Like everyone, I have a heap of ancestors. Many were good Christian souls; several were pastors. Some were butchers, one was a cook. Others worked for local government. A couple of women were abused, either as children or as wives; and one man was a violent drunk. So if a person was telling the history of God’s work through my family, who would get a starring role? The Methodist minister? The mayor of Burra? The jolly butcher? The good wives? Or the violent and good-for-nothing drunk?
I don’t have a clear answer, but the stories about Jacob make me wonder. He is one of the great-great-granddaddies of our faith, and we’d like to think that he was a good man, a great man: the sort of ancestor we can be proud of. Someone to live up to: a hero of the faith. But the stories actually paint a pretty shabby picture. He smooth-talked his brother Esau into swapping his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. He dressed up as this same brother, strapped soft, hairy goatskins to his arms, and lied to his father, to trick old man Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. His behaviour made Esau so angry that he vowed to kill his brother: now Jacob is on the run.
So this great-great-granddaddy of our faith is not a good and faithful servant. Instead, he’s a trickster, a liar, and a thief who’s been threatened with death. He’s an asylum seeker, for he’s now sleeping on other people’s land, in a place called Luz. And if Jacob had any sort of conscience, he’d be tossing and turning, racked by guilt, worried about the family he left behind, anxious about where he’s going. But no—this manipulative schmuck sleeps like a baby. Jacob’s not the sort of ancestor to be proud of at all: but somehow he has a starring role in God’s story.
Then, as he’s sleeping and dreaming of angels, the Lord appears to him. In a normal story, God would be coming to give him a good telling off, but no! God says nothing about the way Jacob tricked his brother, and lied to his father, and took the Lord’s name in vain. Instead, God meets Jacob right where he is, fleeing, vulnerable, and quite unrepentant, and gives him the world on a plate! For God promises land, and descendants, and to be with Jacob always: and the promises are unconditional. They do not demand anything of Jacob at all.
What might this tell us about God?
Well, many preachers thunder judgement from the pulpit; many Christians talk conditionally about grace. “If you believe in God, then God will love you … If you confess your sins, then they will be forgiven … If you change your life, then you will become acceptable … If you are good, then God will bless you …”—and woe to those who don’t believe, and don’t confess, and don’t change, and aren’t ‘good’!
But this is not the God of the Jacob stories, nor is it the God we encounter in Jesus Christ. Conditional promises are like the promises made by Jacob, who says he will place his faith in God only as long as God looks after him. Conditional promises are human; and so is conditional forgiveness, and conditional love.
God is different. The extravagant promises God made to Jacob don’t rely on Jacob. There are no expectations placed upon him, no conditions made. And this is not a once-off slip up of God’s. For Jesus, the son of God, met the scoundrel Zacchaeus and called him into relationship, unconditionally. He sought out Samaritan women and tax collectors and prostitutes and people sick in ways we are too scared to touch. He did not wait for them to make confessions or commitments of faith; Jesus accepted them as they were, in all their sickness and in all their sin. Any changes in people happened afterwards, in grateful response.
In other words, in God’s economy, love and forgiveness and blessing are unconditional, and come first. They are not rewards for good behaviour. And our turning to God, our repentance, can only ever be a response to what has already been given us on a plate. God blesses because God is love: and that love is always pure gift.
And did you notice that, for all of his trickery and striving, Jacob received God’s blessing not when he was grabbing for it, but when he was asleep. In the same way, when you give up striving for God’s approval, when you give up trying to show that you’ve earned it, when you let down your defences: then anything is possible. In some harsh and lonely place, you too might dream of angels, and wake to the presence of God. You will receive gifts unimaginable: forgiveness, courage, acceptance, hope, and love. And after you receive them, something wonderful can happen: Your conversion—your turning your life toward God—can begin. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Genesis 28:10-22, given by Alison Sampson to Sanctuary, 23 July 2017 (AP11). Image shows Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Jacob’s Ladder, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54657 [retrieved July 20, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abeppu/3815924145/.