There are lot of bad journeys we make in life. I think of a trip we once made when we were first married back from visiting her folks in Michigan to our home in Georgia in our little white 1971 Toyota Corona—our first car. We spent the night in Indianapolis and had a good time, but were running low on money. Then the next day we made it to Nashville about four in the afternoon on a Friday. Suddenly on the busiest road in Tennessee, on the inside lane in rush hour, our Toyota died. We backed up traffic for miles until a wrecker came and towed us to the nearest garage.
The garage had four mechanics looking at the car and decided it needed a new distributer cap assembly. But they could not get one until Monday. We’d have to spend the weekend in Nashville before they could get the parts. But we did not have the money. This vacation had turned into a nightmare.Have you ever had a trip like that? Some of us have had lives like that. Just when everything is going well, everything falls apart. At times like this, you wonder if God has forsaken you.
I didn’t come to tell you about my old car problems, but about Genesis 28: 10-22. Before I discuss it, let me introduce you to one of the most fascinating characters in the Bible—Jacob. He was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. God gave Abraham a promise that his descendants would one day rule Israel. God took Abraham from one end of the Promised Land to the other. Everywhere they went, God promised them that land. When Abraham had a son—Isaac--God also promised the land to him. This promise was to continue on through the generations until the promise was fulfilled.Things got complicated in the next generation. Isaac didn’t have one son, but two—twins. The oldest one by about a minute was Esau, who was big and burly, but dumb as an ox. The younger was Jacob who was the opposite. He wasn’t strong, but he was smart and ambitious.
Jacob realized that Esau was going to get the birthright to the Promised Land, but thought he didn’t deserve it. Why should the land go to someone too dumb to care about it? So Jacob connived to steal it from his brother. He even got their mother on his side. He started on a series of deceptions and maneuvers aimed at stealing the birthright from Esau.
One day, Esau came in from hunting—hot, tired, and hungry. Esau said to his brother, “Hey, how about making me some of that red stew you’re so famous for making.” So Jacob cooked his brother some stew, served it up to him, and said, “Wait, before you eat, you’ve got to swear over your birthright.” Esau probably thought he wasn’t serious. “Sure, anything—just give me that stew!” So he did. Esau had signed over his birthright for a bowl of stew.I’m sure he regretted it. But then he probably thought it didn’t matter. It was their dad who decided who got the blessing. Now Jacob had to convince Dad to give him the blessing.
His chance came when Isaac was old, blind, and about to die. He called for Esau to give him the blessing. Esau was a hunter, so he was out in the field killing animals. Jacob put a fleece over his arms to make him feel hairy, and went in to his father. Dad felt Jacob’s arm, and heard him say he was Esau, so he gave his blessing. Jacob’s trick worked, now he was going to be heir to everything. He had beaten his brother out of the birthright.
There’s a point in life where things are looking good. You’ve accomplished what you set out to do. You’ve bought a house, you’ve gotten married, got a dream job, have kids, and are now on your way to a healthy and prosperous retirement. Everyone’s happy—everything’s fine. In the back of your mind, you’re saying, “This is how life is supposed to be. This is the Promised Land. Things are finally going well.”But alas, for Jacob that time was short-lived. It lasted until Esau got home. Esau went into his father’s tent, expecting to hear his Dad’s blessing. What he heard instead was “Oops! I gave it to Jacob.” Esau swore that when his father was dead, and the days of mourning were over, he would kill Jacob. Esau was a hunter—his job was to kill. He knew how to do it!
When the news of this got back to Jacob and his mother, she sent him away with Uncle Laban in Syria, as far away as he possibly could get. Before Esau could get his hands on Jacob, Jacob was gone. Not only was he not to be the ruler of the Promised Land, he was not allowed to live in it.Jacob had just won everything he wanted in life and lost it all—all in about a day’s time. First he gets the blessing and the birthright; then he gets run out of the Promised Land, seemingly forever.
The Promised Land is very symbolic in the Bible. It symbolizes the favor of God. We use it as a metaphor today. When someone succeeds we say they made it to the Promised Land. Jacob had made it and lost it—all in about a day.
This is what happens to us, too. We get married and we spend the rest of our days happy, but then our spouse kicks us out. We have kids but they turn out to be a mess, and we spend the rest of our days taking care of them. We get that dream job but we get fired. Life is a series of victories and disasters. What we think was the Promised Land turns out to be a spot between the mountains and the swamp. Before we know it, we’re back in the swamp again.What must have gone through Jacob’s mind while he was trudging up the road out of the Promised Land, into an uncertain fate? If you were Jacob, what do you think you would have thought? Would it occur to you to doubt God’s love, maybe even His very existence? I know, that I would have.
Then Jacob had a dream while he was traveling through “a certain place.” He was in the wilderness near a place the Canaanites called Luz—not really a town, but a wide spot in the road. It was so small it didn’t have an inn, so Jacob had to sleep outside with a rock for a pillow.Jacob dreamed he saw a ladder to heaven, and that the place was filled with angels. Did you know that this is the only place where a person in the Old Testament records seeing a multitude of angels? The angels are going up and coming down, spreading out over the four corners of the earth. Jacob names the place Bethel, the house of God, because he thinks that this place must be the center of all communication with God. In some insignificant place no one ever heard of, in his time of utter discouragement, he stumbled on Angel Central Station. Think of it! Jacob thought he had left God’s county, exiled forever. Yet this place was not really the center of all blessings.
Remember, this is just a dream, and dreams are symbolic. They are God’s way of revealing to us something our conscious minds cannot accept. This dream is a revelation to him of God’s way of dealing with us, when we feel lonely and exiled from Him. God had not abandoned us. Bethel was not a place of exile but of new blessing. It is not the end but the beginning. It’s in these kinds of desert places in our lives that we stumble on God’s greatest revelations.When we look at our church, it’s easy to become discouraged. Over the past few months we’ve had two members go to assisted living. That’s a hard place to be, even when you have to go there. We have one family moving out of town to be with their children. Over the past three years, we’ve had people leave the church, and about a dozen of us die. We’ve had at least three marriages end in divorce. We’ve had some in our church who have fallen into sinful behavior, who now feel that God has abandoned them.
But God has not abandoned us. Even on those days when we are stuck in a place that seems so far from the Promised Land that we can never find it again, God is still there.The Jacob’s ladder story does not tell us that angels are to be found only in Bethel. It is symbolic, letting us know that angels are abundant in a land where we never expected to be. Jacob’s ladder is not found in one place, but in all places. Wherever we look up to God, and have our eyes opened, God’s help is already descending upon us.
Let me finish the story about that terrible journey from Michigan. While the mechanics were pouring over our car, Joy and I went next door to a little diner to eat. We bowed our heads and prayed over our meal. The manager saw it and came over to us. “Not many people say grace over a meal these days,” he said. He was a Christian, and he prayed with us and encouraged us. After dinner we went back and looked at the mechanics. The owner of the shop came over and looked at the distributer cap of the car, the very cap the other mechanics said we needed to replace. He moved one clip on the distributor, and the car suddenly started working perfectly. The bill was about ten dollars. Joy and I were able to drive home without incident.There’s one more part to the story. A couple of months after we arrived him, Joy announced she was expecting our first baby. That was one of the happiest moments of my life. When we went back and counted the weeks, we decided that it seemed to have happened on that very trip. It may have been a terrible trip, but one of the most wonderful things we ever received began on that trip.
Don’t be so sure when bad things happen, that you are completely out of the Promised Land. The boundaries of the Promised Land may extend much farther than you think. Wherever you are in life, God’s angels are still visiting you, and you can see them, if only you have eyes to look.