I had the privilege of being with the good people of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wilber, Nebraska on Sunday September 24, 2017 thanks to the invitation from Pastor Travis Panning. What follows is the majority of the manuscript of the sermon I preached from, which was based on the focus text of the day from the Narrative Lectionary (for week 3 of year 4 of the narrative cycle), Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23, 28:10-17.
Grace and peace be with you from our God who comes to us, is with us, and loves us, Amen.
Good morning. It’s great to be with you again here at First Evangelical Lutheran in Wilber. Thank you, Pastor Travis again for the invitation and opportunity. I bring greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod, as well as from Bishop Brian Maas, and your assistant to the bishop, Pastor Megan Morrow.
When I was last with you, it was back in Lent. That day we were thinking about God’s ability to see us, and God’s call to come and see with the story of Zacchaeus. I preached a fair amount about what stewardship is, and today I’ll share a little more about stewardship too. But first, let’s set the scene.
Where We are in the Narrative
This is the third week of this year’s narrative journey, and today we find ourselves further into Genesis. You started with the stories of creation, and then last week heard about God’s provision even amid the hard story of the Binding of Isaac. Today, we’re thinking about Isaac’s son Jacob, and especially his dream.
There’s a lot we could unpack in this story. We could dig into how Jacob comes by the blessing of his father Isaac through trickery and deceit. Taking what could or should have been Esau’s. Yet, God seems to use Jacob just the same, so it might be fair to wonder what does this say about God?
Naturally Esau wasn’t happy with Jacob for stealing what he thought was his, and because of this, as any brother fearful of their angry older sibling might do, Jacob left and ran away. And on his journeys that follow, God comes to Jacob, God is with him, and God makes and reiterates promises to him.
God Comes to Us
In today’s story we hear about Jacob coming to his father Isaac and receiving a blessing. Later we hear about him coming to a certain place, and using one of the stones from that place as a pillow. While there, he dreamed that there was “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven…” Though it says ladder, one of my favorite seminary professors Terry Fretheim reminds that this really isn’t a good translation. It’s actually more an image of stairs that come and go, or a ramp, even. It’s multi-directional, but rather than climbing this ladder, the angels go up and come down, as does God. So in essence, this is really a vision or story of God coming near to Jacob, just as God comes near to us.
There is nothing we can do, just as there is nothing we can do to earn salvation as that’s a free gift. This is about God’s work and God’s love for us. Some biblical scholars make the distinction that this story may be totally misunderstood as a dream, because later Jacob describes this experience as one of “God’s presence in this place,” not one of having God speak to him in a dream. So, either way, it’s about God coming to him saying, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…”
God identifies God’s self, as the God of the patriarch, Abraham. A God who has made promises to Abraham, to Isaac, and would now make and reiterate promises to Jacob. In doing this, we find ourselves in the midst of a story that is about God being with us, Immanuel. This is about God coming to us, as in the incarnation.
God shows up anywhere and everywhere, in places which are holy because of God’s presence, not because we set aside holy places for God.
God shows up in a manger or stable, in that lowly unexpected image of the most vulnerable, a human baby, in the most humble and unexpected of places. Or in this story, God shows up to Jacob after Jacob finds a rock to lay his head upon. That rock becomes a holy place because God shows up there, like God will do later in the burning of a bush to Moses, and of course through the incarnation and dreams or visions of Mary and Joseph, the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, for us, the story of the cross, tomb, and resurrection and… well, you know the rest of that story which we’re now all a part of, as God’s on-going story.
God Makes Promises to Us and For Us
We are a part of this on-going story, because God has promised that it will be so. Just as God promised to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, God recalls this promise to Abraham’s grandson Jacob, and even expands on it a bit.
God says, “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.” But wait, there’s more. God promises to also be with Jacob, saying, “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.”
These are God’s promises to Jacob, but also to us. When God makes these promises to Jacob, they are unconditional, and God must hold God’s self-accountable to them.
In a stewardship sense, these are the promises of God, the things of God which show up in the ordinary such as the water, bread, and wine in the sacraments; but also through the extraordinary. These are the promises of God for the people of God, and there’s nothing we can do about this, other than to be in awe like Jacob at God’s presence, promise, and generosity, and then to respond to this. For Jacob, this means living a life of following God, sometimes wrestling with God and in the process taking on a new name, Israel.
