YOUR SPIRITUAL BENCHMARK
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
July 23, 2017; 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25
“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said,
‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’”
As camping equipment goes, it doesn’t sound very comfortable: a stone for a pillow. But when you’re on the run, you can’t be too picky.
Jacob didn’t have much to complain about. Truth be told, he was lucky to be alive.
He’d brought it on himself, of course. Last week, we heard as our Old Testament lesson the story of his birth. Genesis says Jacob was born hanging onto the heel of his twin brother, Esau. The name, Jacob, literally means “heel” — as in: follow closely at someone’s heel.
Have you ever heard of someone being called “a real heel”? Well, that would be Jacob!
During all his growing-up years, Jacob was painfully aware that, among the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, he was number two out of two. Esau had beat him into this world by mere minutes, but that was of no account. Esau was the firstborn. Under the law, he stood to inherit.
Until, that is, Jacob intervened with a sly deal he offered his brother. Esau was an outdoorsy kind of guy: big and strong, good with a bow and arrow, but not too bright. He came back from hunting one day, and Jacob was waiting for him, with a fragrant pot of lentil stew simmering on the fire.
“Boy, that stew smells good,” said Esau.
“Sorry, bro, it’s mine,” said Jacob. “I’ve been cooking it all day: sealing in all those delicious flavors. But I’ll sell it to you.”
“Will you? How much?”
“I’ll sell it to you for the cost of your birthright.”
“Well, I feel like I’m so hungry I could die anyway, so why not? It’s a deal. Will you throw the spoon in with it?”
“But of course. No extra charge.”
I told you, Esau was not too bright.
Later on, Jacob would pull off another little subterfuge, to lock in the inheritance. One day, as his father was on his deathbed, Jacob pulled on his brother’s sheepskin coat and sat down next to his dad. Isaac — who was blind by then — reached out his hands, touched the sheepskin coat, assumed it was Esau sitting there, and gave Jacob his final blessing. In those days, that was the equivalent of putting a will through probate. When Isaac died, Jacob got the estate.
When Esau found out about it, he was not amused. He gathered together his hunting buddies and they all sharpened their Buck knives and pulled on their camo before setting out on Jacob’s trail.
This is where we find him, in today’s reading. Esau’s the outdoorsman. Jacob’s more used to sleeping at the Hilton. But tonight, he’s got a stone for a pillow.
That stone symbolizes for him just how low he’s fallen. As he tosses and turns — trying in vain to get comfortable, as he listens for any rustling in the bushes that could be Esau and his redneck buddies — Jacob falls into a fitful sleep.
He dreams: and what a dream he has! Jacob dreams there’s “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God [are] ascending and descending on it.”
You’ve probably heard this referred to as “Jacob’s ladder,” but that’s only because of the limitations of the English language. Lots of Bible scholars think it probably should be “Jacob’s ziggurat.”
It wasn’t a ladder at all, but what the archaeologists call a ziggurat: a massive stone tower, cunningly constructed with a series of ascending ramps. Ziggurats, in the great urban centers of Mesopotamia, were sacred structures: massive temples reaching up into the heavens. Climbing a ziggurat, the people believed, brought you closer to God.
The book of Genesis mentions a ziggurat. It’s part of an ancient tale that precedes the story of Jacob. The Tower of Babel was a ziggurat.
You probably remember how that story goes. The people wanted to build a massive tower so they could go up and hobnob with the Almighty. Problem was, the Almighty was not too keen on the idea. The Lord destroyed the tower and scattered the peoples of the earth, causing them to speak many different languages. They could no longer communicate with one another. For countless generations, the story of the Ziggurat at Babel has been a cautionary tale. “Don’t presume equality with God” is the moral of that story. The Lord is holy, and even a little dangerous: keep a safe distance.
Well, as Jacob lies on the ground in his rustic campsite, a ziggurat is what he’s dreaming of. The remarkable thing about this tower — as opposed to the one at Babel — is that the angels of God are not only ascending the ramp. They’re also descending: moving downwards to reach out to the human race. That didn’t happen at Babel. They climbed on up there and pulled the ladder up behind them.
It’s a pretty extraordinary vision to be granted to a grifter on the run, like Jacob. He’s well aware, by now, that he’s not deserving of an ounce of favor from the Almighty. But, the amazing thing is this: God blesses him with the vision anyway. God’s decided it’s time to reverse the curse of Babel, and that charlatan Jacob — of all people — is the one God chooses to reveal it to!
Why does God do it? Why does God single out Jacob as the recipient of such a blessing?
One word describes it. That word is: “covenant.” If there’s one role the book of Genesis ascribes to the Almighty — other than Creator — it’s that of covenant-keeper. The Lord God made covenant with Jacob’s grandparents, Abraham and Sarah. It doesn’t matter how many twists or turns that covenant takes, working its way down through the family tree. Jacob’s sly manipulations, his boneheaded attempts to knock the covenant off the rails, don’t matter. Because you can’t knock God’s covenant off the rails. The promise is made, and it’s going to be kept from God’s side, come what may.
