I don’t know about you, but I seem to be a special target for telemarketers. These callers somehow find my number, call me, and if I answer, they try to make me an offer that sounds too good to be true.
Most of the time I tell the caller firmly that I am not interested and decisively end the call. But sometimes I stay on the line too long. A part of me tells me that the caller is trying to scam me. But another part is enticed by what he has to offer. Why is this?
In the scammer’s playbook there is the rule that one should always target the most vulnerable. And who are among the most vulnerable? It is especially the lonely. Not only, but especially in times of loneliness we tend to be more vulnerable to those who want to prey on us, that is, to those who pressure us to betray our common sense, and even our values.
No one wants to be lonely; no one finds it pleasurable, but rather painful. And, as we have just illustrated, loneliness can even be dangerous.
But not all time spent alone is loneliness. We call good “alone time” solitude, which can be desirable. In fact, solitude is good and even necessary for growth in intimacy with God.
But how do we distinguish between loneliness and solitude?
A common definition of “loneliness” is the state of distress that results when there is a gap between one’s desire for company and the actual experience of it. Loneliness is the experience of a lack. It is involuntary.
“Solitude,” on the other hand, is voluntary. It is the temporary withdrawal from social life for the purpose of focusing inward. It is deliberate, purposeful. It is done, not because it’s forced on us, but willingly, because we have a goal in mind for it.
Our Scripture lesson for this Lord’s Day raises for us these issues of “loneliness” and “solitude,” as they are embodied in the person of Jacob.
Most of you, I’m assuming, are familiar with the story of Jacob. He is the son of Isaac, who, in turn, is the son of Abraham. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the patriarchs of Israel.
Isaac is the husband of Rebekah, and she bears two sons for Isaac. Their names are Jacob and Esau.
Now as the firstborn, Esau was rightful heir to the blessing of his father Isaac. But with the help of his mother, Jacob deceived his father, who bestowed on him the blessing instead of his brother Esau in a case of mistaken identity.
When Esau in turn sought his father’s blessing, his father refused him. No blessing remained for him. It now belonged to his brother Jacob. Furious, Esau plotted how he might kill his brother Jacob.
When Jacob learned of his brother’s plan, he fled. This is where we find him now. He is in flight from his brother, afraid for his very life.
Removed now from all that is familiar, from his support system, from his mother Rebekah, to whom he is very close, without yet a wife, he is very much alone. This is not the good “alone time.” It is loneliness.
We can imagine how crushing the loneliness must have been for him! Most of us have known and experienced the loneliness that comes when we are in transition, when we have to leave people, places and things that are familiar to us.
Only recently did my own mother have to leave her house, her neighborhood, and her friends to move into an assisted living facility. Even after three months there, she still feels very much uprooted.
But even though Jacob is alone, God is with him.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider how valuable this lesson is for us to learn, especially if we are in a period of loneliness.
Have you ever sensed that even in dark periods of loneliness, God is with you? That doesn’t necessarily always mean that God eases the pain of loneliness, but God does prove himself faithful to his promise never to leave us nor forsake us.
God is with Jacob in his loneliness. Jacob for his part is receptive to meeting with God, even though he is not expecting a spiritual encounter at this point. Nonetheless, he quiets himself. He is in a state of rest, prepared for the spiritual experience that he is about to undergo.
Do we realize that we too have to quiet ourselves if we want to hear from or experience God?
In the church that I serve, we begin our service with announcements. But afterward, our worship leader says: “Let us now take a moment to prepare our hearts and minds for worship.” There follows a few moments of silence before we enter into worship.
It’s hard to hear God over the noise that everywhere surrounds us. That’s why we have to remove ourselves temporarily from the noise, withdraw to a solitary place, and sit still in the quiet while we wait patiently on God.
Jacob, for his part, finds his solitary place. He puts a stone underneath his head, lays down, and dreams.
This is a dream that has become iconic. In it there’s a ladder on which angels are ascending and descending. What does this mean?
There’s a phrase that has been used among Bible students in recent years. They speak of “thin places.” These are places where the boundary between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, is porous. Jacob is in a thin place.
The activity of the angels on the ladder signals that there is free and unimpeded movement between heaven and earth. That is to say, the boundary between them can be crossed.
The most important truth that Jacob must grasp in this dream is that the God of heaven is truly involved with what is going on here on earth. Jacob’s eyes are opened to see the traffic moving between heaven and earth. The angels of God, who are his obedient servants and messengers, are ascending and descending to carry out God’s will on earth.
Their activity also signals that there is more yet to come.
That “more” is the appearance of the Lord himself. The Lord appears to Jacob in his solitude. In the dream Jacob discovers the Lord, the God of his father Abraham and the God of Isaac who is determined to keep his promise to bless.
Here it’s important first to see where God is located in the dream. God is not found above or even among the angels. He is standing right beside Jacob. This is a remarkable statement. God stands protectively next to Jacob, endowing Jacob with the strength of his presence. The word in the original denoting God’s posture implies stability, unconditional attention and support.
This is consistent with what God’s people have experienced of God through the ages. The Psalmist calls God his rock, his fortress. Is this not what Jacob needs from his God right now? Isn’t this what he needs God to be for him? Having left home and all that is familiar, he is lonely and insecure. Why wouldn’t he be? It is normal for us to feel this way in the sort of situation in which Jacob finds himself, as we have already said.