For us, it means saying thank you to God, giving praise to the Triune God, and living life as a steward and disciple, bearing and sharing God’s promises, love, and mercy to the world, in hope, joyfully and gratefully. What this life, or response to the good news of God looks like is unique to each one of us, as our own unique joyful response.
God Invites Us
It’s this response which God invites us to. In today’s story God invites Jacob to be a part of it, through the oddity of the way Jacob receives the blessing from Isaac, but then through God’s presence with him, through God finding him on his journeys, and speaking to him. God will do this quite a bit with Jacob, and you can read more about Jacob’s stories of wrestling with God literally and figuratively in Genesis, chapter 32.
This idea of wrestling with God, could be kind of scary, but it also gives me hope. It means that God wants to have a relationship with us, so much so, that God is willing to fight with us, as we try to argue with God, and yet also fight for us, as God’s children.
In the creation story you heard a couple weeks ago, it is followed up by Genesis 2, where God invites Adam to be a co-creator with God by naming creation, and caring for it. God invites us to do likewise as we care for all that God entrusts to us- creation; our selves; our hearts, minds, and souls; our stories and vocations; our finances and assets of all kinds; our hopes, dreams, ideas, questions, and relationships… All of these are entrusted to us, with an invitation to follow the living God, but also to live an abundant life in God- one of great meaning and purpose, but also one of challenge.
Take Jacob for instance. His relations with his brother Esau weren’t always great, to say the least, the result of the deceit around a blessing. Nevertheless God used him. Jacob would later wrestle with God, in so doing he would earn a new name, Israel, but also an aching hip for the rest of his life. These are marks of what it can mean to follow God’s call- which isn’t always an easy one. Yet, Jacob reacts in joy and wonder, saying, “Surely the Lord is in this place- and I did not know it!…How awesome is this place!”
God’s Dreams for Us
How awesome indeed. I’m wondering with Jacob though today, about what God’s dream might be for each of us? What are our dreams? What might God’s dream be for us, knowing God’s promises to Jacob and for us? What might God’s dream be for First Lutheran in Wilber?
How are we entrusted with these dreams? How might we be a part of this?
God is certainly up to something here with you, and among you. God has promised that, after all. It’s exciting to wonder about what that might mean. It’s exciting, and perhaps a little daunting to wonder what this might mean for you, as stewards and disciples.
You are a part of a congregation here which celebrates and is in the larger community for Czech Days and through offering regular community meals. You are also part of a congregation here, spiritually discerning your commitment and pledge, part of your faith community responding to God’s call here in Wilber. You are part of a congregation which helps raise up and form new leaders through children’s sermons in worship and in Sunday School.
You are part of a larger church too here through your mission share participation, which provides ministry in contexts around the globe, and which helps raise up and form new leaders, deacons, and pastors through seminary support, but also through camps like Carol Joy Holling and campus ministry on college campuses like UNL.
You are also part of a church which shows up and is present with people, embodying God’s example, being present with those hurting, grieving, sifting through rubble, and trying to grab a piece of their past as they wonder how they might rebuild.
Through the support of Lutheran Disaster Response, you are part of a church which shows up during and after a hurricane like Harvey, Irma, or Maria, or major earthquakes like the ones which shook Mexico City and Oaxaca this past week. You are part of a church through Lutheran Disaster Response who stays for years after these disasters and long after the news crews have gone home to be with people and help them.
These are just a couple of examples of how you are part of God’s work, and God’s dream locally and through your undesignated offering and mission share participation in the work of the larger church.
God is Up to Something
God is up to something within and among all of you. I heard it and sensed it the last time I was with you. I experienced it during a council meeting with many of your congregational leaders. I am excited to continue to see how you are all part of God’s on-going story in the world– one of God coming near to us, being with, inviting, and doing so all as God has promised, just as God did with Jacob.
Thank you again for the invitation to be with you; thank you for faithfully wrestling with and following God who loves you and shows you how to love; thank you for being part of this church, and God’s work in the world in and through you as stewards and disciples; and thanks be to God for each and everyone of you. Amen.
Sources and Citations:
 Genesis 28:12, NRSV.
 Terence E. Fretheim, “Commentary on Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3309.
 Genesis 28:13, NRSV.
 Genesis 28:13-14, NRSV.
 Genesis 28:15, NRSV.
 As Terry Fretheim writes, “Come what may, God is a promise-keeper. This promise is a ‘must’ for God’s future and for ours,” in “Commentary on Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3309.
 Genesis 28:16-17, NRSV.