Meeting God in the Wilderness
A Homily for 9 Trinity
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
August 17, 2019
Text: Genesis 28:10-22
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
When we survey that genealogies of Christ in St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s gospel accounts we learn that God used messy people to do his will. We see that he used the noble and the ignoble, the wise and the foolish, the Jew and the gentile to bring his son, the savior of all who believe into the world. We learn that even the noble men that he used, were not always so noble, we learn that God used broken people, drawn out of messy situations to do His will. This morning we meet one such messy, nobly ignoble person as he is sent to His mother’s household to find a wife. Yet, as we read and learn more about Jacob, we learn that God humbles Him, we will see this in particularly next week, when God gives him a constant reminder of the necessity of leaning on God, not on his own strength.
This week we are taking a fairly big leap forward from the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, to finding one of their two sons, in the wilderness, making his way to the land of His mother, having just stolen his brother’s blessing. We read in the previous chapter of Jacob and his mother’s trickery in stealing this blessing. We see Esau, Jacob’s twin, go into a self-destructive pattern by seeking a wife from the same people whom his father forbid his brother to marry.
But we meet Jacob far from home, running to his mother’s homeland. Even from the description of where he’s at, it sounds profoundly lonely. Perhaps it was less so than the narrative makes it out to be. But I will say the only other narrative I’ve seen the imagery of using a stone to sleep on, is in the peanuts cartoons where Snoopy is portrayed as a cowboy, and he is lonely and here too, Jacob seems both alone, and lonely.
So often our actions lead us into lonely places – whether it be because God is calling us to grow in Him or because we have sinned and have torn apart the relationships that mean the most to us. In our sin, or in our sanctification God draws us out, draws us away from the comforts of life, away from our family and our friends who are easy to learn upon when we are struggling and unto himself.
It is in the wilderness that we either meet God or meet the devil. Thomas Merton summarizes this dichotomy particularly well in his book Thoughts in Solitude:
The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God's plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.
The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself--that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.
This is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out into the "wilderness of upper Egypt" to "wander in dry places." Thirst drives man mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence--lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.
So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage.
It is, of course in the wilderness that the Israelites will be drawn closer to God, whether they liked it or not, and it is in the wilderness that Jacob meets God for the first time, where he receives the same promise that His grandfather received years before. It is in the wilderness of our souls that we too can learn to lean upon God more deeply.
It is in a dream that Jacob receives this promise – here we must take care. We often want something mystical to happen to us. We want our dreams to mean something. And yes, we can have dreams that will encourage us – but dreams, more often than not, are reflections of our thoughts, and hopes, more than anything prophetic.
Yes, God can use dreams to encourage us, but we must check those dreams against godly counsel – against scripture – does this line up with what the Lord has spelled out in His Holy Word passed on to us? We must check them against what friends might say, who know our hearts and our souls intimately, we must check them against how God has worked in all times and in all places.
I have said this many times, and I suspect that I will say it a thousand more times before I go to my final rest – the better way to know God, than to hope for some charismatic intervention is to spend time steeped in his word. Is to spend time, creating a humble life with our brothers and sisters in Christ, is to partake in the sacraments which he’s ordained, it is to bring ourselves low in prayer to the foot of Christ’s cross. This isn’t flashy, this isn’t elaborate – but to know God means to humbly do the work of discipleship – discipling ourselves, discipling our brothers and sisters, and discipling our new friends in Christ.
Yes – there are those whom will come to Christ through a vision – meeting Him in a dream, meeting him while walking down the beach, meeting him while in a hostel in Paris – but for most of us, one will tend the soil of our hearts, another will plant a seed of the gospel, and another still will water it, and that seed will slowly grow into a seedling, and then a tree – so one will plant, another will water, but as we survey our personal spiritual history – we will see that it is God that will give us the growth. For those amongst us who have become mighty oaks in the faith – it is your turn to tend, your turn to water, your turn to let God give the growth with those around you who long for the peace and joy which you understand, even in the storms of life.
But, I digress – yes, mystical dreams can happen – but the better way to know Christ is to humbly submit before His word, to dig deep into it daily, to ask God to hammer open your ears so you can hear him as you read, and to persist in the hard work of daily devotions, and regularly gathering with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
As Jacob dreams he sees a ladder. To us we think of an A-frame ladder, or a perhaps a ladder which we put against the building and wobbles as we climb to the roof, and a friend tells us he’s hold on, though we wonder if he really is, being too afraid to look down. Most commentators agree that the ladder Jacob sees would be more like solid rock stairs common to pagan temples in the ancient near eastern region.
You may remember that it was not uncommon in ancient near eastern culture to go to high places to meet God. We traveled a few weeks ago with Abraham as he brought his son to the top of Mount Moriah. We know that Mount Moriah eventually becomes Jerusalem and it is on that mount that the temple is built. Elsewhere, we read of Elijah challenging the pagan priests to a duel of gods, if you will, on the top of Mount Carmel. The transfiguration happens upon Mount Tabor. We even see this from secular culture with the Greeks building their temples on top of the highest points in the city.
