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The Unexpected God

July 21, 2014

“The Unexpected God” Genesis 28:10-22 © 7.20.14 Ordinary 16A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Kim Novak made her screen debut in 1954. By the time she starred in “Vertigo” with Jimmy Stewart in 1958, she was already a superstar. Yet the more famous she became, the unhappier she felt, believing with good reason that the studios wanted to shape and control her. She could not find the acceptance she so craved or be given the serious roles she wanted to play.

So, in 1966, a decade after she had achieved superstardom, she abruptly left Hollywood and spent nearly another ten years alone on the California coast and in the mountains. “I felt an incompleteness, like an unfinished song,” she once said in an interview. “I ran, it’s true. But I didn’t run away. I ran to something. I was running to my life” (Dotson Rader, “At Last: A Safe Place,” 1990).

Whether he knew it or not, Jacob was also running to his life. If you asked him, there alone with a rock for a pillow, he would have claimed he was running for his life. His only thought was to get away from his brother Esau, who with just cause wanted to kill him. You recall that when they were young, Jacob had taken advantage of Esau’s momentary hunger and extorted the birthright from the older sibling for a bowl of stew. Then, when their father was old and blind, Jacob had used a trick to get Isaac to confer Esau’s blessing on him instead.

But Jacob’s exile is not without direction or purpose. He is also going back to the home country to find a wife from his mother’s family. But that’s all he knows of the future. Only the broadest outline is clear. Right now he’s a fugitive, alone, and deep down, terribly afraid. All his life he had relied on himself and his wits to survive and even get ahead, usually at the expense of somebody else. So we may assume that’s still his way of thinking as he puts down his head on a stone in some place whose name he doesn’t know. He only wants to get some sleep. He’s not thinking about God nor does he expect to have a spiritual encounter.

Yet it is precisely here, in this unknown place, while he is uncomfortable, while he is on the run, while his defenses are down and his schemes useless, it is precisely here that Yahweh comes to the trickster and thief, a man I last week termed a “bottom-feeding scumbag.” Notice: this low-life has done nothing to invoke the Lord. In fact, we would think somebody so filthy with sin would find nothing but condemnation in God’s presence.

But God comes not to punish but to promise, not to provoke but to provide. Jacob didn’t wake up that morning or go to bed that night thinking “I’m going to make a covenant with God and be the ancestor of a great nation.” No, he has not sought any such thing. But there beside him stands the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, ready to enter into an agreement.

We might think that God is just doing this because of the ancestors. He has to keep his word, no matter how the kids turned out. But Jacob is addressed not just as a member of a chosen line. Instead, he is an individual, on his own journey. God has been there throughout this long, strange trip to make it a sacred journey. And even more than such a promise of presence, there is the promise of homecoming. And that’s what Jacob longed to hear, because for the Hebrews, life had little meaning outside the context of community and tribe.

So it was that Jacob discovered something wondrous. It is this: God is present in the most unusual of places and speaks to the most unlikely of people. Such an encounter as the patriarch experienced was not the result of his longing for it. It didn’t come from his awareness of the holiness of the locale. He did not and could not conjure the meeting or summon God as he would some slave to do his bidding. Unlike in the old rock song, he couldn’t buy a stairway to heaven. No, instead, God was present by God’s own gracious intention, according to his own purpose for Jacob. God was there all along.

Like Jacob, we too are on a journey, traveling from past through present to future. The metaphor is a common one, but it’s not for that reason any less powerful or any less true. We are, of course, at different stages on this journey. Some believers have taken only a few steps, and a long ribbon of highway stretches out endlessly ahead. Others have worn out many pairs of shoes, so long has been the trek. When future has become present and then past, those who have barely started out will discover what those who have been walking for a while already know so well: life is a mixture of bane and blessing, joy and sorrow, an alloy of hope and regret. Some memories will be sweet, and to be cherished and savored. Others haunt us, and we wish they could be blotted forever from our tortured minds, where we keep playing the scenario of stupidity, failure or meanness over and over. And as the future stretches out ahead, no matter what plans we make, there is always some unexpected turn somewhere, and things don’t go quite the way we thought they would.

