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Relentless: Jacob’s Story, Part 3

July 21, 2017

Genesis 28:10-22

July 16, 2017

I saw a video this week about the six different generations in our society today.  It described the demographics and the unique characteristics of each.  As well as the specific events that have influenced each generation.  Whether you are a builder, a silent, a boomer, a buster, a millennial or a Gen Z, there were significant historical events that occurred while you were growing up that shaped your understanding of the world in which we live.

(www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfYjGxI6AJ8&feature=em-share_video_user).

For example, do you remember where you were at 11:39 in the morning on January 28th, 1986?  I do.  I was in a political science class.  About half way through the lecture a commotion started in the hallways.  Someone had brought out a television set – this was before everyone had laptops – and people had gathered around.  The Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded 73 seconds into its flight – killing all 7 crew members.  Yes, I am a Gen X-er.  Which surprises some folks!  Don’t let my white hair fool you.  I dye it to look wise.

Or how about 8:45 am on September 11, 2001?  For most of us that is a no brainer.  I was driving to a clergy retreat in Leesburg when Robyn called and told us to turn on the news.  9/11 brought terrorism home to us on level that we had ever experienced before.  And yet, there is an entire generation that has come along since then.  Two of my children were nothing but a gleam in their momma’s eye.  Life in America changed on 9/11.  But Generation Z’s have never known otherwise.

One more.  For the more experienced in our congregation.  How about 12:30 pm on November 22, 1963?  The assassination of JFK.  Our 35th president was riding in a motorcade in Dallas when three shots rang out from the Texas School Book Depository.  Do you remember where were you on that morning?  If you are a Baby Boomer, chances are you do.  Regardless of what generation we belong to – there have been specific moments that have shaped your perspective of the world.

I share that with you because this morning we are going to think about those defining moments that have formed our faith.  Those events in our personal history that have changed the way we understand God, God’s love for us and God’s call upon our lives.  So take your Bibles and turn with me to Genesis, chapter 28.  We will begin reading at verse 10.  We have been reading about Jacob.  Pastor Craig started two weeks ago with Jacob’s birth.  And the birth of his fraternal twin Esau.  He shared how God gives grace to the unlikely.  Last week we read about Jacob’s deception of Isaac.  How he tricked his father into thinking he was Esau so that he could get his father’s blessing.  And how God’s grace is greater than our imperfections.  Today we are going to read of Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel.  Let’s see what happens as we read Genesis 28:10 – 21.

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it[c] stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.[d] 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel,[e] though the city used to be called Luz.  20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord[f] will be my God 22 and[g] this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”

So as I was preparing this week, I discovered something very interesting.  In our translation verse 12 reads – He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  But in the original Hebrew, verse 12 goes something like this.  He had a dream and BEHOLD a ladder was set on earth with its top reaching to heaven.  And BEHOLD the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  The same thing happens in verse 13 which begins – and BEHOLD the Lord stood above it.  And again in verse 15 which says – BEHOLD I am with you.   The Hebrew word for BEHOLD is hinneh.  It means look at this!  Don’t miss this!  Be sure to see this!  So that four different times in four verses the original text says pay attention!

Which tells me that Jacob’s encounter with God wasn’t expected.  It was a surprise!  Remember what Jacob says when he wakes up?  Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it (verse 16)!  And so this morning, I want to share with you three things you need to know when it comes to experiencing God’s grace.  So that we will not miss it!  And the first is that God’s grace is found in the ordinary places of life.  11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

Jacob is on the run.  His brother Esau has vowed to kill him.  His father Isaiah has sent him away.  He’s burned his bridges.  As the sun sets he finds a place to lie down.  It’s not anything special.  Just a place to rest and get his bearings.  And yet it’s in that ordinary place that God appears to Jacob.  If I were God, I would pick a location with a little more pizzazz to set my stairway.  Something the majestic features of the Grand Canyon.  Or the vibrant colors and warm breezes like the Florida Keys at sunset.  Instead, God chooses a field on the outskirts of nowhere to pour out His grace.

If the story of Jacob tells us anything, it tells us that we don’t have to trek to a holy site to find God.  We don’t have to make a pilgrimage to the side of a mountain.  We don’t have to sequester ourselves in a monastery.  We can encounter God’s grace in our car.  In the office.  At the ball field and in the living room.  God turns the everyday into the meeting place between heaven and earth!  He makes the ordinary sacred.

My first awareness of God’s grace occurred in a cement block classroom with the little wooden chairs and a flannel board.  My Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Thompson, was talking about having a relationship with Jesus.  I don’t remember everything she said.  I don’t remember anything she said really.  I just remember wanting to know Jesus. The way Mrs. Thompson talked about it sounded wonderful.  And so early the next morning, I went into my parent’s room and asked them how I could know Jesus.

I ask you this morning – are you looking for God’s grace?  Are you eager for His presence?  Don’t look on the mountain.  Look in the ordinary everyday.

Second, God’s grace doesn’t come from something we do.  12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

I was reading recently about the tower of Babel.  That strange story in Genesis chapter 11 about human beings coming together to build a city with a tower that reached the heavens?  So that they could make a name for themselves and not be scattered across the earth.  And how God confuses their language so that they do not understand each other.  And therefore are unable to attain security and significance through their own efforts.

