This summer we’re exploring dreams and visions in the Bible. There are a lot of them! Some are so familiar to us that they may no longer seem remarkable, like when an angel comes to Joseph to tell him to go ahead and become Mary’s husband. Others are more unfamiliar, like the story of Balaam and the donkey that many folks heard for the very first time this past Advent. Some are quite fantastic, like the strange visions from the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation.
Of the 21 dreams in the bible, 10 of them happen in the book of Genesis. Joseph, the one with the special coat, has 6 of these dreams, the most on record. Jacob, who we hear about today, has two, along with several other close encounters with God.
In the story today, Jacob has recently cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. Now he needs to get out of town for a while, at least until Esau’s anger has cooled. So, Jacob’s mother Rebecca comes up with a plan to send him off to find a wife. Jacob’s father Isaac agrees, and tells Jacob to trace back the path that Abraham took, and to find a wife from the family of his uncle Laban, in Haran. Isaac says to Jacob: “May God bless you and make you fruitful and numerous; may Laban give the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring.”
While he is on the road, on the run from his brother, Jacob stops for the night in the middle of nowhere. He is all alone, with only a stone on which to lay his head. Still, he falls asleep. And then, in that place of desolation, Jacob has an amazing dream. He dreams that there is a ladder stretching next to him from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. And God themselves stands beside Jacob and speaks words of promise similar to those offered to Abraham: promises of land, and offspring that will fill the earth, and bless it. And God says to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
What an incredible dream. What an amazing promise. But Jacob isn’t sure what to do with it. Why would God send angels to him, and come to be by his side? Why would God promise land, descendants, and companionship, to someone like him, who has stolen most of what he has? Why would God offer anything to anyone, for nothing in return?
Jacob is afraid. He blesses the place, and makes a vow: “God, if you will be with me, keep me safe and well until I reach home again, then you will be my God, and this will be your house, and I will give one tenth of all I have to you.” You made me an offer, God, Jacob says. But surely you forgot to lay out all of the terms. Here’s what I’ll do, if you follow through.
As it turns out, Jacob’s trip isn’t a short one, as he and his mother hoped. He ends up staying away from home for 20 years, serving his uncle Laban and acquiring wives and children and livestock. It’s a fascinating story; open up your bible at home and take a look. It’s on the way back homewards, twenty years later, that Jacob famously wrestles with an angel. It’s twenty years later that Jacob finally makes peace with his brother Esau. And, as it turns out, during the incredible length of Jacob’s journey, God keeps their promise to him.
Last week, Louise shared her personal story with us so beautifully: a story of receiving holy messages. Most of us are more hesitant to share stories about our closest encounters with God. My guess is that many of us here have seen visions, dreamed dreams, heard voices from deep within, met one of God’s unexpected messengers, or simply felt overcome by awe or love or joy or comfort. Some powerful experience has compelled us to gather around the word of God, to worship, to join in sacred community, to seek God in and with one another here.
But it’s easy to think that we may be somehow mistaken in what we experienced, as Jacob does. Surely God wouldn’t come to us in such strange, unexpected ways. Surely God wouldn’t come to us, faulty as we are. Surely God wouldn’t share love so generously with us, without expecting something in return. Maybe we misunderstood what really happened. Maybe it was all some outlandish delusion.
And yet, this is what our holy texts teach us: God comes to us in all kinds of strange and unexpected ways. God comes to deeply flawed people. God comes with a generosity that we often find hard to fathom. God comes to us, and stays with us, and loves us abundantly. And if we allow it, God’s generosity can change us.
Jacob changed. At least a little. When he finally nears home, fearing his reunion with Esau, Jacob says:
“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number’” (Genesis 32:9-12).
Instead of fear in God, Jacob has moved to humility and gratitude. Instead of bargaining with God, Jacob is trying to trust. Maybe there is hope for the rest of us, too.
O God, who are we, that we should witness your glory, or receive your love? Still you come to us, in dreams and visions, in messages and messengers, in Christ and in one another. Wherever we are in out journey, whatever desolate places we lay our head, may we open our hearts to receive you, and may we be changed by your generous grace. Amen.