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July 19, 2020 Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Green] Genesis 28:10-19a; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Called to be Committed to Growth
Do you have a special dream that you like to remember when you are in a difficult situation? In fact, when we feel desperate, we hope that God will just appear in a dream and show us the way we need to go. Today, we read an amazing story about one man’s encounter with God in his own dream. This dream is a very touching one that nearly brings tears to our eyes. More surprisingly, this lucky man of this wonderful dream is Jacob.
The hidden meanings of Bethel In this story, Jacob looks like a fugitive fleeing from someone. He had to run away because of the nasty things he had done to his family. In the previous chapter, we saw how he cheated his brother Esau to take his birthright. Then years later, he cheated him again, this time out of his father Isaac’s blessing by conspiring with his mother, Rebekah. Esau was so furious that he vowed to murder his brother. As parents, Isaac and Rebekah didn’t want their children to fight and kill each other. So, Isaac sent Jacob to his mother’s homeland until Esau cooled his anger. Worn out, Jacob fell asleep in a place where the name was unknown. As he slept, he dreamed a special dream: he saw a ladder set up on the earth, reaching all the way up into heaven. Angels were ascending and descending on it; and there, right beside him, was the Lord God himself, speaking to Jacob: “…the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth… and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 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” (vv. 13-15).
The point of Jacob’s dream is not that he climbed up to God, but that God descended from heaven to be with him. In terms of our Gospel language, the Lord was looking out for his lost sheep. Yet, I still wonder whether Jacob really deserved this amazing dream of God? As you see, he was at his lowest point; he had tricked, lied, and tried to steal his brother’s birthright; he even dared to deceive his blind father. All the things he had done were enough to prove that he didn’t deserve God’s blessing at all.
In addition, there is no single mention that Jacob was out looking for God’s help. He didn’t even pray to God before he fell into sleep. That is why he shouted when he awoke, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (v. 16). By this special dream, he was now confessing his faith in God for the first time in his life. Yet I am still disappointed to see how he responded to God about this special dream: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you” (vv. 2022).
What was he talking about? To sum it up he was saying “If you give me land, food, clothing, and protection, then I will be your man.” In other words, “show me the money and I will sign on it!” God, out of his unlimited love, offered Jacob abundant blessings, but Jacob said, “Prove it to me first!”
Let’s say that you are now encountering God just like Jacob. What would be your response? You will tremble and submit yourself to God. But look, what Jacob did. He was trying to negotiate a business deal with God more than he was demonstrating himself as a servant. He was still the same Jacob who tricked his brother and father.
Only this time he was trying to trick God by adding conditions of his own desire and lust. If you were God, could you count on this guy? I mean, could you still love and bless him? Anyway, he wanted to commemorate his divine dream, so he renamed the sacred place “Bethel,” which means “the house of God.” Interestingly enough, this place was not a holy temple but just an open wilderness where everyone could come and go and even animals could saunter by. It is amazing to know that our God of holiness came down on this very secular place to meet Jacob who was also far from holiness or righteousness.
I’d like to mention two important lessons about the God of Bethel whom Jacob met in his dream. First, this name, Bethel reminds us that God is everywhere with us. Wherever we go, whatever we do, and whomever we meet, God is always there with us. This is the good news for our life journey. As you know, life is full of uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen in the next moment. Today, I am here to serve you and I am so happy about it. But I don’t know where I will be a few years from now. But one thing that I know about my future life is that God is always with me wherever I go. In this regard, the God of Bethel gives us comfort and courage for our life journey in this world.
Second, Bethel reminds us about how we should behave in this world! Because God is everywhere, we should be careful of our words and deeds wherever we go. Whomever we meet on our streets or in our communities, we should respect them because God is with them. Wherever we go, whatever we do, and whomever we meet, we have to consider ourselves as servants because God is there as the Lord. “God is the Lord and we are servants” is the primary lesson that Jacob and we should learn from the meaning of Bethel.
In his divine dream, Jacob realized the first meaning of Bethel. That is, God is present everywhere in the world. Upon this faith, he could launch his journey into the strange world. But he didn’t get the second meaning of Bethel, which is, “we are servants of God wherever we go because God is everywhere we go.” In this moment of encountering God, Jacob received God’s grace but wasn’t yet ready to give himself to God.
We see ourselves through Jacob in this passage. Like him, we also believe wherever we go, whatever we do, whomever we meet, God will be there with us, which provides us with confidence in our life journey. But if we are honest, we still want to live for our own success rather than serve God and care for many others. We regard God as the God of blessings, but we don’t seriously regard ourselves as God’s servants. However, the good news in this story isn’t Jacob’s commitment. It’s God’s commitment. God is committed even to a trickster like Jacob. God will continue to discipline all his servants, step by step until they grow to be his mature servants.
Our gradual progress is the normal process of human growth. When infants learn how to walk, they start by toddling, then stagger, and finally run fast. Likewise, our spiritual growth is also inclined to proceed step by step in God’s grace. We call this spiritual progress “sanctification.” After many more steps on our faith journey, we can live a life dedicated to God, which is all about loving our neighbors, blessing all races and using our gifts and talents for the sake of others and our communities (you know what it is).
Step by step I know that all of you love God. But the Jacob in our heart still grabs at our heels. From time to time, we fall into temptation and abandon our call to serve God and people. But let’s not be disappointed at our weakness. The good news in this story about Jacob’s sanctifying journey is the promise of God’s guiding our steps through good and bad in our lives. In other words, God is there for us everywhere we go.
But we shouldn’t just sit still, believing God will do everything for us. We should also try our best to respond to God’s calling. How? We should keep in our hearts the truth that God is everywhere with us, so that we will consider ourselves as servants of God wherever we go and whomever we meet. Amen.