A preaching professor often told me, “Good sermons are pruned, not let to grow.” The point this professor was making is that to make a point – or a few relevant points – there are some thoughts or ideas that will never make it into your sermon. As this blog series progress, I hope to continue to offer you those faithful thoughts/musings/points, that while inspired by Scripture, were pruned from the sermon.
One of those themes that will not make it into Sunday’s sermon is God’s presence. I’ve selected some text from a commentary by Terence E. Fretheim that provides some insight into God’s presence. I’ll follow the selections with a few questions for you to meditate on… and a closing prayer.
“Jacob is Israel. The four appearances of God to Jacob are scattered across the story (25:23; 28:10-22; 32:22-32; 35:9-15).
The second appearance of God in 28:10-22, often named “Jacob’s Dream at Bethel,” centers the text to be considered here. Inasmuch as this text speaks of the first appearance of Jacob by himself, it can be said to represent a new beginning for the central story of Jacob/Israel.
Family conflict provides the setting for this portion of the story as Jacob escapes from the hateful threats of his brother Esau. The future for Jacob does not seem bright. He flees toward Haran in northwest Mesopotamia, the city from which the Abrahamic family migrated (and where Jacob will find two wives, Leah and Rachel).
God appears to Jacob “on the way” at this deeply vulnerable moment. God’s means of appearance is unusual; God appears to him in a dream at Bethel, still in Canaan (God also appears to Jacob at Bethel on his return home, 35:1-15). God repeats to Jacob the promises given to Abraham in an especially comprehensive way. God’s promises will shape Jacob’s story as they have shaped the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Jacob… dreams that a stairway or ramp (rather than a ladder, despite common pictures) extends from earth to heaven (and back). This stairway is often compared to a feature of temple towers (ziggurats) in that culture whereon it was thought that divine beings (or priests) traversed with communications from God to earth.
This dream story disputes such an understanding. The ascending and descending angelic figures have no specific function. They do not speak or serve as messengers regarding a divine word to Jacob. Rather, God stands beside Jacob (NRSV, 28:13) and speaks directly to him. This may be the reason why, when Jacob refers to this event, he never refers to it as a dream (35:1-9; 48:3). Indeed, when Jacob awakes, he does not speak of God’s presence in the dream, but God’s presence in this place (28:16). The transcendence of God is not compromised by the divine closeness to human beings.
God identifies the divine self to Jacob in familial terms. Strikingly, Abraham is identified as Jacob’s father — in a “family patriarch” sense — and fulfills Isaac’s benedictory wish in 28:3-4.
Upon awakening from his dream, Jacob realizes its importance and proceeds to interpret its elements. He has some new knowledge and a new sense of what the presence of God entails. He also expresses awe that God would appear to him in such an ordinary place and would pass on the Abrahamic promises directly to him.
The link made between God and ordinary places is especially striking. It is often thought (then and now!) that the presence of God would only be associated with times and places that are extraordinary, filled with miracles, that blow your mind. But here the presence of God, per usual, is associated with the ordinary and the everyday.
One word to the reader: be prepared to experience God, to discern the presence of God, in places that do not look especially religious or feel like God would be there. Connections with the Incarnation could be made here — who would have thought to understand the baby in the manger in such terms.”
Questions for reflection:
- “The link between God and ordinary places is especially striking.” What are some of the ordinary places or circumstances where you have discovered God’s presence?
- “Be prepared to experience God, to discern the presence of God, in places that do not look especially religious or feel like God would be there.” Are there moments or times in your life when you have found this to be true? Where do you sense God may be preparing you to experience God in these kinds of places/circumstances again?
Gracious God, you are the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You are also our God. As you revealed yourself to Jacob in those ordinary and even non-religious places, help us to be more like Jacob. Help us that we might discover your presence – and your promises. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.