Sometimes, it seems, the covenant proceeds by means of a knight’s move. Any chess players out there? If you are, you know what a knight’s move is. Every other piece in the game of chess moves in a straight line: up and down, across or diagonally. The knight, though — symbolizing a mounted warrior — moves two spaces forward, then one space to either side. It’s very odd. The knight defies the logic of every other chess-piece. He has his own way of moving.
So, too, with God’s covenant. In the infinitely complex logic of God, it was undoubtedly part of the plan all along that Jacob would supplant Esau. Jacob thought it was all his idea, but evidently not. Jacob’s cunning was just what was needed to keep the covenant going. The descendants of this trickster — rather than the descendants of the strong but not-too-bright hunter — would be the ones to carry the promise on into the future.
That’s what Jacob realizes on that seminal night, with a stone for a pillow. Although he doesn’t deserve it, God has marked him. God will use him and his descendants for holy purposes.
Eventually, Jacob even makes up with Esau. There’s that tense scene in the thirty-third chapter of Genesis, when Esau and 400 armed men catch up with Jacob and his family at last. Jacob is sure he’s done for, that Esau will cut him to pieces. Jacob comes up to his brother, bowing low to the ground, like he’s doing obeisance to some oriental potentate. Then, the Bible tells us, instead of pulling out a sword and lopping Jocob’s head off, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Jacob offers his brother extravagant gifts, essentially giving back everything he’s taken, and then some. But Esau spurns his brother’s gifts, saying, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.”
With that, the debt is forgiven. The covenant promise is locked in. The knight’s move is confirmed. Just as happened with Abraham’s maid and her son Ishmael, the Lord has again blessed both halves of the family. The fruits of the covenant are more than generous. There’s enough for everyone.
But, back to our story from Genesis 28. That incident concludes with a little epilogue. Jacob wakes from his dream and declares:
“Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” 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.”
The power of his dream has hallowed the place. Jacob builds there a little altar out of stones: a roadside shrine that will declare to anyone who passes by that something of great spiritual significance happened here. He calls the place “Bethel.” “Beth,” in Hebrew, means “house,” and “El” is one of the ancient names for God. Bethel, therefore, means “House of God.”
One of the stones Jacob piles up — pouring a vial of oil over them to sanctify the spot — is that very same stone he used for a pillow: the stone that has given him his vision of redemption and covenant-renewal.
Those who practice the old-time trade of surveying — going back to the time before global positioning systems and laser-measurement devices — know of a certain thing called a benchmark. A benchmark is a bronze plaque set into the ground by an earlier surveyor. Originally it contained a “bench” or groove on which the surveying equipment would rest. Now, though, a bench mark indicates the precise place — down to a fraction of an inch — where a prior measurement was taken. A newly-arrived crew of surveyors will set up their transit — that telescope-like device set on a tripod — directly over the benchmark. A plumb bob hangs down from the transit, making sure the device is absolutely perpendicular, so the reading will be accurate. Only then can the new land-measurement be taken.
A benchmark, in other words, is a point of reference: solid, secure and enduring.
Today we’ve celebrated the sacrament of Baptism for Kaitlyn and Madailin. It’s our hope and prayer for these little girls that one day they’ll realize this sacrament is a sort of benchmark for their lives. It will serve as a point of reference to which they can return in their hearts: even as Jacob returned again and again to Bethel — if not literally on his journeys that criss-crossed the promised land, then in his memory.
For we, too, my friends, are a covenant people. The covenant was forged with our spiritual ancestors, and confirmed in the once-for-all blood sacrifice of our brother Jesus. It symbolizes the surety of God’s love for us. It calls us back, again and again, through every day of our lives, to faithful living.
It matters not if, lately, we’ve been living ungodly lives — as was true for Jacob, in his life on the lam. All of us have got a little bit of the shyster in us, if truth be told. There’s always a way back to faithfulness, for those who repent in their hearts. The baptismal covenant is still certain, still anchored like a benchmark into bedrock. It’s always there — eternally there — ready to serve as a point of reference once again, as we resolve to do better.
I invite you, today, to take up once again the baptismal promise that was made on your behalf, long ago: a promise that, very likely, you had little to say about at the time. But, no matter: because the only half of the covenant that’s truly significant is the part that originates in heaven.
Claim, therefore, the dream of Jacob for your own:
“Perfect submission, perfect delight,
visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
angels descending, bring from above
echoes of mercy, whispers of love.”
Lord, we pray that you would keep the covenant vision ever before us.
In those moments when we fail to hold up our end,
assure us that, no matter what happens,
in Christ, you keep up yours. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.