God’s visit to Jacob in his dream is unexpected. We expect God to be fair, to be just. Jacob does not deserve God’s comfort. He deserves to be in fear, ashamed of what he did. He is a con man. The only way for him to learn his lesson is for him to fear Esau’s wrath. Maybe this fear will teach him a lesson.
But fear is never transforming. Not this kind of fear. Jacob, fearing for his life, is more likely to go into hiding than he is to come clean and make up for what he did to Esau. This kind of fear is crippling. Esau might feel a tinge of perverse joy for getting back at his brother by keeping him in fear, but even knowing this would not bring peace to his troubled soul.
Fear is never transforming. Life changes don’t happen just because of fear. We show videos of tragic wrecks caused by drunk drivers and still some people choose to drink and drive. We tell people of the dangers of contracting AIDS from unprotected sex and still some choose to take the risk. Cigarette labels warn smokers of the risks to their health and the health of others and still they choose to smoke. Tactics to instill fear, though often appropriate, don’t change behavior. Something else is needed.
It is not the fear of God that convicts believers so much as it is God’s grace. God’s grace, like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, connects heaven and earth. We get glimpses of heaven on earth not when we are punished, but when God blesses us more than we deserve. It is grace, not fear, that changes Jacob’s life. Jacob is so thankful that God visited him in this strange land that he turned his stone pillow into a sacred pillar. The stone on which he rested now becomes a reminder of God’s unexpected grace. Jacob pledges to remain faithful. He responds to God’s faithfulness with faith of his own. He dedicates his life to God’s service.
What is amazing in this story is not the dream Jacob had, but the difference it makes in his life. All of us have dreams, but rarely do they make such a difference. When Jacob began his journey, he was a sly young man who lived by his wits. He was a trickster who got by not on his strength, but by his cunning nature. Before the dream, Jacob is ruled by fear, dodging bullets and running away from challenges. After the dream, Jacob is no longer ruled by fear, but by the love of God which keeps and protects him. This love gives him the peace of mind to stand up and face the world.
There is a ladder, a bridge between heaven and earth. Jesus Christ is the ladder that connects us to God. In Christ, God does not wait for us to take the first step, but first comes to us. The Spirit of Christ comes to us like a dream when we least expect it. God’s grace transforms the reality we come to know into something totally unexpected.
Jacob could not have expected his fear of Esau to be replaced by and awesome respect for God. We are called to a life that is ruled by love, not by fear. Though we may fear rejection, we are called to act in love by sharing the good news of Christ with others. Though we may fear death, we are called to trust that even death has been overcome in Christ. Though we may fear losing what we have, we are called to share with others, to invest in the promises of God.