We hear so much talk about transitions today. People are in transition from careers to retirement. The balance of power in the world is shifting from West to East. The economy is in transition from making things to knowledge and accumulating data for sale. Religion is in transition from believers to nones. Education is in transition from campus-based to online. Brick and mortar is over and everything about physical place has moved to the web.
Well, Jacob was in transition from the certain world of home in Beersheba to the uncertain world of a strange place he had never been and a family he had never known. As well, he was on the run from Esau after stealing the blessing that should have been his from Isaac. Life had suddenly become complicated and dangerous. He did not know it then but nothing would ever be the same again.
He was not traveling with companions or gifts as Abraham’s servants had done. He was going to Haran. He was in exile. He was an exile with a blessing. “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. May he give you and your descendants the blessing of Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.”
“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”
There was nothing remarkable about that place. It was ordinary and common. It was just a place to stop because the sun was setting and it was dangerous to travel alone at night. I don’t think Rebekah called ahead and made reservations at the Luz Lodge. Jacob was ready to sleep – even with a stone for a pillow. That does remind me of some places I have stayed. In Japan, the pillows are made of rice grains and they might as well be stone.
But soon Jacob realizes there is something different – something awesome – about this place. There have been many science fiction shows and stories about places called “portals”. It is where people leave one world or reality to make the trip to another. We call them gateways, stargates, riftgates, and jumpgates. They all share the same function. They are places that connect us to another world and reality.
One of the earliest examples is the Guardian of Forever, in Star Trek. The device could open a spacetime portal to any point in history on any world in the universe.
The film Monsters, Inc. involved portals that open through children’s closets. This enabled the inhabitants of the monster world to enter children’s bedrooms and cause them to scream. Children’s screams are the power source of the monster world, and are siphoned through the portals into containers for refinement.
We remember the cornfield in Field of Dreams where players from the past entered and left. Or the closet in the Narnia stories. At the back of the closet was the entrance to another world for the children.
The Irish have a word for these places. They call them “thin places.” They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine or the transcendent.
“Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.
A thin place is not necessarily a tranquil place, or a fun one, or even a beautiful one, though it may be all of those things too. Disney World is not a thin place. Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.
You don’t plan a trip to a thin place; you stumble upon one. But there are steps you can take to increase the odds of an encounter with thinness. For starters, have no expectations. Nothing gets in the way of a genuine experience more than expectations, which explains why so many “spiritual journeys” disappoint. And don’t count on guidebooks — or even friends — to pinpoint your thin places. To some extent, thinness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to put it another way: One person’s thin place is another’s thick one.” Erik Weiner
Jacob had no expectations when he stopped for the night in Luz that he would find himself in a thin place where the distance between heaven and earth had collapsed. Jacob was not on a search for God or a pilgrimage seeking purpose or meaning. He was between places and as uncomfortable as it is that is when God often chooses to speak to us. We have left one place and are not sure where we are going. We are suspended between what is familiar and what is unknown. The writer says Jacob came to a “certain place” but it was anything but certain.
“There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Do we see any difference between the promise of God and the blessing of Isaac? Isaac’s blessing as Jacob left was that he would increase until he became a community of people and take possession of the land. But that is different from the full blessing of Abraham, isn’t it? It is too small. It doesn’t fit God’s purpose for Jacob while it might well have been all Isaac understood. It’s a size too small. It might have been right for Esau but not for what God had in mind when he blessed Abraham.
Genesis 22:17 “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities and their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” This is the full covenant of Abraham – the vision to see beyond his own life, the gift of faith to see all the way to the City of God. “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Hebrews 11:10. The promise is not just about becoming a community of people and taking possession of the land. It is about being a blessing to the entire world. Stars in the sky. Dust of the earth. Sands of the seas.
I think some of us are Isaac’s in that sense. We only comprehend part of the blessing but not all of it. We find it difficult to believe in the future we’ll never see – or to be encouraged by that. We want the promise in our lifetime and we want it in tangible ways we can grasp. Even when we do see one or two generations down the road it tends to be limited to our family or community. To see the whole world blessed was too much for Isaac. And, of course, that is what Rebekah realized as well.
And that is why God had to repeat the original promise to Jacob. Otherwise, the balance of his life and his future would never make sense.
Jacob is not choosing God. He has not been on a search for God and discovered him here. He is not looking for meaning or purpose. He has not proven his faith like Abraham did when offering Isaac. He is not a wise man or even an honest man. There is no sense of repentance for his part in deceiving Isaac. He is, as his name tells us, a man who makes deals and looks for whatever advantage he can find. He is a conniver and other than being the son of Isaac there is nothing about him that makes us think of people we consider anointed or blessed or chosen by God. Just the opposite in so many ways.
But God is not limited by imperfect people, is he? In fact, most of the dreamers I have met have been imperfect people. They are flawed, often ego driven, tricksters, and always looking for the advantage – but they are chosen. I don’t know about you but I am always looking for the paragon of virtue and character. That’s why I find some comfort in what John Gardner wrote:
“Every example of moral excellence that we know anything about – and they are sufficiently numerous and varied to hearten any man – has occurred in an environment shot through with moral flaws. Indeed, that is the nature of the human environment. It is the seedbed of corruption as well as decency, of degradation as well as greatness, of malice as well as love.”
God chooses and uses whom He will. Even the Jacob’s of this world. Even the Pharaoh’s of the world. God’s ultimate purpose is not human perfection but the accomplishment of His purposes in the world.
“It is a snare to imagine that God wants to make us perfect specimens of what He can do; God’s purpose is to make us one with Himself. The emphasis of holiness movements is apt to be that God is producing specimens of holiness to put in His museum. Christian perfection is not, and never can be, human perfection. I am called to live in perfect relation to God so that my life produces a longing after God in other lives, not admiration for myself. Thoughts about myself hinder my usefulness to God. God is not after perfecting me to be a specimen in His show-room; He is getting me to the place where He can use me. Let Him do what He likes.” Oswald Chambers
“When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
Look at that. A man sees angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. He sees and hears from God Himself. What we read next makes perfect sense. He is afraid and overwhelmed – but not for long.
He immediately tries to get the arrangement on his terms. “You do this and I’ll do that. Here are my conditions. If you will watch over me on this journey so that I return safely to my father’s house then the Lord will be my God.” He is not like Job who says, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
God does not respond out of the whirlwind to such arrogance as he does with Job. “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me…Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?”
He does not change the terms or amend the promise. He doesn’t negotiate. Instead, he says, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” I don’t think we have another example of such a lop-sided promise in Scripture. What will Jacob do if God lives up to his part? He will make the Lord his God and return a tenth of all the good things God will give him.
Of course, Jacob never does return in his lifetime to his father’s house. He does return to the land but not in the way he expected. He dies in Egypt and is brought back to Canaan to be buried in the cave that Abraham bought for Sarah’s burial and where Isaac and Rebekah are buried as well. That is how it is with God. We think we have a deal and then find out that God can move us around as He sees fit. We give Him our terms and He does not strike us dead. He simply smiles or winks. We think we are on a journey we have laid out and find too late we are not in charge. Our lives are not our own. We are chosen.
Wendell Berry sums it up perfectly for me. “If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line – starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.”