The lectionary readings bring us into the life of Jacob and his family for the next few weeks. Jacob’s saga is one that is marked by conflict. That’s the last thing we need as our nation and world seem to be marked by discord and strife these days. But this is the story of the one that God chooses as the patriarch of a great people. A couple of weeks from now we’ll read about God renaming Jacob “Israel”, meaning “one who contends with God.” Even in his interaction with God, Jacob wrestles! But his anointing as God’s chosen one leads to a naming of his many descendants: Israelites. That means that their very identity (and therefore, ours) is marked by wrestling with God!
Of course, a story about God choosing a human servant cannot simply be about conflict. There are flickers of light that come in the form of divine promise. God’s promise to Abraham is carried forward in this grandson who thrashed his way through life. The blessing of God is given to Jacob even though it should have been bestowed on his twin brother, Esau, who was older by a few moments. We enter the story at the point when Jacob has tricked his blind, elderly father into giving him Esau’s birthright. This infuriates his brother. His father isn’t so happy to learn he’s been had. To preserve the lives of her beloved family, the mother sends her scheming son away so that elder twin won’t kill the younger. Jacob’s sin forces him to flee for his life.
Before he hurriedly left, Jacob’s parents suggested he head to a town 1) for safety but also 2) to find a suitable bride. So the journey begins with the goal of fulfilling his parents’ wish for him. He is alone, scared and alienated when he finds himself in Hicksville with abandoned streets and no place to rest. This is certainly not the sort of place where he would expect a divine encounter. He finds an unyielding rock for his pillow and chooses a spot under the stars for a cold night’s sleep. Jacob’s most fervent prayer was probably for safety. All the elements of comfort and any sense of familial belonging have been stripped away. He doesn’t have the luxury of holding onto a religious agenda.
Jacob’s story has very little relaxation in it. Even his sleep is disturbed! This Mesopotamian journey, with the stated goal of finding safety and a wife, is bracketed by two encounters that change the nature of the trip. The man who searched for a stone pillow and a pile of leaves for a bed was dominated by feelings of guilt, fear and sadness. His choice to steal his twin brother’s birthright led to confusion because he was immediately pushed out of the nest by a protective mother. As he fell asleep he was focused on the past. But in the dream, in which he encountered the living God, he was converted. The dream is optimistic with words of promise. It is forward-facing. Jacob assumed he traveled alone and clung to the goal of simply surviving. In a nameless place with an nondescript stone he discovered that, perhaps, this place was not so ordinary. In spite of his selfishness and cunning nature, he learned that God was with him. Walter Brueggeman states, “The miracle is the way this sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive.” In Jacob’s journey we learn that God redeems the messes we make even when we find ourselves in the darkest, hardest places of our lives.
The story is full of imagery but it is the divine speech that serves as the centerpiece to this spiritual memoir. There is a three-fold promise extended to Jacob who is heavy with sleep: I am with you. I will keep you. I will bring you home again. At his lowest point, Jacob is assured of God’s presence, protection and provision. The strange vision in the dream is that of a ladder or ramp that has angels climbing up and down. Heaven has dipped down to earth for a sleeping sinner. Jacob is reminded that God never left him, even though he is on the lam. When he awakens from his disturbed slumber, Isaac’s younger son abandons fear and trades it in for assurance because he believes and repents. He gives the nameless place a moniker that reflects his extra-ordinary epiphany: Bethel, which means “House of God.”
The dream offers us a traffic report that still is true for us today. God is on the move, bridging the chasm between heaven and earth. God’s messengers travel between two seemingly disparate domains in a universe where celestial realities are what really matter. I think of the change in traffic patterns when our quarantine first began in March. Our home is near the highway and we can usually hear a hum of cars in the background when we’re outside. But those first weeks that we hunkered down in our homes, fearful of an invisible killer, we heard almost no noise from Hwy. 131. No one dared to leave home. Fear perhaps eclipsed our view of God as our world shut down and we wondered how and when we would emerge on the other side of this pandemic. So what good news it is that, in our times of greatest isolation, the traffic nonetheless flows freely between heaven and earth.
