A Sermon for 23 July 2017
A reading from Genesis 28:10-19a. Listen for God’s word to us as we continue our summer readings from Genesis about our ancestors in faith. Listen.
“Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “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; 14 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. 15 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.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
It’s so amazing that Scripture gives us not just the stories of our faith ancestors, but also their dreams. In the bible, we’re told of waking dreams, or visions, as often they are referred to. We hear of messages from God which were heard and seen. And we’re given insight into God’s relationship with God’s people as we learn of the wisdom that came to them in their nighttime dreams. Along with cultures from the beginning of time, Hebrew belief in God’s messages through dreams was common. And it’s not just through Jacob, Joseph, and others like the Hebrew prophets. If it hadn’t been for another Hebrew man paying close attention to his dreams, Jesus would have been born to a young divorcée – if pregnant Mary would have been allowed to live had Joseph gone through with his initial plan.
“In the third century (CE) in the East, Origen wrote that God provided dreams ‘for the benefit of the one who had the dream and for those who hear the account of it’” (Our Dreaming Mind, Robert L. Van De Castle, p. 74). In the third century in the West, Tertullian declared that “’Almost the greater part of mankind get their knowledge of God from dreams’” (Ibid., p. 78). Then, in the fourth century in the West, Saint Jerome had what’s often referred to as a big dream. One which he unfortunately understood literally so that it shook him to the core. In the dream, he was dragged before a judgement seat and asked to profess his identity. You see, Saint Jerome was an avid reader who had been born to a wealthy family. He treasured reading what was considered the pagan classics. In the dream, a merciless judge orders Jerome scourged. He awakened from his terror only after vowing never to read anything but the books of God. Later in life when he was called upon by the Pope to come translate the bible into Latin, Jerome mysterious mistranslated a Hebrew word three out of ten times in his manuscript known as the Vulgate. It remained “the authoritative Latin version of the bible until the twentieth century” (Ibid., pp. 78-79). So, for sixteen hundred years, the Western Church’s understanding of dreams has rested on what seems to be a deliberate inaccuracy. We’ve been robbed of the treasure of God’s messages to us that come when we know how to listen to the wisdom of our dreams. Thanks to the work of folks like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and a whole host of others; Christians in the Western world finally are re-discovering God’s wisdom that comes to us every night in our dreams.
Take, for instance, the wisdom from God in Jacob’s dream – a dream we can take on as our own to see how its truths resonate in us. I’m not sure what Jacob would have entitled this dream if he were writing it in his dream journal: Angels on the Ladder? Sleeping on Holy Ground? Or maybe Zepplin’s famous phrase: “Stairway to Heaven.” We do know the date he’d give: the family mess of his waking life context when his dying father sent him away from home with the stolen blessing. This is the brother who engendered favor not in the eyes of his game-loving father but in the eyes of his more introspective, homebody mother Rebekah. This is the brother that swindled his older twin out of his birthright. This is the brother who by his mother’s plan again stirred up trouble between him and his elder twin Esau. When their father was on his deathbed, Rebekah overheard Isaac’s charge to Esau to go hunt game to prepare him dinner that he might confer on his beloved eldest son his blessing. By the way, the blessing ensured abundance for the eldest male heir who was supposed to receive it. It gave every wealth of the father to his eldest boy. And in this case, Isaac gave the blessing for God to make his son’s life sweet with the bounty of the land, the service of all other nations to the blessed, and the rule of the blessed over every other sibling. After igniting the hatred of Esau and likely the anger of his father, Jacob was sent away to get for himself a wife from the descendants of his mother’s father. Way far to the north and then east he was to travel, beyond the other end of the country, where his grandfather Abraham first stopped when he was called from Ur of the Chaldeans. Whether Jacob knew it or not, his fate-filled night ended near the same spot where his grandfather had built a second altar (Gen. 12:8) and where after returning from Egypt, Abraham had to part ways with his nephew Lot (Gen. 13:1-9). As surely as rocks carry in them the history of the earth, Jacob finds the sun setting for the night in the land where his grandfather pitched his tent, built an altar, and invoked the name of the LORD (Gen. 12:8). There Jacob finds a rock for his pillow and lays down alone for the night. If this were a movie, the music would crescendo for the audience to know something big is about to take place.
In this dream, a ladder is set up on earth. It reaches straight up into the sky. On it are angels, supposedly hovering up and down which seems to indicate presences that already were here on the earth and others that were on high. And they’re all just covering this ladder – why? To get the dreamer’s attention? To herald the Presence of another? What does a ladder grounded in the earth reaching straight up into the sky symbolize? If this were my dream, I would be curious about the mundane parts of my daily life needing to come together with the loftier parts of the Beyond. Like maybe how to allow the Spiritual to guide the regular parts of life like getting along with a brother and being honest with parents. As earth often reminds us of mother or the feminine, and sky traditionally has been known as the masculine or father; if this were my dream, I would wonder how the energies of feminine and masculine need to come together in my life. How the balance of receiving and giving truly is holy. God shows up in this dream – though we don’t get any description of how God looks to Jacob in the dream. It’s interesting that the words spoken by God to Jacob mirror closely the words with which his father Isaac blessed him. If this were my dream, I would wonder about the parallel between my earthly father and this Divine father-like Voice. For the one had just coldly sent Jacob away after the blessing. While the other clearly covenants never to leave him until all that has been promised is done. It’s significant too, if this were my dream, that the One doing the blessing in the dream evokes the name of the ancestors (my how we could use their wisdom and courage and inspiration!). “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham,” Jacob hears as he’s sleeping on ground once trod by his family’s patriarch (Gen. 28:13). And note exactly the words used in the dream: “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Ibid.). If this were my dream, I would be in awe that the Divine is tying my destiny to the same given to Abraham – the father of offspring more numerous than the stars of the skies. If there was any sorrow over the brokenness remaining between Jacob and his earthly father Isaac because of Jacob’s conniving against his brother; well, it would seem this dream is engrafting Jacob back into the family’s original, God-given plan. It would seem any sense of separation from God or others that Jacob might be carrying from the guilt of his actions; well, doesn’t this dream give a beautiful vision instead of a Holy One that sticks closer than any earthly father. A Holy One who knows how to re-work a broken life for purposes that will bless the ends of the earth.
Whatever ah-has come to Jacob from his dream – the awareness that the very earth on which he lays is holy – is the site of encountering the LORD; he carries the dream into his waking life. Early in the morning, he rises. He takes the stone – that stone upon which he laid his head to be open to such wisdom; that stone from the same land where grandfather Abraham built an altar. Jacob takes the stone and sets it up as a pillar. Anointing it with oil perhaps as a sign of healing, or maybe like an act of coronation; Jacob calls out Bethel: House of God – the home in which the banished son now knows he is welcome. The story goes on to tell us what he does next: “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.’ Then Jacob went on his journey” (Gen. 28:20-29:1a). Thanks to the wisdom of his dreams, he knew the next steps to take. Thanks to the wisdom of his dream for us, we too know the One with whom we are home.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2017 (All rights reserved.)