Sunday, July 20, 2014
The Gate of Heaven
Genesis 28: 10-19a, OT page 25 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and 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.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “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.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel. Sermon In this second Scripture lesson Jacob leaves his home – he leaves behind the tents that he spent his time in, his mother Rebekah who loved him, and his brother Esau who hated him for tricking him out of his birthright as first-born son, for his father Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him not to marry any of the Canaanite women of his homeland, but to go at once to “Padanaram to the house of Bethuel, [his] mother’s father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban.” So he leaves all that is familiar and on his journey to find a bride he “came to a certain place” to stay for the night, and without a proper pillow, he took one of the stones of that place and put it under his head. Now maybe if I had been walking all day it wouldn’t have made any difference that I was using a rock for a pillow, I would have been so tiered it just didn’t matter, but thinking of this rock, its edges smooth maybe but nonetheless hard and cold up against my cheek, the image of Jacob trying to sleep with a rock under his head reminds me not of the nights when sleep comes easy and after reading a page or two of some book my eyelids become heavy and next thing I know it’s morning, instead this image of Jacob with a rock for a pillow remind me of that first night at summer camp. I was eight years old maybe. The sheets I brought from home couldn’t cover up the smell of camp beds. I was definetly far from home it seemed. The crickets outside chirped on and on, and though everyone else was asleep I was awake with those crickets tossing and turning on that first night of camp – that first night that was only the beginning of the longest amount of time I’d ever spent away from my parents. Later that week the counselors captivated us all with ghost stories – the tale of “Green Eyes” that I still think of whenever I walk through the woods at night by myself – but even after hearing that story I slept soundly as it was only that first night when I felt so alone and so far from home that sleep seemed like it would never come. That wasn’t the only time either. Years later sleep eluded me again. Two of my best friends were in the car with me, they were in the front and I was lying across the back seats wide awake though it was late at night. We were too cheap to pay for a hotel room, and were riding through the state of Kansas on our way back from Seattle, Washington. It was a big adventure. We didn’t have much to do the summer after our first year of college, so one of us had the idea to drive across the country and back in my car, and I lay there in the back seat looking up at the stars, too cramped and too anxious to sleep, thinking about how if the car broke down in the middle of no-where Kansas there would be no way for my father to come and rescue us. I didn’t feel alone or homesick like I had at summer camp, but I felt on my own, and that feeling of responsibility made me long for home even more, so sleep didn’t come easy that night of independence either. The night before our wedding day was relatively sleepless too, not because I was worried but because it was the night that separated one chapter of my life from another, so while my pillow was soft and my bed warm, still I woke up early and went on a walk through the woods knowing only that the morning brought a day completely different from the one before it. How would it be different? I didn’t know exactly. What it would be like – I didn’t really know that either. And we cling to what we know; meanwhile living demands that we stand on the edge of something totally different. One night can separate the way things have been from the way things will be and with anxiety we toss and turn not knowing exactly what the new day will bring. I can see Jacob lying there late at night, and while the rock surely prevented sleep from coming easily it was his thoughts that kept him awake. He was alone, knowing that after what he did to his brother, cheating him out of his birthright, his relationship with Esau would never be the same again. He was independent of his parents that night, too far away to benefit from their help should he need it, and I can imagine him looking up at the stars while his mind circled through a litany of what-if’s – what if I break my leg? Who will wrap it up? What if I tear my tunic? Who will sew it? What if I lose my way? Who will bring me back to the path? The morning would bring a new day, possibly leading him towards a new bride, but how would this new day unfold? Where would it take him? And while security and habit made him comfortable yesterday, tomorrow is unknown and who would make sure that everything worked out the way it needed to? He finally drifted off to sleep, and when he did he dreamed “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go; for I will not leave you.” These words are good to hear, especially in the middle of a restless night. For it’s at night that loneliness creeps in. On the day of the funeral you keep it at bay – family gathers around, their voices fill the emptiness, but it’s at night when there’s nothing left to keep you busy and everyone else is sound asleep. It’s at night that you turn over and see that he’s really not there. The house is quiet in a dreadful way late at night. There’s nothing to distract you from the bills on the counter, there’s nothing to stop the worthless thoughts that race through your mind, because late at night you know for certain that you have to come up with something only you don’t know what. And the next day is coming – only what will it bring? You know only yesterday, but one night can separate the known world from the unknown, one day can be completely different, so you toss and turn through the night not knowing what tomorrow will hold. All you know for sure is who holds tomorrow. Jacob was not alone that dark and lonely night and neither are you. Jacob was not on his own, he was not creating his own destiny, but was surrounded by angels who ascended and descended from heaven preparing his way and guiding his path. And Jacob’s tomorrow was not uncertain; for like you, his future rested in the mighty hands of God. That night was the line between everything that he had ever known and a tomorrow full of unknowns – it was a gateway to his future, but he dreamed that night and saw that it was the gate of heaven. Here me out. My 15 minutes is almost up but the world has the news cycle that peddles anxiety 24 hours a day. Remember then that tomorrow, while it is unknown, it is a step forward into a future of promise. The night with all its anxiety and fear must not convince to romanticize yesterday, for just because it is known does not mean that it is perfect. You are walking towards the promise; each day comes closer to its fulfillment. Do not go on believing that your best days are behind you and do not be afraid, for this morning you stand at the gate of heaven. Amen.