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Newaygo United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

Jacob's Response

Jacob’s Response
Genesis 28:10-19
 
In today’s scripture lesson we find Jacob alone and away from the comfort and security of his family. He has tricked his brother into selling him the family birthright (firstborn privileges and inheritance) and also tricked his father into giving him the blessing reserved for the firstborn. When his brother Esau found out what Jacob had done, he threatened to kill Jacob.  Jacob feared for his life and fled. In this story he is on his way to his mother’s brother’s house some distance away.
          Jacob’s Dream at Bethel
          10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set.      Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the      earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD,      and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which      you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to      the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go,      and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 When Jacob awoke from his      sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place!      This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed      under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
 
Many stories and jokes abound about the “Pearly Gates” that are supposedly at the top of Jacob’s dream ladder, the one that connected earth with God’s heavenly abode. Here is one of them. But first you need to know that I have a great amount of respect for the UMW. “A busload of ladies from a United Methodist Women’s group had a tragic accident and they were all killed, so all 50 of them arrived at the Pearly Gates together. St. Peter was taken by surprise and said that due to redecorating there wasn’t enough room for them so they would have to spend a little time as host of the devil in that other place until their mansion was ready. The devil reluctantly agreed to offer them the temporary accommodation. 3 weeks later St. Peter called the devil and said that all was now ready for the women. They could be sent to heaven. ‘Couldn’t I keep them a little longer?’ pleaded the devil. ‘Why?’ inquired St. Peter. The devil’s reply was quick and sure, ‘Well, only 2 more bake sales and we’ve raised enough for air conditioning!’” Ah! The connection between earth and heaven! 
 
It was time for Jacob to learn about that connection. Jacob had been scheming and conniving for his own gain most of his life. Being second born he had overstepped the bounds when he connived to obtain the most important rights in family life in ancient Israel, the rights of first born. But this time Jacob was outside the boundaries of his comfort level. And it was in the most unlikely of places that he had his encounter with God. Jacob learned several things about God. First he learned that he was the recipient of the promise given to Abraham. He was to carry on that promise. Next he learned that God would be with him no matter where he went, even in that most unlikely place where there was no connection with God prior to that new encounter. Jacob was almost certain about his encounter with God. God was no longer a remote God only dwelling in a temple or heavenly kind of abode at the top of the ladder he had dreamed about. God was here and now, standing and talking with Jacob. The dream was not a psychological working out of Jacob’s fears and anxieties as we now believe most dreams to be. This was a real encounter with God, probably one of the few times Jacob could receive God and the knowledge he brought. Jacob had found knowledge he did not have before. 
 
So what did Jacob do? He knew the place of his dream was holy ground, so he provided tangible witness to that event. He built a stone monument or altar.  All who came to that place would know that it was a place of some important event. But Jacob did more than that. He made 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…shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
 
Jacob has had this amazing encounter, yet Jacob was still Jacob. He put an “if-then” clause on his vow. He appeared to be bargaining with God. His shrewd and scheming personality still was at play in this encounter. It may have been the only way Jacob knew how to relate to God at that point.  And God accepted him and held to His promise! 
How many times have we found ourselves bargaining with God? “If God will do what I want, then I will do something for God. Heal my brother and I will go to church every Sunday. Get me out of the mess I am in and I will work at the food pantry. Help me win the lottery and I will tithe a tenth to the church.” 
 
When I was pregnant with our last child (I waited until Joe was out in Washington DC before I told him), I started having problems early in the pregnancy. We had lost a child in late pregnancy a few years before that and I was afraid it was going to happen again. In desperation I prayed to God that this child be allowed to be born. In return I promised I would start going back to church and attend regularly. It was my bargain with God. We did have that child and I did start going back to church. I did have this sense that I had 8 or 9 years with our daughter and I wondered why. Sure enough when our daughter was 8 or 9 years old I received the call to ministry and ended up in seminary, sometimes away from our daughter during the week. Look what my bargaining with God got me into!
 
