Jacob, the Amazing Dreamer
Today’s Old Testament reading is one of the stories of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. In fact, it is probably the best known of all the Jacob stories. It’s sometimes called “the story of Jacob’s ladder” — a story depicted in the art of several renaissance artists.
In this story Jacob is on a journey north to a city called Haran. With most biblical cities you would never be able to find them unless you’re an archaeologist. They long ago ceased to exist. But the city of Haran is still there. It’s a small city in southern Turkey — one of the oldest cities in the world.
So, why was Jacob on his way to the city of Haran? He’s going there to find a wife. His father, that would be Isaac, has given him a firm talking to. “It’s time for you to get married. But you are not to marry any of these Canaanite girls! Do you understand me? Your grandfather was an Aramean. I am an Aramean. And, my son, you will marry an Aramean. You must journey north to the city of Haran, where our family came from and there you will find yourself a wife.”
His mother then warned Jacob that he needed to leave immediately. She had received word that her other son, Jacob’s twin brother, was planning to kill him! Exactly why his brother should want to kill him is another story. But Jacob has no trouble believing her. He immediately orders his servants to prepare for the journey. “We will leave tomorrow at dawn,” he tells them.
All through the next day they move north and at the end of the day Jacob and his entourage stop and make camp. They don’t bother to pitch their tents. It’s a beautiful night and as Jacob stretches out on the ground he looks up and sees the sky — solid stars from one horizon to the other. If you’ve ever camped out in the desert you know what a breathtaking sight it is. The Milky Way looks like a giant space ship looming overhead. Weary from the day’s journey, Jacob soon falls fast asleep.
That night Jacob had one of his amazing dreams. In his dream he sees an enormous ladder or stairway of some kind winding all the way up to heaven. The ladder was planted squarely in the middle of his encampment and Jacob saw angels moving up and down on it — an amazing dream! But, that’s not all. He then dreams that Yahweh, the God of his grandfather Abraham, is standing right there looking at him. It was so real that he wasn’t sure that it was a dream. And them God spoke. “I Yahweh am the God of Abraham and of your father, Isaac. The ground on which you are lying I shall give to you and your descendants. And your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth and they shall spread abroad to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your descendants.” This is what I would like to call “God’s Dream.” I will say more about this later.
As the sun came up the next morning, Jacob reflected on this dream. He was still stunned. It wasn’t just a dream. He thinks, “surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” Before he left that morning, Jacob set up a stone pillar to commemorate the strange events of that night. And then, and this is so typical of Jacob, he makes a deal with God. And here’s the deal,
“If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I go,
and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that
I may come again to my father’s house in peace, then Yahweh
shall be my God.”
That was so typical of Jacob. In the Hebrew Scriptures he is not portrayed as a particularly religious person. He’s a schemer — a wheeler-dealer. He is not a man of prayer.
In the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, we read that humans are created in the “image of God.” I have often wondered what this means. In what sense do we reflect the “image of God?” I’m quite certain that it does not mean that we resemble God in our appearance. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” So, what does it mean? There are two ways in which I believe we human beings may reflect the “image of God.”
First, some people engage in what can best be described as “creative activity.” We actually conceptualize and produce things that did not previously exist. Some human creativity manifests itself in artistic works — architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry that sort of thing. But also, we create useful things — things like the wheel, the chair, and the fork. And, in more recent times, wireless telephones, hand-held computers, and soon we hope, an effective antidote for the Coronus virus. Like God, we engage in creative activity.
So, what is the other way in which humans can be said to reflect the very image of God?” I believe that it has to do with dreaming. The human imagination can conceive of worlds that might exist if only things were different — worlds that might exist somewhere, sometime in the future.
In recalling the story of Jacob’s dream, we noted that there were two distinct parts to that dream. The first was the vision of the ladder stretching all the way up to heaven with all those angels climbing up and down. This served to lift his thoughts from his preoccupation with earthly business to thoughts of spiritual realities. The second part of his dream was about the God of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. In this dream Jacob is confronted with God standing before him and when He speaks God is sharing His dream. That’s right, God has a dream! And what is that dream? It is the same dream that He had shared with Abraham. “In you all the families on the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3) God tells Jacob that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” (Genesis 28: 14)
I believe this is the same dream to which our Lord is referring when he speaks of the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven.” These phrases occur 175 times in the New Testament. And when Jesus instructs is disciples in how to pray, he advises that we pray that God’s kingdom will come, on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, we pray that God’s dream might become a reality — for all the people on the planet.
Why, we might ask, hasn’t God’s dream come true? Why haven’t all the people on planet Earth been blessed by the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What’s holding things up? Could it be that human beings are part of the problem? Could it be that we have failed to buy into God’s dream? That’s the catch, isn’t it? Until humans come to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and their neighbors as themselves, the dream will never become a reality. It’s not enough for us to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for His will to be done on earth as it is heaven. We actually have to do something.
It is often the case that when we pray for something wonderful and transformative to happen in our community, in our nation, in our world, we need to take time to reflect on our involvement in making this dream come true. What’s my part? What should I be doing?
As I mentioned a moment ago, the Kingdom of God was a central metaphor in the teaching of our Lord. As we read the gospels narratives, we discover that this phrase caused no end of confusion among Jesus’ disciples. They seem fairly certain that he is talking about setting up a new government in Jerusalem from which he will rule the world. They are hoping to be given high level positions in this government. So sad. They didn’t know what Jesus was talking about. We, of course, know exactly what he meant by the Kingdom of God. Or do we?
The college from which Emily and I graduated has for its motto, “for Christ and His Kingdom.” The school was founded in the 1850’s, about the same time as Susquehanna University. The founder, who proposed this motto was deeply involved in the movement to abolish slavery in America. In fact, the college was one of the stations on the “underground railway.” He was convinced that the elimination of slavery was directly related to the realization of God’s Kingdom on earth. He was also convinced that there was something, in addition to prayer that he needed to do about it.
More than fifty years ago, Martin Luther King delivered his memorable speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”