Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Genesis 28:10-19a
Have you ever run from God? Have you ever felt emotionally and spiritually unsettled, disturbed, not knowing what you needed—and then realized that God is providing exactly what you need? I have. Psalm 139, which we used as a call to worship, is one of my favorite psalms. When I am feeling confused, when I’m feeling distant from God (perhaps because my prayer life or my reading of the Bible have been minimal) or when I’m avoiding sitting down with God because of something I don’t want to face or acknowledge, this psalm somehow comes to mind and brings me back. I might not realize my own emotional or spiritual state—I might be a hot mess running on empty—but, as we see in the psalm, God knows what we need and when we need it. God is with us wherever we go, whether or not we recognize it.
This psalm helps me recognize my desperation, my hunger, my need for God—for the Creator who knows me better than I know myself, who has crafted me with tender care and who is concerned for my life.
Somehow, it prompts me to stop, it takes away the façade, it opens my heart: “What can I say, God?” I’ve been running. Or I’ve been complacent. Or I’ve been consumed with things that are frivolous or I’ve been thinking that I can do everything on my own, without remembering or acknowledging that my strength and peace come from You. You. You with a Capital Y.
The Psalm starts with, O LORD—LORD in all caps, meaning David was using the special name for God, Yahweh, the I AM. He writes, “O LORD, You have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise. You discern my thoughts from afar—You know what’s going on in my head and my heart, what is consuming my mind and energy, my fears and hopes. You, God, are watching my every move”—but not in the creepy way, in the loving and protective parent way. You know what I’ve been doing/thinking/feeling, where I’ve been walking and journeying. You are acquainted with all of my ways. God, You know me better than I know myself. You go before me and behind me, and You put Your hand upon me.
I honestly can’t fathom this, God knowing me so intimately and carefully. It blows my mind. And David says that too: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, is so high that I cannot attain it.” I can’t wrap my head around the fact that the Creator of the Universe is intimately concerned with my life. Can you? Can you repeat after me: the Creator of the Universe is intimately concerned with my life.
No matter how hard we try to flee—flee from facing our need for God, relying on God, following God’s call for our lives, God is still with us. We can’t outrun God. David asks rhetorically, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [the place of the dead], 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. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
The psalm continues on in this vein. David ends his song with what seems like repentance, or a reorientation to the Way of God. David writes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
We don’t know in what part of David’s life this psalm was written. It could have been after a wayward moment (the Uriah/Bathsheba incident or another one). It could have been that David wasn’t worshipping or praying or talking to the prophets or priests much at the time. Perhaps David is just so caught up in the affairs and riches of his kingdom that he lost his spiritual centering. Whatever the case, David realizes he needs to reorient his life to God.
He recognizes the closeness, the intimacy, and the faithfulness of God—who would not leave him no matter how hard he tried. David understands this and says, “God, I’m Yours. Take my life. Lead me on Your path.” When we recognize God’s pervasive love, it draws us to pivot and to orient or reorient our lives to know, love, and serve God more deeply. [repeat]
Surely God is in this Place—and I didn’t Know It
Psalm 139 describes how God pursues us wherever we go and how the Creator of the universe is deeply concerned with our well-being. Our other passage, Genesis 28, is a narrative that illustrates these truths. It presents the story of the patriarch Jacob, who has a surprise encounter with God. Jacob remarks after this meeting with God: “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I didn’t know it!”
If you’ve been here the past two months, you may know we’ve been popping in and out of Genesis. We heard from Micah about Abraham and Sarah with some visitors, about Abraham and the almost sacrifice of Isaac. Nate preached on Abraham’s servant going on a quest to find a wife for Isaac. There’s a lot of neat and bizarre stuff in Genesis, that can be both perplexing and encouraging. It’s worth your time, even though the Hebrew scriptures can be a little harder to directly apply sometimes, especially with narrative books. The Hebrew Scriptures were Jesus’ bible and are indeed part of our Bible, even if we say things like the New Testament is our creed. It lays out foundational truths about the Creator, about God’s plan to reconcile and restore the world.
Assuming that we all don’t know Genesis cover-to-cover, I’m going to give a little crash course on the context of Jacob’s life, connecting him to some of the characters we’ve heard about in past sermons. We’ve heard about Abraham, God’s promise, and the miraculous conception of Isaac despite Sarah and Abraham’s ages. God commits to bringing forward the promise through Isaac, testing Abraham’s faith. Isaac marries Rebekah, who was willing to water the servant’s camels. Isaac and Rebekah then have problems conceiving, though they aren’t as old as Abraham and Sarah were. Isaac prays and the LORD provides, doubly: Rebekah has twins.
The pregnancy is curious. We learn of an ominous tussling: the babies in her womb are thrashing about and Rebekah is perplexed. She hears a prophecy that her babies will end up as two competing nations, with the older serving the younger. A nice message to welcome you to parenthood. Rebekah delivers her babies and again, things are a bit odd. The first one comes out red and hairy; he is named Esau. The second baby (smooth-skinned) exits the womb while holding onto the heel of his big brother. Named Jacob, or “he grasps the heel, or he supplants,” the rivalry is already starting.
Jacob and Esau are very different kids. Esau is a hunter and farmer who loves the outdoors. Isaac loves Esau especially. Or, rather, Isaac loves the deer and other game that Esau brings and cooks for his dad. The way to the dad’s heart is the belly in this story. Jacob is quieter and is an indoors-type (staying in tents, the text says). Mom loves Jacob more. Parents, child favoritism doesn’t seem to bode well, according to scripture.
