Posts Tagged ‘Jacob grace Genesis’

Even at the Gate of Heaven – A Bargain

Genesis 28:10-22

Daniel J. Ott


It’s amazing what people are willing to do in order to have contact with God.  Since the dawn of civilization people have been bending over backwards, sometimes literally, in order to have religious experiences.  The ancient Mesopotamians built ziggurats, large, stepwise, pyramid-type buildings with stairways to the heavens.  Their priests would climb the stairs to offer sacrifices and perform rituals for the gods in hopes that the gods would in turn descend the staircase to be present to them and bless them.  In our own tradition, some Christian ascetics climbed to the top of pillars and lived there for years, fasting and praying most of the time.  Some Sufis in Turkey have been known to go many days without sleep while drinking strong coffee.  I’ve never tried it, but that seems to me a sure-fire way of having some sort of mystical vision.  In the 60s, Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert did many experiments with LSD and other hallucinogens, trying to trigger religious experiences.

Of course, many of us engage in more ‘ordinary’ practices in hopes that we will encounter God.  We pray, or practice meditation and contemplation.  We rehearse the stories of others’ experiences of God.  We come here on Sunday morning and invoke God’s presence, engage symbols that point us to God, practice rituals that we hope will open into some sort of experience of God.

But in our story this morning Jacob doesn’t do any of these things.  He’s not really seeking God at all when God comes to visit.  The ladder or staircase to heaven that he sees in his vision is not a ladder that he’s climbing.  He will set up some symbols and perform some rituals later in the story, but he is not engaging symbols or performing rituals in order to instigate some contact with God.  In fact, before Jacob dreams his dream, there’s nothing in the story to indicate that Jacob is even thinking about God at all.

Perhaps the only thing that we might point to as a possible prompt for God’s visit is Jacob’s vulnerability.  Jacob is on the run.  His mother told him that Esau was enraged and planned to kill him in revenge for the stealing of his birthright and blessing.  She sent him to take refuge with Laban, her brother, Jacob’s uncle, in Haran way off in Mesopotamia.  He stops in the middle of nowhere at a place with no name.  There is no shelter in that place, no place to lay his head.  So he takes a stone, and with no tent and no guard, he lays his head down and goes to sleep.  He couldn’t be any more vulnerable.

Now knowing something about Jacob, we might have expected him to deal with his vulnerability differently.  We might have expected him to come up with some sort of scheme or to strike some sort of bargain.  But Jacob is all alone in the wilderness, so there’s no one to trick and no one with whom to strike a bargain … except perhaps God.  Why didn’t Jacob think of that?  Why didn’t Jacob try to strike a bargain with God?

I know I’ve tried that in some of my most vulnerable moments, haven’t you?  We’ve all heard of the soldier’s foxhole bargain with God or the dying person’s deathbed rededication.  “God, if you just get me through this, I’ll be in church every Sunday.”

Why didn’t Jacob try something like that?  “God, if you just see me safely through to Haran, I promise I’ll be a good boy.”  Or “God, I promise I won’t trick anyone anymore if you just ease my brother’s anger and make it safe for me to return to Beersheba.”  Jacob is so good at this sort of thing that he could have built a loophole into the bargain.  Maybe he’d only have to stop his trickery for a couple of years or something.  But Jacob doesn’t think of that.  God’s visitation is not even prompted by one of Jacob’s famous propositions.

No, God comes to Jacob completely out of the blue – no proposition, no invocation, no prayer, no sacrifice.  God comes on God’s own initiation.  God comes as sheer grace.

And God’s word to Jacob is one of unconditional blessing and promise.  “I am the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.  The land on which you lie, to you I will give it and to your seed.  And your seed shall be like the dust of the earth and you shall burst forth to the west and the east and the north and the south, and all the clans of the earth shall be blessed through you, and through your seed.  And look, I am with you and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.”

Now that’s the kind of experience of God that we all really want, isn’t it?  In our most vulnerable moment, we want God to come to us and say simply, “I will guard you.”  In our darkest hour, we want God to come to us and say, “I am with you.”  In our deepest despair, we want God to come to us and say, “I will not leave you.”  No bargain needed.  No ‘if s’ or ‘buts’ – just sheer grace precisely when we are most vulnerable.