And look at what happened to Jacob! He became the father of Israel with twelve children who became twelve tribes shaping the nation of Israel long after prosperity, then slavery then exodus from Egypt. And look beyond all that to us. Because Jacob received the promise of God, and followed direction from God, even with his bargaining, we receive that blessing in the form of Jesus Christ who was birthed from a descendant of Jacob. The promise of blessing to all nations was fulfilled in Jesus. God was faithful to Jacob.
Today we still encounter God in many ways. And we still bargain with God mostly when things go wrong. If God will follow through on our request then we will respond in a certain way. But just as Jacob did not have to bargain with God, (God was going to stay faithful to his promise) so we do not have to either. Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive.” He did not say “make sure you put the “if” clause in there, just to better insure that God will answer favorably.” He simply said, “Ask.” But we want to increase our chances that God will answer our prayer the way we want it answered. So we think we need to “promise” something in return. And if God doesn’t fulfill His part of the bargain, then we don’t either and we lose a little of our faith in the process. 
 
Bargaining is a way of making the uncertain more certain. We bargain to make sure we receive something we want because, after all, no one is going to give us something free. We expect that the one we are bargaining with will be faithful to the bargain. But God works differently. Jacob’s bargaining with God appears to work, but in the reality of the situation, God had already given the promise and would be faithful to that promise, because that’s what God does. It was Jacob who had the doubt, who felt the need to insure that God would be faithful. 
 
God already knew what Jacob needed, and God already knows what we need in any situation we pray about. God has already promised to be with us. Jesus says it best when he says he will be with us always, offering strength, assurance, comfort, and greater faith to see us through. God will answer our prayers! And we may eventually figure out how God answers those prayers even when we don’t see how they have been answered. 
 
The church prayed for a woman named Rosemary. She had been diagnosed with cancer. She had not attended church for quite some time and certainly did not want any pastor coming to see her. But her mother pleaded with her and she finally gave mother consent to ask me to come for a visit. That first visit we hit it off talking about seemingly unimportant stuff and only mentioning her cancer in the prayer said at the end of the visit. She asked for another visit. As time went on, more and more of our conversations turned to her cancer and her faith and to talk about God. We prayed fervently that God would heal her. But things seemed to get worse. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer a couple of months after she was and died within a month. Prayers for his healing seemed to go unanswered as well. As time went on Rosemary continued to decline, but something else happened as well. In spite of her difficulties, her faith began to grow. When she could no longer get around and was bedridden, she had her bed placed next to a window so she could see “God’s good creation.” We continued to pray for healing for her. 
One Sunday morning I was amazed to see her wheeled into church. She had insisted on coming and her family had done everything to make that possible. It was the first time she had been out of bed in a while. But something even more amazing happened when we served communion at the end of the service. Focusing on the people I was serving I did not notice until she was practically in front of me and the church had become completely quiet, even the music had ceased, that Rosemary had slowly and I think painfully walked unescorted to the front of the church and waited to be served communion. She should not have been able to do that, but she did and it was with a smiling face that she received the bread and cup. In a very real sense her faith had made her whole in a way no one had expected. Rosemary died a couple of weeks later peacefully at home. Her healing had been complete! Not the way we had wanted, but in a way that had brought her joy and had given her new life free from pain and suffering. The rest of us got a good lesson in faith and its power to overcome even in the midst of pain and sadness. 
 
It’s not all about getting what we want, but getting what we need.  We do not have to bargain with God, but we do that anyway. Our uncertainty and doubt are like Jacob’s. We if-then God hoping God will answer the way we want God to answer. When the “if” fails, the “then” fails as well. What we do receive with any request given to God is the strength God gives to see us through. Our prayers can be prayed in faith and we can rest assured that in some way God has listened to and answered our prayer.  So we can pray believing that God will respond. We can pray in the strength of conviction, the strength of faith, the strength of knowing that we have done what we can.             

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