“A STONE FOR A PILLOW”

GENESIS 28:10-22

OCTOBER 12, 2008

 

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A number of year’s ago I received an e-mail from a woman in my congregation named Rose Hanna. Rose Hanna currently draws her Social Security here in the US, but she was raised in the Middle East, in Syria, and here’s what she wrote.

 

Dear Pastor,

What you said in a recent sermon reminded me of a true story I was told many times since I was a little girl until I got married and came to this country, about my grandfather, whose name was Ibrahim Mareena, who died before I was born.  He was a very faithful and devout Christian who loved the Lord.

The day my grandfather died, he gathered his family around him and asked them to say the Lord’s Prayer and his last words were, “Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit,” and he breathed his last like a whisper and died.  Very early the next morning before the sun rose, while the shepherds were passing by his grave, they saw what appeared to be a lighted ladder going from his grave to the sky, and angels going on it.  They left their sheep and ran to the village to tell the people to “come and see Ibrahim Mareena’s grave.”  So many people went and saw it as it faded with the rising of the sun.

All my life I heard this story and when I came to the United States 35 years ago, I went for a visit to Terre-Haute, Indiana where I met a person I never knew before whose name is Tom Nasser.  He was surprised when I told him who my mother is and asked me if I knew about my grandfather’s story and what happened when he died.  As he repeated the same story about the lighted ladder my husband did not really believe it and had doubts about it.  He said, “Come on, Tom, did you see it with your own eyes?”  Tom answered, “Yes, I saw it in this eye and in this eye,” pointing to his eyes, as 500 people witnessed it.

The name of the village is Ein el Shaara which means “the spring of the poets.”  It is on Mount Hermon in the country of Syria, about 30 miles south of Damascus.

 

Now Jacob’s Ladder experience differs somewhat from Ibrahim’s Ladder experience.  One, Jacob’s Ladder appeared about 100 miles south of Damascus whereas Ibrahim’s Ladder appeared 30 miles south of Damascus; two, only one person saw Jacob’s Ladder whereas 500 people witnessed Ibrahim’s Ladder; three, Jacob was very much a sinner whereas Ibrahim was very much a saint; four, Jacob was very much alive when the ladder appeared and Ibrahim was very much dead when the ladder appeared; and five, Jacob’s Ladder appeared in a dream whereas Ibrahim’s Ladder appeared in broad daylight. 

Let me bring us up to date.  Jacob has just swindled his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and out of his father’s death-bed blessing.  When Esau discovered what had happened, he was furious and threatened to punch his brother’s lights out.  So, in order to save her fair-haired boy, their mother Rebekah, who did love Jacob best, sent Jacob away to her brother’s home in the old country.  Remember Laban from a few weeks ago?  He was the one with dollar signs in his eyes and who was all too willing to send his sister Rebekah packing after he saw all the gifts Eliezer had promised her if she would marry Isaac.  Well, these two – Laban and Jacob – will be quite a match for one another as the two of them are about as shifty as midwest weather, but I’ll say more about that next week.  For now, all we need to know is that Jacob is high tailing it to his Uncle Laban’s house to hide out until Esau cools down.

And on his way, he stops to rest in a place out in the middle of nowhere and from the short description of the surroundings, it sounds a little like Death Valley, California, or some other spot we might go out of our way to avoid.  It’s so bad that Jacob has to use a stone for a pillow, and if you have ever been to the Holy Land, one of the things they have in great supply is rocks – rocks are everywhere – so, it was in this desolate place, with a stone for a pillow, that Jacob had his famous ladder dream and it’s important for us to know that what sanctuaries are to us today, ladders were to people of Jacob’s day.  When someone wants to get close to God today, they often enter a sanctuary to be alone and pray.  Well, in Jacob’s day if you wanted to get close to God you climbed a ladder.  Prayer towers with ladders dotted the Palestinian landscape.  People thought that by climbing these ladders you would get closer to God, and that’s what he dreams about.  He dreams about a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with angels going up and down and God standing next to him, and I want you to notice something here about God’s words to Jacob as the angels go up and down the ladder.  As Jacob watches the angels God says to him,

 

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 ...

 

Did you catch that?  Dust of the earth.   In other words, God keeps upping the ante.  First, when God communicated to Abraham, Abraham’s descendants were to be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Then, later his descendants were to be as numerous as grains of sand along the seashore and now, they are to be as numerous as the dust of the earth.  Dust, dust, dust, stretching in every direction, as far as the eye can see or the mind conceive, that’s how many descendants Jacob will have, and so, despite the treachery, despite the deceit, this scoundrel of a man, this used car salesman of the ancient world receives the blessing of God.  This is what we call grace – God’s unmerited favor – for Jacob at this point in his life has not aligned himself with God, and yet God makes him an incredible promise.  That’s quite a risk on God’s part because outside the Apostle Paul, Jacob was the biggest reclamation project in the Bible.

In fact, look at his rather feeble confession of faith, verse 20,

 

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar shall be God’s house ...