Did you know that Babel is the Hebrew word for Babylon?  It comes from the Akkadian word meaning the gate of God.  Babylon was known for its ziggurat temples that stair-stepped to the sky (pic 4).  See the connection?  Scholars argue that Bethel was God’s answer to Babel.  Bethel means house of God.  It was the meeting place between heaven and earth.  Where angels ascended and descended a giant staircase shaped much like the tower in Genesis 11.

When I was a child we used to sing a song about climbing Jacob’s ladder.  It is an old spiritual sung by slaves about overcoming oppression.  In our passage today, the translators have changed the word to staircase.  Which is theologically correct.  Because a ladder implies climbing.  And we don’t climb our way to heaven.  Our significance and our security is found in Jesus Christ who came down to earth.  In so many words, Jesus is the ultimate staircase to heaven. Titus 3:5 says – He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

I ask you this morning – when did you first realized that your security and significance came from God?  Where were you when you first understood that God’s presence isn’t dependent upon the things we do?  Where is your Bethel?

Finally, God’s grace comes along the way.  20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord[f] will be my God

While we were in Kenya this past month, we visited the David Sheldrick Elephant orphanage in Nairobi.  It’s this sanctuary for baby elephants who are found alone in the bush.  Either their parents were killed by ivory poachers or they have fallen into a dried river bed and broken a leg and have been left to die.  The Sheldricks worked for years to perfect the right formula to feed the elephants.  Through trial and error, they developed a very specific technique to overcome the elephant’s trauma of being orphaned.  It’s extensive.  The baby elephants are adopted by a human family of keepers who are with them 24 hours a day – even sleeping with them.  Slowly they teach the young elephants to feed themselves – first weaning them from the bottle and then slowly introducing vegetation.  They encourage play time by providing a large number of toys. And take the elephants on long walks so that they learn to explore and grow comfortable being in the bush.  Eventually, the elephants are released back into the bush where in time they are adopted by a new herd.  But it takes years of constant nurture and encouragement for them to reach that maturity.

The same is true for us spiritually.  Our growth into God’s will for our lives does not happen all at once.  Rather it occurs over years as God’s Spirit works within us.  Just as we grow from infant to toddler to child to youth to young adult to adult physically so we grow from infant to toddler to child to teen to young adult to adult spiritually.  Paul in 1 Corinthians says – I could not give you solid food.  Because you are still spiritual babies.

Even after his encounter with God’s grace Jacob had a lot of growing up to do.  He prayed – If you will be with ME.  And you watch over ME.  And provide ME with food and clothing.  And make sure I get home to MY house, then will you can be my God.  Clearly Jacob was not yet done.  It would take over 20 years before he reaches peace with God and lives into God’s gracious will.

The good news is that God’s grace keeps coming.  Like waves on a beach, it continues to roll into our world.  Philippians 1:6 says – being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  God’s grace doesn’t come at the finish line.  It comes along the way.

So my challenge this morning is to identify your Bethel.  That everyday ordinary place.  That place along the way.  Not of your own doing where you met God.  Your Bethel might be a specific location.  It might be a transformative event that changed your perspective.  Something like 9/11 or the explosion of the challenger did for entire generations.  It might even be a phase or period in your life that you went through.  I ask you this morning do you know where you were when you first became aware of God’s grace?  I challenge you this morning to pay attention to it.

To help with this we have placed a post-it note in your bulletin.  And we have made sure there are pencils in the pews.  We ask you to write down a word or phrase identifying your house of God.  And then we ask that you take that post-it note and put it up on one of the walls.  We ask you to do this as an encouragement for others.  Since God’s grace is unexpected we have a tendency to overlook it.  We can help our brothers and sisters by lifting up the many places we have encountered God.  To make this an even more powerful tool of awareness we are going to be collecting the notes over the next couple of weeks and creating a visual statement in our courtyard out of them.  So please, after the offering plate has gone by and through the closing hymn, write down the location of your Bethel and put it on the wall.

If you struggle to identify your Bethel, know that you are not alone.  Personally, I have never seen a ladder reaching to heaven.  I’ve never been visited by an angel – that I am aware of.  I have never heard the audible voice of God.  I don’t know a lot of folks who have.  So, how do you know if you have ever encountered God up close and personal?

I would argue that the fact that you are here is evidence that God has entered into your world.  Ephesians 2:4 – Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead through our trespasses…  The Bible says that God reaches out to us first.  Any step we take toward God is a response to His grace.  We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).  As United Methodists we use the term PREVENIENT Grace to describe this action of God taking the initiative.  Pre – meaning before.  And Venieo – meaning that which goes.  Prevenient grace is the loving favor of God that goes before.  If you are here this morning, it’s because God has first reached into your world and showered you with His grace.  You just might not be aware of it yet.  What did Jacob say?  Surely, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!

The truth is God has rested a stairway on earth, with its top reaching heaven.  Jesus Christ is the ultimate stairway, we find our significance and security in him.  Through His Spirit we receive grace upon grace.  So I am going to look and pay attention….   How about you? How about you?

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