it.”
What parts of your life are lived on the run? What are you searching for? What are you running from? Stop running. Trust that certain place between Beer-Sheba and Haran. Let the sun set and do not be afraid. God’s ladder is and always has been within you. No matter who you are, where you go, the circumstances you face, or where you run to the ladder of connection goes with you. It is a part of you. Wake up and see that the dream has come true. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I now know it.”
Oh, thank you, Michael, for that sermon! Your description of “on the run” places and of ways we may be “on the run” is so accurate. I also deeply appreciate the poignant image of “the ladder” being inside of us – deep within. Yes! Had certainly never thought of “Jacob’s ladder’ in that way – as God’s ladder within me! But yes, I know – I agree.
Jan, so glad the sermon was helpful. As one who has run I was only naming places I have visited!
Dear Rev. Marsh:
A beautiful and meaningful sermon.
I am preparing a sermon for the coming Sunday on this exact passage. The irony is that I did not know what to say, but I knew that this is the passage. And: I am in a very dark place. Extremely dark. Reading your sermon was like a revelation – the curtain has been pulled aside far enough for me to see our Lord and Saviour, and to realise that He was there all the time. As you said, He was never away, He is still there. Even at this moment of despair in my life. Through you our Lord has given me His message for His congregation (off course not your sermon, but now I hear Him again). Through you our Lord has given me new hope. Indeed, the Lord IS in this place, and now I know it!
Eugene, thank you for your comment and reading my blog. I am glad the sermon was helpful. Yes, the Lord is indeed in this place!
Christ’s peace be with you,
the sermon is very powerful and life touching.
Thank you, Ebenezer. God’s peace be with you,
Thank you and blessings for the wonderful message.
Thank you for reading my blog. May God bless you and your ministry.
May God richly bless you for this sermon,I’m really touched and it has unveiled lots of hidden messages connected to Jacobs ladder.
I’m so happy.
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Thank you Rev. Richmond. God’s peace be with you.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS SERMON. I COULD NOT TRACE JACOS RUN FROM THE TIME OF HIS BIRTH. THANK YOU SO MUCH. MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND YOUR MINISTRY.
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Peace and blessings be with you.