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Gripped by Grace: Over All My Wanderings (Gen. 28:10-22)

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Francis Thompson

Francis Thompson (1859-1907) was a 19th century British poet. When he was young, his father wanted him to be a physician, but he failed. So he ran away. He failed every occupation he tried. He ended up drifting and wandering around and finally fell into financial hard times. So poverty-stricken was he in London, where he was pursuing a career as a writer, that he sold matches to earn money and borrowed paper on which to write poems. His troubles increased when he got sick. To relieve the acute pain of this condition, he began a concoction of opium and ethanol. He then became an addict. He would eventually die of tuberculosis at the age of 48.[1]

In the depths of his despair, Thompson realized that the person he was running from was not his father or even his own failures, but he was running from God. He ended up penning what G.K. Chesterton calls “the greatest poem in modern English,”[2] called The Hound of Heaven. It has 182 lines and it is difficult to understand, but profound if you truly take time to soak it all in.

“I fled Him down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears
I hid from him and under running laughter…”Image

The author sets the poem in the context of a life spent running from God.  The poem pictures God like an old bloodhound sniffing our scent, always in the distance, occasionally letting out a howl to remind us that he is on our trail. He runs because he is deceived into thinking that he cannot truly be happy if he follows God. As the lengthy poem goes on, Thompson says he fled “across the margins of the world,” but the refrain always comes back: “Still with unhurrying chase and unperturbed [not worried] pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy [urgency]…came on the following feet, and a Voice above their beat…”

He runs to all kinds of pleasure, which leaves him empty, yet He finds God right there saying, “All things betray you who betray Me.” He runs to people to find contentment to hear God saying, “Nothing will give you contentment if you are not content in Me.” He comes to the end of his life to find everything has tried to hold on to for happiness flies away. Yet, God pursuing him says, “All things will fly from you who flies away from me!”

I will tell you how this poem ends in a little bit. But we are all familiar with our tendencies to run away from God. We are, as the hymn writer says, “prone to wander” and “prone to leave the God we love.” We have sin and addictions that easily entangles us, worries that fill our hearts and consume us or we have circumstances that sometimes cripple us. Some of our relationships have worn down our hearts and we are discouraged. Life can get hard and unbearable. And in those times, it is easy to run from God to try to find refuge and comfort. Like Thompson says, our situation is not easy and simple, but like a maze, intricate and convoluted. It can go on for years, bringing loneliness to your soul. Where is God in all of this?

Today we are going to continue to study a very complicated and convoluted person. We are finally back in Genesis and should be in this great book for the rest of the year. We are in the story of Jacob. He is a schemer and deceiver. He cheats his father Isaac to get something called “the blessing.” However, the whole thing caves in on him and finally he has to run away because his hairy brother is out to kill him.

Jacob has heard about the God who started this whole process, but does not know Him personally. But as he runs away from the Promised Land, it looks like there is no hope for him with God. He is a schemer. He is a liar. He is a deceiver. He even says God helps him scheme. He grabs and takes what he wants and when he wants it. Is this the one through whom God is going to save the world? He is not even pursuing God. He does not even call upon God. He doesn’t even want God. He is actually leaving the land God said He was going to give to Abraham’s ancestors. This must surely be the last straw. God should surely give up on Jacob now. This guy only cares for himself. Can grace triumph even when we leave God? When we don’t even want to pursue Him? Can grace triumph over our wandering from the Lord? When we resist His grace and don’t even seek it? How will God treat this fugitive and runaway?

Let’s look at our text today and start with this:

I.   Hard places are God-encountering places (vv.10-11)

Jacob’s running away to where Abraham came from, Haran. The 550-mile trip from Beersheba to Haran would have taken Jacob over a month.[3] This was his mother’s idea because Esau, his brother, was ready to kill him because Jacob cheated him twice  (Gen. 27:43-44). It was supposed to be for a little while, but what will happen is that Jacob will never see his mother again and be gone for 20 years.

