Reading: Genesis 28: 10-22.
Something happens under the night sky-if you wait long enough, yearn long enough, and are willing to let the darkness be your guide. For most of us, darkness is counter-cultural. We are all about brightness, to the point that light pollution blots out the stars in most of the so-called advanced world. I suspect that many of us remember being afraid of the dark as little children. There seems to be so many unknowns- so many places for scary monsters to dwell. We can all likely remember our mother or father, saying, “come into the house it’s getting dark out.” We certainly would have watched as windows were shuttered and curtains drawn. So we have come by our fear of darkness pretty naturally. As a matter of fact, darkness probably wasn’t very popular back in Jacob’s day either. Without light, there is no easy path visible, one can trip over rocks, and fall into rabbit holes. And at a metaphorical level, we can stumble over our own inner darkness-our fears, our doubts, those parts of our lives that we think we dare not confront- our mistakes, our guilt, or shame, or even those parts of our life that we have left unexpressed. And this is, I would suggest, one of the things our passage this morning is all about, and I would like to explore it, with you this morning.But since this is part of the continuing saga of Jacob and Esau, we first need to remind ourselves of their “backstory” (Gen. 25:22-34). Their parents are Isaac and Rebekah. The boys are twins, and sibling rivalry plays a huge part in their lives. Jacob is the younger of the two, born mere moments after Esau.
But in those times- that made a huge difference- the elder son was the one who would later lead the family, would inherit all the family wealth, and in general be the favored one. Being twins complicated this birth order issue. In fact, unlike most twins, who know each other’s thoughts before they are put into words, and who are closer than other children, often remarkably close, we are told that these two even “jostled each other in their mother’s womb”.
As they grow up, their differences become more obvious- Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. And even their parents were divided in their affections.28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau the hunter, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
After they were grown, it happened that Jacob was home cooking some stew one day when Esau came in from the open country. He says to Jacob, “I am famished give me some of that stew. “ Jacob’s reply is troubling and sets the stage for the remainder of their story. He says, “First sell me your birthright.” I am starving says Esau, about to die, what good is my birthright anyway, so he makes an oath and sells his entitlement to his father’s property and all his wealth.
Ostensibly, their lives tick along after that, though likely with simmering tensions and rivalry, until Isaac, blind and very old, wishes to bless his eldest son Esau –before he dies. But through a series of deceptions in which Rebekah aids and abets her younger son, Jacob, Isaac is duped into conferring the blessing intended for Esau on Jacob instead. When Esau realizes that he has been tricked out of both his birthright and his blessing he is filled with a murderous rage toward his brother Jacob. He determines that after his father dies he will kill him. Then, at Rebekah’s urging, Isaac sends Jacob away- toward Haran where he is to find a wife. But one suspects she had an ulterior motive- to keep Jacob safe, as far as possible from his brother Esau.
This is where our text this morning picks up the story. It may be short, but it is packed with meaning. When darkness comes, we find Jacob, the homebody, out in the middle of the desert. Remember that unlike Esau, this big sky country is not at all where Jacob feels at home. And we can only imagine, that he feels profoundly lonely, and probably very frightened as he hears wild animals howling in the distance. He is completely out of his natural element- no tent for him this night, no security from being surrounded by family and friends. He is utterly alone.
It isn’t much of a stretch to think that trekking through this desert, so foreign to him- with no one to talk with, to navigate with, this time of being a stranger in a strange land- trying to find his way to Haran, and to a wife he has never met- that he starts reflecting on his life - the good parts, but also the darker parts- perhaps he even, for the first time, experiences guilt for his deceit, which was not a “one off” but a pattern of the way he lived life.
So alone, and lacking all the comforts of home, he chooses a stone for a pillow, and eventually, falling asleep, he has a dream. And in that dream, Jacob first sees a ladder- planted on the earth, the very ground on which he sleeps, and reaching to heaven. And angels move up and down the ladder- but that is not all- God comes, and stands beside him.
And then something happens that is likely not at all what we might expect. I don’t know about you, but I like to think that honesty and hard work pay off, and that somehow bad behavior gets its come-uppance. But that is not how God thinks or plans, or blesses. He sees potential in this trickster, potential enough to make him a leader and the father of a nation- and doesn’t so much as even mention the injustice of Jacob’s treatment of his brother. How ironic- how almost impossible to believe- the one who cheated his brother out of his rightful inheritance, will now inherit great swaths of land in his own right, and the one who robbed his brother of his blessing is being blessed. God’s presence, bridging what ancient peoples, and even us modern people often think of as a great divide between the holy and our earth-bound life, comes in Jacob’s deep darkness not because Jacob has led an exemplary life and has therefore, some special place in God’s eyes but because God sees his giftedness and the man he can grow into. At the same time, He senses Jacob’s fear and apprehension and, so makes him a profound promise “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.”
