A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, 20 July 2014:
This morning’s lessons (Genesis 28.10-22, Romans 8.12-25) tell us that God longs to live in communion with the human race, and that he invites us into covenant—a binding relationship—with him. They show the transformational power of God at work in the lives of Jacob, a fraudster turned patriarch, and Paul, a murderer turned apostle. And, in turn, they invite us to let our lives be transformed like the patriarchs and apostles of old, by entering into God’s service ourselves: the service that alone is perfect freedom.
In our first lesson, we meet Jacob in the Samarian highlands, on his way to Haran. The future patriarch of Israel had been hurriedly sent away by his mother, Rebecca, who had just helped Jacob to deceive his blind father, Isaac, into bestowing his deathbed blessing and inheritance on him instead of the firstborn. His firstborn brother, Esau, was ready to take violent revenge for Jacob’s deceit; only reverence for his dying father Isaac kept him from killing his brother there and then. Jacob’s mother Rebecca suggested he could best bide his time at the home of her brother, Laban, thousands of miles away. Jacob made off in haste and, after a few days on the road, was caught out by the descending dusk at an isolated place called Luz.
The Hebrew word ‘Luz’ (‘לוז’) simply means ‘Almond Tree’ (Genesis 28.19); it is quite probable that there was not much of a ‘place’ apart from a grove of almond trees. Jacob settled down for the night and with a stone beneath his head, went to sleep (Genesis 28.11). While Jacob does not know where it is that he is resting, the readers of the story would have known full well that he was settling down in what was to become one of the most important Jewish sanctuaries—Bethel. For the writer of our first lesson, it is clear that Jacob’s resting place was much more significant than a mere almond grove: ‘Jacob came to a certain place’, can also be translated: ‘Jacob came to The Place’ (Genesis 28.11). It is almost as if Jacob had chosen Jerusalem’s Temple Mount for a bed, long before there ever was a Temple or the present-day Dome of the Rock. ‘Jacob had come to The Place’. And, having done so, he fell asleep.
In a dream Jacob finds out why the place where he rested was so important. And since this is the first dream to be described in the Hebrew Scriptures, it has particular significance. For in it, God’s relationship with his future people is described: Jacob sees how earth meets heaven, and heaven earth. Since God dwelt in heaven, there also had to be ways of reaching his dwelling. And that is why there were holy places where the divine permeated, where the boundaries of heaven could be opened. The place where Jacob was sleeping, his dream told him, was one of those places. And stretching forth from the place where Jacob was sleeping to heaven was set a ladder. And the angels of God walked up and down on this ladder. And not only angels: God himself stood above Jacob, and promised his constant presence, his protection, and his generosity in bestowing the land on Jacob’s offspring. In the process of fleeing the land of his father Isaac, pursued by the brother he defrauded of his birthright, God himself appears to Jacob. And the fugitive is not only blessed by a personal revelation of God, but also receives God’s blessing.
Where we might have expected a divine reprimand of Jacob’s fraudulent behaviour in obtaining his brother’s birthright, we hear how God instead affirms the promise of blessing that Isaac had pronounced on his deathbed: ‘The land on which you lie, I will give to you and your offspring; which shall be like the dust of the earth. Your family shall spread to all the corners of the earth, and all shall be blessed in you’, God promises (Genesis 28.13f). And that is not all: after adding his own blessing to Isaac’s, God assures Jacob that he will be with him in exile, and that he will not forsake him until he has brought him back to the very place at which he now rests (Genesis 28.15). And so when Jacob awakes, he sets apart the place where he had seen heaven open with a marker: he does what generations of others after him who sensed God’s presence in a certain place will do, by turning the stone on which he spent the night, setting it up, anointing it with oil to mark the place as holy, and calling it ‘God’s House’, ‘Beth-El’ (Genesis 28.19). The place where the boundaries of heaven open a little to link heaven with earth was ‘none other than the very gate of heaven’, Jacob knew (Genesis 28.17).
And because the place where he had slept was holy ground, and because God had adopted him as the heir of his covenant, Jacob responds by making his own vow to God. Although to us Jacob’s vow might sound more like a bargain with God, Jacob vows: ‘If God will provide food and clothing for me, and will protect me on the way, and will bring me home, then I will take him to be my God, and will worship him and will give him his dues’ (Genesis 28.20-22). Because God promises to look after me, I will take him to be my God. Jacob here makes his own response to his inheritance of the covenant with his grandfather Abraham, and his father Isaac. God’s response to Jacob’s vow is not recorded: there is, in fact, no need for a response. For this is the tangible value of the blessing Isaac bestowed on Jacob: God had already promised to look after the heirs of his covenant in order to make sure that his part of the promise to Abraham was kept. And so God’s covenant is passed down through the ages, because he blesses and protects his heirs.
God continues to grant his blessing to his people: not because we merit it, but because we have been called into covenant with God. At the outset of John’s Gospel, when Jesus had just called into his company Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael, Jesus promised them that they would see none other than ‘heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1.51). They too would see Jacob’s ladder, the stairway that linked heaven with earth, and Jesus upon it. God’s own Son and heir opening heaven by letting himself be ‘lifted up’ (John 3.14). That ‘lifting up’ was fulfilled by Jesus’ crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem, when the cross became like Jacob’s ladder, became the instrument by which heaven was linked with earth, by which God’s covenant was sealed. ‘It is finished’, Jesus exclaims as he gives up his spirit (John 19.30). And the curtain in the Temple Sanctuary was torn, God’s presence with his people was revealed: through the spirit from the cross a new covenant was forged. A covenant by which not only one Son can become the heir of God, but many children will become God’s heirs. The covenant of adoption, ‘that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’, as Paul puts it in our epistle reading (Romans 8.16-17). A covenant that, like the covenant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, can make us heirs of God. A covenant that, like Jacob’s vow, expects our own response in faith.
For Jacob, that response of faith was one of serving the God who had revealed the gates of heaven to him, by offering a tenth of all of his own to God, and by taking on himself a service of devotion and worship: ‘I will take God to be my God, and will worship him and will give him his dues’, is what Jacob vowed at Bethel (Genesis 28.20-22). And for Jacob that meant accepting a life of indentured service in order to gain the right to have a family, as well as the joy of becoming the father of many children—twelve sons who would give their names to the tribes of Israel, who would themselves embody God’s people. For Paul, that response of faith was one of serving the God who had opened the gates of heaven by offering himself as a living sacrifice, and by taking on himself a service of God that is perfect freedom: ‘we suffer with God, so that we may also be glorified with him’, is how Paul expressed it in his epistle to the Romans (Romans 8.17). And for Paul that both meant accepting suffering where suffering was calling, as well as accepting his own adoption as a child of God and an heir of God.
In making a covenant with Jacob, God gave the world a father of many sons, and made his heirs his people. In his final covenant, God gave the world a Son, and adopted his children and made them his own heirs.
God’s covenant endures throughout the ages: God still longs to adopt us as his children, and reveal the way to heaven us and, with us, all those who will hear and heed his call. Like Jacob, like Paul, you and I are invited to become an heir of God’s promise: the promise of life with God forever—both on our journeys of faith on earth, and in his kingdom at the end of Jacob’s ladder. And like Jacob, like Paul, we are invited to make our own commitment of faith to God—accepting his adoption as a child of his covenant by our own service of God in faith and love, sacrifice and worship. And so, as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of the Apostles, the Church Fathers, the Saints; our God calls us, it is my prayer that we would accept God’s invitation to behold the gates of heaven and Jesus opening his kingdom to us, and respond to God’s call to love and serve him, confident that we will never be forsaken.
‘Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen’ (Ephesians 3.20-21).