Genesis 28:10-19

Blessings From A Hard Rock

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris

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Before I begin, please take a rock from one of the baskets as they are passed around.

Today I would like to enter the lectionary cycle, using the First Testament or Hebrew Scriptures portion, as the Genesis stories of the patriarchs is already in progress.  (As a side note, let me remind you that the “lectionary cycle” is NOT the name of the beautiful new bicycle you gave me three weeks ago, but the listing of Bible passages that are designated week by week over three years for preaching and personal meditation.)  In looking ahead for the rest of the summer, the stories of three amazing men will occupy our homiletical time: Jacob, Joseph, and Moses.  I hope by exploring these three men of faith (and dubious faith at times) we all can become more fully alive in our own faith and more comfortable dealing with our own doubts.

Pillows

I have been thinking a bit about pillows these days as I have traveled a bit and had many hotel pillows to compare and contrast.  Some years ago, when I still lived in New York City, I had some shoulder problems and went to a physical therapist for a while.  Among a regimen of stretches, he prescribed use of one of these memory foam therapeutic pillows.  It worked wonders.

However, the pillow didn’t make the move to Cleveland very well.  It ended up in the storage facility for that time period we weren’t sure if we were moving to or just visiting Cleveland.  When we had finally decided to stay and move our belongings here, it was the dead of winter, and I distinctly remember getting the pillow out of its box and discovering it to be rock hard.  It took quite a bit of warming up and fluffing to get it’s “memory foam” to remember its soft, supple self.  It never really did.  Oh, it still had its curves, but it never was the same.  It seemed every time I laid my head down on it, it began again as rock, and only after some coaxing and the warmth of my body did it finally give way to some softness.

Our guy, Jacob, knew a thing or two about hard pillows.  We enter the story just after Jacob, second to come out of the womb after his older brother, Esau, has, now as an adult, tricked their elderly father into giving him the blessing that should have been Esau’s to have.  Jacob is fleeing the rightful wrath of his older brother and the presumed shame of his father.  As often happens when one is fleeing one’s past, Jacob forgot to bring his memory foam therapeutic pillow, and has to lay his head on a literal rock.

Hard Places

I bet you have had the occasion to lay your head on a hard place, haven’t you?

I invite you to look at and feel the rock you have chosen.  Where and when in your life have you had to “lay your head down on a hard place?”  Think of those times in your life you were running from the past, or had hurt someone you loved?  Maybe you have been afraid of what you had become, or uncertain of where you were going to?  Think about the times you have had to “lay your head down on a hard place.”  {pause}

Ladders & Ziggurats

Now, I don’t know if the warmth of his body or the coaxing of his head softened up his memory foam therapeutic pillow or not, but Jacob was actually able to fall asleep.  Maybe he was just so damn tired.  And, as is often the case when we are trying to sleep anxious, or afraid, or with heaviness on our hearts, he has a dream.  And in this dream was a now-famous ladder.  It probably was more of a ziggurat, the ancient Mesopotamian structures that were built to allow “heaven and earth to meet.” The city of Babylon, which means “gate of god,” had a most famous ziggurat. (1)  We might think of the huge Mayan temples in Mexico with their stairs rising up as if to heaven.

On this ladder, or ziggurat, were angels, or messengers from heaven, ascending and descending to and from the earth.  No specific message is given by these particular messengers, they are just going up and coming down, constantly.  Jacob doesn’t climb, even though in one of our famous camp songs, we dare to ascend.  “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder…”

Angels & Messengers

Jewish physicist and poet, David Curzon, surmises that a dream of angels coming and going constantly may be the sign of a manic-depressive person.  Curzon points out that with all the goings on that have happened to Jacob up to this point in his young life, and all the shenanigans he will be a part of in his future, it might be understandable that his emotional state would be unstable.

But Curzon also points out that the Hebrew, much like the English (a first!), hints at a double-entendre that the reader is supposed to catch: Ascending sounds a lot like “assenting” and “descending” sounds a lot like “dissenting.”  Some of the rabbis whose commentary is in the Midrash felt that this was the biblical writers way of getting a pun in. (2)  Jacob’s messengers going up and down the ladder were indicative of his struggles with God – which we’ll deal with directly in a couple of weeks – but which we get a hint of today.  We go to God, and sometimes agree with God.  We turn from God, and sometimes disagree with God.  Ascending and descending; assenting and dissenting.  Up and down.

I bet you have had some dreams of God’s messengers coming to you in the night, haven’t you?

As you look at and feel the rock you have chosen, think again about the times you have had to “lay your head down on a hard place.”  Think about the desire, the hope, the yearning to have an angel come to you to help you out, or a messenger come to give you the answer to your questions, clear up the mess of your dilemmas.  How often do you get a definitive answer?  How often does it feel the angels don’t even give you the time of day?  How many times have you agreed with, or disagreed with, the answer the divine seems to give you?  {pause}

Blessings From A Hard Rock

And yet, Jacob still gets something amazing from this encounter with the holy.  Even though the messengers don’t seem to be providing any answers, Jacob finds God standing beside him.  God reassures Jacob that he is still part of the story.  Here God reminds Jacob that the promise made to Jacob’s ancestors, Abraham and Isaac, will continue to and through him.  Hebrew Scriptures scholar Julianna Claassens makes the point that in this short text God reiterates for an eighth time the promise of a land, the seventh time the promise of becoming father of a large nation, and for the fifth time the promise that all nations will be blessed through the matriarchs and patriarchs of this faith. (3)  That’s a lot of blessings!

But God also makes some promises to Jacob that are special and unique to him.  God promises to be with Jacob, which is even more important as he is wandering from his home, with no sense he will ever be home again.  And God promises to bring Jacob back home. (4)

I bet you have discovered God’s blessings, even when you’ve had to “lay your head on a hard place,” haven’t you?

Look at and feel the rock you have chosen.  Have you ever felt abandoned by God, only to discover God closer to you than your own breath?  When have you ever received God’s blessings, even though you had to “lay your head on hard places?”  When did you feel blessed by God because of having to “lay your head on hard places?”

Holy Rocks On Sacred Journeys

So Jacob does what almost any of us would do.  He marks the spot where this happens as holy, sacred, special.  Like a roadside memorial to a lost family member or state trooper, Jacob anoints that gosh-darn rock with oil, places it on whatever makeshift pedestal he could, and calls this no-place place in the wilderness Beth-El: The House Of God.  Who needs a sanctuary when God comes to you on the journey?!

Beloved, the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith were real people, sometimes even crusty and funny.  Jacob was one of them.  His running from his past, laying his head on a “memory foam therapeutic pillow” of a rock, envisioning messengers coming and going from heaven, and receiving the ancient blessings that were his, and ours, to receive can be a gift to us all.  Let us remember that the next time we must lay our heads down on a hard place.  Let us mark those spots as holy, and know that God is with us on the journey.

Amen.

(1) Commentary, Genesis 28:10-19a, Esther M. Menn, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008 at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/20/2008&tab=2

(2) Dreams from Jewish Heritage OnLine Magazine. Ancient and contemporary articles, commentary, and exposition about dreams, Biblical to modern.  Includes “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” David Curzon at:  http://www.jhom.com/topics/dreams/jacob.html

(3) Commentary, Genesis 28:10-19a, Juliana Claassens, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011 at:

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/17/2011&tab=2

(4) Ibid.

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