The summer after I turned sixteen, I took a Greyhound bus 36 hours out to Denver, Colorado to work for my aunt for the summer. I made dental appliances—yeah, retainers and such. Pretty cool job, though I wasn’t especially good at it—which my aunt’s twenty year-old boyfriend never missed an opportunity to remind me.
Anyway, while I was out there, I took the opportunity to read just about everything I could possibly get my hands on. At one point, I was simultaneously reading Vincent Bugliosi’s, Helter Skelter, about Charles Manson and the Tate/LaBianca murders and The Amityville Horror. Pretty intense stuff.
I remember being especially freaked out by the Manson family’s practice of breaking and entering a house in which the inhabitants were there sleeping, going into their bedrooms and staring at them, rearranging furniture—all in an attempt to see how stealthy they could be. They called these missions “creepy crawlies.”
In the Amityville Horror, which is the story about how the Lutz family moved into a house that had been the site of a family murder 13 months prior. It was supposed to be “true.” During the day, I was pretty skeptical, but one night my aunt, her boyfriend, and my two younger cousins went camping and left me alone in the house. About nine o’clock a huge thunderstorm blew in.
I had put away the Manson family and their “creepy crawlies” for the night, because, I mean, who needs that when you’re alone in a house in a strange city? So, I picked up The Amityville Horror—because, of course I did.
I was at this part where the little girl in the Lutz family had made friends with an invisible red-eyed pig, named Jodie—who couldn't be seen by anyone unless it wanted to. Apparently, one night Jodie wanted to be seen, because Kathryn Lutz, the mother, saw two red eyes staring at her in the window.
I’m not sure what happened; I guess I must have dozed off after reading about Jodie’s red-eyed appearance in the window. But there was a huge thunderclap that woke me up. My eyes snapped open, and I saw the two red diodes on my aunt’s stereo staring back at me. Panicked, I reached down onto the floor for the butcher knife I’d strategically placed next to the bed, and I felt the skin of an orange peel that I’d left in a bowl by the side of the bed. But my mind didn’t register it as an orange peel. I was certain that I was touching the hand of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromm or Tex Watson as they were doing a creepy crawly in my aunt’s house on the outskirts of Denver.
I’m not going to say anything more about that episode, except that I spent the rest of the next morning cleaning sheets, convinced much more in the daylight than I had been at night in the middle of a thunderstorm that crazy supernatural stuff is completely bogus.
So, I suspect I know what you’re thinking about our text this morning. This is another one of those tales from the Bible that make good stories around the campfire, but with which we have a hard time relating in the daylight. I mean, seriously, come on—angels and a stairway to heaven? God appearing in a dream? This sounds more like a biblical version of The Big Lebowski dream sequence than anything we can really use in our lives.
I understand how this story appears, at least on the surface of things—somewhat questionable in terms of its ability to edify in a modern context. I say “on the surface of things” because for many of us, that’s the only way we can hear something as fantastic and incredible as this invasion of Jacob’s REM sleep by a roving band of perambulating angels on the celestial stairmaster.
But—and I would imagine there are more of us here than will admit it publicly—some folks hear this story on a deeper level and say, “Yeah, I don’t want to get into the metaphysics of it all, but I’ve had some really weird experiences in my life too—times when I was sure something supernatural was afoot, times when I was certain God showed up.”
So maybe the real hang-up for many folks—even modern, sophisticated folks—isn’t about God showing up to Jacob in a dream. Maybe the real hang-up in this story for many folks revolves around God showing up to Jacob in a dream.
Ok. What do I mean by that?
Well, if miraculous experiences of God are more common than we want to admit, then maybe the thing that jumps out at us about this story isn’t the action itself. Maybe what grabs our attention is that God chose Jacob.
I would venture to guess that it may be easier for some of us to come to terms with God showing up on the scene in an extraordinary, mind-blowing way than to deal with the fact that God showed up in the middle of nowhere to meet this weasel.
Remember what has just taken place in the Jacob saga. Last week we talked about how Jacob tricked his brother, Esau, into giving up his birthright for a bowl of soup beans and some fatback. Not satisfied to take his brother’s birthright, however, Jacob schemed with his mother, Rebekah, to steal his father’s blessing from Esau. So now, Jacob has his brother’s birthright and the blessing intended for his brother.
Having accomplished his thievery, Jacob is sitting in the catbird seat. Except, he forgot to take into account one thing—his uncivilized troglodyte brother. I mean, it’s one thing to take the last Oreo in the cookie jar—you might conceivably receive a noogie for that little bit of mischief from your older brother; it’s something entirely different, however, to take the inheritance intended for the poster-child for a Mixed Martial Arts pay-per-view.
Esau’s on the hunt for his conniving sibling, while Jacob has been whisked away by mommy to uncle Laban’s house, under the pretense of finding a wife. In fact, what he’s really looking to find is some geography uninhabited by a particularly irritated older brother toting a Remington and a cranky disposition.
