‘God has no grandchildren’. I think I first heard this phrase years ago from Billy Graham. What he meant by it, of course, was that being raised in a Christian home doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will become a follower of Jesus for yourself. It’s a good thing, no doubt, but there will come a day when you will have to make a decision for yourself about the Christian faith. Another phrase along the same lines is one I heard from former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey: ‘The Church is always one generation from extinction’. By this he meant that the current generation of churchgoers can never take for granted that the next generation will also have faith. We need to be active as witnesses, sharing the good news of Christ with the next generation and helping them also to become his followers.
But this is sometimes a tricky business. Yes, we can take our kids to church and send them to Sunday School – we can make sure they know some Bible stories and watch some Veggie Tales videos and know some Christian songs and so on – but can we actually pass on faith in Christ to them? Is it possible for faith in Christ to be second hand? Does it not have to be caught first hand from the Holy Spirit? Or, to put it another way: is it really enough for us to pass on our Christian faith to our kids? Would it not be truer to say that what we’re really longing for is that they would have a transformational encounter with the living Christ for themselves, so that, rather than picking up our faith, they would grow a faith of their own?
In today’s Old Testament reading God says to Jacob, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Genesis 28:13). In later years, this same God will be known as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, but at this point in the story Jacob hasn’t yet taken his place in the family tree of those who know God for themselves; all he’s got to go on are the stories he’s heard from his father and his grandfather about how God led the family out of Haran and brought them to the land of Canaan to live there. He’s heard how his father Isaac was born when Abraham and Sarah were nearly a hundred years old; he’s heard of the times when God appeared to his grandfather and his father and made promises to them about a land and descendants and blessing the whole world through them. But he’s never had that sort of experience himself. His relationship with God is entirely second-hand; he only knows God by hearsay.
I suspect that some of our kids, and perhaps even some of us, feel the same way. We’ve heard other people talk about knowing God and feeling close to God, but somehow it seems to have passed us by. Perhaps our parents had a close relationship with God, but somehow we never picked up from them how that happened. We picked up the churchgoing habit – we come regularly, perhaps we’ve been on vestry and volunteered around the place a bit – but when we hear about a personal connection with God, we feel this longing inside and we wonder, “How can I find that? What do I have to do? Do you have to be some sort of special person, especially good and holy and all that? Or is it available for everyone?”
Well, let’s back up a bit and learn a bit more about Jacob. Last week we read the story of his birth; we read about how his Mom Rebekah was barren, and so her husband Isaac prayed for her, and the Lord answered his prayer and gave her a son. Not only a son, but twins! The twins weren’t an entirely comfortable experience for her; she sometimes felt like there was a war going on in her womb, and when she asked God about it he explained it to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger’ (25:23). When the time came to be born, the first one was covered in red hair, and the second one was hanging onto his brother’s heel. They called the first one ‘Esau’, and the second one ‘Jacob’, which means ‘he takes by the heel’ or ‘he supplants’.
When the boys grew up Esau was a hunter who loved going out on the land; his Dad loved him because he liked the wild game he brought home. But Jacob was a quiet man who preferred staying home in the tents, and his Mom loved him best. The time came for their father, who was old and blind, to give the paternal blessing to his firstborn. So he called Esau and told him to go out and hunt some game, cook it up and bring it to his father, and then he would receive the blessing. Rebekah heard this and concocted a plan to get the blessing for Jacob instead. She killed an animal from the flock, cooked the meat, and took the skin and put it on Jacob’s arms and shoulders, because he wasn’t hairy like his brother. Then she sent him in to pretend that he was Esau and to get the blessing in place of his brother. Jacob did this, and strange as it may seem to us, apparently it worked. Of course, when Esau found out about this, he wasn’t pleased at all, and he began to whisper dark plots: after Isaac died, he said, he would kill Jacob for what he had done. So Rebekah sent Jacob away, back to the land of Haran where the family had come from, to stay with her brother Laban. It was while he was on this journey that Jacob had the dream we heard about in today’s reading.
We said last week that we’re not dealing with a family of spiritual superstars here; we’re dealing with an ordinary family who make mistakes and fall short of perfection by a long way. We’ve got a Dad who seems fairly passive and is perhaps the sort of guy who, as they say, will do anything for a quiet life. We’ve got a Mom who seems rather manipulative; she’s got plans for her favourite son and isn’t above deceiving her husband to get what she wants. We’ve got two parents who play favourites with their sons, and we can only begin to imagine what that meant for the inner dynamics of this family.
What are we supposed to learn from this? Is this family supposed to be a good example for us to follow? No – as we said last week, what God is teaching us here is that it’s not his policy to reserve his blessing for the most deserving specimens of humanity he can find. If God were to look around to find a perfect family to use to spread his light, the world would be a very dark place. The family of Isaac and Rebekah isn’t a perfect family, they’re an ordinary family, and this doesn’t disqualify them from being channels of God’s blessing to others. That should be good news for us.