 

I read that and I think of my beginning steps in Christianity.  I was nineteen.  My girlfriend of nearly two years, Carol, had just broken up with me, and I was on Catalina Island at a YMCA Camp and I said to God, “OK, Lord, I’ll make you my Lord if you bring Carol and me back together, but if you don’t, the deals off and you won’t be my God.”  It wasn’t much of a start for me and it wasn’t much of a start for Jacob, but it was a start nonetheless, and in the days to come we will see God get more and more of Jacob. 

Well, that’s the story and based on upon it, I want us to reflect upon the subject of worship and more specifically, I want us to reflect on the question, “Why worship?”.  For not only do we see Jacob worshiping here, but also note the name Jacob gives the place where he worships.  He names it Bethel, which literally means “House of God,” and let me remind you that Bethel is mentioned more times in the Bible than any other city, except Jerusalem and Samaria, and those two cities get a lot of press due to their being capital cities like Lincoln, NE or Washington D.C., but Bethel’s fame came from worship and not politics.  It was at Bethel that the Ark of the Covenant was first housed.  It was at Bethel where the Northern Kingdom had its primary sanctuary, and it was at Bethel where the prophet Amos preached his scathing sermon.  When the Israelites heard the name “Bethel” they immediately thought of worship and I want us to do the same – I want us to think of worship –  and again the question I want to ask this morning is “Why worship?”.  And I’m thinking primarily of public worship today.  Why crank ourselves out of bed and drive a few blocks or a few miles to sit in a sanctuary with a lot friends and strangers to worship God?  Why do it? 

First, we do it because it’s good for us.  Awhile ago I read an article titled “Piety Pays.”  Let me read a portion of it to you.

 

A survey conducted by the University of Uppsala indicates that people who go to church regularly are more resistant to stress, less likely to develop bad habits, and tend to live longer.  A Swedish life insurance company has responded by lowering its rates – up to 15% – for regular worship attenders.

 

Do we want to feel better?  Do we want to live longer?  Do we want to develop better habits, then worship regularly.  Why does God say in the 4th Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”?  Why does the Psalmist say, “Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our maker.”  Why does the author of Hebrews say, “Do not give up the practice of meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.”?  They say it because they all have our best interest at heart.  Regular worship leads to healthier living. 

Number two, we worship because it provides us with much needed perspective.  Imagine a bug in rug, and not just any rug, but imagine this bug is in a Persian rug. Well, a bug living in a Persian rug will never see the beauty of the rug maker’s artistry.  In its aimless meanderings, the bug will find itself caught up in a patch of blue here, a patch of green there, brown one day, yellow the next.  In order to appreciate the design, in order to see the big picture, in order to appreciate the artistry, it would have to raise itself high above the fuzzy territory of its day-to-day existence.

That’s what good worship does for us.  It raises us up and gives our world a new look.  Suddenly we see beauty we had missed before.  Suddenly there is hope where there was no hope.  Suddenly some of the things we are facing begins to make sense in God’s eyes. 

Remember the little boy who played a trick on his grandfather.  While his grandfather was taking a nap, the little boy spread a little Limburger cheese on his grandpa’s moustache.  Grandpa woke up with a snort and charged around the house saying, “This room stinks.”  He finally was forced outside only to find out, “The world stinks.”

Folks, every now and again Old Redlegs sneaks into our rooms and sticks something under our noses.  When we least expect it, Old Redlegs adheres the rancid smell of cynicism, the awful stench of pessimism and the putrid pungency of skepticism.  Good worship, however, rubs it off, and gives us a more accurate picture of the goodness of God and the wonder of the world in which we live.

Number three, we worship because we need weekly refreshment and renewal.  How many of you have seen the Oscar-winning movie Platoon?  Platoon recounts a year-long period during the Viet Nam War, and one of the things that stood out Platoon how the men in the platoon needed and received regular breaks for R & R.  Every now and again, the platoon came off the battlefield, to rest and socialize with their comrades in arms, gaining some much needed rest between battles.

That’s what God does with us.  God knows how tough it can be outside these walls –  how we come in here each Sunday after fighting the powers of darkness during the week – so God regularly calls us off the battlefield in order to gather us together for refreshment,  renewal, and to brief us for the week ahead.   And God calls us together once a week to remind us that we are not fighting his battle alone.  I mean, just look around you.  Look at all the other folk, working alongside you during the week to further the Kingdom of God.

Let me close with this.  A motorist drove his car into a ditch in a remote farm area.  A farmer came by with his horse which he called Buddy.  The farmer offered to pull the motorist out of the ditch.  The farmer hitched Buddy to the car and called out, “Pull, Buster, pull!”  Buddy did not move. Then the farmer ordered, “Pull, Nellie, pull.”  Still the horse did not move.

The farmer called out again, “Pull, Coco, pull.”  But still Buddy did not move.

In like manner, the farmer called, “Pull, Buddy, pull!”  It was then that the large horse stepped forward and pulled the car out of the ditch.

The grateful motorist thanked the farmer but asked him why he called out the wrong name three times.

The farmer told him that Buddy was blind, and if Buddy thought that he was the only horse pulling, he would not even try.

My friend, you are not the only one pulling.  You are not the only one advancing the Kingdom of God where you live and work.  Just look around you.  We are in this together.  May we leave here refreshed and renewed for the week ahead.