This sermon was preached at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Baldwinsville, NY on July 17, 2011
When I was 18 years old — just before I left for college my pastor took me out to lunch. He told me that he had seen a change in me throughout high school. I grew up, I matured quite a bit, especially after a few summers at Camp. He said I really believe that you are going to be a pastor one day.
Now this was not the first time I heard this. I was told a number of times that I was going to be a pastor. But I did not want to hear it. I did not want to accept that. I had other plans. I was going to be a world famous tuba player!!
But sometimes, God pushes into our lives and surprises us by being present. What I learned over the next several years is that if we are open to listen and look for God, we can make a discovery that will lead us into a new way of life.
Jacob had an experience like that. In our OT reading we learn that Jacob the grandson of Abraham was being called by God. Abraham if you remember was the one with whom God had made a covenant, saying that his descendants were promised to make a great nation. Surely, Jacob must have heard the stories of his grandfather Abraham.
That would of been a lot of pressure growing up. We are not sure if Jacob felt this pressure or not. The Bible doesn’t tell us of any encounters between Jacob and God before the one today’s scripture lesson.
Instead, the Bible tells us that Jacob lived a selfish life, depending only on himself, looking out only for himself, and using everyone around him to get what he wanted.
He had made an enemy of his brother Esau and taken advantage of his father so without any more options he had to leave home. He was on a lonely journey into an uncertain future when he camped out that night on the way to Haran. Jacob, up to this point had been living as if there were no God.
We understand too well what it means to live as if we can’t see God, don’t we? Most of us have been trained to live lives shaped by the values and expectations of the world instead of the Spirit. The Apostle Paul called that “living according to the flesh.” He contrasted it with another way of life that he called “living by the Spirit.” Paul said that people who live by the flesh are very likely to fall into a life-shaping fear which doesn’t allow us to fully experience the world around us.
Jacob must have been experiencing life in that way when he pitched camp that night on the road to Haran. But during the night, something happened that surprised him. He had a dream in which he saw angels going up and down to the heavens. And there was God. And God spoke to Jacob and initiated a real and personal interaction with him. Jacob was able to see and to experience God first hand.
This is something that I believe that the Bible is in our lives…… the Bible gives us the ability to experience God first hand. Throughout the Bible we read about times that the author had seen God and felt compelled to share that with others. Each story offers us a glimpse of what it looks like when God gets involved.
We are not likely to see God in the same way our ancestors in the faith did, but we may still come to recognize God’s activity in the world
So while I may not see a burning bush that is not consumed, I may still learn to recognize the presence of God a campfire surrounded by my friends and family. I may never experience the miraculous healing of a blind man. But I have experienced the wonders of medicine. I have seen important family members leave the hospital when doctors thought they never would.
When we open ourselves to the wonders of God’s love in our life, we will find that it will give us new a new meaning and a new purpose. That experience can give us a sense of never being alone, and knowing that there is someone at work out there who is greater than ourselves. We may not receive specific promises like Jacob did. But knowing God is at work out there can generate a new hope in us. It can encourage us to venture out beyond what we once thought was our “comfort zone” to see what can happen. It can teach us a new way of being alive.
When things like that begin to happen in your life, you may discover what Paul meant when he talked about living according to the Spirit. It is living a life that is shaped by a relationship with God. Better yet, you may discover what it means to experience yourself as a child of God to see God the father in the world around you.
C. S. Lewis was one of the best known religious writers of our day. One of his books, which tells of his experience coming to faith, is titled Surprised By Joy. The movie Shadowlands tells the story of his life. One sequence in the movie is especially significant. Lewis was an intellectual. His whole life seemed to be contained within the walls and traditions of a prestigious university. He knew a lot about the Christian religion and what the Christian religion taught about God, but it was all pretty much on an academic level.
One day a woman named Joy Davidman came into his life. He eventually married her. She represented to him life as other people experience it. One day Joy saw a picture hanging on Lewis’ wall. It was a landscape of a beautiful valley. Joy asked where it was. Lewis said he had never thought to ask that. He thought it might have just been a product of the artist’s imagination. It never occurred to him that it might be a picture of a real place. Joy investigated and found that the picture was a painting of a real valley that was not far from the university. She insisted that they go to see it. They did, and they experienced the great beauty of the reality represented by the picture.
In a similar way, many of us still have some ideas about what God is supposed to be like and about what life is supposed to be like, according to the Church. Unfortunately for many of us, these ideas have come to seem like pictures hanging on a wall or words written in a book, the products of someone’s imagination, things that have no relationship to the real world in which we live. But the God of the church is real and alive and always present, and is constantly in our lives. Imagine a life where we take the stories that we read in the Bible and open ourselves to the beauty in which they bring to us.
What I am inviting you to do today, is to take the story of Jacob with you. You do not have to sleep on a rock, but I invite you to take one of the stones from the pile and to place it somewhere during the week where you sense the presence of God. Maybe it’s somewhere at home or at school, or at work or a place where you volunteer. It can be almost anywhere that you sense God at work. Don’t be surprised if it’s somewhere pretty ordinary, somewhere that maybe you hadn’t thought God would be because we’re so used to expecting God to be at church that we sometimes unintentionally assume God isn’t really anywhere else.
By doing this we are not expecting to have the same experience as Jacob, but realizing that we do have the same God, the same God who blesses and who delights when we, too, awakened to God’s surprising presence, might also say, “The Lord was here and I did not know it!”
Because God is with us even in the places we least expect to see God. My hope is that you have a moment of clarity this week about God’s activity in the world, that God for you will be even more not just something you read about in a Book but something that you experience with your hear. When you do have those experiences please share that with me share that with others in your life as well.