And this is the sheer grace that God is to Jacob.  And Jacob, at least for the night, is profoundly thankful.  He wakes from his dream and says, “God is here.  This place that I thought was no place must really be Beth El, God’s House.  I thought I was in the middle of nowhere, but this must really be the gate of the heavens.” And he returns to his sleep in what I imagine was a deep, deep peace.

But something changes in the morning.  In the morning, it seems like Jacob loses the immediacy of that experience of sheer grace. He tries to set it in stone, literally.  He erects a pillar and performs a ritual, media that God never needed.  And, most tragically, Jacob, now, in the morning, decides that it’s time bargain.  The speech that he makes before God has something of the tone of his bargaining with Esau from last week’s story.  Remember?  Just to be sure, even after the sale had been done, birthright for soup, Jacob insisted of Esau, “Swear to me now.”

Jacob makes his vow to God, “IF God be with me, and IF God will guard me on my way, and IF God will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and IF I return safely to my father’s house, THEN I will serve God, THEN I will worship God, THEN I will give God my offerings and tithes.”  The night before, God had given Jacob unconditional promises – no ‘ifs.”  Now, in the morning, Jacob makes his conditions.  Even at the gate of the heavens, a bargain.

O that we could quit bargaining and bartering with God; quit building our staircases to God and our houses for God; quit making God into the great wish-fulfiller in the sky and see that God is sheer grace.

Teri and I watched a documentary film early this week called Ram Dass:  Fierce Grace. It’s the story of Richard Alpert, the same Richard Alpert that I spoke of early in this sermon.  Alpert is best known for his association with Timothy Leary and their experiments with hallucinogens while teaching at Harvard.  Those experiments eventually got both Leary and Alpert fired.  But that didn’t stop the experiments.  The professors found some private sponsors and continued.  Before long, though, Alpert grew weary of the ups and downs that accompany sustained LSD use and looked for meaning and religious experience elsewhere.

He traveled to India where he met Maharaj-ji and had a conversion and enlightenment.  Maharaj-ji gave him a new name, Ram Dass, servant of God. He returned to the U.S. and built a substantial following as one of the spiritual voices of the hippie movement.  He wrote a book, Be Here Now, that sold over a million copies.

The movie, though, is really about his life after he had a stroke in 1997.  Ram Dass prefers to say that he ‘was stroked’ and he has come to think of the stroke itself as a kind of grace, fierce grace.  Life after the stroke is kind of a new spiritual school.  He’s had to learn to be less in control.  He’s learned the humility of needing a driver and an attendant.  He’s also been humbled by having to learn to speak again.  The one time professor, intellectual, writer, speaker and guru, now struggles to find the words to fit his concepts.

And by his own telling, he’s had to learn to quit bargaining with God and badgering God.  He had to learn to quit asking the question, “Why god, did you do this?”  And instead, he learned to rediscover how life is a blessing and how in his new life, he could be a blessing to others.  He came to see his stroke as a kind of second enlightenment, a fierce grace that opened him to new dimensions of what it means to be thankful for life.

To be honest, I’m still not sure whether I like the movie and the conclusions that Ram Dass came to.  I’m not at all sure that I could say that a stroke is a gift from God, given to teach us new spiritual lessons.  I’m not sure that I’m ready to see God as the granter of fierce grace.  Instead, I like to think of God as sheer grace.  I think of God as that promise, that unconditional promise that comes to us in our dark night.  I think of God as the way that emerges mysteriously when we thought there was no way.  I think of God as vision that comes even when our sadness, or our grief, or our pain has made our eyes dim.  I think of God as hope that comes, even if only as a glimmer, when despair, or depression, or despondency threatens our very lives.

God doesn’t need our sacrifices, or the houses we build, or stairways to tread.  God can’t be coaxed with bargains, or vows, or deals.  God is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who comes to us in the wilderness, during the night, and offers us nothing other than unconditional promise and blessing – sheer grace.

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