The ladder we see in today’s lesson leads directly into heaven and not to a mountain top. Jacob sees from heaven the angels of God going up and down the ladder.
As we read about angels, especially in the Genesis narrative – we want to think messengers. Again, we remember that Angels are not like those sweet sentimental knickknacks that we can buy at the Hallmark store and put on our coffee table to remember that angels are watching over us, but rather, truly unique sounding creatures who were created to do God’s will. Created to make announcements and in the Book of Revelation to help pour out God’s judgement upon the earth. We must also remember that the devil and his minions are fallen angels – angels that chose to rebel against God, chose to try to be their own gods, and with that in mind and our desire to see miracles, we keep in mind what John Calvin once said “we must remember that Satan has his miracles too.” So we guard our hearts and test all spirits.
We see the messengers of God coming and going from heaven, and something profound here happens. With the dead pagan gods of the region, those that went to adore them had to trop up the long staircases to meet them in their temple. Our false gods, and idols require that we work to come to them, they require a slavish devotion and give nothing in return. In comparison, we note that God came to Jacob as Jacob slept, just as Jesus has come to us, God has come to the Christian, not the other way around – He comes first in the giving of His son for our salvation, and then in the giving of His spirit for our sanctification.
Jacob then hears from heavens a voice that boomed and told him.
“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. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the south and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, 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.”
The promise that was made to Abraham has been passed on to his grandson. In Jacob’s loneliness in the wilderness, he is reminded of this promise. Certainly, he would have heard his dad talking about it to his mother Rebekah. Certainly, he would have remembered the blessing of his father upon hearing God’s voice. Certainly – in the loneliness suddenly he would have felt a security which he thought he had lost.
Again – we are reminded of a few things here – first the historical aspect of this – we know that from Jacob comes his twelve sons, who are the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel that grow into an impressive nation. Today, that nation carries on both in dispersion and in the actual state of Israel. But we also know what the blessing to the all the families is – it is Christ, Christ who came, who lived in perfection, and died, and was rose again so that we can put on His righteousness, so that we can live in Him, so that we can die, and be risen to life.
We end this section with Jacob setting up a monument to what he has seen as a reminder to all but especially to himself that God is with him, and that God will be faithful to do what he has promised, in His time.
God does not make promises to his people that he cannot fulfil, and here as we read of Jacob in the wilderness, we can know that, we can be reminded of that, and we can hope too, that God is with us in our wilderness.
And what of these promises for us, the church, and the individuals that make up the church – we have a tendency to want, especially as relatively affluent western Christians, for God’s promises for us to be earthly – a nice house, a loving family, a good job, a comfortable retirement. But God never promises these things to His people – rather he promises that He is with us, He is our shepherd, he will bring us finally to the Green pasture, to the living water, to the great banquet that is the eternity spent with Him basking in His glory.
So today, you may have come here with joy in your heart, with knowing that all shall be well, or you may have come here in the midst of a storm – not knowing what God will do next, feeling that you are in desolation – but dear friends – if we are abiding in Christ then we can have confidence that God is with us.
I was talking with a friend about this recently – I think that we as individuals are either good at having head love for God, or heart love for God, it is much harder to have both. I am one who leans towards head love. It is easy for me to read a book about an attribute of God, and be inspired, and think thoughts about God, it is much harder for me to feel and sense God’s love in my heart. Somewhat distressed by this revelation – I was asking my friend how he nurtures this and his advice was simply – we must see God as our shepherd.
It is here that I have found Psalm 23 so incredibly helpful – the simple reminder that God is leading us into green pastures – that God will never, ever abandon His people, that I am a mere sheep called to follow the good shepherd’s voice, to seek Him in all things, to give all my hopes and dreams, struggles and sorrows to Him, that he would continually sanctify me, and that I would trust with the simplicity of a sheep so that he would lead me through both the joyous times of life and the dark and scary times, and I would grow in confidence in Him.
Friends – if you are like Jacob and find yourself in the spiritual wilderness, know that you are being called to lean upon the good shepherd. Called to let Him lead you, called to find your confidence and joy in Christ and in Christ alone.
Do not presume how God will answer your prayer – simply that he will, and when he does write it in a journal, when you see him working, make a monument in your heart. For, this will not be the only desert, it will not be the only time of struggle in your life, and when you find yourself in the desert again, find those monuments, so you may think “aha – I remember how God worked before, let me lean upon Him, that He may tend to my soul yet again, as I travel through this scary land.”
Dear brothers and sisters – we see time and again God using messy people like you and I to do glorious things – so do not grow dismayed but take heart for the Lord is our shepherd, we shall never want, let us go forth from here in the great confidence that God is with us, that God will tend to our souls, that God will lead us forward, sanctifying us in all things so that on that last day we may arrive at the great banquet feast of Christ to His bride, the church, which is us.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.