But in God’s plan, it’s not enough for Jacob to have a second hand relationship with God in which he only knows God by hearsay. God wants Jacob to know him personally. And the time when Jacob is afraid and is fleeing for his life turns out to be a good time for this to happen. So we heard in our reading this morning how when he was running away he stopped for a sleep and used a pillow for a stone – which ought to have given him rather strange dreams anyway, I would think! In his sleep he dreamt that he saw a ladder from heaven to earth, with the angels going up and down on it. And God stood beside him and spoke to him, confirming to him the promises he’d made to his father and grandfather, and promising to be with him on all his journeys and to bring him safely back to his father’s house.
Most of us don’t set much store by dreams these days, but to traditional cultures around the world they have often been seen as highly significant. Jacob obviously saw it that way. When he woke up he exclaimed, ‘This is the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!’ and he took the stone he’d slept on and set it up as a memorial pillar. Not that his character was instantly transformed, you understand; it’s funny to read the bargain he strikes with God: ‘If you look after me and bring me food and water and keep me safe and bring me home and all that – then I’ll make you my God and give you a tenth of everything you give me!’ Jacob obviously hasn’t yet learned that you don’t make bargains with God. God has begun to transform him, but the process is going to take years – decades, in fact.
‘That’s alright for Jacob’, you might say; ‘He had a dream and saw a ladder to heaven. But where is that ladder? How do I find it?’
Interestingly enough, Jesus refers to this passage in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. One of his new disciples, Philip, goes and finds his friend Nathanael sitting under a fig tree; he tells him about Jesus and brings him to meet him. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and says, ‘Here’s a true Israelite with no deceit in him at all’. Nathanael is puzzled: ‘How do you know me?’ he asks. Jesus replies, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’. Nathanael is impressed with Jesus’ second sight: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God!’ he exclaims; ‘You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus replies, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these… Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’ (John 1:43-51).
Do you see the reference? In the story of Jacob, there is a ladder between heaven and earth, and the angels of God are ascending and descending on it. But in John’s story, Jesus himself is the ladder; he’s the one who connects heaven and earth, and the angels are ascending and descending on him.
That has turned out to be true in my experience. When I was a child my parents took me to church and read me Bible stories and prayed with me, but somehow I didn’t have a sense of the closeness of God. Like Jacob, it would have been more accurate to say that God was the God of my parents and grandparents; I knew him by hearsay, not personal experience. The key to getting to know him, for me, was the day in my early teens, at the culmination of a period of spiritual searching, when my Dad suggested that I give my life to Jesus. I prayed in exactly those terms, and that night things began to change for me. Call it a conversion experience if you like; call it coming to faith, or my faith coming alive – I don’t really care what you call it. I only know that when I gave my life to Jesus, Jesus became for me a ladder from earth to heaven – that is to say, a road to a personal relationship with the living God in which I began to know God for myself and not merely by hearsay.
And when I look back on this experience I’m thankful that my Mum and Dad didn’t just pass on to me the customs and traditions of the Anglican Church. You can see in the story of Jacob how that might happen. He has an encounter with the living God, and it’s so transformational to his life that the next morning he sets up the stone he slept on, pours olive oil on it and dedicates it as a memorial and calls it Bethel, which means ‘The House of God’. To Jacob it’s a precious place, and no doubt in the years to come he comes back to it again and again with thankfulness to God for what he experienced there.
But the next generation didn’t have that experience; all they had was the memorial stone. In time, they might even come to have an exaggerated sense of the importance of that stone in itself, and not just as a memorial for Jacob of the living God who he met there. And I think the customs and traditions of the Church can be like that stone. These customs and traditions were begun by people who had met the living God and been transformed by him. But unless we, their descendants, have a similar experience of transformation, these customs and traditions can be as lifeless as that stone. Passing on respect for those traditions where there is no real relationship with the living God is worse than useless: it’s potentially idolatrous.
I can’t give you an infallible formula today about how to meet the living God as Jacob did. The thing about God – a thing it took Jacob many more years to learn – is that he’s in charge of the relationship. He reveals himself to us when he’s ready to reveal himself to us. It’s not mechanical, like a slot machine – pray exactly these words in this order and in this tone of voice, and you’ll get the prize! It’s more mysterious than that. People in the Bible are often told to ‘seek the Lord’, and we get the impression that it takes time and effort to do so. We can’t command him to make himself known to us. All we can do is ask.
But we are encouraged to ask. After all, Jesus did say, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you’ (Matthew 7:7). The verb tenses here suggest that this is a continual action – keep on asking, searching, and knocking. And we can do this. We can pray simply, and persistently, ‘Jesus, show me the way. Jesus, lead me to the Father. Jesus, help me to know God for myself’.
I do not believe that anyone who prays that prayer will be disappointed forever. I believe that Jesus has in fact been standing at our elbows for years, waiting patiently for us to pray this sort of prayer. And I believe that, as we begin to experience his answer, like Jacob, we’ll be transformed. Not all at once – Jacob was still a deeply flawed human being, for decades after this first meeting with God, and God had to take drastic measures on a couple of occasions to bring Jacob face to face with his own need. And for us, too, the moment of genuine encounter with the living God is the beginning of a lifetime’s journey of transformation.
But a journey begins with a single step. And if you feel this morning as if you haven’t yet taken that step, let me suggest that you begin to pray, and keep on praying persistently, that Jesus will show you the way to the Father. Sooner or later, that prayer will be answered, and you will never be the same again.