In a strange turn of events, Esau gives up his first-born status in exchange for some stew cooked by Jacob. Exactly why Esau was so famished or why Jacob was inside cooking—I don’t know. The stage is being set to paint their characters. Esau is rash and Jacob is cunning. Esau marries two Hittite (Canaanite) ladies and that doesn’t make the parents happy. Papa Isaac gets sick and decides to give his blessing to his oldest son—after Esau cooks up a good meal. Momma Rebekah hears this and crafts a plan to disguise Jacob as hairy Esau, cook a good meal, and get all the blessings. Which happens.
Jacob gets blessed and Esau is left with almost nothing. Esau plots to kill Jacob. Rebekah hears and convinces Jacob to flee, under the guise that he should find a wife from her extended family back home (where the camels were watered). Isaac agrees to this and, interestingly, blesses Jacob again, but with a different blessing. This blessing connects Jacob to the promise to Abraham: “May God go with you and bless you, allowing you to multiply. May God give you the blessing to Abraham, so that the land we are on can be yours.”
And now, with that context of trickery and plotting and rivalry, with the threat of sibling murder and some blessing thrown in, we come to our passage. Let’s say it again: Genesis isn’t boring. We meet Jacob just after he has left home, going to his Uncle Laban’s house in Haran. One commentary says the journey would have been about 400 miles, or 20 days’ journey (Rigsby). Imagine your brother might kill you. Yikes. You’re going to look for a spouse. Yay. Which leads me to think there was a verifiable mixture of emotions on a lonely 20-day journey.
On one of those twenty days, Jacob stops for the night and prepares to lay down. He finds the softest looking rock and uses it as a pillow. If this was a play, the stage directions would say, cue the DREAM SEQUENCE; enter the ANGEL ESCALATOR. Jacob dreams a fantastic dream, with a ramp or a stairway reaching from earth to heaven. Angels of God (probably shiny messengers as opposed to winged creatures) are going up and down. Heaven and earth are connected! While the vision is important, the words spoken are more important than the setting, so don’t get too distracted by the stairway to heaven (Brueggemann). I’m not sure if there were guitar solos.
The LORD, Yahweh, shows up next to Jacob and reiterates the promise that was made to Abraham: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
I’m going with you. I will keep you. I will bring you back. I will not leave you. At that, Jacob wakes up and exclaims, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I didn’t know it!” Jacob is awoken from sleep but also from his inner monologue about his tricks and their consequences.
Walter Brueggemann notes that Jacob encounters God in a vulnerable state—a deep sleep. Perhaps, at other times, Jacob had his guard up. God shows up in a way that can grab Jacob’s attention. Jacob is surprised that God would be present in the wilderness, on the journey.
Jacob proceeds to set up his rock pillow as a pillar, pours oil on it, and has a ceremony to mark the occasion, to remember God’s revelation and promise.
There are several lessons that I see from Psalm 139 and our story of Jacob and the angel escalator. Lesson 1: When you’re wandering, or when you least expect it, God shows up. God showed up for Jacob in a place where Jacob had no clue that God could do so. We saw David the psalmist write that you can’t run from God. No matter where you end up—the deepest part of the sea, the sky, the bowels of the earth—God will find you.
What circumstances or settings do you think are the least likely for God to show up? In your individual life? In your family life? In our church life together? In our neighborhood, city, or country?
Lesson 2: God promises to be faithful. God will not leave us. God will see us through, even if the future is uncertain or bleak. God promised not to leave or forsake a weird, shifty scoundrel like Jacob, who had a death threat against him and a very uncertain future. God took this unlikely protagonist and used him to create a people for God. Jacob’s name eventually gets changed to Israel, he has 12 sons, who became the 12 tribes, and so on. Joseph, Egypt, Moses, Red Sea, Promised Land. God is willing to take you and me and all of us, and walk with us into a future that we cannot imagine, a future where we are witnessing to God’s freedom, deliverance, mercy, and love.
Lesson 3: Recognizing the presence of God, comprehending God’s immense love and care for us, involves a response from us. David asks God to transform and purify his heart, leading him forward into God’s path. Jacob recognizes that God is present, and worships. When God shows up, what will you do? How will you mark it? How will we mark it, as a church? Are you listening, are we listening enough to recognize when God shows up? “Surely God is in this Place—and I didn’t Know It.” How will you respond, when God shows up?
Sisters and brothers, if you’re wandering, or when you least expect it, God will show up. Maybe God is showing up for you today, right now. Maybe it is on your commute or when you are laying your head down on, what I hope is, a softer pillow. Maybe you are running from God. No matter where you end up—the deepest part of the sea, the sky, the bowels of the earth—God will find you. God will show up and God promises to be faithful. God will not leave us. God will see you and me and all of us through, even if the future is uncertain or bleak. When God shows up, when you are confronted with God’s immense love and care for you, how will you respond?
Benediction: Sisters and brothers, God is seeking and calling you. God is showing up. Can you see it?
Great is Your Faithfulness, O LORD. From ages past, You have shown Your faithfulness and care, revealing Yourself to Jacob, to David, and revealing Yourself most fully—in the flesh—through Jesus. Open our eyes to Your love and care for us. Search us, know our hearts, and lead us in Your way everlasting. AMEN.