Back when we decided that our stewardship theme this year would be "Building Bridges," I tried to think about what Scripture passages could go along with it. Well, as far as I can tell, there is not a single physical bridge in the whole Bible. The Israelites didn't need bridges...every time they needed to cross over somewhere the waters just parted and they walked across on dry land.
But then I remembered the story of Jacob's ladder. It's not a bridge in the traditional sense, but the ladder does serve the function of a bridge...connecting earth and heaven closely enough that the angels of God can come and go as they wish across it. When you look at it, a dream or vision like Jacob has it amazing enough. But I think if we only examine the dream, we will have missed a key point in the story. The most amazing thing to me in this story is not that Jacob had a DREAM, but the JACOB had a dream.
For those of you not too familiar with the Bible's family tree, Jacob is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham. Abraham was a man of faith whom God singled out for a mission...to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Jacob is Abraham's grandson. More correctly, however, Jacob is ONE of Abraham's grandsons, and to be honest, he is not the one most grandfathers would go around bragging about.
To put it bluntly, Jacob is a rat...a rogue, a scoundrel. The whole reason we find Jacob out in the middle of nowhere with a rock for a pillow is because he is running from his twin brother Esau, who is trying to kill him. Why? Because Jacob has stolen everything of value from his brother. He stole Esau's inheritance and he stole their father's blessing...in essence, he stole his brother's future, by taking advantage of their blind father's infirmity. Now Esau wants to kill his brother and Mom has advised Jacob to take a long trip to see family in a far country.
Now, if you were Esau, this dream of Jacob's might be just enough to get you to give up your religion. Here you've always done everything right, you're at home supporting your father and mother, and you get no dream, no vision, no promise, no blessing. Your loser of a brother, however, after cheating and lying his way into getting all that belongs to you...the minute he lies down for a nap, the heavens open, and God shows up with even more blessings and promises.
What I want to say this morning is that this, exactly, is the Gospel. This, exactly, was the criticism of Jesus by the religious leaders...that he was always hanging out with the wrong crowd. Instead of blessing the righteous, he was cavorting with sinners...making them promises and bringing them gifts of healing and forgiveness, blessing them with the honor of his presence. "What gives?" said the Pharisees. "Here you are a rabbi...a religious leader, and you're ignoring the faithful, and giving all your attention to these outsiders."
"I didn't come for the righteous ones," says Jesus. "The good folks don't need a savior. I came to find the lost ones and bring them home." This is a pattern with God, which starts very early. God does not appear to Jacob because of Jacob's righteousness, but precisely the opposite. God comes to Jacob in order to open up new possibilities for a no-good brother who is on the wrong road.
I've told this story before, I think, but it bears repeating here. It was a story I heard on a talk show back when I was in seminary. The person being interviewed was an African woman, who was queen of her small tribe. She was on a goodwill mission to the US and was touring inner-city schools in New York City. As she spoke, she told about going into one classroom where a boy was in time-out over in the corner of the room. She asked the teacher about him and was told by the teacher that this boy was just no good. He was always in trouble, and always meant to be in trouble. He was mean, didn't care whether he learned anything or not, and hoped to take as many other classmates down with him as he could. He was always in time-out, it seemed. Nothing would ever come of him.
The queen went over to see him. When she sat down beside him, she took out a small scroll she had brought and gave it to the boy. "Congratulations," she said with a smile. "This scroll makes you an honorary prince of my people." She then went on to tell the boy about her tribe and what it meant to be a prince there. She told how their princes were men of honor, how they watched out for others in the tribe, and always did what was good in the eyes of the people. The boy took the scroll and she left.
The important part of the story is that the boy's teacher said that she never had another behavioral problem with the boy. He became what the queen had named him...a prince of the tribe. And he acted accordingly. What that African queen did for that New York City boy is exactly what God does for Jacob at Bethel. Jacob is in the corner for misbehavior, and then, all of a sudden, "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 ad to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring." Jacob wasn't even a blessing to his own family, let alone all the families of the earth. But God named a new reality for him.
And Jacob responds. His life is not completely changed at this point....it will take some time, and at one point he will actually wrestle with God. But it is here that the changes begin, and to mark that beginning, Jacob makes a vow. "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you."
I say again, this is the Gospel. God is seeking the lost. God is longing for those who are running in the other direction. God is not a divine law enforcement agent, looking for sinners so they can be thrown in the slammer. God is looking for those whose lives are self-destructing in order to give them tools for bridge building...in order to show them a better way and to give them whatever they need to construct a better life.
And that is exactly what Jesus is about. Jesus is the concrete expression of God's love. Jesus is God's bridge...the ladder from heaven to earth that made it possible for God to actually stand beside a tax collector like Zacchaeus and say...I'm coming to your house for dinner. That made it possible for God to say to a woman caught in adultery...I don't condemn you, go and live a better life. That made it possible for Jesus to say to a repentant thief on the cross...today you will share Paradise with me. And they responded as Jacob responded...with wonder, with awe, and with the promise of change.
Because that is what God has been about from the beginning...because that plan was made concrete in Jesus...and because we, as the Church, are to be the Body of Chirst...to be Jesus in and for the world...that is what we are to be about as well. Esau is righteous and fine and doing well. It is Jacob we need to seek out with the news of the love and promises of God.
This is where we sit on this Sunday...the end of our focus on bridge-building...the day when we consider how to respond to the fact that God has come to us and offered us all the blessings of heaven. And we have to think. Jesus is the concrete expression of God's love for us. What is our concrete expression of our love for God?
That, for many of us, is what the consecration of our pledges is about, and why we present them as part of a service of worship. I am not saying that if you don't pledge that you don't love God...that would be judgmental, self-serving, and...really...nonsense. But it is a way that many of us choose to express our love of God and our commitment to be the people of God in this place.
You don't have to choose this particular expression, but I would say that if there is no concrete expression of your love for God...in some way...in some area of your life that others can see and identify, then perhaps it is time to put a rock under your head and to dream the dream of God's love...coming down to you in waves...angel after angel, gift after gift...without you having deserved the first bit of it. Then, perhaps upon waking, you too will say with Jacob... "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!"
Sermon © 2002, Anne Robertson
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