Notice the repetition of “place” in vv.10-11. Why repeat those terms? Jacob is nowhere important and significant; kind of like his life spiritually. He is actually near the city of Luz (Gen. 28:19). He has probably been traveling for several days and approximately 60 miles from Beersheba.[4] The author is careful to tell us of his sleeping accommodations: a stone is a pillow. Maybe he is in South India? Pillows and mattresses feel like stones there! This is a hard place for Jacob.

Why does the author tell us this? Jacob is penniless. It is not like he packed up with a bunch of stuff and set up camp. He ran with nothing except the shirt or robe on his back. He has no family, no birthright, no blessing, no inheritance, no house, no wife, no bed, nothing. His life has completely fallen apart through his sin. And the worst part about this is that he is not even seeking God. He doesn’t even want God (there is no indication that he does). This is a hard place.

The fugitive is forced to sleep out in the open. The sun has gone down and it is dark, symbolizing his life. The true “daybreak” for his soul will not come until the end of his twenty-year exile (32:26).[5] The comfort of his parents’ tent has been replaced by a rock. This is a pathetic and sad scene. This is a hard place.

But here is what he doesn’t know. Someone has been here before. Jacob is going to call this place Bethel, but years before, before it was known as Bethel, Abraham had been there (Gen. 12:8). Moses called it Bethel then to inform his readers that’s where he was, though the actual name of it does not happen until Jacob. Abraham had built an altar there when he showed up the first time without a home, a son or any blessing. Jacob “happened” to come some ordinary place, but it turns out to be providentially the place God wanted him to be.

We never know what God will do with what we do for Him. God is always doing a million things we cannot see. Little did Abraham know that his grandson would meet God here and begin his own journey of transformation! Little does Jacob know that God has already been here in his hard place. Jacob’s hard place was a place of transformation because God was there. What if instead of wanting to be out of our “hard places,” that we pray to see God bigger in the midst of them? If Jacob had God’s perspective here, how different things would be?

I just finished reading one of the best books on prayer that I have read in a long time. In Paul Miller’s A Praying Life, he talks about a time when his wife was pregnant:Image

WHEN JILL WAS PREGNANT with Kim, she prayed using Psalm 121, asking God to keep her baby from all harm. Next to the psalm Jill wrote the date (August 1981) she started praying this prayer. When Kim was born, everything went wrong…Kim was born blue and her first Apgar score was low. She looked different to me. I called Jill’s parents from a pay phone at the hospital. “Something’s wrong with the baby,” I said and burst into tears.

We had no clear diagnosis of what was wrong—we wouldn’t until Kim was nineteen years old—so we, like most parents of disabled children, were operating in the dark. We didn’t know if Kim was hurt from birth or if she had some kind of disorder… We were young, confused, and afraid. In time Jill began to hate the dreaded charts that described what your child should be doing at what age. Some doctors encouraged us, saying Kim was fine. Others didn’t. One neurologist at a major medical center wondered if Jill had beaten Kim.

We were overwhelmed with the number of problems Kim had. And new ones just kept coming. Her muscle tone was floppy. Her eyes didn’t focus. She had pneumonia. She had trouble breathing, especially in the winter, becoming listless when we turned on the heat. Her breathing problem was so pronounced that we used the last of our savings to convert to electric baseboard heat. For the next twenty years we lived paycheck to paycheck. It was agony, especially for Jill. She had prayed that God would keep Kim from harm, but we were holding a harmed child. At one point I told Jill, “Why don’t you just give Kim to God?” She told me, “Paul, every day I take Kim up in my arms, walk her up to the foot of the cross, and then turn my back and come down again.” It would have been easier for us if Jill had not prayed that Kim would be kept from harm.

God takes everyone he loves through a desert. It is his cure for our wandering hearts, restlessly searching for a new Eden. Here’s how it works. The first thing that happens is we slowly give up the fight. Our wills are broken by the reality of our circumstances. The things that brought us life gradually die.

 Very early on Jill and I were aware that because of Kim, God was humbling us, making us more like his Son. Kim saved our family, beginning with me. God used Kim to wake me up spiritually…Kim is the reason Jill and our daughter Ashley became special education teachers.

