Jacob is traveling to Paddanaram in search of a wife. His father, Isaac, and mother Rebekah, have sent him with their blessings. Rebekah has family in Paddanaram and they trust that these are good people. Meanwhile, Esau remains behind, still fuming over Jacob’s trickery. Jacob has fooled Isaac into giving him the blessing due to Esau as first-born.
So Jacob comes to a place and lays down his head for the night, with a stone for his pillow. It’s difficult to imagine how Jacob could sleep at a time like this. With his life in danger and the prospect of marrying someone as yet a complete stranger looming on the horizon. I would expect that Jacob’s sleep would be the sleep of the restless as he lay there beneath the open sky, a stranger in a strange land. But Jacob has a dream.
He dreams of a stairway extending to heaven. Our text reads “ladder”, though this is a misleading image, as the space to climb up and down on is big enough to hold several messengers of God. The image here is more like a pyramid with graded steps, or a ziggurat. This is similar to what we find in the story of the Tower of Babel. But here it is not humanity that boldly tries to go where God would not allow, but it is God’s messengers freely bridging the distance between earth and heaven, between things of this world and things of the world beyond.
At this place, the voice of God calls out with three promises to Jacob. “I will give you this land, to you and your offspring.” “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” And “I will bring you home, back to this land where I will keep my promises.” The promise of land for Jacob and his offspring, the promise of protection in his journeys and the promise of a safe homecoming are spoken by God in Jacob’s dream.
Jacob wakes up and proclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” What a wonderful surprise! God is with me. This common place has been transformed into a place of God, a place where heaven and earth meet.
God’s encounter with Jacob in his dream is unexpected. We would not expect God to be traveling with someone who has just tricked his brother out of a blessing. Though we know God to be merciful, we tend to hold God accountable to standards of justice that God’s activity seem just to us. Jacob does not deserve God’s blessing, God’s comfort. He deserves to be in fear, to be ashamed of what he did.
Esau may have thought instilling fear in Jacob could bring peace to his soul, but God knew otherwise. It is grace, not fear, which prompts Jacob to redirect his life. Jacob is so thankful that God comes to him in his dream, in this strange land, in the midst of his fears and anxieties that he turns his stone pillow into a pillar dedicated to God. The stone on which he rested now becomes a reminder of God’s mercy and Jacob pledges to remain faithful, to respond to God’s faithfulness by praising the Lord and giving his life in the Lord’s service. He does this not out of overabundance, but out of the sustenance which God provides. Jacob returns a tenth to the glory of God.
Jacob could not have expected such a visit. Was it only a dream? Yes, and it was a dream that made all the difference in the world. A dream that turned fear into hope. A dream that offered Jacob a new life. A life of faith and trust. This can make all the difference, not just in the life to come, but in this life. In this state we call reality, dreams make all the difference.
Our God is a god who transforms the reality we come to rely on into something totally unexpected. Jacob could not have expected to encounter God in such a strange place, for his fear of Esau to be replaced by an awesome respect for God’s presence.
As Christians, we rest on the hope that God transforms reality, no matter how bleak, that God remains with us in difficult times. Like Jacob, this pillow on which we rest must become a pillar from which to glorify God.
Our God, the God of Jacob, the God of Isaac and Rebekah and Esau, the God in Christ Jesus, is a God who turns dreams into reality, who remains with us, overcoming our fear with hope.