Meditation on Genesis 28:10-19a
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, Ohio
Pastor Karen Crawford
July 19, 2020
The weather was hot and humid on Saturday when I presided over two funerals. I had a graveside at 11 and a service in our main sanctuary at 2, followed by a graveside at 3:30.
Yesterday morning, it got to me—all the changes and obstacles to ministry in the time of COVID-19. I had seen the Layton girls at the 11 a.m. service—the first time since March—and I couldn’t even give them a hug. And here their aunt had passed. If there is any time in ministry when hugs are necessary, it’s at the death of a loved one. They looked at my shyly, wearing my mask, as if they didn’t recognize me. Sometimes, I’m sure it gets to you—all the changes we have to make, everything we have to think about now. How complicated everything is. And for how long?
Jim was filling the hummingbird feeder when I came home in between the services. I decided to join him and fill the other bird feeders with seed. Just when I had removed the top of the tube feeder and had started to pour the seed, I felt God speak to me. “I am with you, you know, wherever you go,” he said. Other scripture flooded my mind, then, bringing me comfort and peace. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7-10) “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) “And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) And today’s passage in Genesis 28, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
For the rest of the day, I was determined to look for the Lord with me, claiming the promise of Jeremiah 29– that He would be found, if I searched with all my heart.
The afternoon service was almost unbearably hot in our main sanctuary. How on earth did Presbyterians suffer through summer services years ago without air conditioning? I guess the answer is, they just suffered.
But God was still with me. I mopped the sweat from my face and laughed to myself as I thought of the TV preachers, who are always sweaty when they preach fire and brimstone.
When I had first arrived at church, the funeral director told me the piper had come. I laughed out loud. “I didn’t know we had a piper,” I answered. I was still smiling behind my mask when he showed up in full costume—big, furry hat, tartan and thick Scottish accent. Because of the heat, he wanted to play in the church, rather than at the grave. And it was fine.
I felt God’s presence in the widow’s whisper of, “Thank you! The service was perfect!” She hadn’t minded that the piper had played “Amazing Grace,” the one song the family had asked us not to play because it was too sad.
I felt the joy of the Lord when I looked out and saw so many small children in worship and heard babies making sounds. When one mother tried to take her baby out, I said, “Oh, don’t leave. Please stay.”
I felt the grace of God in those moments of relief from the stifling heat–in my air-conditioned office and the air-conditioned hearse on the ride to and from the cemetery.
And when our custodian surprised me, holding the church door open when I returned from the second graveside service, offering me a cold, Diet Coke.
“Yes, please!” I said.
Sometimes it takes something bad to happen to look for God with our whole heart and be reassured that the Lord has been there all along.
This is what happens to Jacob in Genesis 28. He has left home and family, fleeing his brother’s anger. Esau, his elder twin, has made threats on his life because Jacob, with the help of his mother, Rebekah, has tricked their father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing of Abraham. It will be Jacob’s descendants who will be like the dust of the earth and will be “spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.” It will be Jacob’s offspring who will be a blessing to the world.
Jacob has fled for his own safety but also to find his future wife from his mother’s family in Haran. Esau has already married outside their faith, family, and culture to two women who have made life bitter for Rebekah and Isaac. This won’t do for Jacob. He promises his mother he will not marry a Canaanite.
His journey will connect him to his ancestors. Abraham and Sarah have taken this same route from Beersheba to Haran. This journey is unusual because Jacob is alone. He hasn’t brought any of the family’s servants or any comforts from home, from his parents’ considerable wealth. Jacob is a man of tents, who likes to cook, not a hunter who enjoys the great outdoors, like his brother, Esau. The cold, hard ground in the wilderness makes for Jacob an uncomfortable bed. He sleeps with a rock as a pillow for his head.
This isn’t a random location. Notice the repeated use of the word place, underscoring its importance, though Jacob doesn’t understand why, at first. “He came to a certain place… Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place….” Then, after his dream of the ladder or staircase leading from earth to heaven and the angels going up and down, he hears God’s voice repeating the promise made to his ancestors of land, offspring, and blessing—for his descendants and all the families of the earth. What he hears in verse 15 calms his fears and gives him hope. God has a plan! “Know that I am with you,” says the Lord, “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.’”
When Jacob wakes up, he is afraid. This is the first time he has heard God’s voice! It won’t be the last. He realizes that the place he has chosen to rest is a place that God has chosen for him, just as the path of his life has already been made; he just needs courage to walk it. Where he has slept “is none other than the house of God… the gate of heaven.” This is where Abraham “pitched his tent,” built an altar, and called upon God in Genesis 12:8 and 13:3-4. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Jacob says. “How awesome is this place.”
When he rises to continue his journey, he takes the stone that was his pillow and sets it upright as a pillar or monument to God. He pours oil on it, a sign of divine anointing. He calls the place Bethel, which in Hebrew, means “House of God.”
Friends, wherever you are right now is a holy place. You are in the presence of God! And you might not realize it, but YOU are a House for God because the Holy Spirit lives in you. In this life of worship that we lead, we are continually on a journey of faith. We each have a path that has been made for us. We just need the courage to walk it.
We all have stuff behind us in our past. A friend of mine calls it “baggage.” The older we get, the more baggage we have. Jacob had lots of baggage—a brother that he fought with and deceived, tricked him when he was tired and hungry into giving away his birthright for bread and lentil stew. He has lied to his father and deceived him, as well, stealing the blessing that belonged to Esau. He has guilt, fear, remorse, perhaps, and definitely sadness at all he has lost because of his actions. As a mother, I keep thinking about poor Rebekah, who loves him so much, and now her favorite son must leave and never return. How her heart must be aching—and Jacob has caused this grief.
Only a gracious and loving God could take this mess of Jacob’s life and use him and his offspring to be a blessing for all the families of the earth. Only a gracious and loving God could take this mess in our world right now and use us with all our baggage to bring about his glorious purposes.
The God who can and will complete a good work in us in Jesus Christ is waiting for us right now to come to Him, right where we are, and be still and know. This is the Lord who is with us always, even to the end of the age. The God in whom we live and move and have our being. This is the God who wants us to seek Him, who promises to be found, when we search for Him with all our heart. The God who gives dreams and visions to ordinary folks like Jacob and you and me, stirring us to respond with awe and wonder, “Surely the Lord is in this place and we didn’t even know it.”
This God is speaking to us now, saying, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
Let us pray.
Holy One, we live in a broken world and struggle with our weaknesses, our baggage. Make your presence known to us as we seek you with all our heart. Grant us your vision for a brighter tomorrow. Help us to be bearers of hope and share the good news of your love and grace, revealed in Jesus Christ. Speak to us so that we can hear you, know your will and obey. Give us strength to walk by faith on your righteous path, though the journey may be uncomfortable, at times, and we may feel lost and alone. Remind us that our every breath comes from you. Every hair on our head is counted by you. Only you know the number of our days and every word we are going to say. Thank you for your love and promise to keep us wherever we go. In Christ we pray. Amen.