Introduction to the Scripture
In just a few minutes, we’ll hear the story of Jacob fleeing from trouble that is hot on his heels. I can’t hear this Bible story without also hearing Nina Simone’s rendition of Sinnerman. Oh sinner man, where you gonna run to? All on that day. The rock can’t hide you. The river is bleeding. The sea is boiling. The devil is waiting…Ah sinner man. This is your own fault, and they’re after you, and what are you going to do?
It all started when Jacob and Esau were being born; Esau fought to get out of the womb first, making him the oldest, giving him the birthright. So you’d think! That was until Jacob got Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Later, their mother Rebekah cooked up a scheme. She had Jacob dress up like Esau and present himself to her elderly husband, Isaac, pretending to be Esau and requesting Esau’s blessing. And it worked! Jacob got the birthright. Jacob got the blessing. All Esau got was the soup.
At this point, word has reached Rebekah that once Isaac dies, Esau’s gonna kill Jacob, and he really might. He’s got a whole plan and everything he needs. So Rebekah arranges for Jacob to leave their family and their homeland and go live with her brother Laban in the land of Haran.
In the story Mary’s about to read, we’ll meet up with Jacob while he’s on the run. He has left his parents’ house; he has not yet arrived in Haran. Jacob is in between. Now it’s beginning to get dark, and he knows they’re after him, but he’s got to stop for the night, I mean, what are you going to do…
The mystics call these the thin places. Here, heaven spills into earth and earth spills into heaven until you can’t tell which is which. You can’t tell the angels from the people. You can’t tell whether the vision you’re seeing is real, or maybe it’s all a dream, or what’s the difference. Grief will find you here and knock you down, even grief you thought had healed long ago. Guilt will do the same thing. You have been here.
Even if we haven’t stolen everything from our brother or deceived our father, even if we have never had to hide from a man who’s trying to kill us, I’m pretty sure we all know what it is to find ourselves in the middle of the place we never meant to be, troubled in our conscience, afraid of what’s coming. The rock can’t hide us. The river is bleeding. The sea is boiling. The devil is waiting. The night is falling. Our mind is racing. Now we’re going to try to sleep?
Maybe he was lying awake worrying, or maybe he drifted off and began dreaming, who can tell. Suddenly Jacob is captivated by what he sees: Angels are spiraling to the sky then coming back to the ground! Then the LORD our God comes and stands beside Jacob, and Jacob realizes— he has just been found.
Now Jacob had never seen God before. When he does on this night, it literally scares the hell right out of him. This is when Jacob utters what might be the most hopeful sentence a person can say. Listen for it while Mary is reading. It goes like this:
Surely the LORD is in this place, and I didn’t know it… I didn’t even know it!
Here’s something you and I are up against.
It could be, you’ve spent your life being taught that God is always everywhere. Here at church, we make it our mission to keep reminding each other: God is always with you. There’s no place you can go where God is not. I’m gonna tell you this as much as I can, and in the heart of my faith, I know it’s the truth.
I also know, it’s a problem.
That’s because it’s practically impossible for us to imagine. Let’s say, the breath in our lungs comes from the breath of God. The Holy Spirit is everywhere all the time. All the earth is saturated with divinity! And if you go around believing this, it’s easy to become oblivious. We simply forget to notice.
In a strange way, this puts us in the same boat as Jacob. In his case, he had never met God, so he was not expecting God to hunt him down. In our case, we might agree with the theory that God is always everywhere. But imagine if it happened to you. One night, the Almighty Everlasting Author of Love and Life turns up and stands beside you. Now what if nothing is ever the same…
May the Holy Spirit give blessing to our reading and hearing of this word.
May the LORD come and find us in this place…
Response to the Scripture
Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it. And Jacob was afraid. He got up and somehow figured out how to build an altar— because how could he not! Jacob fell down on his knees, and he prayed to God, and maybe he had never done that before. I mean, for real.
Jacob is in trouble, and he knows it. He knows what he has done to his brother and his father. He knows the LORD has just found him, and the rock can’t hide him, and the river is bleeding, and the sea is boiling, and the devil is waiting.
And if we hadn’t just heard Mary read this story, you’d never believe what God does to Jacob. (Except you would.) She doesn’t pronounce him guilty! She doesn’t make him pay. The LORD our God renews the promise they had made to Abraham and to Isaac, now here you go, Jacob. You will have land; you will have as many descendants as dust covers the earth! If you’re wondering why God is just letting him off the hook, yeah… you’re exactly right.
Here’s something you and I are up against.
It could be, you’ve spent your whole life hearing that the power of God is mercy. Grace is what God does everywhere all the time. Grace pouring out of her mouth so the Word of God is grace embodied! Mercy spilling into creation! Grace saving the wretches, grace finding the lost, grace bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. Grace is always what God is up to, and I will tell you this as much as I can. In the heart of my faith, I know it’s the truth.
I also know, it’s a problem.
In case nobody has warned you, somebody should. It’s not just that God is always forgiving humanity writ large. It’s that the forgiveness of God could hunt you down; it could find me on the worst night.
Here you are scrolling through Facebook when you get a friend request from your college roommate whom you haven’t been speaking to since the fight that ended your friendship decades ago. All these years later, she has found you, and messaged you a word of kindness, and never in a million years did you imagine this! You can believe that’s going to keep you up at night, or intrude on your dreaming, or who can tell the difference.
One of the favorite poems of our faith is the Twenty-Third Psalm. In English, the song ends with this verse: “Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…” but “follow” is not quite the word. A better translation would be: “Surely goodness and mercy will hunt me down all the days of my life…” Like there’s no escaping!
As much as we go around thinking, sure, we know God is always out there forgiving, it’s another thing entirely to find it coming for you and there’s nowhere to run! The rock can’t hide you, the river is bleeding, the sea is boiling, the devil is no help now. When God has set out to find you and forgive you, all I can tell you is watch out. It’s definitely going to disrupt your whole night. It’s probably going to save your whole life.
After the angels were spilling through the night sky, and the LORD was standing beside him, the next morning, Jacob did the only thing he could. He figured out how to build an altar, and he fell down on his knees praising God.
Years later, the day came when Jacob was preparing to go back to the land of his childhood. Don’t think he forgot that Esau was planning to kill him! When Jacob tried to send gifts to Esau, he learned that Esau was indeed coming out to meet him, and he’d be bringing four hundred men. So the night before, Jacob prayed for help, he sent his wives and his children on ahead, and there he is alone and in between. And the night is falling. And his mind is racing.
In the thin place between heaven and earth, between sleeping and waking, Jacob finds himself in a wrestling match with God, or maybe it’s his subconscious, or maybe it’s angel, or who can tell… He wrestles this guy all night until the day begins to break.
That day, Esau sees Jacob and charges right at him with his troops. Jacob falls down on his knees in front of Esau, and you know what. It found him again! Instead of killing him, Esau embraces Jacob, and Jacob says he might as well be seeing the face of God. He just got himself forgiven! How did that happen! And all I’m saying is if it could happen to Jacob…
Jacob looks at Esau, the tears are running down his face.
Surely the LORD is in this place, and I didn’t even know it…