There are some bible stories we can’t get out of our heads. They keep showing up; they keep tapping us on the shoulder and whispering, “Hey there.” And we meet something new and surprising sometimes as the story shape shifts, providing something we need to hear, at the moment we need to hear it.
For me, lately, it’s this story from Genesis 28, where Jacob receives a message from God. It’s a familiar story to many…Jacob is on the run, fleeing from a mess of his own making. He had hatched up an elaborate scheme to cheat his brother and trick his father, but the whole rotten plan came crashing down around him. Instead of getting everything from his father, Jacob had to run for his life.
And so this night he finds himself far from home all alone in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. That sounds like he might be getting what’s coming to him—“He’s made his bed now sh he should lie in it.” But that night God appears in his dreams. Instead of a message of punishment, which is what you might expect, God tells him good news about his life–God is going to bless him!
Jacob wakes up saying, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it. How awesome is this place…it is the gate of heaven.” He names the place Beth-El, the house of God.
The story of Jacob is part of one of the big messages of the Bible. It’s the message that God cares about us, and is reaching out to us–not always in predictable ways, not in ways that make sense to us
If there was a vote, Jacob would have been voted, “Man least likely to be given a vision from God.” But God is reaching out, even to Jacob. This story is so compelling to me because I, and probably many of you, want to hear from God. We want assurance, we want direction, we want promises that things will turn out. We want Beth-El right here in 2020!
It’s been a hard year for humans, we have a pandemic–many have died from the virus, and so many are grieving. People are sick or are afraid of being sick. There are economic consequences of the slowdown, especially in Alberta–unemployment or loss of business, the government has gone into more debt supporting so many, education has been interrupted, as well as plans of all kinds, whether weddings or vacations or anything involving travel. Even worship has been fundamentally affected because of the need to social distance, and we haven’t been able to worship or even to grieve the way we want to grieve when someone dies. Having gone through the year we have, and perhaps facing the year we face, we especially want to hear from God. We want to find ourselves at the gate of heaven like Jacob, we want those words of reassurance and blessing–will we find them? will God show up?
I teach a course at Conrad Grebel College on spirituality, and one of the writers we study is a woman named Julian. She lived in the 1300s in the English town of Norwich. In Julian’s lifetime the bubonic plague rolled through England like a tsunami, killing 1/3 of the population the first time, and coming back several times over the next ten years, killing even more.
Today we face a pandemic that has an infection fatality rate of less than 1.8% …of the 100 people who get the virus, 1.8 of them will die. The bubonic plague had an infection fatality rate of 70%, of the 100 infected, 70 died. This was a time when medical relief to the sick involved bleeding them, or burning herbs to ward off the disease, which of course was of no use since the plague was a bacteria spread by fleas (they had no way of knowing that).
The people of the 1300s were bewildered by this huge disaster. “Why is this happening to us?” they asked. People wanted answers. They wanted an explanation. One of the first things they did was try to say whose fault it was. They wanted to blame someone. Their conspiracy theory was that Jews had invented this plague by poisoning wells. The fact that the Jews were dying of the plague just as much of the rest of the population didn’t matter because it wasn’t a rational theory. Whole populations of Jewish communities were murdered.
People also turned to God for answers. People wondered, “If God is in control, has God sent this plague to us?” Many Christians believed that God was sending the plague to punish humanity. Theologians told the people; “God is angry because we’re so wicked.” There was a general pessimism in the 1300s that the world was a bad place, and getting worse. Artwork of the day became obsessed with ideas of hell, and the torments of hell.
In the 1300s, people were desperate to hear from God, “God, speak to us!” In the city of Norwich in England, there were churches and priests and bishops, lots of people who had devoted their lives to God, but that’s not who God sent a vision to. God sent a series of visions to Julian, an ordinary woman in her 30s. These visions changed her life. Julian spent the rest of her life thinking about these visions and sharing them with people.
In contrast to the gloom and pessimism of people’s thinking, the message she got from God was all about how good the world was, and how much God loves us. She wrote: “God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall.” Her vision told of God’s tenderness, “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
In her vision she saw something in the palm of her hand, something round like a hazelnut
and she asked God, “What is this?” and God said, “it is all that is made.” And Julian wondered about how little it was, and vulnerable. And God said, “It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.” Julian would later write, “In this little thing, I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second is that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
In that pandemic, when people were looking for answers, God spoke, spoke to a woman, and told us that the world is made by God, the world is loved by God, and it is protected by God. Julian wrote these visions down in a book, it was actually the first book written in English by a woman. She called it Revelations of Divine Love. But the book was only copied out a few times, and when Julian died, it got shelved in the libraries of a monastery in France. It has been rediscovered and it has become newly popular in the last number of decades.