My niece and her fiance were planning a beautiful wedding for May 9 in Akron, Ohio. Getting married in her home church where her parents were married and her grandfather served as pastor was going to be a grand occasion. My sister, the mother-of-the-bride, is a fantastic planner and every detail was carefully laid in place for her only daughter’s wedding. As COVID swept in, they made the very painful decision to postpone the wedding and wisely bumped it out to June of 2021. Vendors were understanding, assuring their future service even as they suffered great financial loss. Words of sorrow were sent out by text and their lovely invitations were followed up with an equally lovely declaration of postponement. The traffic seemed to stop in one family’s life in Akron, Ohio.
But the bride and groom decided, after a time of stillness, that they still wanted to get married this Spring. I explored the legality of a zoom wedding and they found a new date. I dug out my ordination certificate and sent a copy of it to a courthouse in Oxford, Ohio, where the grand event was to happen. The couple planned to offer their vows alone in their apartment while family members joined in by zoom. Each household was invited to have their own beverage on hand to celebrate the union with a few toasts when the brief ceremony was over.
As we planned for the new ceremony, we discovered that several of their ideas for their wedding fit even better for their new circumstances. They were interested in the story of the first miracle: Jesus turns water into really great wine at a wedding. We incorporated that into our zoom ceremony with an assurance that crazy, unexpected things happen when Jesus shows up at weddings! They also had chosen a prayer by Thomas Merton that is often used at his Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. This is where Rachel and Drew were engaged and they particularly liked this one prayer. It offers these words: My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end…therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost…I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” What a perfect reminder that God knows our journey every step of the way even when we think we are lost. With a promise that the bride would send out a zoom invitation to the select few who would be joining in on the big day, we marked our calendars and waited.
My sister was unable to curb her creative instincts. Why would she zoom from home on her daughter’s wedding day when they could travel three hours south to at least lay eyes on the couple from a safe distance. So she invited the photographer to make the road trip with them to Oxford. She contacted the bridesmaids to see if they, too, wished to be present in something more than a virtual way. They did. So the plot thickened and about ten cars met in the empty parking lot of a T.J.Maxx about five minutes from the apartment-turned-wedding chapel. Each carload, as they joined the ceremony by zoom, had to somehow disguise the fact that they weren’t in their homes but in cars. I started off the worship service with an affirmation to the tiny square images of gathered guests, that this was a holy moment where God was present even if it was happening in a very different venue than hoped for. The love of this couple and their desire to commit their lives to each other in the presence of the God who brought them together was the centerpiece of a moment that would not have cake-cutting or cummerbunds, bridal gowns or a bouquet toss. The parents were asked for their blessing, which they triumphantly gave. Rachel and Drew were joined together as wife and husband in the quiet of their apartment which was transformed into a “House of God.”
When the ceremony was over and few toasts were offered, my sister asked the couple to be sure to stay put as there would be a delivery in about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, one of the bridesmaids parked down a ways from their apartment and quickly decorated their car with items she had brought with her. When the couples’ car was appropriately festooned with cans and ribbons, she gave the signal and the other cars rode into this quiet neighborhood on a COVID morning for a noisy parade. Family members surfaced through sunroofs with colorful signs and custom-designed wedding face masks. The couple emerged from their home stunned and smiling. The photographer captured it all as families posed at a safe distance from each other, beaming with joy.
The traffic report for that day? The ladder between heaven and earth is busy with angels who transform our times of isolation and darkness into holy celebrations of joy. Events happen between places where nothing is expected! This Ohio couple entered into the Old Testament tradition that holds a deep respect for sacred space that is often a complete surprise because it appear ordinary.
After the dream, Jacob continues on a journey of theological importance. He knows now that God travels with him. God reminds him that, though he possesses very little with him as a fugitive, he carries nothing less than the promises to which his nomadic ancestors had clung. Through this schemer, God will fulfill the promise made to old Abraham that he would be blessed and his descendants, who would be as numerous as the stars that twinkled above sleeping Jacob, would be blessed through him. In this moment, as angels traveled powerfully between heaven and earth, Jacob’s story opens up far beyond himself and any bride he might hope to find at the end point to his destination. A divine visitation transformed an unnamed place with an unyielding pillow into a sanctuary. From that extraordinary moment in the life of a trickster, all families of the earth would be blessed.
That certainly happened in a small apartment in Oxford, Ohio. We can be sure of the same traffic report for our own lives: in the darkest, hardest, most disappointing places of our lives, God is with us promising presence, protection and a homecoming more glorious than we can imagine!