23 Aug Sunday, August 23, 2020 Worship Resources
Jacob’s Travel Challenge
August 23, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Thanks to the internet and those two powerful words, “google it,” the phenomenon of “list challenges” has been growing in popularity over the past several years. A list challenge offers you the chance to find lists that interest you and mark off things you’ve done—movies you’ve seen, books you’ve read, foods you’ve eaten. One of the best examples of this trend is the “Travel List Challenge’s 100 Places to Visit Before You Die.” This exercise is designed for you to check off the places you’ve visited that this website thinks should be on everybody’s Bucket List. The list contains locations that range from the domestically achievable, like the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, the Empire State Building and Mount Rushmore, to exotic locales like the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Pichu and the Great Wall of China. It can be an interesting exercise in many ways, allowing you to enjoy great memories of places you’ve been, as long as you don’t give in to the temptation of comparing your list to someone else’s.
In fact, one of the pitfalls of looking at a list like that is that it might actually be depressing. Most of us will never get to half of the destinations on that list due to constraints of time, health, money, or obligations. In looking at dreamy pictures of the Great Barrier Reef or Mount Kilimanjaro, we realize that the world is a big place and only a very few people will ever get to see most of it. We stare at the screen longingly, and then distract ourselves by looking at yet another cat video.
But really, is seeing a hundred places before you die that important? In the context of our scripture passage this morning, the answer is probably not, not when we consider that no one particular location in the world is as amazing as the God who made every location and is always present in his creation.
Jacob certainly wasn’t checking off any travel challenge spots when he was on his way to Haran, given that it was the place he needed to go to get away from his twin brother Esau. He was on the run and cared more about saving his hide than seeing more territory than Marco Polo.
As we saw last week, Jacob had cheated his brother out of his rightful inheritance and following that, out of Isaac’s blessing, given while on his deathbed. To say Esau was furious would be a gross understatement, so now Jacob is fleeing to his family’s ancestral home to hole up and, he hopes, to find a wife. At this moment, Haran is the only place on his travel challenge that he is interested in checking off before he dies.
On the way, Jacob stops in a “certain place” for the night (v. 11). It’s no Taj Mahal and no beachside cottage on Bora Bora, either. In fact, it’s got no name at all, just a random spot in the Canaanite desert that wouldn’t make anyone’s top 100 list. Jacob pulls up a stone for a less-than-resort-quality pillow and beds down for the night. As he drifts off to sleep, he has a dream of a “ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to the heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (v. 12). Scholars think that the Hebrew word for “ladder” here actually corresponds to something more like a ziggurat, or stepped pyramid of the type you might find at Chichen Itza (also on the list). It was an amazing sight, especially given that it was taking place in the middle of nowhere.
The angels don’t speak to Jacob, but Genesis tells us that God “stood beside” Jacob and provided a narrative to the scene. That narrative was a restatement of the covenant promise God had given to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. It was a promise of numerous offspring and a family through which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (v. 14). Despite his devious deception in snagging his brother’s birthright and blessing, and, despite being the younger brother, Jacob was going to be the one through whom God’s redemptive plan for creation would continue.
But family and inheritance seem a long way off, somewhere in the distant future. It’s what God says next that Jacob really takes to heart. “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 promised you” (v. 15).
Jacob wasn’t going to be checking off 100 wonders of the world during his travels, but he would have something that every person, whether they’re well-traveled or a homebody, really needs—he would have the very presence of God. No matter where he went, no matter what dangers awaited him in front of or behind him on his journey, God was going to be with him and “keep him.” Wherever Jacob was, even in a trackless, faceless, nameless place where a stone makes for a pillow, God would be there.
For a man who had acted like a scoundrel, this was an astounding promise. If anyone deserved to be judged for his sins, it was Jacob. He had taken advantage of Esau when the older brother was weak with hunger, offering him bread and stew in exchange for his birthright (25:29-34). He had deceived their father, wearing a hairy animal hide on his arms to trick the nearly blind Isaac into believing he was giving Esau his final blessing (27:1-29). And yet, despite all this, God comes in grace, not judgment, demonstrating God’s desire to be in relationship with Jacob and offering him gracious gifts of land and numerous offspring. God gives Jacob what he needs, not what he deserves.
The ladder between heaven and earth is a clear sign that God is not content to rule the universe from some heavenly height but wants to be connected to us. We saw this desire for relationship early in the Genesis story when Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” (3:8). This longing for a close connection will be seen most clearly when the word of God “becomes flesh and lives among us” as Jesus Christ (John 1:14). Jacob’s dream reveals that God wants to be with us, not distant from us. God enters into the very center of human life, in all of its complexities and difficulties and messiness.
When Jacob awoke from his dream, the angel staircase was gone and all that was left was the rock he laid his head on. Jacob took it and poured oil on it as a way of marking it as sacred. “Surely, the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” says Jacob as he rubs the sleep out of his eyes (v. 16). “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17). He was “afraid”—a natural reaction to encountering the holy—but he was also overjoyed to realize that what had once been a nowhere place was now a somewhere place because God had been there.
Jacob came to understand an important truth that no list challenge can ever capture: It doesn’t matter where you’ve been—it only matters that God is with you wherever you are. It doesn’t matter if it’s Peru or Peoria, the Louvre or Louisville, Bora Bora or Buck Snort, Tennessee. Every place is sacred, every place is holy, every place is important, because you are there, and God promises to be there with you—even in those places that feel like a trackless spiritual desert. Sometimes it’s the apparently God-forsaken places that become the most holy because God is already there, even if we did not know it at first:
- No one would put a hospital on his or her top 100 places to visit, but even in the isolation of illness and pain, God is there offering healing and hope.
- There are a lot of lonely places we can find ourselves—the loneliness of grief, unemployment, a broken relationship, or even a global pandemic. Like Jacob, we can believe we are all alone with no one to help. But it’s in these lonely places that God often encounters us, offering a sense of his presence, peace and reassurance in a way that we need.
- We might dream of a vacation, but life often puts us in places where we experience long periods of hard work with little immediate gratification. Working a job, raising rambunctious children, caring for aging parents—these are all places that require us to dig in and bed down for the long haul with what sometimes feels like a rock for a pillow. And yet, in working diligently and with integrity, engaging those special moments with small children, or seeing the smile on the face of a parent who forgets us, we discover, to our amazement, that God is there with us and strengthens us to go the distance.
- We certainly want to avoid the funeral home, but it’s one of the places that most all of us will visit when a loved one dies. In fact, it’s the one place that almost all of us will visit when we die, too. Even there, however, God is present. We do not enter this life alone and we will not leave it alone, either. In life and in death we belong to God and God in Christ Jesus gives us the promise of resurrection life.
Any of these places can be a “house of God” or the “gate of heaven.” Holy ground is wherever God stands beside us, reminding us that God will never leave us no matter the circumstances. Every place can be amazing, if we’re paying attention. Sure, it’s fun to think about traveling to exotic locales and seeing the wonders of the world, and if we have the opportunity, it is well worth doing. Jacob reminds us, however, that there are way more than a hundred places we need to see before we die. Whether it’s the ends of the earth or the end of your street, every place is an awesome place because God is there!
Thanks be to God. Amen.