Remember Kim’s seasonal breathing problem? Ten years later when we sold our house, we discovered that our gas furnace had been improperly installed. Kim’s weakened condition had made her particularly susceptible to the effects of carbon-monoxide gas that was filling our house. She was like one of those canaries the miners used to detect dangerous fumes. Kim kept us from harm. Years later when Kim was about twenty, I was sitting at the dining-room table writing a Bible study on Psalm 121 that I was going to teach to our small group. I had forgotten about Jill’s Psalm 121 prayer. I looked up from the table and said, “Jill, God did it. He kept us from all harm. He did Psalm 121.”

We had thought the harm was a daughter with disabilities, but this was nothing compared to the danger of two proud and willful parents. Because Kim was mute, Jill and I learned to listen. Her helplessness taught us to become helpless, too. Kim brought Jesus into our home. Jill and I could no longer do life on our own. We needed Jesus to get from one end of the day to the other. We’d asked for a loaf of bread, and instead of giving us a stone, our Father had spread a feast for us in the wilderness. Thank you, Jesus, for Kim. You cry out to God so long and so often that a channel begins to open up between you and God. When we don’t receive what we pray for or desire, it doesn’t mean that God isn’t acting on our behalf. Rather, he’s weaving his story.[6]

I am moved by that story. It would have been easy for them to get bitter at God and run away from Him. It would have been easy to be angry at God for not answering prayer, but they saw that hard places are places of transformation; places to meet God.

Ordinary places are turned into extraordinary places of worship when God shows up! What is your hard place right now? Have you wondered how this might be part of God’s great gospel story He is weaving right now?

He wants to meet you in the midst of the hard place. Why?

II. God uses hard places to surprise us with grace (vv.12-22)

What did Jacob deserve here? Nothing. He should be abandoned by God. It seems like every waking moment he’s scheming and grabbing something for himself. So the only time this guy can lay still is if he is sleeping for God to get his attention. Notice what happens. He dreams. I believe God can still speak to us through dreams, but He desires we use His Word primarily.

He sees a ladder, but that is not a good word. It is more like a winding staircase. And the name “Jacob’s ladder” is not correct either. The better title would be, “God’s staircase.” Led Zepplin had a popular 1971 song called “Stairway to Heaven.” However, that is not technically what is going on here, either. It is a stairway from Heaven. Heaven comes down to Jacob. Notice three times the word “behold.” It is almost as if it goes with a lifted arm and open mouth: “There, a ladder! oh, angels! and look, the Lord Himself!”[7] It was something huge with dozens, hundreds or thousands of angels ascending and descending on this stairway. It must have been a stunning unforgettable sight.

By the way, angels are not what television and movies portray. C.S. Lewis says that when angels show up in the Bible they always seem to say, “Fear not!” Why do they do that? Because the people they come to are frightened. They must be truly majestic creatures. However, on television, they show up and they seem to say, “hi.” What are angels? Tim Keller says, “The word “angel” means a royal herald or attendant, a herald of his royal majesty, declaring and executing the degrees and declarations of the King. The angels ascending and descending means that God’s royal power is on the move. Messengers were coming out of and returning to the throne of God. Jacob saw the angels descending from the throne of God to the earth, and returning from the earth to the throne of God. Jacob saw a visual display of the royal power of the majesty/holiness of God.”[8]

And who gets this dream? Swindling Jacob. Notice the phrase, “The Lord stood above it,” which can very well be translated, “The Lord stood beside him.” This is no longer a hard place. This is a sacred place. Why? Because of God’s presence. God’s presence turns pits into palaces; prisons to praise. His circumstances haven’t changed, but God’s nearness is always our ultimate good (Ps. 73:28). Write that down!

God’s nearness is always my ultimate good!

So where was Jacob when he received this? Was he praying hard and obeying God with all of his heart? No the opposite. Physically, he was in a barren, rocky wasteland, in the middle of nowhere. Socially, he was separated from his family and fleeing for his life. Materially, he had nothing but the shirt on his back. Spiritually, he was distant from God and alone and without hope.

