Sunday, 13 March 2011

Jacob invites us to come face to face with God

One clear Sunday night at Hy-Tec I remember joining the youngsters on top of Cleeve Hill. There above the town was the most magnificent comet that I have ever seen. It was remarkable to think that the last time this particular comet had been visible was 3 and a half thousand years ago in the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Looking up into the night sky in a spot far from any light pollution it is not difficult to sense you are gazing into the heavens. The ancients saw many things there – the seven sisters, the hunter, the bear are all mentioned in the pages of the Bible.

It’s not hard to sense that wonderful vision Jacob had of a ladder reaching up into heaven and down to earth and angels ascending and descending on the ladder. When he awoke there was nothing else for it but to place a standing stone there and to name the place Bethel – the house of God. It was as if in that moment in that vision God touched earth and the space between earth and heaven was filled.

It’s an image and a vision that figures large in John’s gospel on the lips of Jesus. The opening of John’s Gospel has echoes of the opening of Genesis. In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God … and the word became flesh … and we have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten son of the father.

In the second part of John 1 various people identify who this Jesus is and they use images drawn from the Scripitures of old – behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the messiah, and a long list of images culminates in words of Jesus himself as he echoes the vision of Jacob’s Ladder at Bethel.

Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

It is a wonderful image. How do you visualise that image? I see Jesus as the ladder. He is the colossus who is the connection between God and us – inn the picture language of this wonderful image he is one with God and yet he has his feet firmly on the ground – he is with God and yet also with us. And the angels ascend and descend on him.

Jesus at times speaks of God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – the God of the living one. He values the stories that tell of these great figures of the past – and draws on imagery that is prompted by those stories. We found ourselves beside Jacob’s well this morning in the company of the Woman of Samaria – she makes the connection and senses that there is something in Jesus that is greater even than Jacob – and Jesus does not disagree.

Genesis 12 to 36 tells the stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekkah and of Jacob and Rachel. They are well told in the book of Genesis. They seem to roll forward with three cycles of story.

They are the very stuff of ancient story telling – but the stories have a truth to them that speaks to every generation. These are real people who struggle with relationships, with family, they struggle with God.

What is fascinating is that none of them is without blemish – all the figures involved have things really wrong with them. I have heard people reject the stories as abhorrent so appalling are some of the character traits of these people. I react differently. I feel something of the wonder of the Gospel that God can work with and use people who are far from perfect who have all sorts of blemishes in their character.

When Isaac and Rebekkah have twins that are much sought after all is not well even in the birth – when it seemed to Rebekkah as if the two were struggling within her womb. Esau is the older and Jacob the younger. The way they emerge it is as if they had been fighting. And more fighting was to come. When the boys grew up Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekkah loved Jacob.

Favouritisms do not make for families at ease.

And it is not long before jealousies wreak havoc with the relationship these two have. Jacob gets Esau to promise him the birthright due to the elder brother, and then by subterfuge and the involvement of his mother Jacob cheats Esau out of the blessing that Jacob has for his older son. The story of the soft-skinned Jacob getting the virtually blind Isaac to feel the rough skin of an animal and conclude it is Esau is one of those great stories told still to children.

The upshot of it all is bitter enmity between Esau and Jacob and the need for Jacob to flee.

The seeds of ongoing conflict that can escalate into conflict between nations are all there.

And then it is that he has a remarkable vision.

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. 13And 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; 14and 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

This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

Something changes for Jacob – one senses he becomes a changed man. The blessing is through Jacob and for the good of all the families of the earth. There is a hint here that God love reaches out to encompass all.

Then there comes that wonderfully sinister, yet beautiful story of Jacob and Laban’s daughter Rachel. How he has to marry Leah first and then he marries Rachel and the struggles there are between Jacob and Laban and how agreement between them is reached.

I love the way the stories explore the dark side of family and of family relationships. There is a realism in these stories that disturbs, unsettles and yet is as the world is.

Then by chapter 32 Jacob fears that he and his extended family is going to be challenged by a hateful Esau with his family too. Jacob decides he must make overtures of friendliness towards Esau.

But before he can do that he has a struggle on his hands. And a the end of Genesis 32 we find Jacob wrestling with an unknown figure. It’s a wonderful story – by morning Jacob realises that he has been wrestling with God.

He calls the place Penuel which means ‘The face of God’ because I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.

That image of wrestling with God is something that rings true for me. It is tough sometimes believing in God. It is a struggle. It is a fight. It feels as you are wrestling with God. It’s not far from the experience Jesus has in the Garden of Gethsemane where he longs for the cup to be taken from him.

We shouldn’t be fearful of the struggle we have with God. Jacob emerges from the struggle strengthened.

And in chapter 33 he looks up and sees Esau coming and four hundred men with him. Jacob is immediately fearful, divides up his children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids who have also given birth to his children. The way he arranges the children shows his favouritisms – first the maids with their children, then Leah with her children, and then Rachel with Joseph safe in the rear.

Jacob walks out ahead of them all.

Then comes one of those most wonderful moments in all the Bible.

But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5

There then follows a lovely conversation as Jacob introduces his family and insists on giving gifts to Esau, at first Esau refuses to accept any gifts –they are not necessary. And then Jacob says something absolutely wonderful …

10Jacob said, ‘No, please; if I find favour with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God

And in the end Esau accepts Jacob’s gifts.

The brutality of the world then creeps into the story with the account of the rape of Leah’s daughter Dinah.

Out of the darkness comes a return to Bethel, and more prayers. As the story nears its climax God says to Jacob, Your name is Jacob, no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.

And then the twelve sons of Jacob are named … and of course they become the twelve tribes of Israel …

Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. 23The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. 25The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali. 26The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.

Jesus invites us to think of the stories of Jacob … but he then invites us to join him in going beyond them. We look to Jesus and twelve named disciples and realise that we belong to a new Israel – the blessing to Jacob was to reach out and benefit all the families of the earth. It is not without significance that it is at Jacob’s well that Jesus is recognised as Saviour of the world. A world dimension opens out.

At Jacob’s well Jesus confronts the divisions between the Samaritan world and the Jewish world and the enmity between them by bringing them together in a spirit of oneness and reconciliation.

In telling the story of the Prodigal Son and the Elder brother there are all sorts of echoes of the story of Jacob and Esau. As that story comes to its climax and we are not sure whether the elder brother will join in the celebrations at the return of the younger brother maybe we should bring to mind the wonderful moment of reconciliation there is between Jacob and Esau.

It is in the moment of reconciliation, of sharing, of loving another, that we as it were see the face of God.

Isn’t that the very thought Jesus takes up in that wonderful story he tells …

I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing.
I was sick and you took care of me.
I was in prison and you visited me.

When was it that we saw you
Hungry and gave you food, or
Thirsty and gave you something to drink?
A stranger and welcomed you, or
Naked and gave you clothing
Sick or
In prison and visited you.

Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

To love another person is to see the face of God.

If only,
For one moment,
We could see.

Not hazard a guess,
Not take a leap of faith …

But see
The face of God
In all its glory

If only …

Yet we can hear the voice of God
Echoing down through the centuries.

Love the Lord your God
With all your heart, with all your soul,
With all your mind, with all your strength.

Love your neighbour as you love yourself.

Love your enemies.

We can act on what we hear:
Give food to those who are hungry,
Something to drink to those who are thirsty
We can welcome the stranger,
Clothe the naked,
Visit those who are in prison.

Open our ears that we may hear,
Open our hearts that we may act on what we hear
Open our eyes that we may discover that
To love another person is to see the face of God.

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