Setting the stage for our text this morning, Jacob is running with his tail between his legs, trying to stay one step ahead of his furious older brother because of his unscrupulous, grabby behavior, when God catches up to him in “a certain place” and promises to make him the heir of the promise to Abraham and Isaac—to be the father of a great nation who will occupy a land set apart, never to be abandoned by God.
That is what is known in literature as irony. The scoundrel on the lam is picked to be the hero, but not only to be the hero—to be visited by God, to be made the recipient of a divine promise. The moral of this story is that when it’s time to choose up teams for kick-ball, God’s likely to pick the kid with black socks and tape on his glasses. God breaks all the rules going after Jacob—but that’s okay, I suppose, given that they’re God’s rules.
So the real surprise in this story, it seems to me, isn’t just that God showed up; it’s that God showed up in the middle of nowhere and picked a used car salesman to be the torchbearer for the people of God.
But, if you spend any time rummaging about in the Bible, you’ll find that God’s like that. As I said before, God doesn’t need much in the way of raw material to get the job done. It’s certainly not the way I’d do things. I’d be much choosier if it were up to me. But, as per usual, it isn’t up to me at all. I guess we can all thank God for that one.
In DePaul economics professor, Michael Budde’s essay, “God Is Not a Capitalist,” he writes that if God were running a business in our capitalist economy, God would run it right into the ground. Take God’s Human Resource policy. Budde writes: “It ignores the central importance in our time of human capital formation, creativity, and training—you need top-shelf people to master technology, innovate often, and keep their skills packages up to world-class levels. The ‘least of these’—or the least of these employees—can’t possibly compete, can’t possibly maximize shareholder value, and can’t possibly make for a rational human resources strategy. God might well like the ‘stone the builder rejected’ but you can’t minimize the importance of high-quality materials, human and otherwise, in building a world-class firm” (God Is Not . . ., 86f.).
But God doesn’t do things like you and me. Jacob, on this reading, and according to good business practices, shouldn’t have made it to the first round of interviews, let alone to be hired for the position. To this point in Genesis, Jacob has done nothing deserving of our confidence. But, wonder of wonders, Jacob has God’s confidence. As Martin Luther was fond of saying, “God can ride the lame horse and shoot the crooked bow.” And, Lord knows, there’s no one crookeder than Jacob, and in four short chapters God will make him lame—so maybe Luther’s right. God doesn’t need much.
And that’s good news. There’s a whole world out there yearning for God’s healing hand, a world where LGBTQ children are forgotten or cast out, a world where undocumented immigrants and refugees are made to live in fear that they’ll be cast back into the violence and poverty that prompted them to leave in the first place, a world in which the elderly are terrified that the Medicaid that allows them to live in a place that can care for them will be cut out from under them, a world in which African American parents have to have “the talk” with their children to give them a fighting chance of growing up, a world in which women live in fear of the violent men in their lives. There are a lot of people out their looking for hand of God.
Tony Campolo tells the story about a minister friend of his who had a deacon in his church. He tried to get the deacon to really open up and let God use him. Finally the deacon concluded that there was one thing he could do. He could take the youth group to the old folk’s home.
Once a month the youth group of this church went to the old folk’s home and put on a little church service for the people who were there. One time he went with the youth group and he stood in the back of the room. The young people were performing and this old man in a wheel chair rolled over, rolled his chair over to where this deacon was standing, took hold of his hand and held it all during the service.
That was repeated the next month and the next month and the next month and the next month and the next month. Then they went one Sunday afternoon and the man wasn’t there. The deacon asked the nurse in charge, “What happened to that man?”
“Oh,” she said, “He’s near death. He’s just down the hall, the third room. Maybe you should go in and visit him. He’s unconscious, though.”
The deacon walked down and went into the room. There were tubes and monitors, wheezing and groaning. Not a pretty scene. The guy went over and took hold of the hand of the gentleman in the bed. He said a prayer. Just a few words from the heart. He didn’t really know what to say.
And when he said “Amen,” the old guy squeezed his hand. The deacon was so moved by that squeeze of the hand that he began to weep. He shook a little. He tried to get out of the room and as he was leaving, he bumped into this woman who is coming into the room.
She says, “He’s been waiting for you. He said he didn’t want to die until Jesus came and held his hand and I tried to tell him that after death he would have a chance to meet Jesus and talk to Jesus and hold Jesus’ hand. But he said, ‘No. Once a month Jesus comes and holds my hand and I don’t want to leave until I have a chance to hold Jesus’ hand one more time.’”
That’s you. Can you see that? God is determined to see the world God intended at creation, and God’s choosing up sides. And, for whatever reason, God chose you to change the world. I don’t pretend to understand God’s draft day strategy, but God’s decided to put you on the team with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Not a sterling start, I think we can all agree, but that’s God for you. God chose a skinny, no-name Galilean carpenter to build the franchise on. In God’s crazy way of looking at things, you make all the sense in the world.
Then again, this is the same God who told Jacob, “I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” And if that God promises you something, you can trust it. Jesus bet his life you could.