God and Solitude
Last time we spoke about vulnerability. To be more precise, we noted that in times of pain, deprivation, hardship and 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 values. That was the case with Esau when facing his brother Jacob. The quarantine has made many, if not most of us, vulnerable in one way or another, especially if we’ve had to endure long bouts of isolation. Loneliness is undesirable; no one finds it pleasurable, but rather painful.
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 spiritual growth. How do we distinguish between loneliness and solitude?
Let us define solitude as a temporary withdrawal from social life for the purpose of attending to our inner life. It is deliberate, purposeful. It is done, not out of necessity, because one is lonely anyway, but resolutely, with an aim in view.
The first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day raises this issue of solitude for us. We have occasion once again to meet up with Jacob. This time he is on the run. He did obtain Esau’s birthright, which he swindled from him. And when his father Isaac gave him the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob was secure in its possession. 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 especially close, without yet a wife, he is very much alone. We can imagine how loneliness must have engulfed him! We know and perhaps have experienced how loneliness is amplified when we are on the run, when we have to escape from a place where we felt quite settled before.
But even though Jacob is alone, God is with him. Let us pause for a moment and consider how valuable this lesson is for us to learn, especially if we have had to endure isolation during the lockdown. Have we ever sensed that even in our deepest loneliness, God is with us? That does not 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. But Jacob for his part is sensitive to meeting with God. 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 or experience God? It is hard to hear God over the noise that everywhere surrounds us. That is why we have temporarily to remove ourselves 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. In the dream there’s a ladder on which angels are ascending and descending. What does this mean? There’s a phrase that has been circulating among Bible students in recent years. They speak of “thin places.” These are places where the boundary between heaven and earth, between divine and human realities, is porous. Jacob is in a thin place. The activity of the angels on the ladder signals that there is free and unobstructed movement between heaven and earth. That is to say, the boundary between them is porous. The 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. Note that God is not found above or even among the angels. He is standing beside Jacob. This is a remarkable statement. God stands protectively next to Jacob, endowing Jacob with the strength of his presence. The word 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? Isn’t this what he needs God to be for him? Having left home and all that is familiar, he is anxious and insecure. Why wouldn’t he be? It is normal for us to feel this way in this sort of situation. But whenever we feel anxious and insecure, where do we turn? There are a number of substances and therapies 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 therapies, and about their bondage to sexual relationships.
Listen, we don’t need these things, if the God of Jacob is our God. To him we can turn whenever we feel insecure. In him we will find our rock and our fortress. His strength is more than sufficient to contain our anxieties. “Cast your cares upon the Lord, and he will support you. He will never let the upright be shaken” (Ps. 55:2). We have continually 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.
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 accompany Jacob continually throughout his journey, wherever he happens to go. There is no place Jacob can go where God will not be. In this connection, the Psalmist asks: 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 there is more that God has 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 keeps his promise to bless his grandfather Abraham.
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 that he is wearing. 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 have to assume Jacob’s posture. There may be nothing in our experience on which to 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 give a word to us. And when God does give us a word, we need to cling to it, despite what our experience 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 the divine 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’s supine body, lying on the ground in sleep. The promise that God made to Abraham is repeated to Jacob as he rests. This reveals an enduring truth about God and man. Salvation is God’s work, not ours.
In fact, his truth is embodied in an image in our gospel lesson. There we find the sower who sows good seed in a field. While everyone was asleep, the plants came up and bore grain. We learned last time in the parable of the sower that the seed can represent God’s word. God’s word has power to change a life, to heal and to bring salvation. That is why later in the New Testament James instructs his readers to receive with humility the word that has been implanted in them, which can save their souls.
In this parable today the seed represents the children of the kingdom, but the principle is the same. They did not make themselves; they are not self-made men and women. The sower is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. It is by his good seed, which represents his word and Spirit, that they become who they are.
We have to be careful to keep this before us. Today it’s so easy to focus on what we have to do. We must do justice, for example. In effect, we are asking: “what can we do for God?” But we less often 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 he responds. His first response is to worship. This is the significance of his act of setting up the stone and then pouring oil upon it. It is nothing less than an act of worship. Then he entrusts himself to the care and the provision of the God whom he encountered in the dream. And note that his life of faith in the God that he has just encountered, in the God who has revealed himself to Jacob in this dream, began in rest.
We set up a memorial only when we are confident that we have a future. “I know the plans I have for you,” declared the Lord to the exiles in Babylon through the prophet Jeremiah, “plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” We set up a memorial only when one we are hopeful that there will be those who follow for whom it will be significant. 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.
We pointed out last time that we have this need to fit our personal stories into a larger story. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is our God. This God includes us in the blessings that he bestowed on them. Let us in our solitude reflect on these blessings, receive them as our own, and look forward to a future together. We can move confidently into this future, because the God of Jacob, includes us too in the promise never to leave us nor forsake us. Amen.