Some Stones, a Little Oil, and a Good Night’s Sleep

I teach worship and liturgical theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. After many months of “Zoom worship,” we returned to our beloved chapel on campus several weeks ago. I had the honor of serving as the proclaimer for the August 31 chapel service, our second service of the semester. The text for the day was Genesis 28:10-19. I stepped into the pulpit with more than my usual amount of fear and trembling. I hope these words, proclaimed from the perspective of a liturgical theologian, invited worshipers to consider the sacred rhythms of this new academic season. I tried to capture in this printed version some of the sermon’s embodied pulse. (We all wore face coverings as we worshiped, another new liturgical accouterment for our worship space.)

Jacob slept—with his head on a rock.

Jacob slept?

You know, it says something about a person, this business of traveling until the sun sets and then “stumbling upon no particular place” to sleep with your head—on a rock. It says something about the place too. This place where Jacob ended up was no Comfort Inn. Probably not much sleep to be had there.

Jacob slept—with his head on a rock.

Then there’s the dream Jacob has with that extreme-extension ladder stretching out between him and heaven. And the angels, busy flash-mob angels who materialize in that place to cascade up and down the ladder, swirling all around Jacob.

Of course, this is a busy story overall because Jacob is a busy man. Busy running away from the brother he swindled. Busy running away from himself. Busy even in his sleep. Dreaming. Dreaming about God promising Jacob all the things Jacob has been bamboozling others—straining, striving, longing, aching—to achieve, acquire, accomplish. . .

Jacob slept—with his head on a rock.

And in the midst of all of this, God blesses Jacob and promises to “keep” Jacob in all the places where Jacob goes.

Now, I have to confess. I have a hard time liking Jacob. Maybe you recall the back-story. Jacob so desires his father’s blessing he concocts a mean-spirited plan to get what he wants. No wonder he’s on the run. I am dismayed that God doesn’t at least say “Jacob, turn your life around, and I’ll bless you.”

Instead—well, do any of you remember a children’s board game called Chutes and Ladders? Some players roll the dice, get the “right” number, and land on a long, long ladder that carries them directly to the top and the finish line without having to take multiple turns and travel the winding road. That is Jacob in this story. He lands on the lucky space and is whisked away to God’s blessing.

Of course, I too easily forget that Jacob was scrambling to find his identity within a complicated economic and family system. How many of us can relate to that?

And what about that ladder? We humans have made a destructive assumption across our history: if we want to ascend to the realm of angels, we have to climb—Jacob’s-Ladder-striving, straining up. But Jacob isn’t asked to climb the ladder in this story. Maybe that is what this story is telling us. It’s not in the view from the top of a ladder we’ve strained to ascend that we see God. The blessing—and the Spirit-sight—is in how God’s promises to come to us in earthy things. God promises to reveal Godself in the dust of intersecting places. God in an uncertain place. God in a stone—rolling away. God in you. God in me.

Jacob wakes up after his stony sabbath and worries: “Surely God is in this place—and I did not know it.” Jacob didn’t expect this. Not in a strange-to-him place. (By the way, this text invites us to be aware—other people already called that place home and gave it a name—Luz. What was unfamiliar to Jacob was home to someone else.) Yet, this not-home-place becomes God’s “certain place.” This stony-ground-better wear thick-soled shoes place becomes a sacred, shoes-off, bare your soul place. Jacob—surprised by God’s presence—anoints that stony pillow with oil and names it “Bethel.” God’s house. This place—God’s place.

My favorite part of the story? Because the sun had set, Jacob rested. Because the day had ended. Because of the rhythms of creation. Jacob rested.

In this story? God does God’s work—once Jacob stops concocting, racing and running. Talk about finding God in unlikely places! Even when we sleep—head on a rock—God’s work and blessing do not depend on our constant striving. Yes, God calls us to do justice. Yes, God calls us not to grow weary in doing good. Yes, God also calls us–to sleep. Jacob sleeps in a place. God appears in that place. God promises. God blesses—in that place.

So, here we are in a world of sleep-disturbing nightmares come to life. Here we are with our dreams and a promise. God is with us—in certain and uncertain places. So, as we go? Maybe we should have some stones on hand and a little oil too. To anoint some unlikely places and some unlikely people.

Jacob is like some people we meet. Jacob is us.

We sleep—with our heads on a rock.

We run from some things. We are sometimes—maybe even often—unsaintly. We are flawed. Wounded. Real.

And blessed by God.

That is Gospel grace. God resides in us and blesses us. And because we are blessed, we can—are called—to anoint, care for, seek justice for, open our hearts to—others. When we do? What if we begin to see unlikely-to-us places and people as holy ground intersections of heaven and earth?

And at the end of the day, when the sun sets—we should rest. For even in our rest—God might just do the profound thing, the revolutionary thing—and turn our stony pillows into pillars of promise and hope. We are Bethel. Surely, God is in this place—by the power of God’s Spirit. Amen.

*Photo by Briesha Bell on Unsplash 

10 comments

  1. “Busy running away from the brother he swindled.”
    Yes, Jacob was Israel in whom there was much guile. But, as some might say, “He didn’t lick it off the rocks!” He didn’t dream it up by himself. He had a co-conspirator: his mother Rebecca (Ch.27).
    Perhaps another example of a “felix culpa” – wrongdoing, yes, but which God can turn around and bring great blessing.

    1. Indeed—this was a family system gone awry. We are all part of varied contexts that shape our values, perspectives, and even decision-making. God did bring great blessing to Jacob, and that gives me great hope for my own shortcomings and for our communal well-being.

    1. I have long loved this hymn, and it is so rarely found or sung. It was running through my head as I read the reflection. Thank you Karl!

      1. I love the hymn as well: it was in Worship II (can’t remember if it was in Worship III) and eventually passed back out of regular appearance in US Catholic hymnals.

        I am not persuaded that the text alteration (in an otherwise exemplary rendition linked) in the last verse as sung was necessary or an improvement in any way.

  2. I can’t help but wonder if, in addition to Rebecca’s scheming, there wasn’t some willing complicity on Isaac’s part too. And this is the wonderful part of Bible stories: they can often be approached from a number of different angles, each one revealing some aspect of Wisdom…or human frivolity and hubris. Heaven forfend that we nail down a single “literal” meaning to this story! We’d never go back and ponder it a second and even twenty second time, and suddenly discover something new.

  3. Thank you, Jeff. Biblical tales are wonderful in this way. I like how the lectionary keeps bringing us back to these texts over the years. Each time I return to the text I encounter something new that is valuable to my own spiritual and theological formation.

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