Last Sunday, I talked about how God comes to us in the midst of the mess of our lives and how the life of faith can’t help but unfold in the middle of that mess. We talked about how the stories of the Bible give us pictures of this messy life of faith, and how the story of Jacob is an especially vivid example of this. We looked at the birth of Esau and Jacob, of Hairy and Heel, and we got a glimpse into the struggle between them, a struggle God prophesied to their mother as they warred in her womb.
This Sunday we will meet Jacob again, but this time he is on the run. Esau wants to kill him for stealing his blessing, for duping their father Isaac into believing that Jacob was really Esau himself. So Jacob runs. And then he falls asleep. And in the middle of a dark night, in the middle of a deep sleep, Jacob dreams. He sees a kind of stairway, a ladder between heaven and earth, on which angels ascend and descend. Is it a ladder, a ramp, a stairway? Is this a slow and solemn procession of heavenly messengers? Or is it a flurry of wings? And where is God exactly? Does he stand at the top of the stairs? Or is he standing next to Jacob himself? Like so many dreams, the details are hazy, but we know with absolute clarity what God does. Into this uncertainty, into Jacob’s uncertainty about his future, into the uncertainty and haziness of the dream itself, God speaks.
What does God say? He doesn’t scold Jacob, as we might expect. He doesn't give him a lecture about how he needs to change his ways. Instead, God makes promises, he entrusts himself to Jacob. And God’s promise to Jacob is his great promise to us as well—“Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15).
These words of promise are words of grace. And grace is really, in the end, the only thing that can change us. But it still takes a lifetime. Even after this inedible moment, Jacob will have many lessons to learn, many trials to face, and his old patterns of behavior will persist. But the promise is based on God’s goodness, on his covenant faithfulness, on his persistence in loving us through the mess, not on Jacob's, or on our, performance. This is grace.
In the book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, Frederick Buechner puts it like this, “It wasn't holy hell that God gave him, in other words, but holy heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world you can't get but can only be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular.”