a sermon on Genesis 28:10-19a
Forty-five years ago today, a tremendous journey for humankind reached its pinnacle with the arrival of Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s journey to the surface of the moon was an incredible mark of human achievement, not so much because of their bravery or personal action or even because Aldrin was a Presbyterian ruling elder who took along communion to share on the surface of another planetary body but because it was the culmination of more than a decade of intense work by thousands of people who did everything from design the spacecraft to sew the uniforms and everything in between. Neil Armstrong, the first of those two astronauts to step out of the lunar module and onto the moon’s surface, made this so abundantly clear in his famous words as he took that first step: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Now in our story from Genesis this morning, I think Jacob manages to flip that line around completely, for every one of his small steps on the journey recounted here seems to be a giant leap focused on himself. Jacob is quite an incredible figure in the stories of Genesis, and his outsized personality towers over one part or another of half of the book. Here, though, we see him relatively early in his life, but still after his trickster tendencies were fully revealed when he bought the family birthright from his slightly older twin brother Esau with a bowl of food and then deceived his father into offering him the blessing intended for Esau. Here Jacob had just set out on a journey to his mother’s homeland, where he was to marry one of his cousins. Esau was furiously angry with him for stealing the birthright and his father’s blessing. And Jacob had no idea what would really be coming next for him in his life.
So amidst all these things, after a long day’s journey, Jacob settled down to sleep. It’s hard to tell whether the sleepless night that ensued was brought on by all that change that was swirling around him or the rock-hard pillow that he found for himself, but either way he had a vivid dream that night. He saw a ladder on the earth, probably a lot like the temple that marked the town where he had stopped to sleep, reaching up into heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. But then suddenly the Lord came and stood beside him and offered him a strange blessing for his journey and promise for his life:
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.
This promise and blessing was largely a repeat of what the Lord had promised Jacob’s grandfather Abraham in a large family and a generous gift of land, but it went further to speak to Jacob’s situation, too. He was not yet married, but God promised him a large family. He was leaving the land of his birth, but God promised to bring him back. He was journeying out on his own, but God promised to go with him.
When you think about it, this was an astonishing promise. By our human standards, God had no reason whatsoever to deal with Jacob. He was on this journey for himself and no one else. He had little or no concept of how the lives of others would connect to his own, no sense that any of his steps mattered for anyone else but himself. He was even willing to deceive his own father so that he could receive a special blessing after he had already won his brother’s birthright with a bowl of food for an empty stomach. By even the most generous ethical standards, we would call Jacob a liar, a cheat, and a fraud. Yet God made it clear that there was more to Jacob’s story. He would not be defined by his homeland or his brother or his lineage. He would carry his own story of life and living. And he didn’t have to deceive anyone to receive God’s blessing that would surround him all his days.
God’s blessing of Jacob here is important for the development of the story of God’s people in Genesis. Jacob eventually was given a second name “Israel,” for he fathered twelve sons who were the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel that figured prominently into the later stories of God’s people. And the story of Jacob’s most beloved son Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers and yet opening the door for them to survive and thrive there in new ways remains the greatest biblical witness to God’s providence in our world.
But what does this story mean for us today? I hope and pray that we are people who recognize our connectedness to one another better than Jacob did, who like Neil Armstrong understand how even one person’s seeming achievement is built upon the intensive and careful work of others. So when we hear God’s promises of presence and blessing to Jacob, they extend to us, too. We may not be directly linked to these promises to Jacob, but we do believe that our common heritage of faith through Jesus links us to the gifts and responsibilities that these things bring, not as a replacement of the Jewish people of any time or place but for the flourishing of all humanity in our common witness. Ultimately the gift and responsibility that flows from this blessing is at the center of all the blessing that we enjoy from God, for we are not gifted anything for our own sake but so that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”
Even Jacob knew this. After he awoke from his encounter with God at Bethel, in the verses beyond our reading this morning he offered his own response, promising that if God took care of him along this journey, then he would be faithful to God, make that rock-hard pillow the foundation of a temple, and give ten percent of everything to God there. Now this response was far more conditional than God’s original blessing, but Jacob offered it nonetheless, for he knew that he had no choice but to respond to the abundance of God’s gifts to him along this journey.
In the midst of the sad and difficult events of this week in Israel and Palestine and Russia and the Ukraine and the crisis of child refugees unfolding in our own country, I believe that responding to this blessing in these days requires special attention to God’s call to bring and bear peace. In today’s reading, God promises Jacob and his descendants the land where he had this dream, a place he named Bethel, meaning “house of God” in Hebrew, because of the incredible encounter with God that he had there but now known as Beitin, a Palestinian town under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. While I can’t do justice to the complexities of this conflict in one sermon, it is still very interesting to note that God’s promise of land here is linked with a promise that Jacob’s descendants will be a blessing for all the families of the earth. In light of this blessing, I for one struggle to see how the escalating crisis in the Holy Land in recent days can so highly prioritize the safety and security of land for one group of people above this gift of blessing for all people in such a way that over three hundred people have been killed, many if not most of them innocent Palestinian civilians. God’s promise to Jacob here is less about any benefits for him or his descendants, and far more about how he and all his descendants, including us who are grafted into this family through the love of God in Jesus Christ, can be a blessing to all the earth by bringing a new and different way of life into all our encounters with one another.
So like Jacob we too are called to respond with gratitude and hope, to set aside our tight grasp on using God’s abundance and blessing for our good and instead to join in God’s work of blessing of all creation so that all people may live in peace. May our encounters with God, then, be filled with this kind of love, joy, peace, and hope, so that we and all the people of the earth may be blessed as Jacob was every step of the way. Thanks be to God! Amen.
In light of this word, we offered the prayers for all of God’s people shared by the elected leadership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as the Prayers of the People in worship.