Jacob was on the run when God came to him in a dream (Genesis 28:10-19). He and his mother Rebekah had just won the chess game with Esau and his father, Isaac. Esau, known for being a skilled hunter, having just figured out he got swindled out of half of his inheritance and all of the long-term benefits associated with being the first born son, was, to say the least, pissed. That’s why Jacob was running: there was likely a target on his back!
After a solid day of fleeing for his life, he finally decided to set up camp for the night. No glamping here, he found a rock for his head and called it good. As he slept, he experienced an extremely powerful dream where he saw a ladder/stairway leading up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. None of the angels addressed him. Rather, God addressed Jacob directly, assuring him that the same covenant that had been made with his grandfather, Abraham, was carrying over to Jacob. That’s the story in a nutshell. Pretty awesome, huh?
Unfortunately, the awesomeness of the story is easily lost on us because we don’t live in the ancient world. If we did, we would be shocked at this story. Let’s unpack this puppy…
God was above. In ancient cosmology (and for many yet today), people believed that the gods dwelled in the heavens far above the earth. These gods were somewhat regional, looking over certain geographical areas, which meant you had to know where you were so that you knew which god you needed to appease. Messenger-angels would communicate between heaven and earth at certain holy places – often in groves of trees or high places. The idea about high places: you’re more likely to be closer to the gods if you are literally closer to the gods – the higher the better. A ladder-portal reaching to the heavens was a sensible (albeit fantastic) dream.
Above and beside. Scholars have enjoyed some debate over where to place God in this story. That’s why some translations depict God speaking from the heavens, and others have God come alongside Jacob in the dream. I like The Message translation because Eugene Peterson just makes it a both-and reality, because it is. For the ancient mind stuck in the aforementioned cosmological worldview, however, this was really astonishing: the gods stay in heaven where they belong, they don’t come up close and personal. The “besideness” of God in this story was part of the radically different way of thinking about God from the Jewish tradition. We are more comfortable with this idea in our present age. Maybe too comfortable. Maybe we take the presence of God for granted to the point where God seems as distant as the ancient view where God stayed in heaven.
How would you live differently if you knew that the full presence of God was completely available to you 24/7? The Good News is that this is true. So perhaps we might need to rethink any notion of living apart from God.
Another hidden thing right in front of our faces is the fact that in the story, God initiates everything, and God pronounces that the covenant has been passed to Jacob – blessing – without condition. Usually, people beg and plead for the gods to pay even a little attention. In this story, however, God makes the move forward Jacob, speaking Good News to him.
Don’t miss this other obvious thing: Jacob was a trickster. Because we know the rest of the story, we know he is very shrewd in his business dealings. He just committed a great offense against his father and brother. Yet there is no confession preceding God’s coming, speaking, or blessing. As much as we love and hate the idea of earning our keep with God, that is a lie. God is unconditionally loving and graceful toward us, ready to bless us as we pursue the Way that leads to Life (which is the Way witnessed in Jesus). To choose to get on that path (again) is itself repentance, a turning from one way to a better Way. All of this emanates from God who is ultimate love. As John noted in his New Testament letter, we love because God loved us first. It has to be this way, otherwise there is no grace at all. Deal with it = you are loved. Build your life on it, in fact. The voice of God continues to invite you into your next resurrection. The choice is yours – the offer stands forever. But the choice comes with a stretch, which may be why you are reluctant to accept the invitation.
Beside and Above. I think sometimes we are so comfortable with God’s omnipresence that we forget the majesty of the One we’re talking about. We think about God’s presence being here with us in Napa, NorCal, the West Coast, the United States, and the all over the world. But the Presence is also light years away, wherever creation continues to unfold. The One who invites us to the Way has just a wee bit more perspective on things than you and me. God’s Way is rooted in the essence and energy of life itself, which is why when we find ourselves living in it, we feel like we’ve been born again (and again and again and again and…). We are tapping into the Source of Life itself. The perpetual invitation calls us deeper and deeper, which is in significant contrast to our more shallow, self-centered, nationalistic, power hungry, greed oriented life that is so prevalent. The Way that leads to life is a very different way, requiring different steps than those promoted by our culture. A choice with a big stretch. Discomfort as we learn new moves. Yet so worth it. Listen to Paul on this:
All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it's not only around us; it's within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don't see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. (Romans 8:12-25)
God is everywhere, even alongside of you. Loving you as you sit there in your dirty diaper. Ready to clean you up and get you going again. Promising to never leave you. Calling you forward to new ways of life that is actually Life. Better. Bigger. More beautiful.
Your invitation awaits. You are responding – is it the response you want?