Welcome to a sermon in three acts. It concerns a troubled youngster, an old dreamer and an apocalyptic messenger.
When we meet Jacob, he is in trouble. His name, Jacob, means deceiver, trickster, cheat, someone who pushes his way in. At his mother’s instigation, he has managed to supplant his older brother and fool his aged father into giving him the blessing – that is, making him the heir. This is true of Isaac’s earthly wealth, and it is true of that other blessing Isaac has to pass on, the promise given to his father Abraham that through them that they would inherit a land, have many descendants and be a blessing to the whole world. His brother Esau wants revenge and is biding time till the aged Isaac dies and won’t be around to protect Jacob. And so Jacob has been sent away to a far country to marry, make his fortune and stay out of harm’s way. We can imagine that he is perhaps lonely, afraid, disappointed. His grand plan to be the inheritor of his father’s wealth seems to have come to nothing. He is a failure.
As he travels, he lies down to sleep and he dreams. He sees a stairway linking heaven and earth, and angels going up and down it. At the top he sees the Lord, who speaks to him. God repeats the triple promise of land, descendants and blessing, but there is a difference. Always up to now it has been the promise given to his grandfather Abraham, and to his father Isaac; now, for the first time, Jacob hears the promise given to himself personally. It is for him.
Does Jacob believe and understand the promise? No, I do not think he does. We find out more in three weeks when we meet Jacob again on 18 October, and see his name being changed to Israel – watch this space! So Jacob does not “get it” now, but he does seem to realise for the first time that there is more to reality than he has been aware of up to now. The place where this occurs will always be special to him as a special location where heaven and earth seem to be linked. Jacob called the place Bethel, which means “house of God”. George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, called Iona a “thin place”, with only “a tissue paper separating heaven and earth.” Many of us feel the same way about a special place like St Michael’s. Prayer and worship have been offered here for 162 years. It is only a building, and we can and do worship God anywhere. Nevertheless we rejoice at the special places, filled with memories, that can help us to connect with God.
Someone who seems to have been worshipping God under a fig tree was Nathanael. Rabbis of the period were known to sit under fig trees as places of contemplation and to discuss God’s word. We will miss the first sermon here – that a man called Philip started to follow Jesus, went to his friend Nathanael to tell him about it, did not seem to be making any headway, and was reduced to issuing the invitation “Come and see”. It is a great text about sharing our faith; we do not need to preach but merely to encourage folk to come with us, to “Encounter God and Grow in Him”.
So Nathanael comes. Jesus comments that here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit. In other words he is not a Jacob, a deceiver, trickster, supplanter. He is rather an inheritor of the blessing promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (named changed to Israel).
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asks. “I saw you under the fig tree.” Jesus’ reply seems to make a big impression on Nathanael. Did he feel Jesus had some divine, mystical ability to see at a distance? Some have wondered if he was studying the passage about Jacob and his dream, and he is amazed that Jesus should refer to it, but this is conjecture. Whatever the reason, Nathanael has come and seen, and recognised that Jesus “is the son of God, the King of Israel”. Jesus replies that there is more to come. What looks like an ordinary, everyday meeting between some people is in fact another “thin space”, there are angels at work. Jacob had seen angels uniting heaven and earth in his dream. Jesus says, in effect, that in me you will experience heaven and earth united, God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.
I wonder if you begin to see a theme emerging. In the communion prayer we say “therefore with angels and archangels and all the powers of heaven, we find a voice to sing your praise”. We are inhabiting that thin place, where heaven and earth are joined and we unite with all the saints of God to sing praise and worship. But we are also celebrating that we are in the presence of God and his angelic messengers when we are at home watching tv, putting children or grandchildren to bed, out shopping, working at the computer or work bench, gardening or sitting at a loved one’s sick bed. If we could just cultivate that ability to see and experience, we could encounter God and grow in him, ourselves.
As we turn to Revelation, we remind ourselves that it is telling a simple story, but in a dramatic and imaginative set of ways that can leave us breathless. We might take a theme at a Liquid Church or Messy Church such as prayer; then the different zones or stations might present it in a variety of different crafts or activities that help us to fully engage with it and understand it. In a similar way John the Divine tells the story of Jesus overcoming the evil one by allowing himself to die, and how our suffering here on earth is part of that heavenly victory, but he does it in a series of visions that seem to happen at the same time – clouds, angels, seals, trumpets, beasts. It begins with Christ the risen exalted Son of God, and ends with Jesus welcoming us into the garden, the new heaven and earth, where there is no more sin, illness, crying or death.
To follow Jesus is not to adopt a Christian lifestyle or a specific set of morals. It is not a bolt-on, an optional extra for some people who “like that sort of thing”, but which we can choose to do without if we so please. When we meet Michael in Revelation 12, and also in Daniel 7, he is the warrior prince, protecting the Israel of God, defeating the enemy of God’s people. There are books to be read and sermons to be preached about Revelation, and it is all to encourage us and firm us up in our faith. The good news is that the battle has been fought and won, and the devil has been defeated. This is pictured for us as Michael and his armies winning though in heaven, just as Jesus has overcome by shedding his blood on the cross, and as the martyrs have overcome by their steadfastness. The focus is not on Michael or his angels but on Jesus, the lamb who has shed his blood for us.
But the battle continues in real time, as it were. The defeated foe has been thrown down here to earth, and we are the latest generation to find ourselves in the front line. We get knock-backs. Loved ones fall ill. Relationships crumble and lovelessness seems to abound. Governments, employers and human institutions seem to treat us in inhuman and ungodly ways. We fight back with the word of God and with our testimony of the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. The harder the fight, the more that we are driven towards God. The greater the hardship, the more we encounter God and see him changing our character to be more in the image of his Son.
We might find ourselves under a fig tree, as it were, meditating on a passage of scripture. We might become increasingly aware of the two worlds that we are called to inhabit, surrounded by heavenly messengers, and in that way come into the presence of Jesus the Son of God. We might discover that Jesus is that “thin place”, that in him heaven and earth are united, in him we are made one with our Father God. We might let him into our hearts.
1. How much do you know or recall about the life of Jacob? (Genesis 25-49)
2. What experiences have we had of “thin places”, locations or occasions that have helped us experience the reality of God?
3. “Rejoice you heavens, but woe to the earth …” (Rev. 12:12) Are you more likely to be found rejoicing or in woe, or both? What are your reasons and your requests for prayer?