But whenever we feel lonely and insecure, where do we turn? There are a number of substances and self-help programs and relationships to which people habitually turn to self-soothe, to cope with their feelings of insecurity. As a pastor, I frequently hear about people, about their abuses of these substances, about their enthusiasm for self-help programs, and about their bondage to destructive relationships.
Listen, we don’t need these things, if the God of Jacob is our God. We can turn to him whenever we feel insecure. In him we will find our rock and our fortress. His strength is more than enough to handle our anxieties.
“Cast your cares upon the Lord, and he will sustain you. He will never let the upright be shaken,” declares the Psalmist (Ps. 55:2).
We have to learn to turn to God ourselves, and then, as a church, we need to point others to our God, who wants to be their God too. This is so important today, a day when government officials and experts are alerting us to a mental health crisis that is menacing the nation.
God confirms that he will be Jacob’s support with these words: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” God promises to go with Jacob throughout his journey, wherever he happens to go. There is no place Jacob can go where God will not be.
In this connection, we may recall those words from Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of the earth, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast (Ps. 139:7-10).
But God has more to say to Jacob. God confirms to Jacob his promise to Abraham. The content of the promise is land and offspring, as numerous as the dust of the earth. And all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through Jacob and his offspring. In these words, Jacob discovers a God who is determined to keep his promise to bless his father Abraham, as we have already mentioned.
Consider that God gives to Jacob this promise as he lay alone under the cover of the night sky. Jacob has nothing but the clothes on his back. He is on the run. He does not know what awaits him. There is nothing in his experience to lead him to expect what God promises him.
We also have to assume Jacob’s posture. There may be nothing in our experience on which we can base expectations for a good outcome of our current situation. But it is especially then that we have to listen for God’s voice. We too need to withdraw from our daily routine to a solitary place, open our Bibles, and ask him to reveal his will and wisdom to us. And when God does do this, we need to cling to it, we need to trust it, despite what our circumstances may be telling us. We live by faith and not by sight.
Upon awakening, Jacob’s sense of himself will never be without his sense of God. Let us again place God’s promise of his presence in the context of Jacob’s fear and insecurity: afraid of Esau, of past and future, Jacob is to find his support in this simple promise: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
This promise is directed to Jacob as he is laying down, fully passive on the ground in sleep. The encounter is initiated by God alone. He will take charge of all the events that will unfold in fulfillment of his promise.
Just as God provided for Adam by causing him to fall into a deep sleep, and made covenant with Abraham when he too was asleep, so here with Jacob. The pattern repeats itself.
Let me venture to say that this reveals an enduring truth about God and man. Salvation is God’s work, not ours.
Indeed, in the New Testament the Epistle to the Hebrews describes salvation as an “entering into God’s rest.” In Hebrews 4:9, we learn that “there remains a rest for the people of God. For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.”
Similarly, Jesus tells a parable about a sower who sows good seed in a field. While everyone was asleep, the plants came up and bore grain.
And later in the New Testament, James tells us that we are to receive with humility the word that has been implanted in us, which can save us.
The truth is that we don’t make ourselves; we are not self-made men and women. It is by God’s word and Spirit, which is quietly at work in us, that we become who we are.
We have to be careful always to remind ourselves of this truth. Today it’s so easy to focus on what we have to do.
For the default assumption is that to be Christian is to be active in the service of some cause or another. We need to do social justice. This is emphasized especially in the Protestant mainline churches.
In effect, we are asking then: “what can we do for God?” But less often do we ask: “what has God done for us?” But until we have posed and answered the second question, we cannot properly pose the first question. I’m afraid that in our time we have reversed the order of these two questions, to our own confusion and that of the rest of the world watching us.
But Jacob did not reverse the order of these questions. He recognized the presence of God, he received the promise of God first. And only then does he respond.
And his first response is to worship.
This is the significance of Jacob’s naming the place Bethel. It means the house of God. All the patriarchs describe the place of encounter with God with imagery drawn from their deepest spiritual experience.
Jacob names it Beth-El, choosing an image of home, of domestic familiarity.
And God prefers Jacob’s image to that of Abraham, who sees a mountain, and to that of Isaac, who sees a field. For later the Temple will be called the house of the God of Jacob, as we read in Isaiah 2:3.
Jacob then sets up the stone that he put under his head and pours oil upon it. We can call this a memorial.
We set up a memorial only when we are confident that there will be those who follow us, for whom it will be meaningful. Otherwise, there would be no point. For Jacob it marks the beginning of a journey on which he is about to set out with God into a future whose horizon is so much greater than he is that he cannot possibly comprehend it.
Finally, Jacob makes a vow to God. He entrusts himself to the care and provision of the God he encountered in the dream. He depends on God to watch over him, to give him food to eat and clothes to wear.
Sound familiar? It is how Jesus teaches his own followers about faith in God, who is their father. “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matt. 6:31-33).
The God of Jacob invites us too to lay aside our worries, to depend on him, to find our rest in him. Only our rest is not a place that we mark with a stone pillar; it is not the Temple Mount in the city of Jerusalem. Rather our rest is Jesus Christ. He is our place of rest, as we learn in John’s Gospel. There Jesus tells his disciple Nathaniel that he will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.
Jesus is the center. He is the place where heaven and earth meet. He is the one in whom the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob reveals himself to us, to give to us the same promise that he gave to Jacob in that lonely place more than four millennia ago. “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.