- SERMON PREACHED BY
THE RIGHT REVEREND ROBERT THOMPSON
BISHOP OF KINGSTON, JAMAICA
ST. MICHAEL & ALL SAINTS
28 SEPTEMBER 2008
AT CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
- GENESIS: 28; 16b
"Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!"
The story of Jacob is a story about us, about our fears and anxieties
and the renewal and affirmation that comes about, once we discover
God's commitment to us. Jacob leaves the family home in Beer-Sheba
after he skillfully and maliciously maneuvered his older brother
Esau out of the birthright and the blessing that were rightfully
his. Jacob did this with the full knowledge and encouragement
of his mother, Rebecca. Isaac gave Jacob, and not Esau, his irrevocable
blessing. Esau was understandably angry and sought revenge by
threatening to murder his brother. Jacob then fled into the hills
for fear of his life. Fear can so overwhelm us that not even
God is allowed to break in with a word of assurance and hope.
That is what happened to Jacob, until of course he realized that
he is not alone. That he is in fact preceded by a God who summons
faith, hope and trust. The remarkable thing is that when Jacob
discovered that he is not alone, that he is not an independent
and autonomous soul, that his life is very much interconnected
with the Other, his fear began to subside and he could therefore
SOMETIMES WE ENCOUNTER GOD AT UNLIKELY TIMES IN OUR LIVES AND
AT UNLIKELY PLACES.
- This is the first thing we need to say
about the text. It was while Jacob
was trying to escape from his brother's wrath that he encountered
God. Jacob "came to a certain place and stayed there for
the night." He was a fugitive running away. He was uncertain
what would happen next. He found a stone and used it for a pillow.
He was so afraid and uncomfortable camping outside, that he found
other rocks and built a wall to protect himself.
- With all these thoughts running through his
mind he fell asleep under the stars. One would think that he
had so many things on his mind that sleep would be far from his
eyes. But not Jacob. At that unexpected time and in that unexpected
place God broke into Jacob's world in a dream. Jacob dreamed
that he saw a ladder extending all the way from earth to heaven
with angels going up and down the ladder. While the angels were
doing this the Lord God stood beside Jacob and spoke to him.
"The land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring."
Suddenly the solitary Jacob; the Jacob whose greed and selfishness
led to his refugee status is being affirmed as a leader within
- In truth, Jacob wasn't really looking for
all of this. He had given up on himself, because he felt God
had given up on him. But God's ways are not our ways, God was
actively seeking Jacob, but Jacob couldn't know this. Fear had
clouded his vision and any memory he had of God. However, from
God's standpoint, Jacob is chosen to be a servant leader of God's
people, and so in his dream he heard God saying; "I will
not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely
the LORD is in this place and I did not know it. " Jacob
learned a very valuable lesson that day. While he could hide
from his brother, he could not hide from God.
"How awesome is this place!" Jacob exclaimed. "This
is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of
The Second thing we learn from Jacob's experience is that
after you encounter God, whether in a dream like Jacob; after
some dramatic episode or in the still small voice of our early
morning devotions; our response will always be the same. That
is, to worship God. In other words, faith has to be ritualized.
"Jacob took the stone he used for a pillow and poured oil
on it, making an altar out of it. The place where Jacob spent
the night was a special place because there he encountered God.
That is why we are here in the awesome place resting on decades
of daily prayer and Eucharistic worship, because somewhere along
our journey God has revealed Himself to us. Now we come to His
house to affirm the relationship which He so graciously initiated.
There is no other fitting response. Sometimes, though, it's not
easy to express what we really feel. A young man recently told
me of the awesome experience he had at living and worshiping
with Christians during a renewal weekend. For the last ten years
he had lived without any conscious awareness of God in his life.
Like so many people the tendency is to hold back on Sunday mornings
because there are more important things they could be doing,
other than spending an hour or two in Church.
Generally speaking, our world today has become very cynical about
ritualized worship. They want religion without having to get
out of bed Sunday after Sunday to ritualize it. Kirk Hadaway
in his book, Transforming Communities of Faith, reminds
us that; "The purpose of worship is to come together as
God's people, as the body of Christ, and be what we already are
in praise of God's glory and celebration of what God has done".
In other words what worship does is to remind us of who we are,
"The beloved of God", thereby seeing the world as God
sees it - recognizing and realizing the Realm of God in our midst.
Jacob's experience at Bethel served very much the same purpose.
It created for him an alternate script for living when the old
script of fear had become life denying. This is what we pray
and hope the liturgy will do for each one of us.
Attracting people to a lively worship experience and offering
them bible-based tips about how to live more fully will not result
in lasting change. In order to act differently, people must be
changed fully, and this is a matter of transformation rather
than the accumulation of information. People we are told are
only transformed when their settled worlds are exploded and they
participate bodily in experiences that place them inside a different
reality. That is what I believed happened to Jacob. The experience
he had at Bethel disrupted his old way of seeing and thus ushered
him into a new way of being.
