Genesis 28:10-19, NRSV
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “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; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that 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.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The theme of knowing comes up a lot in this passage, and reading over it I am reminded of a phrase from my childhood that I heard over and over again when my brother would watch one of his favorite TV shows after school. Some of you may remember the G.I. Joe toys and cartoons from the 1980s, which I believe have been re-booted recently as live action movies in the last few years. In the original G.I. Joe cartoons, though, they used to close each episode by giving a few words of advice to kids about potentially dangerous situations they could encounter (for example, episodes have included bits on what to do if you get lost or why you shouldn’t pet strange dogs), and each little advice segment ended with the tagline, “Knowing is half the battle.” That’s certainly the case here.
Knowing—knowing that God is present, knowing who God is (the same God who talked and walked with Jacob’s father Isaac and foretold Isaac’s miraculous birth to Jacob’s grandparents Abraham and Sarah), knowing what God has promised to Jacob as a descendant of Isaac and Abraham—are all critically important. God’s first words to Jacob here are an introduction and a reminder—I’m the God you’ve been hearing about all these years. I’m the God who has done miraculous things for and with your grandparents and parents. I’m the God who made them the great promise that I’m now making again to you: “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”
There’s no telling how many times Jacob has heard this promise already as time and time again his parents and grandparents have held on to these words to make difficult choices, to endure hard things, and to trust that they would overcome impossible challenges, knowing that their God was faithful and would do as God had promised. None of this is news to Jacob, except that this is the first time he is hearing it straight from the source. God doesn’t stop there, though, with simply reciting the family history of God’s covenant people. God makes it personal, promising again to a new generation that God had not changed God’s mind. “Know,” God says, really and truly “know that 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.” [Emphasis mine] Knowing this is crucial, but as G.I. Joe told us, it’s only half the battle. The other half is response. It is action. You’ll notice that everyone who does know who God is and what God has promised is in motion, busy and active in response to this knowledge. The angels are steadily climbing up and down the ladder, bringing messages from God to earth and returning with prayers to Heaven in an unending cycle. The Lord is speaking and moving to guide God’s chosen son Jacob and to remind him of his history and his destiny. Once Jacob wakes up, he is active, too, first in his startled exclamation affirming, “surely the Lord is in the place and I didn’t even know it!” and then in building an altar and naming a city to mark the place where he first knew that God was present with him.
The town now called Bethel, or House of God, used to be called Luz, which was Hebrew for “turning aside”. Interestingly, the word for repentance in Hebrew is often translated the same way, “turning aside,” but luz has a more negative connotation. While repentance is turning from something negative back to God, luz is turning away from something positive towards something negative. That’s an important and appropriate distinction given that Jacob finds himself here when he’s forced to skip town after his mother Rebekah has helped him steal his older brother’s birthright from their dying father—not exactly godly behavior. Not being a Hebrew scholar myself, I didn’t know anything about this term and its connotation until I looked into the city’s name as I was preparing my sermon. What caught my attention first about the name was that luz is also a Spanish word, which fittingly means “light”. After all, this is the place where God appears to Jacob like a bright light in the middle of the night to wake him up and illuminate a few things for him. This is the place where God took Jacob, the trickster on his way to escape his father and brother’s wrath for stealing Esau’s birthright by looking to make his fortune among his uncle Laban’s community, and God reminded him that there was something more for him. God had a greater gift and greater expectations for Jacob than Jacob could previously have imagined. God was more real than any of the secondhand stories from his childhood could convey, and God was every bit as good and faithful as those stories said.
Having encountered God—finally knowing God for himself—led Jacob to new action in building an altar to mark this pivotal moment in his life, this opportunity to take a time when he had turned aside from God by lying and stealing and to do something different. Jacob could choose to dwell in the House of the Lord rather than the lonely, rocky place his turning aside from God and his family had led him. Unfortunately, Jacob takes a little while to decide that’s really what he wants to do. Immediately after building the monument he declares his devotion to God, but with a few conditions—if God is faithful, if God fulfills the promise, if God provides the things Jacob wants and brings him safely back to his father’s house, then and only then God can be Jacob’s God too. It’s a step in the right direction, but he’s clearly not all the way there yet. He’s still got a lot to learn about who God is and who he is as a chosen child of God. Baby steps.
As Maya Angelou reminds us, sometimes you just have to “do the best you can with what you know. Then when you know better, do better.” Like Jacob, our progress isn’t always in a straight line. We take two steps forward and one step back. We fall into old bad habits when hard times hit. We slip up or we forget who we really are and who God really is. We make compromises that make us question our integrity and whether we really believe what we say we believe about God and ourselves. But we carry on because if we’ve ever met God, deep down we know that through God’s covenant with Jacob that “all the families of the Earth shall be blessed in [him] and [his] offspring,” God has promised us good, God has promised to be with us to the end, and God’s promises are trustworthy and true. If we know that God is love, then we know that God loves us, and it’s amazing what you can do when you know that you are loved.
Knowing that God is with us makes us braver, brave enough to reach out in love to our enemies and in vulnerability to our friends. Knowing that God is forgiving makes us merciful, offering grace where others expect judgment. Knowing that God is just challenges us to seek justice for our neighbors. Knowing that God is generous, offering love and mercy freely, encourages us to give freely of our gifts and time and money to people and programs that build the kingdom. Knowing that God is faithful gives us the strength to keep on seeking God and serving others in the face of discouragement and frustration. Knowing that God is love inspires us to act in love to one another, both within the church doors and in our relationships outside of them.
We know all this about God by what God has done in Scripture, in history, and in our lives. We do all this because we know God. And the beautiful thing is, the cycle doesn’t stop there: by our doing, others come to know God better, too. This is why Jesus left the disciples with a new command to guide them when the time would come for them to establish the Church on earth after Jesus ascends to Heaven. “I give you a new commandment,” he says in John 13:34-35, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [Emphasis mine] Knowing is an opportunity to respond by doing; doing is an opportunity to share knowledge; and so on and so forth until the love of God blows through the whole world like dust tracked in through the front door of every family’s home to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south.
God invites us to know God, to know ourselves, and to respond in love. God invites us to open our eyes, blink away the darkness in the sunlight of a new day, and to recognize that even in the most unlikely or seemingly unimportant of places, “surely the presence of the Lord is in this place and we [can] know it.” Knowing it, we can go forth into the world to show it.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.