God Believes in You
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
People who are not familiar with the Bible sometimes want to know what it’s about, as if it were a book with a single plot line and not a library of sixty-six books written by God only knows how many authors over a period of a thousand years or more. How could anyone expect a collection like that to have a coherent narrative?
That’s why it’s all the more remarkable that the Bible does have a discernible plot. Despite the vagaries of the way the books came to be, with oral traditions and written accounts and editors and redactors all playing their various roles; and despite the contents of the biblical materials ranging from primordial myths to love poetry to prophetic oracles to apocalyptic fever dreams to law codes to architectural plans; and despite the authors’ diverse backgrounds as shepherds, priests, physicians, fisherfolk, lawyers, and Pharisees—despite all this variety, the Bible can be said to have a theme. The thread that runs throughout the Bible and holds it all together is the love story between God and humanity.
It is a tumultuous story, as love stories often are, with infatuation, passion, betrayal, vindictiveness, reconciliation, and promises galore. It begins with creation and God’s assessment of newly formed humanity, made in God’s very image, as “very good.” It ends with renewal, healing, and the promise of an eternity together. In between comes a great deal of drama and trauma. The narrative goes from creation to consummation, but to get from point A to point B the lovers have to tread some pretty rocky and painful terrain.
Throughout the story a number of different characters come to the fore to represent the human side of this love affair. People like Abraham, Moses, Esther, David, Joseph, Jeremiah, Mary, Jesus, and Paul become the focus of the relationship at various times. The relationship starts out between God and all humanity, then moves into a period in which one group of people, Israel, become the bearers of the relationship, then it narrows to a focus on one person, Jesus, whom God declares to be God’s beloved child in whom God is well pleased, and finally widens out again to take in all of humanity. The truth is that humankind as a whole has always been in view, but God chooses a particular nation and certain individuals to stand in for all of God’s covenant partners. We are all of us the beloved of God, the subjects of this greatest of all love stories.
The initiative in this love story, of course, always belongs to God. It is God who creates; it is God who calls out to Adam in the Garden; it is God who places the mark on Cain to protect him after he kills his brother Abel; it is God who calls Abraham and Sarah and tells them to leave their home and travel to a new country; it is God who promises Abraham that his descendants will inherit all this good land; it is God who promises David he will always have a son to sit on his throne; and it is God who, in the ultimate act of love, enters the world as a human being in order to save us from ourselves. God always initiates.
Another way of putting this is the title of the song that Lukas and David sang earlier: God believes in you. God believes in us. In spite of all the ways that humans have proven faithless in the past, all the ways we have taken the precious treasure of God’s love and ground it under our heels in the dirt, all the times we have stood aloof and ignored God’s overtures, God still loves us. God still reaches out to us. God still believes in us.
That’s what finally makes the difference in our lives. That’s the only thing that can make the difference in our lives. We talk a lot about believing in God, but what is more important is that God believes in us. Polls in our country consistently show that an overwhelming percentage of Americans say they believe in God—more than ninety percent in some polls. Then how do you explain all the killing and cheating and lying and greed and waste and self-centeredness and hate that we see in our society? Surely a mere ten percent of the population is not responsible for all that sin and malfeasance and depravity? No, I think the blame goes far beyond that tiny minority; bad behavior is far more widespread than that.
So it would seem that believing in God, on its own, does not have the capacity to make us more upright or moral or loving. If it did, Paul would not have had to tell the Romans that they—and by extension we—need to be transformed. Left to our own devices, we tend to fall into conformity with the pattern of this world; something else has to happen to move us from conformity to transformation.
That something else is the realization that God believes in us. Only when we learn to accept God’s love and grace does transformation happen. We cannot achieve it on our own merits or through our own striving. Grace is a gift, and it is through receiving that gift that our lives are changed. Not because we have done anything to deserve God’s favor, but because we can do nothing to remove God’s favor from us. Not because of our exemplary character, but because of God’s inexhaustible love. Not because we believe in God, but because God believes in us.
Few characters in the Bible illustrate this better than Jacob, and few moments in that patriarch’s life illustrate it better than his dream at Bethel from Genesis 28.
When we meet Jacob in today’s reading, he is on the run. He has fled his father’s home in Beersheba and is heading toward Haran, where his mother’s family lives. He gets off the road and finds a secluded spot to make camp for the night. He builds no fire, and leaves his shoes on. He sits up late into the night, watching and listening for any signs of pursuit, and finally drifts into a fitful sleep with nothing but a rock for a pillow.
Jacob has good reason to be nervous. It wasn’t his idea to run away from home; he did it to escape the wrath of his older twin brother Esau, who has vowed to kill him for stealing their father’s blessing. It’s not the first time the wily Jacob has taken advantage of his brother. Esau was born first, but only by a matter of minutes, and in fact Jacob followed him out of their mother Rebekah’s womb with his little hand grasping Esau’s heel. That’s how he got his name. Jacob means “heel grabber,” which is an idiomatic expression that means “supplanter” or “deceiver.” All his life Jacob has worked to supplant his brother, and he has not shied away from deception and trickery to do so.
