Jacob and the Night Visitor

Genesis 28:10-17

August 7, 2005

Jim Zazzera


This morning I would like to tell you a sort of expanded story. For you see, our God is not primarily a God who sits on a mountain and hands out timeless truths. Instead, our God is one who gets involved in people’s lives. Our God is one about whom we tell stories.


If you like, you can call this story Jacob and the Night Visitor.


If ever someone didn’t deserve a visit, it was him. All sorts of people in the world were more deserving. They gave food to others. They served God. They obeyed their parents. They treated folks nicely. They were not like him.


All sorts of people want to meet God face to face. They yearn for it. They study the scriptures. They pray. They show God’s love in their lives. Yet not one of them had this experience. Not one of them saw this ladder of God.


Jacob was not unlike you or me. Just take all your bad qualities and multiply them by ten. He fought with his twin brother since before they were born. He sat around…doing nothing. He forced his brother to give up all his rights as firstborn in exchange for a simple plate of food. Jacob was a mama’s boy who even roped his mother into his deceit and trickery. His mother helped him create a disguise so that aging Isaac might think that Jacob was Esau. Jacob came to his father pretending to be Esau, and managed to convince old Isaac to grant to him all the good things that should have rightfully gone to his brother.


Jacob was the kind of person, who once you got to know, you would be sure not to like. He was the kind of person who only looked out for himself. It would not be inaccurate to say that most folks probably though he was kind of a creep.


Yet Jacob was the one who received the night visitor.


Actually, when the visit came, he was on the run. His brother Esau had finally gotten fed up with his behavior and was out to kill him. His mother Rebekah wisely advised Jacob to leave town. His father, knowing little about this brotherly conflict, also recommended he leave Canaan – to find a wife from among “his own people” in Mesopotamia. So off to Uncle Laban’s house he went, a long journey, 500 miles away. One night, he stopped to sleep, high on a rocky, barren, hill. Most folks would have said that Jacob deserved that cold, desolate, lonely place.


There he lay in fear. He feared Esau who pursued him to murder him. He feared the journey, for you see, the trip was fraught with dangers. It was not impossible that he would be taken by either severe weather or by vicious bandits along the way.

Yet, what Jacob may have feared most was losing control in his life. He feared that somehow if he was not the first, that if he did not have ALL of  his father’s blessings, that if he did not trick, cheat, and lie to control his destiny – that he would not survive.


And so now here he was, his fear moved him to take all that he thought he needed. Yet he was on the run -  cold, forsaken, alone – and still fearful. But in the midst of his fear, the despised, unfaithful, undeserving Jacob received the visitor.


You heard the story read this morning. In a dream Jacob saw a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. He saw angels climbing up and down that ladder. And there – the visitor – God – was standing right beside him. Most of us would give anything for and experience like Jacob’s. Most of us would offer the world to see God right beside us.


And the visit offers even more. God makes promises to Jacob. First, God promises him land, miles and miles of it, the greatest form of wealth available in that time and place. Then, God promises Jacob many descendants – children, grandchildren and great grandchildren – so that his influence would be over all space and time. Next, God promises that through Jacob and his people the whole world will be blessed. How amazing that must have felt to a person who up to then had only brought the world trouble! Finally, God says to Jacob, “I will be with you to protect you.” This may have been the most surprising news to a despicable fellow like Jacob.


So how did Jacob – our lying deceitful Jacob – respond to these incredible gifts of God? Like he had responded so many times – Jacob responded in fear. Yet perhaps the fear this time was different than he had ever experienced before.


Jacob woke with a start, he knew that God had been there, and he trembled. As had happened so many time in his life, Jacob was afraid. He claimed that beside him was a “gate to heaven” yet perhaps he had discovered something more important. Perhaps this new fear had created a new and different kind of gate, a small opening in Jacob’s heart. His fear was different this time.


Before, when Jacob feared, he tried to control everything around him. He would lie, cheat, trick or run. Anything to save his own skin.


Yet here and now, in the place he would name Bethel - “The house of God” – he learned a new fear. There he met the God he knew he couldn’t control – and he feared.  There he was promised a bright future and many blessings ­– and he feared. There he realized his future was in the hands of God – that God had given him a great gift – and he feared.


Jacob could have laughed and not believed it. He could have jumped for joy. He could have run away again. Yet he feared – and stood in awe of the God of creation.


Why? Why did he fear? Was it because he now knew that God was always with him? Was it because he realized what his life had been and knew what he deserved for it? Was it because he was scared of what might happen the next time he went to sleep? Or was Jacob overwhelmed by God’s promises and afraid of his new power and responsibility?


And so we leave Jacob here – at a crossroads in his life. He who was despised – is now given blessings. He who sought to control – now realizes who is in control. He who tried to avoid responsibility – is now given incredible responsibility. He who had a wild fear of the world – now has a reverent fear of God.


Jacob is poised for a change. He might choose to revert to his former self – fearful and seeking control in any way he can. Or he might begin to be transformed, seeking to be open to the God who works in the most unlikely people – in the most unexpected ways.


There is no real “moral” to this story. (In that way it is kind of like life.) If there is a specific point – it might be that God works in the lives of people who don’t deserve it. We could be angry about that as we look at others and think them undeserving. Or we could be excited and amazed by that – as we consider our own brokenness. Either way, God gives us something to think and pray about.