When Jacob received his dream, it wasn’t just for him. The idea that there is a connection between the earth and heaven, the image of the ladder, it still touches us. His vision still reminds us that we are not alone; we are connected to God, God is watching out for us.
In the same way Julian received a message that God loves us. The message wasn’t just for her personally, it was a message of hope for her time, and for our time.
In our time, we have a lot more information about viruses available to us then people back then. We have microscopes and science, and we know how viruses can spread. But just like in the 1300s, there is a desire to blame someone for pandemic. I know people who say the pandemic is China’s fault because they believe that China invented the virus in a lab. I know people who believe that Bill Gates invented this virus so that he can inject vaccines with microchips into every human being and control us all. If we can blame someone, we feel we have a handle on something that is threatening. It makes people feel more in control to know why something is happening. The idea that a random virus can spread so rapidly and kill so many is too frightening. The fact that viruses regularly migrate from animals to humans and that pandemics have happened throughout all of history doesn’t seem to matter. People still look for a person or group of people to blame.
How does this pandemic affect our relationship with God? Do we feel punished by God, like many felt in the 1300s–or do we feel God has abandoned us? Or maybe we wonder whether God even exists at all. Where is the gate of heaven? Is God showing up?
One of the reactions to the pandemic that I see is a deep pessimism, a sense that the world is a bad place. This is compounded by a pessimism about the natural world because of extreme climate fluctuations and pessimism about injustice and racial tensions and pessimism about threats to democracy in our neighbour to the south. And then we add local things, like the transitions in our own lives, or leadership changes at church–it can leave us feeling unsettled and uneasy in our world. In times like these can we hold on to Jacob’s ladder, believing that there is a connection between us & God? Can we be reassured by Julian’s powerful vision that the world is made by God, loved by God, protected by God?
Human beings may have messed up some things, but we are not powerful enough to change God’s love for us. We can live our lives as if God doesn’t love the world but God loves us still, through all that–and God is still trying to reach us.
My step-mother, who died quite a few years ago, also received a vision. My father had died, and she went through several years of a long and difficult depression…she didn’t seem able to get out of her grief. Five years after my dad died, one evening when she was sitting in her living room, a being of light appeared before her. She told me about this much later. She said that the light filled the whole room, it filled her, it went right through her. And the being said, “Your grief is over now.” And then the light slowly faded away leaving her with a feeling of peace.
She told me this story shortly before she died, even though it had happened 25 years earlier. Like Julian, she had thought about that vision her whole life. She said that it changed her life because from that point she was able to move on from grief. It was a gate of heaven for her. I am so thankful that she received that. Wouldn’t we all want that, God communicating through a vision? My mother was not particularly religious. She didn’t go to church, she didn’t talk about God. But like Jacob, she knew when something came from God.
For me, most of my encounters with God have been less dramatic. But I can see God’s hand in them, God speaking to me through a moment of insight. I remember singing in a choir here at Lendrum (some of you were in that choir with me), and we were singing the beautiful song, “We are not alone” by Pepper Choplin. (To view this beautiful piece of music, watch this video.) I think it was actually in a rehearsal, where somehow those words penetrated deep inside me and I felt the truth of them. I was standing next to Marianne Thiessen, we were both altos, and the memory of that moment sustained me years later when she died. We are not alone, we are never alone. Even at the moment of death, God is with us, God is with us.
I wonder, for you, can you think of moments where you have felt near to the gate of heaven? When you’ve had a glimpse of our connection to God and to each other, or felt a deep awareness of how much God loves the world? Sometimes it happens in church, or through an insight when we read scripture. Often it happens when we are in nature. I was canoeing alone on a lake here in Ontario a few weeks ago, and the bright white clouds in the blue sky were perfectly reflected in the calm water all around me. It felt like I was paddling through the sky, and I felt in my soul, “Surely God is in this place.” Maybe it happens for you when you breathe the scent of the pine trees on the Whitemud Trail, or you see the wind moving over a wheatfield, or maybe it’s in the bonds we feel between a friend who knows us, or the trusting gaze of a child. God is with us, surely God is in this place, this is the gate of heaven.
I encourage you to talk to someone this week about a moment where you felt for an instant that you were at the gate of heaven, where you felt God’s love and care for you, and the beauty and goodness of the world. As a community of faith, we need to tell each other these messages that we have received. Even if all around us fall into pessimism about the world, we cannot. Our view of the world is different than those who say everything is bad. With Julian, we know this about the world, that God made it, God loves and God keeps it.
Sermon preached at Lendrum Mennonite Church
by Carol Penner
August 30, 2020
Text: Genesis 28:10-17