He must have seen this amazing sight and then God should have said, “This is the Stairway from Heaven and you’re never getting on it you scoundrel. Look over there. See that road. That’s the highway to hell! That’s where you’re going!” What comes out of God’s mouth? Amazing! He tells Jacob who He is first. “I am the God of Abraham.” Yes, another guy I saved by grace who blew it a few times. I am not ashamed to introduce myself with his name. “I am the God of Isaac.” I saved his life and he openly disobeyed me and played favorites with your brother. I also loved him by grace and not ashamed to introduce myself with his name.

God adds, “I will give you land.” You are utterly penniless, but I will be faithful to my promises. “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.” Jacob, I know your family relationships are strained but I will give you many other descendants.  “All peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.” Jacob, right now you may feel very small and insignificant, but your life is going to count for me. It may not seem that way right now, but I will use you. “I am with you.” When you are utterly friendless, I am a friend to the friendless. The only person who truly loved him was his mother and he will not see her for the rest of his life. “I will keep you.” When you are utterly defenseless, I will watch over you and if you fear the future, “I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” All the things you were scheming to get, I will give to you.

Incredible! Why does God do this? No conditions, no rebuke, no “some covenant partner you turned out to be” speech, no mention of his past, no screaming at his present state, just absolute love and sheer grace. Stanley Greidanus adds, “God’s promises are pure grace. Jacob has messed up his life with his ambition, callousness, deceit and lying, and using the Lord’s name to cover his deceit. Jacob deserves God’s curse. But instead God comes to him with wonderful promises. And there are no conditions. It is pure grace.”

What is Jacob learning? He is learning that God wants to grip this heel grabber with grace. Jacob’s life has always been about “the blessing.” He’s been running around everywhere to get it. Notice God showing him that Jacob has been running away from the true source of blessing comes from knowing the bless-er. God always comes to us. He is always near. He also learns here that God’s power is always on the move, working what we cannot see. He is doing a million things when we think nothing is happening.  The higher we go up a mountain the more we are able to see the landscape and how things are connected on ground level. But no one is high enough to see what only God is able to see how all things are connected.

God’s desire here is for Jacob to know him, not just to give him things. It will be 20 more years before Jacob finally surrenders to the Lord, but that does not stop God here from revealing Himself to Jacob. Notice what happens when Jacob wakes up? He doesn’t say, “I’m going to get land! Descendants!” His heart, at least for this moment, is captured by God. This is what is called a “sacramental moment.” A sacramental moment is where you experience the definite presence of God. It is an absolute sense of, “God’s here!” And that can happen anywhere for us. Pray for more of that in your life. Pray you can say like Jacob: “God is here! At this stony, hard place! He is near to me!” Notice he is afraid and the word “awesome” really means “dread.” He can’t believe God didn’t kill him and not only showed him mercy, but extravagant grace. A person like him gets to see heaven open?

Keller asks, “Why did God come to Jacob when he didn’t ask? When he didn’t pray? When he wasn’t living a good life in any way? God is attracted to his brokenness. God does not just come despite Jacob’s brokenness, but because of it. Jacob has been dressing up. He’s looking to other people for approval, so he has to be somebody else. But at this point everything falls apart…God comes down and sees him sleeping. He is completely defenseless with no facades left. God looks at him at the bottom and loves him to the sky. This is what we all need. No husband, wife, father, mother, king, leader, human being can take our complete weakness. They are too weak to bless us if we show them all of our weakness. But there is the one Father, King, Friend, Husband who comes down and sees us at the bottom with all of our weaknesses, brokenness with no facades, and is actually attracted to us because of them.[9]

Notice he says, “the gate of Heaven.” Later he calls this place “Bethel,” which means “house of God.” What does this mean? The narrator is contrasting this with the tower of Babel, where the people were building “a tower that reaches to the heavens” (Gen 11:4). The word Babel means, “gate to heaven” or “gate of god.” The tower of Babel was likely a ziggurat–a rectangular stepped tower.Image

It is a temple tower of the ancient Assyrians/Babylonians, having the form of a terraced pyramid of successively receding stories. It is a temple with a stairway to heaven. It was built by man at a famous place where important people tended to live, or it became a famous place. People came here to ascend the steps with their sacrifices, offering and prayers to God, so as to get the blessing of the gods for themselves and their families. Babel is a picture of man-made religion, which says, “I have to get to God.”