When Jacob awakens something has shifted in him, and he has been brought to a state of awe and humility- saying “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” He takes the stone that served as a pillow and turns into a pillar, and creates an altar in this barren place. He name the land Bethel (a holy place). And he goes forward, no longer trusting in his own wiles, but in the God of Abraham, to feed and clothe him and to eventually return him to his birthplace, to Isaac’s house, in peace. And when he returns there, he will be a different person, with a new call- as the father of a great nation with many offspring.
If that isn’t a transformation, I don’t know what is. So what does that say to us, thousands of years later? My hunch is that if caught in the darkness, in a strange desert land, we are more likely to complain about no WiFi, then to expect angels ascending and descending from heaven! But of course, we don’t have to necessarily think of this as a literal story, but as something much larger- a myth, an archetype, a profound story that speaks to our human condition, our very human fears and our human inadequacies. It especially speaks I think, to those times in our lives when our old way of being no longer serves us- when, on the surface, to those who don’t know us well, it may look like business as usual, we may look ‘together” but inside we are quaking in our boots, feeling lost, frightened, and more unsure than we have ever been. It may be that we have just lost our way, or our old work doesn’t fulfill us anymore, or our life is turned upside down by the death of a loved one, an illness, a profound betrayal, divorce, retirement, and the list goes on. These are times of transition- and just like Jacob, they come to us all, one way or another.
And the experience of darkness is a symbol, a metaphor for such transition times. Barbara Brown Taylor has even written a book about these passages called “Learning to Walk in the Dark”. She reminds us how often in Scripture remarkable things take place in the darkness- Joseph, cast into a dungeon in Egypt dreams dreams that eventually lead to his freedom, and ultimately the freedom of his people. The exodus happens at night, manna falls from the wilderness sky at night- and I am sure you can think of many more examples.[i] Something important can happen under that pitch-black sky, if we will only let it.
At such times, we can be shaken to our core, and we may lose faith in the things we used to trust, whether that is a sense of inner guidance, of God’s presence, or of that something, which gives meaning to life. This is why I think the darkness in our reading today, is so significant. In times that seem to lack meaning or to be too painful to confront, it is pretty easy to keep ourselves busy, or to comfort ourselves with whatever activities keep us shielded from ourselves- whether binge TV watching or addictions of various kinds or simply arranging our lives so we are never alone. Like anything done to excess, these things can cause us to deny the reality that our life is changing, and that we are being called to a new stage in our development.
But if, instead of pushing away this work we are summoned to do, we allow ourselves to enter into whatever our own place of darkness something remarkable may happen. If we can acknowledge our discomfort, and quiet ourselves, if we are willing to sit in the depths of our own being, for long enough, we can sense our own God-given wisdom begin to rise up. In such times, when we allow ourselves to explore new and fearsome landscapes (our own version of Jacob’s forbidding desert) and if we can be patient with ourselves and with God, we will eventually find that God is standing right there beside us. And we may also discover that all that time when we felt so bleak and uncertain, we were standing on hallowed ground, standing in a place of blessing. And then new possibilities will begin to bubble up for us, as we accept what we thought we never could, and a way forward begins to emerge.
In Jacob’s case, I have a hunch that Rebekah was motivated by more than fear of the conflict between her two sons when she urged Jacob to move away from his comfortable life, to search for a wife in a strange land; to leave the familiar, and to step out into unknown territory. I think she knew that Jacob needed time alone, he needed to face the way he had lived his life, to embrace new challenges, and yes, even risk death, if he were to mature and to move beyond a life of contention and bitterness and strife. She perhaps knew that Jacob the tent-dweller and the home-body, needed to find a broader field of meaning and a deeper and richer life. Wendell Berry, poet, thinker and environmentalist, says “it may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”
Make no mistake about it- whether this was Jacob, or one of us, this is a time of spiritual work. And in such times, we are well advised to seek out something, or someone that will comfort and sustain us. For some it may be a contemplative practice that brings solace, or a wise elder we are privileged to know, who senses that something is changing in us, and can help give us the courage (literally en-hearten us) to explore this new world that awaits. Or it may be a community of faith that we can turn to, knowing it to be a place of hope and strength that can support us.
And so, this wonderful story reminds us that in the strangest places, smack in the midst of our doubts, our failures, or our grief, God is present, holding out to us, the promise of new life- different to be sure, from the old ways we knew, but rich and fulfilling none the less. Someway, somehow we will discover there is a Holy presence journeying with us. Like Jacob, we might not have any sense of it at first, - but if we stay in the struggle, eventually a new path, a new realization will emerge. As Christians, we call that grace.
There is new life waiting, because wherever we are, however barren our present landscape feels, we reside in the house of God. This is the amazing gift- we stand, always and everywhere on holy ground. God is present, and with patience and trust, we will be transformed and something fresh will be created in us. And somehow, we will each in our own way, hear God’s word spoken to us: “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.” And when we feel that newness rising in us, if we are wise, like Jacob, we will turn the stone of our own desert place, into an altar of thanksgiving and hope and praise. May it be so.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the dark night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.
 Wendell Berry "The Real Work" from Standing by Words. Counterpoint Press, 1983.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark. HarperCollins, 2014, 45.