Esau is what you might call a slow thinker, and no match for the clever heel-grabber. Once, when Esau returns from a hunt, Jacob makes a point of having a pot of lentil stew simmering. It smells too good to resist, and Esau is both famished and impulsive, so he agrees to give Jacob his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. So now Jacob has the rights of the firstborn, but Esau is still in line for their father Isaac’s blessing, and the older boy has always been Isaac’s favorite. But Rebekah favors Jacob, and she devises a scheme to trick the old and nearly blind Isaac into blessing him instead of his brother. Their elaborate ruse works, and the old man blesses Jacob while Esau is once again out hunting. Big brother gets home to discover that the little twerp has once again dealt him dirty, and declares that the next time he sees Jacob he’ll break every bone in his body. Jacob gets the message and lights out for the territories.
So we’re not talking about a terribly admirable character here. In fact, you might even say Jacob is something of a slimeball. He has alienated himself from both his father and his twin brother, and in running away he is separated from his mother, the one person in the family who can stand the sight of him. Now he’s a refugee moving through unfamiliar country, on the way to find an uncle he’s never met, and sleeping with his head on a rock.
To this point in the narrative, God has played no direct role in Jacob’s life, as God has done with both his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. As far as we can tell, Jacob has lived his life without reference to God. But now in his uneasy sleep this first night out from Beer-sheba, he has a dream in which God speaks to him.
Considering Jacob’s character, and the reason he is in that spot in the first place, one might imagine that God’s words to him would be words of rebuke or warning. At a Bible study some years ago I asked the group what they thought Jacob could expect to hear from God, and one person piped up with, “Better get used to sleeping on them rocks, boy.”
But that is not what Jacob hears. He dreams of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels going up and down on it. Picture a ziggurat, one of those pyramids with steps that were common in Mesopotamia at that time, with the angels using it as a staircase to bring messages and reports to and from God. Apparently God uses the staircase sometimes as well, because the writer says:
The Lord stood beside [Jacob] and said, “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, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (vv. 13–15).
This is basically a reiteration of the promises that God has already made to Abraham and Isaac, but its context here is what makes it so surprising. Paul will later say of Abraham that he “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3). His initial obedience and continued faithfulness to God were marks in Abraham’s favor, and solidified his standing with God. But what traits of character has Jacob shown to make God want to continue the blessing through him? What has he shown of faithfulness, righteousness, and obedience? What has he done to merit any consideration from God, or to make us think he even believes in God in any meaningful way? Nothing.
But none of that matters, because God believes in him. Jacob has become our stand-in, the representative of the whole human race in the grand love story that is the plot of the Bible, and we see once again that logic and merit don’t count for much when it comes to love. In a sense, God is besotted with Jacob, and no arguments about his unworthiness or deplorable behavior will sway God from lavishing grace upon him.
In just the same way, God is besotted with us, and all our frailties and failings, our sins and shortcomings, can do nothing to make God stop loving us. Perhaps God knew ahead of time that Adam and Eve and all of us in our turn would fall into disobedience; did that make God think twice about creating us? Perhaps God knew ahead of time that Israel would forsake God and turn to idols; did that convince God not to call Abraham and enter into a covenant with his family? Perhaps God knew ahead of time that rejection and death waited in store for Jesus; did that stop God from entering the world to love, save, and redeem us? Perhaps God knows ahead of time when we will forsake God, betray God's trust in us, and willfully go our own way time and time again; does that mean that God will cut us off from grace? No! God loves us. God is head-over-heels in love with us. God believes in us.
That kind of love does not come naturally to most of us. We are too bound up in our own needs and desires and emotions to maintain that kind of love. We are not very good at handling betrayal, or forgiving, or putting another’s welfare ahead of our own. But God is different. God takes the long view. Grace and unconditional love sometimes have an immediate effect; in other cases they take a while.
Take Jacob, for instance. When he wakes up from his dream, he declares the place to be “none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17). He sets up a pillar and gives the place the name Bethel, which means house of God. So far so good.
But if we read on, the picture changes. The last three verses of chapter 28 are not included in today’s lectionary reading, but maybe they should be, because they give us a peek into Jacob’s character, and may just remind us of our own intractability in the face of God’s love. In verses 20–22 Jacob makes a vow:
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; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.
Jacob the heel-grabber, alienated from his home and family and on the run for his life as a result of his scheming and double-dealing, has a dream in which God offers him a lavish and unconditional blessing. How does he respond? With humility, gratitude, and repentance? No, but rather with bargaining and a highly conditional promise. If you will take care of me and enrich me and bring me back home safely, then I will worship and serve you and give you a tithe of all my wealth. I promise. Cross my heart. Who could blame God for being underwhelmed by this response?
But God does not rebuke Jacob for his miserliness of spirit. Instead, God takes the long view, and continues to say, in effect, I believe in you. I will keep my end of the deal regardless of what you do, and I will trust in the irresistible movement of my grace in your life. It may not happen tomorrow or next week or next year, but I can wait. Even if it doesn’t happen in your lifetime, I can wait. I will believe in your children and your children’s children the same as I believe in you.
Jacob goes on with his journey and his life from there, and has his good and not-so-good moments, as is true of us all. But God never stops believing in him, as is also true of us all. When it comes to his time of dying, Jacob is able to speak of “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day” (Gen 48:15). The grace of God has worked its slow but inexorable way through the fabric of his life, transforming him into the person God has always believed he could be.
May the same be true of us all.