- In the middle of nowhere Jacob had an "Hallelujah"
experience, an encounter with the living God. "The Lord
is in this place and I didn't know it". When we are overcome
by our fear of the future, nothing, not even God can be trusted.
Until of course God himself breaks through our defenses. When
this happened to Jacob, his only response, the only fitting response
at that moment of encounter, was to worship his Creator; which
leads me to make one final thought on the text.
JACOB 'S ENCOUNTER WITH GOD REMINDS US THAT GOD USES US DISPITE
Jacob was a trickster who deceived his father; he was what we
would call in Jamaica a 'con-artist' who cheated Esau out of
what was lawfully his. But God still loved Jacob and had a plan
for him. The promise to Abraham, expressed in Genesis Chapter
12, is renewed and vested in Jacob. "All the families
of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring"(v.14).
It is impossible to understand the mind of God. Here we have
a situation where the very person who contrived to gain an underserved
birthright and blessing is now being affirmed as the one through
whom the entire human family will receive a blessing! And yet
this is no accident. It is rather the stated intention of God
who accompanies the fugitive even when the fugitive tries to
hide from his company. Jacob was by most definitions a crook,
but by God's grace, this defrauder was heading for a transformation.
In fact, one day even his name would be different. He would be
called Israel.. And his offspring would bless the world.
This turning point in Jacob's life becomes a moment of renewal
and hope for all God's people. For his part, Jacob never renounces
his crafty ways. In Chapter 30:37-43, we read how Jacob tried
the same kind of trickery and skullduggery on his father in law
as he did to his own father. But despite this fact, despite the
fact that Jacob is not entirely changed, neither was he the same
old Jacob. His own struggle with God resulting in his name change
to Israel (32:28) signifies a deeper, more profound transformation
of his values. The Bethel experience meant that he never again
lived apart from God's claim on his life, and he would later
demand the same devotion to God from his family.
Jacob's experience is a moment of renewal and hope as it has
much to teach us about how not be too quick to write off others,
simply because they do not conform to our given code of behavior.
This is the great challenge for every Christian community who
on the one hand must preserve the universal truth of the Gospel,
and what this means for a disciplined life in Christ, while at
the same time listening to the changing voices of our social
and cultural context. This is precisely the challenge facing
the Anglican Communion today and the reason for its present tension.
Anglicanism is not a tradition that has operated through sharp
distinctions - this versus that, those who are in versus
those who are out, us versus them. That is how sectarian
religion defines itself in an attempt to control the world today.
Acknowledging difference has always been a defining mark of Anglicanism.
Scriptures, creeds and historic formularies, together with the
ordered sacramental life of worship and prayer provide the magnet
that continually draws us toward the center.
- Anglican spirituality is rooted in the Incarnation.
The idea that God is found not only in what we set aside as sacred,
but in all things, even in the painful and tragic things of life.
And once we are able to acknowledge that Jesus Christ stands
with us amidst all the contradictions, with the one hope of reconciling
them to himself, we can live with the ambiguity of difference.
If this sounds like a strange and dangerous path on which to
travel, I regret I have no better news for you this morning.
It is the path which God places before us, and especially so
as Anglicans, and it is for the sake of our Common life together
and our world that we make that journey.
- This is no shallow or casual approach to
Christian faith. How could we think so when we reflect on the
life and witness of faithful Anglicans past and present; ordained
and lay; persons whose lives are characterized by radical holiness,
uncompromising dedication to prayer and Bible study, and a tenacious
pursuit of the truth as they wrestled with the issues of their
day. I am sure there is nothing casual about the men and women
who lit the fire of hope in the past and on whose foundation
you now build. There is nothing casual about the tenacity and
faith that is sustaining your great courage at this time.
- We are a sacramental community, living out
our faith in continuity with the Anglican Tradition, conscious
of being part of the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church
that is united with Christ, "the vehicle of his mission
in the world". A spirituality that is sacramentally rooted
can neither be world-denying, nor can it be reduced to some private
relationship with God. Rather, it calls us to be transformed
into the life of the Divine so that in turn the life of the world
might itself be transformed.
- If God was able to use Jacob to work out
His purposes, then certainly God is able to use each one of you.
The good news is that God has good things in store for us even
when we have done things of which we are not proud. God can turn
our lives around and use us in ways we never would have imagined.
- Jacob remained a sinner, but God was still
able to use him in positive ways. Jacob's dream affirms to us
that God is able to turn anyone's life around for the good no
matter what skeletons might be hanging in their closet. In the
life of Jacob we see a glimpse of God's grace at work.
- It is often at unlikely times and places
that we meet God. After such encounters our natural response
is to worship and praise Him. Through such an experience we discover
God's amazing grace. But that's not all. Once that discovery
is made God is ready to send us from our cocoon of fearful anxiety
to bring into being a world transformed by love and hope.