Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set: and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place. And he had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, 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."
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Trinity 10/22/06
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
So, what did you expect? That is the way so many responses to situations in life begin. Usually, this is the response to a situation when life gets ugly. Something costs more than you anticipated. So, what did you expect? Murphy̓s Law proves itself true one more time. So what did you expect? A politician fails to keep his promises and do the things we need him to do. So, what did you expect? Something goes wrong and everyone holds you responsible. So what did you expect?
Then we come to God. What do you expect from God? This isn̓t a frivolous question, nor should it be the sort where you give the answer you are certain I want to get. The answer to the question "What do you expect from God?" doesn't have a right answer or a wrong answer. It only has an honest one, or dishonest one. In our text, we see God presenting himself in a way that doesn't fit the real expectations of most people, not even of most Christians. Our theme, then, is "Not What Most People Expect."
Most people, to illustrate my point, don't expect God to be good, kind, loving, or generous. They may have the theological expectation of grace and mercy and blessing, but generally they do not have the real-life expectation of the goodness of God. It's like we know what we should say, but we don̓t really believe it. People expect sickness. They expect pain. They expect that God is going to punish them for what they have done wrong.
Many people don't expect those things right off the bat. We usually start by expecting to be healthy and happy and successful. That expectation isn't necessarily connected to our faith in God, either. The truth of our experience is that God is so faithful and good and we so consistently experience His blessings that we naturally - not religiously, but just as human beings - begin to believe that we are something special, that we just somehow deserve to go from one good thing to another. This expectation is about us, and not actually connected to any thought about God or blessings at all! I imagine that was pretty much how Jacob dealt with life. His father was rich, and life was about as good as it could get. He probably expected it. He was accustomed to servants, and nice clothing, and abundant and good food. I suspect he never imagined that it would be any other way.
Then he listened to his mother, and deceived his father, and stole his brother's birthright blessing from him, while Esau was out hunting. Suddenly, his life became something entirely different. Now he was on the run. He was off to try to find his mother's brother. He was not going to be the beloved son of a rich man, but the uninvited nephew of a man that we learned from later in the book of Genesis was not so very nice, or so very honest. He was on his way to become something like a hired hand, something like an indentured servant. At this point, I would imagine that Jacob began to expect life to deal him a "not-so-nice" hand.
That is more or less what happens to most of us. To be honest, not everyone ever expects life to be good. Some people are born with troubles, born with deformities, or born to abusive parents, and they never expect life to be just wonderful. But most of us walk along with the dream that it can only get better, and that we are going to have it made. Since we live here, at the lake, that expectation has seemingly come true for many of us. But eventually, later rather than sooner for some, hardship, illness, or sorrow finds our door. We discover the pain of life, and it challenges us and our faith, and it often twists our perspective on what life is supposed to be, or going to be.
That is when we might begin to expect God to be less generous. That is when we sometimes begin to greet bad news with, "Well, what did you expect?". We have been sick before, and we just expect that it will come back. We run from that expectation, but it is there. Or, life takes a left-turn, and we have one problem after another. It could be about money. It could be neighbors causing us trouble. It could be one friend or beloved relative after another passing away. It is always something, and the devil always knows where our heart is, so he knows where he can hurt us most with the least amount of trouble. And so, we may begin to expect it. We always figure that God has a hand in it, and we usually connect it to our sins because we know our sins, we feel our guilt, and hidden away from everyone else, our shame is always right there.
You see, we are sinners, and the law is so natural to us that we cannot escape the sense that the bad things in our life are deserved somehow. The awareness of the law is just natural to us — but the keeping of it is not. It is, in point of fact, impossible to us. We cannot do it, and we know it. There is a part of every one of us that feels the guilt of our sins, and knows that we deserve nothing good from God. This reality is part of the reason why people who suddenly find fame and wealth have such a problem dealing with it. It is part of the reason so many turn to drugs and outrageous behavior. They cannot escape the feeling that they don't deserve what they have, and it seems so transient and temporary to them. They have a sense that it is going to disappear on them just as suddenly as it appeared. They expect something unhappy and unpleasant from God, even if they never consciously frame the issue in those terms.
The result of all of this is that we all eventually come to "that certain place" in our lives, and lie down with Jacob, with the rock pillow, and expect justice from the most worthy Judge eternal.
And we get justice — but not what most people expect! We get justice from God, but it is poured out on Jesus. He goes to the cross — went there already, actually. He bore our guilt and shame and sin to the cross and died there in your place, and in your place, and in my place. He is our Substitute. Vicariously we pay. Vicariously we die. Vicariously we receive every awful thing that we have earned and deserved by our sins. Jesus takes all these things for us, and dies our death. And then the Father proclaims that the payment made and the death that Jesus died was enough and more than enough for our sins by raising Jesus from the grave on Easter morning.
That is why God did not tell Jacob how grievously he had sinned. That is why God did not curse or threaten Jacob. Instead, God did what most people would not have expected; He promised good and blessing to Jacob. And behold, 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. Of course, the promises to Jacob were the land, and the family, and the Messiah coming through His family line. Those promises were for Jacob, but this promise is for us all.
God promises by Himself to be with us, to keep us wherever we go, and not to let go of us until He has done all that He has promised to us. Now, He did not say here that this promise was for each and every one of us. He said it in the Gospel. It is just that the promise is so well-stated here, and so clear. What God promises us in Jesus Christ is that He will be with us to bless us and keep us until He has accomplished all that He has promised us. Until God accomplishes His will for us, He is with us to take care of us. And what is the will of God for us? [Our salvation.]
That is absolutely correct! His will is that we rise from the grave just like Jesus did. His will is that we live with Him eternally, just as Jesus does. His will is also that we know Him and His love, and trust in Him, and have no fear. Which is what He was telling Jacob. But this is just not what most people expect. This is not even what most religions teach. Men are still looking for the justice, even though they fear it and do not want it. We just naturally expect it.
Now God wants you to expect the unexpected. He wants you to expect His love. He wants you to expect that He will be with you in everything. He has explained in the Scriptures that He is not going to turn all of the troubles of life away from anyone. He wants us to know, however, that He is right there with us when we are sick, or in trouble, or in sorrow, or whatever. It is a difficult thing to keep that straight. Look at Jacob. After God appears, and says all these things, and makes him such marvelous promises, how does Jacob react? Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven! It is the house of God because God's people worship here, and God comes here to be with us. Here God speaks with you through His servants who are called to preach His Word. Here God invites you to the feast of Holy Communion. It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This meal, of course, is but a foretaste of the heavenly banquet of salvation - sort of like God took from the table in heaven and gave us just a taste before we actually come to that heavenly feast. In doing so, however, God has delivered to each of us personally forgiveness and righteousness and our share in the promises — including this promise today that He will never leave us or cease to bless us and keep us until He has done all that He has promised to us. You know that it is a promise meant for you when you receive the body of Christ, and you drink His blood, hidden beneath the forms of this bread and wine. It is given and shed for you, and sealed to you in this heavenly meal.
Many people think that our worship is what we do, and we make this place a church — but it is all from God. He comes through Word and Sacrament to claim us and to bless us and to cleanse us and to bestows His gifts of life and righteousness and salvation. It sounds like we are doing something here, but it really God at work, assuring us that He loves us, and He is with us to bless us and keep us until He has accomplished everything that is in His will for us, everything He has promised us. This place, and this worship is just like the Gospel, Not What Most People Expect.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
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