God is reversing Babel here with Bethel!

Keller adds, “Jacob was astounded because he realized that this is the way “the gate of heaven” works. Every religion requires you to ascend the man made gate of heaven to the gods. But Jacob’s dream is of a gate from heaven, a stairway chosen by God. It is not the way to ascend up to God to get the blessing by important people being good. But it where God descends down to man by sheer grace to give his blessing to unimportant, undeserving, broken and bad people. God comes to us; we do not go to him. Religion requires man to fulfill certain conditions, but God comes to us with unconditional love, the way He came to Jacob. Every other religion is a stairway/gateway up to heaven. But the stairway to heaven is where God descends to us by his grace alone. This is different from every other religion in the world.”[10] God never asks Jacob to climb the ladder to ascend to him. God descends to Jacob instead.

In verses 18-22, it may sound like Jacob is up to his old tricks again, bargaining with God, “If God does this, then I will serve Him.” However, it is more like expressing his desire to follow God. If God says He will keep these promises, I want to bind myself to Him and show my dedication and seriousness about it as well. We always want to contribute something to grace. Grace is meant to received not achieved. But notice the heel grabber is starting to mature though as he says he wants to be a giver now (v.22) instead of a grabber!

Conclusion

How can God treat Jacob like this? What about all that Jacob did wrong? God comes to Jacob with free grace, but it would have an infinite cost to God. Later, God Himself will come down again. This time, Jesus will leave His homeland and become spiritually penniless and bankrupt. He will leave His friendship with His father and become forsaken, isolated and experience true loneliness, so that we can enjoy the friendship of God. Jesus will surrender all His defenses and dies in the ultimate hard place on the cross, suffering hell so we can experience ultimate protection and to give us the ultimate land, Heaven. The only reason Heaven can be opened for Jacobs like us is because it was closed for Jesus on the cross. So now all of our hard place are places of grace. And how do we experience all this?

Jesus explains this story later. He goes to a man named Nathaniel in John 1:43-51. In that story, Jesus says to him in v.51, “Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus is saying, “I am the stairway from Heaven to Heaven.” Every religion has “steps” to God. The 10 commandments of Judaism. The 5 pillars of Islam. The 8 fold path of Buddhism. Jesus is saying that he is the steps. Every religion has the steps which is a what–something that we must do. But the real gate of heaven is a who–it is a person. Jesus fulfilled the requirements. He lived the steps. He lived the life I should have lived and died the death I should have died. When we understand who Jesus is, only then will we “see heaven open.” Jesus did not come to found a religion. He did not come to show the steps/stairway. He came to be the steps/stairway. Heaven and earth came to intersect over Jesus’ dead and resurrected body.[11]

In the poem the Hound of Heaven, the author ends by God asking the question, “Who will love you as without purpose and dishonorable as you are?” God adds, “All which I took from you, I did but take, not for your harms, but just that you might seek it in My arms. Everything you are looking for is at home! Rise, clasp my hand and come!” The speaker stops and asks his profound question, “Perhaps the gloom and darkness that I feel is nothing more than the shade cast by the hand of God reaching out to me?” God tells him the happiness he sought by running away was following him all the time.

 


[3]Walton, J. H. (2001). Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary (570). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4]Walton, Ibid.

[5]Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A Commentary (389). Grand Rapids, MI:

Zondervan.

[6]Miller, P. (2009). A Praying Life (179-197). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[7]Ross, A. P. (1998). Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (488). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[8]Keller, T. “The Stairway to Heaven,” transcribed in http://westloop-church.org/messages/old-testament/15-genesis/179-the-stairway-to-heaven-genesis-2810-22 accessed 22 June 2012.

[9]Keller, Ibid.

[10]Keller, Ibid.

[11]Keller, Ibid.

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