A while ago I took the opportunity to tell the Sunday School children a story. I told them the story of the Great Family, and this is the story we are exploring over the remainder of the year. The Great Family is the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It is a wonderful story and there is so much to learn from it.
Last week we had a peak at the birth and early life of Jacob and Esau. We could tell that they were headed for trouble. I wonder how many of you have not read the story in between that and the story we had today. I had better assume a few of you and fill you in before I get into it.
So last week we finished with the story of Jacob breaking the traditional rules of hospitality by making his brother Esau pay for a meal when he was famished. In this way Jacob secured what rights the first-born might have had in the family.
After this Isaac takes his family to a town called Gerar in the land of the Philistines. There, they were blessed with abundant crops and his herds of sheep and cattle grew enormously. Interestingly, he repeated the same mistake as his father Abraham. You might remember a story of Abraham telling the King Abimalech that Sarah was not his wife but his sister, thinking it would be safer for himself as well as Sarah. Well Isaac did the same to the same King, telling him that Rebekah was his sister not his wife.
Eventually the King wants to get rid of Isaac. His family had become too powerful. But they parted friends and Isaac went back and settled in Beersheeba.
The next part of the story – where Jacob gets that special blessing from his old and blind father, further cheating Esau, is preceded and followed by a little bit of the Esau story. Firstly it says that Esau married two Hittite women and life very unpleasant for his parents. Then, just before our story for today began we are told that Esau thought he ought to get some better wives so he went back to Ishamel’s family and found a cousin to marry.
The story of Jacob getting his father’s final blessing sets the scene for our story today because Esau gets so mad when he realises he has been cheated again that he declared he would kill Jacob.
So Rebekah and Isaac agreed that it would be best for Jacob to take a little trip away – back to the home country and the town of Haran where Rebekah’s brother Laban lived. Laban had daughters. It was time for Jacob to have a wife.
Our story today happens on the way.
Jacob is sleeping and he has a dream or a vision – a stairway to heaven with angels and everything. God, the Lord, was even there, and God restated the promise that he had made so emphatically to both Abraham and to Isaac.
“I will give you this land and innumerable descendants.”
Two things struck me from this story. Firstly, this is clearly a turning point for Jacob. In his story up to this time there has been little reference to God. Maybe that is not so strange in families – the grandfather being faithful, the father knowing about the faith a bit, but the son not knowing and not caring.
But here, Jacob encounters God in such a powerful way that his life would never be the same. From being an agnostic he is now a believer. "The Lord is here! He is in this place, and I didn't know it! It must be the gate that opens into heaven."
And so he dedicates that place as a holy place – Bethel – the House of God – and it was Israel’s most holy place right through until David secured Jerusalem as first the political and then religious capital of Israel.
So for me this story is a reminder of that moment when I encountered God so amazingly that my life has never been the same since. It is good to remember these things. We don’t experience God like that all the time, but the memory of it keeps us from throwing it all away as if it meant nothing. I hope it reminds you of that part of your own story, too.
The second thing that strikes me in this story is that Jacob sets out on his journey as a frightened solitary person. He was all alone on this journey.
Then the promise of God comes along, reminding him that that he is still destined to become the father of many people, a great nation. From being isolated from his family he is thrust right into the middle of an inescapable community. It is in and through that community that the greatest work of God was going to be accomplished.
"I will give to you and to your descendants this land on which you are lying. 14 They will be as numerous as the specks of dust on the earth. They will extend their territory in all directions, and through you and your descendants I will bless all the nations.
It is through this great family that all the nations of the world will be blessed. God is declaring right there at the outset that an integral part of the plan he has for this great family is that everyone on earth should know God’s blessings, not just the great family.
And God’s declaration finishes with these wonderful words of assurance: “Remember, I will be with you and protect you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done all that I have promised you."
So we can join with our Nuba brothers and sisters in saying:
God is good – all the time
All the time – God is good