Back when I was a substance abuse counselor, my clients would sometimes come to me when they were working on the “Higher Power” part of the Twelve Step program. They heard that I was a member of the clergy, so they would say, “I want to read the Bible, but I don’t know where to start.”
For these people so early in their recovery from debilitating addictions, many of whom had lost jobs, families, health, and freedom in pursuit of compulsions that now made them feel ashamed of themselves, I could recommend no better place to start reading the Bible than at the very beginning: the book of Genesis.
I told my clients to pay special attention to the story of Jacob. I tell them, “Genesis (Jacob’s story in particular) is one of the only books I can read and find people more messed up than I am… and God never gives up on them. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, chances are that you will be able to read about the people in the book of Genesis and feel a whole lot better about yourself.”
As for Jacob, here’s his story:
He lied to his own father and cheated his brother Esau out of everything that was rightfully his. When we encounter him in today’s Old Testament reading, he is a fugitive, on the run from the law and a brother who has sworn to kill him. Even after having this visionary experience of God, Jacob would go on to another fourteen years of lying, cheating, and stealing from his own extended family in the foreign country to which he flees (and from which he will once again flee after another bout of deception).
All in all, Jacob comes across as a pretty bad guy. If I were God, I wouldn’t bother with such an untrustworthy character, who more often than not chooses the wrong thing, even when presented with every opportunity to do the right thing. Fortunately for Jacob, God has much worse taste in people than I do.
Just like the farmer in Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds, God is content to let the good and the bad grow together in Jacob, accepting him as he is for the sake of what he might be.
God shows up in the middle of Jacob’s dream while he is on the run. Like a drunk who got kicked out of the bar at closing time and missed the last bus, but is too ashamed to call home for a ride, he lies down to sleep outside and cuddles up to a rock for a pillow.
If anything, one would think that this would be a prime moment for God to stage an intervention. One can imagine the Almighty appearing to Jacob in his dream and saying, “Jake… what are you doing, man? I mean, come on… look at yourself! You’re sleeping outside; you’ve got no place to go. You have no job, no home, no blanket, and a rock for a pillow! You seriously need some help and if you don’t stop destroying yourself and ruining life for everyone else, then I can’t be around you anymore.”
Sadly, there are plenty of parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and children who have had to have that very difficult conversation with someone they love. Some of us have even been on the receiving end of that kind of tough love.
From a human perspective, it’s sometimes necessary because each of us has only a limited amount of resources in time, money, and emotional energy. Everyone has a breaking point when they just can’t handle any more trauma.
But God isn’t subject to the same kinds of human limitations we are. God quite simply has no ego to bruise. The reservoir of divine love is literally bottomless. I’m inclined to believe that divine omnipotence is rooted, not in the ability to dole out eternal hell and punishment, but in the ability to take it.
That’s why God is able to show up in Jacob’s dream entirely un-phased by Jacob’s penchant for self-destruction. There is no “my way or the highway”, “shape up or ship out”, ultimatums, or threats of hellfire and damnation. God wants Jacob to know only one thing:
“All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 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.”
To sum up, God is saying to Jacob: “I’m not done with you yet. Go ahead and do what you need to do and go where you need to go, but we’re going to put a bookmark here and come back to this because your story is not over yet.”
For a surprising number of the folks I’ve worked with, whether they are homeless or unemployed, divorced or destitute, chemically dependent or mentally ill, convicted by their conscience or a court of law, these are the precise words they most long to hear: Your story is not over yet.
Sometimes, all it takes to unleash great potential is for another person to look at us with more faith, hope, and love for us than we have in ourselves. That’s what Jacob needed. Before Jacob could believe in God, he needed to know that God believed in him.
Jacob’s response is one of amazement: “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Although there’s no evidence to indicate that this is the case, Jacob (or someone very much like him) easily could have written Psalm 139, which we also read this morning. He ran as far and as fast as he could in the opposite direction, but still couldn’t outrun or out-sin the infinite love of God. Here is the song of Jacob’s heart:
Where can I go then from your Spirit; *
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,”
Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.
Jacob would certainly nod his head in agreement with these words from St. Paul:
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
On the night when he had his dream, Jacob had given up on himself, so he naturally assumed that God had as well. Perhaps he assumed that he was so far outside God’s good graces that no prayer would help him now. Maybe he had even stopped believing in God’s existence altogether. The text doesn’t say. What is clear, however, is that God is last person Jacob expected to encounter as he lay down to sleep.
It would still be several years before Jacob’s heart would turn and his life would start to turn around. In the intervening years, he would go through multiple marriages, lost jobs, false accusations, intolerable in-laws, house full of kids, and enough relationship drama to rival anything one might see on Reality TV.
In fourteen years’ time, Jacob would find himself once again alone in the desert with nothing left but the shirt on his back. On that night, he and God would have it out for real this time and Jacob would be changed forever.
But for now, Jacob isn’t there yet. This isn’t the big moment when all becomes clear and everything changes for good. This isn’t the moment when Jacob finds what he’s been searching for finally gets his life together. He’s still a lost soul for now.
All Jacob has for now is this hunch that came to him one night in a weird, foggy dream: the hunch that his story is not over yet, that he is loved, that God is still with him, and isn’t finished with him yet.