The God of All Generations
10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him[b] 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; 14 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 and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
In today’s story, Jacob finds himself in a moment where the boundary between earth and heaven has opened up and a portal for none other than God’s own angels appears before him. “A thin place” it is called in Celtic spirituality - one where the line between the holy and the everyday becomes blurred. And typically when we speak of thin places it is in a positive, even hopeful way. A mountain top moment that fills us with wonder and awe. Only for Jacob, in this story, his first encounter with God, the thin place he finds himself in isn’t a moment of joy but instead one of chaos, chaos of his own making, brought about by lies he’s told and fraud he’s committed that have led to the fragmentation of an entire family.
To back up a bit - last week Caroline preached on the story of Abraham and Issac. We’ve now moved on to the next generation, Issac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau, whose relationship has been troubled since birth. At this particular moment in Genesis 28, Jacob has been kicked out of the house after deceiving their father and stealing his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing. Knowing Esau is mad enough to (literally) kill his brother, their mother Rebecca sends Jacob away until things calm down. So Jacob finds himself traveling alone in the aftermath of his self-destruction. And in a time in place where men were defined by their family relationships, their land, their offspring - he is without any of these things.
However, when God enters the scene, Jacob’s wilderness is transformed into a thin place through these words:
"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.”
A promise is once again made — the same promise made to his ancestors, but now it belongs to Jacob: Family. Land. Children.
In this darkly veiled thin place, Jacob learns that not all is lost.
Last month I joined a small group that is taking online course on racialized trauma offered by Resmaa Menaken, the author of the book My Grandmother’s Hands. Throughout the book there are exercises to help the reader reflect upon his or her own lives, including a set of questions about ancestry.
Since we have the luxury of worshipping online right now, I encourage those of you who can to pause and think for a moment about what your responses would be to these questions. A few of them include:
When did your ancestors settle in America?
Did they come voluntarily or as refugees, servants, or enslaved people?
When they came, was there a community or group of relatives here to welcome and assist them?
To the best of your knowledge, were they hopeful or desperate?
We all know that family stories, which often take the shape of family legends, have the power to define us. Through the narratives of our own family’s generations we see how thin places, God’s presence, appears not just in times of joy but in times of struggle. In my family the Irish folksongs like “Nearer My God to Thee” - for other families the sounds of African-American spirituals describing the hardships of slavery and oppression.
In almost all of these stories, songs, and remembrances moments of redemption are preceded by confession and lament - in the same way resurrection is preceded by crucifixion. And in all our tellings, God is (sometimes surprisingly) present in all circumstances.
When God meets Jacob in that thin place and says “I am the God of your father and your father’s father and of you”, there is a reminder there that each of these men also survived hardship and made mistakes in their own lives. Even Father Abraham himself, the one whom God called to be a blessing to all families of the earth, had moments in which he lied and mistreated others. But within those stories, God’s grace persists and life moves forward with experience found and wisdom gained.
At the point when Jacob is most lost. Most vulnerable. Most alone - God presents him with a reflection of the generations from which his own life has descended (men just as broken as him) and then, God uses that thin place to reorient Jacob to the future saying, “I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
I believe that right now, this fourth of July weekend, in the year 2020, our nation is in a thin place. Like Jacob, it’s not so much a majestic mountaintop thin place, but a place of distress. We are isolated from the people and communities that shape our identity. We are uncertain about what the future holds. Cries of the suffering and political turmoil threaten the wellbeing of our nation. We search for resurrection in a moment that feels like crucifixion.
So, just as God used the stories of Jacob’s ancestors to remind him of where he came from, perhaps we are also being called to consider our nation’s history, the thin places of anguish as well as the ones of joy, in order to find our way forward.
In 2008, professors Stephen Lucas and Martin Medhurst compiled a list of the top 100 American Speeches of the 20th century. Among them is a speech that wasn’t very familiar to me but perhaps some of you remember, made by President Jimmy Carter on July 15th, 1979. It was given in the context of the nation’s energy crisis and financial recession and in it, Carter focused his comments on what he called America’s “lack of moral and spiritual confidence.”
He noted how Americans have “always had faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.” Like the generations of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, those who first founded our nation wanted family, land, offspring — and the opportunity have all these things within the context of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And like the generations of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, we have often let our individual desires drive our actions, resulting in the mistreatment of others.
In his speech, Carter named sufferings of recent memory saying,
"We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the Presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate.”
The nation was called to confess and lament the sin and evil in their midst. And perhaps if we were to do so now it wouldn’t look all that different - violence, injustice, the shock that has palpated through America in 2020 but also for many years prior.
But then, Jimmy Carter, who I do not believe is God and who I doubt would want to be compared to God, did then employ the same rhetorical strategy as God when he confessed, lamented, and then reoriented the nation to the future saying, “We are heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now.” Reminding the nation of those who had suffered and failed and persevered before them, and in the midst of their crisis, Carter called upon the nation to:
“face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.”
And if I may say so - it is also the challenge of this generation of Christians.
It would be so easy for us people of faith to become discouraged right now. To think that because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves that hope of redemption is long gone.
I wonder if that’s how Jacob felt as he walked away from his homeland, aware of his wrongdoings, relationships fractured - no family. no land. no offspring. Where was he to go from there?
Sometimes the thin places look like beautiful sunsets or majestic ocean waves.
But Jacob’s thin place was the wilderness.
Wilderness that God transformed into holy ground.
It was here that Jacob was reminded of the struggle of his ancestors and here, in the midst of chaos, he awoke and proclaimed: “How awesome is this place!” This broken, tragic, troubled place was not beyond redemption because God was there - right there, present in the struggle, reminding Jacob of the strength of generations before him to redeem and rebuild. To find new life. To find a way forward.
My prayer for us - for our church and for our nation on this fourth of July weekend is that we also might see the world for the thin place that it can be for us right now. That like Jacob we can reckon back to the generations before us who survived pandemics, recessions, and depressions — who moved our nation forward (even if progress was painfully slow, one step forward and two steps back at times) so that we might inch closer to equal rights for all. That we might see how God was true to our ancestors in their struggles and how God’s promise to Jacob is for us as well, ““I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” or, in the words of Jesus, “I will be with you, even until the end of the age.”
That we too might wake up not on the other side of this wilderness but right now, right smack dab in the middle of it and say to one another, “Surely the Lord is in this place and we were not aware of it.” And roll up our sleeves. And press on in faith. And know that no situation, no matter how broken, is beyond the redeeming love of our Triune God that we know best through the grace and love of Jesus Christ.