Chasing Scoundrels

A sermon brought forth from Genesis 27:1-23 and Genesis 28:10-17 preached on September 26, 2021.

Even his name, Jacob, means “grabber.” He emerged from his mother’s womb grasping the ankle of his brother, Esau. From the very start, he took hold of what was not his to have. Jacob never earned a thing. Everything he ever owned and enjoyed he stole from someone else. Jacob was a scoundrel. But he’s who God had to work with.

We would expect God to take Jacob—this shoplifter, this swindler—and punish him, chastise him, disown him. God cannot stake his reputation on a rascal like this! But that’s not what happens. God does not chastise Jacob. Instead, He blesses him.

To ask the question of whether or not God blesses Jacob because he deserves a blessing is to misunderstand God. That would be a misunderstanding of God’s grace. God doesn’t seem to care about what Jacob deserves here. This story is one we still read today because it tells us about a God who chases after fugitives and deceivers like Jacob.

Up to this moment, Jacob had spent his life lying, cheating, and stealing, hoping that in all that taking he would one day be satisfied. God knows that salvation cannot be found in the taking, only in the handing over; not in the grabbing, but only in the releasing. After all his efforts were exhausted, God chased down this fugitive and freed him from himself.

This story speaks to us these thousands of years later because it’s about a God who chases down the undeserving so the undeserving might wake up to a love that can never be earned but is nonetheless gifted to us. God is still chasing down His people. And even though we spend our days running away from ourselves and the God who made us, He will pursue us we reach the end of ourselves. It’s when we reach the end of ourselves that God can begin in us. God refuses to let us destroy ourselves. He will not leave us to our own devices. He will not leave this world to its own devices. Jacob would come to realize this. God has and will, always and forever, pursue us, chase us down, even when we try our best to run away into our wildernesses where we’re sure no one could ever find us. God pursues us there, too, and shows us what we need to see to change our hearts and lives, to re-order our priorities, and re-direct our purposes so they better match His. God still chases scoundrels.

By the time Jacob ran far enough away to feel sure that no one could find him, he was exhausted. So exhausted that he finds the nearest rock and makes it his pillow for the night. Even in his anxiousness, he gets some sleep. And Jacob dreams a big dream. Maybe this is the only way God can catch up to this weasel of a man—pursue him in his sleep, when Jacob is helpless, has his guard down, when he can’t run away like he always has.

The first time Jacob will truly wake up is when he goes to sleep. In his waking hours, Jacob is too busy for God to get a word in edgewise. Finally, Jacob stops long enough to give God a chance to catch up to him. It is in a moment of vulnerable yielding that Jacob hears God. God has finally wrestled this wrestler down, pinned him to the ground. This is a rare opportunity for God to grab the attention of this frantic and inattentive, thoughtless, and self-absorbed man.

In his dream, Jacob has a vision of heaven and earth becoming one, connected by a vast stairway. This is no ladder. Think instead of a ramp joining together the space between where we are and where God is. Heaven and earth are no longer so far from one another. This is the first glimpse we get in scripture of God’s great project to merge the heavens and the earth into one. Sometimes, a bit of heaven spills into our bit of earth. This is the first notion we get of the Kingdom of God that, later, Jesus will usher in and spend His time talking about.

This joker, Jacob, is the first to witness God’s tireless and eternal effort to restore heaven back to earth. This is what the rest of scripture, and we today, call salvation. Salvation happens when our life and God’s life take up the same space. If we stop long enough to pay attention, we’ll recognize that earth is filled with heaven—that earth has to do with heaven and heaven has to do with earth.

In Jacob’s vision, there’s a stairway that spans the gap between where we are and where God is—between who we are and who God is—and this stairway to earth is also a stairway to heaven, and it’s packed with messages from God. Imagine that! There’s two-way traffic between heaven and earth. Jacob had no idea that God could come so close, but now he knows that heaven can touch earth and suddenly his world expands. Now he’s witness to the wonder of heaven’s nearness.

There was a twentieth-century prophet named Abraham Heschel. Abraham Heschel was a God-soaked man who lived a God-soaked life. He had much to say about all this. He wrote,

“Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of all sin.”

He lamented the fact that we find it difficult to recognize the divine extravagance of things that are familiar to us. But he goes farther. All reality, he says, is involved with God and God is involved with it. And the only word we can use to describe our world-involved-God who moves within this God-involved-world is “awe.”

Awe, he says, is more than an emotion. When Jacob awoke, the first thing he said was, “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it!” Awe is a skill we develop when, like Jacob, we wake up to the potential of noticing the presence of God in the presence of the ordinary. Awe is what enables us to see that our life and all its details take place in the presence of God.

See, it’s a failure of vision to think that God is far off from us. There’s something sacred is at stake in every event. Every moment and every space has the potential to be filled with God. That’s what Jacob woke up to at Bethel. Once we realize there’s no distance between heaven and earth that God cannot cross then wherever on earth we find ourselves has the potential to be invaded with heaven.

It would be great if I could tell you that from here on out Jacob was through being a jerk. It would be even better if I could tell you that after a few failed generations, God finally figured out a sure-fire way of getting people’s attention, setting them on the right course, following the right paths. But we know this is not true. We are, all of us—at some time or another just as bone-headed, self-absorbed and self-interested as Jacob. But now Jacob has seen a bit of God in a bit of him. Now he’s woken up to a sliver of heaven come crumbling down to earth.

But even the grandeur of the heavens is not enough to lift us out of our all-too-earthly ways. God is patient with us still, tirelessly chasing His hard-headed, hard-hearted people—you and me—hoping that, one day, even the scoundrels might see.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful! Alleluia! Amen.