I tend to be a glass half-empty kind of guy, so maybe it’s that pessimist in me that expects all surprises to conform to Murphy’s Law. You know that dictum of course: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time.” And usually in traffic when I’m in a hurry. “Surprise,” and relatives arrive unannounced for a visit. “Surprise,” and you get a Christmas gift you didn’t ask for and don’t want, and the look on your face betrays your dismay. “Surprise,” and an unexpected charge shows up on your Visa bill. “Surprise,” and you find out your spouse or friend has been keeping hurtful secrets from you. “Surprise,” and the drunk driver crosses the center line. “Surprise,” and the terrorist bomb explodes. “Surprise,” and people with guns burst into a classroom, a theater, a restaurant, a bank, firing, killing, and wounding randomly. “Surprise,” and a storm devastates your town. “Surprise,” and the doctor gives a diagnosis you could only imagine in your nightmares. “Surprise,” and you’re fired. “Surprise!”

Do you remember that wonderful comic The Far Side? Its author, Gary Larson, must have experienced or observed such unwanted events. He seems even to have wondered whether human life is not subject on a large scale to the whims of some cosmic joker, who revels in sending the unexpected into our lives. In one of the Far Side panels, an entire room of furniture, along with its occupants—a man, a woman, and their dog—are flying sideways through the air. The caption reads: “Suddenly, through forces not yet fully understood, Darren Belsky’s apartment became the center of a new black hole.”

There is no denying that life is full of the kind of incomprehensible catastrophes that Larson likened to being sucked into a black hole, the place where the gravitational pull is so strong no light can escape. But the text wants to assure us that there is another kind of surprise, as welcome as it is unbidden, another sort of unexpected occurrence that brings with it joy, assurance, and protection rather than sorrow, doubt, and insecurity. The authors want to say that this is the way it is not only with Jacob, but with all who travel life’s road. When we least expect it, God stands beside us to bless.

“The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” said Jacob. We can say it as well. In the classroom and the lab and the office and the boardroom. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” In the mosque and the synagogue as well as in the Christian sanctuary, in the small struggling congregation as well as in the megachurch. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” In the hearts and minds of the progressive and the conservative, the gay and the straight, the college student and the octogenarian, in people who aren’t like you, who aren’t like me. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” In the hospital room and the surgery suite and waiting room. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” In the hellhole of despair and trouble. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” In the courtroom where people battle over dollars and divorces and damages. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” On embattled streets in a war zone in a city or a faraway land where danger constantly lurks. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” On the debris field of charred wreckage and bodies. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Wherever people are exploited and betrayed and used and hurt and thrown away. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” In chaos and conflict as in calm and comfort. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” As the psalmist said, if I make my bed in Sheol or take the wings of the morning to the uttermost parts of the sea. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Awesome! Wonderful! “The Lord is in this place!”

God can show up anywhere, anytime. Usually in places and among and in people we least expect or don’t expect at all. That was something taught us by the old TV show “Joan of Arcadia.” You may or may not have seen it. The premise was that God appeared to Joan, a teenage girl, in many guises. He could be an African-American woman emptying trash in the school hallway or a multi-pierced Goth in Joan’s classes. A hot guy on a bus or an elderly woman feeding pigeons in the park, a little girl in a funny costume or a gay staff member at the school. Even the shell game hustler on a street corner. You never knew where, when or as whom God would be present. But you were certain that God was always there, even in the times when Joan and others in her family felt abandoned. Anywhere, anytime, in anyone the gate of heaven, the portal into a new world of wonder and awe, can and does open. “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

Joanna Adams, a retired Presbyterian pastor, once wrote: “…there is no way to keep the risen Christ out of any situation. There is no hopeless heart, there is no barren relationship, there is no bruised or hurting place that is off limits for the resurrected Christ. As the poet John Donne put it so beautifully long ago, ‘All occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.’”

She goes on: “I have a little plaque on the mantle of my office. The words on the plaque read, ‘Bidden or unbidden, God is present.’ That is what [the Gospel stories of the resurrection] want to tell us so desperately. Bidden or unbidden, the spirit of the living Christ is loose in the world and will come to us wherever we are.
“That is a very good thought to hold onto,” she concludes, “when God seems far away and the shadows are deep.”

Who of us has not dwelt in shadows, felt overwhelmed by evil or trouble and even abandoned by God? Certainly I have over and over. Maybe you do right now. The authors of the Jacob story know about human pain, need, doubt, and darkness. Yet they also insist that God is gracious and intent upon accomplishing his purposes. A rest stop in the middle of nowhere for a thieving fugitive turned out to be the gate of heaven, the house of God, Beth-El, Bethel. Might it be true as well that even when along our journey we have nothing but a stone for a pillow, a lonely hoot owl for company, and rest eludes us, that God is there? Might it be true that we have also come to the gate of heaven and will hear the unexpected word of comfort and hope: “I will be with you. I will not leave you until I have done all that I have promised you?” Might it be true? Might it just be true?

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