Sermon: “Good News in the Darkness” (July 20, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News in the Darkness” (Genesis 28:10-16)
July 20, 2014
Dave Johnson
Posted July 21, 2014

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Like many kids when I was very young I was afraid of the dark. There was a small Donald Duck nightlight plugged into an outlet in my bedroom, so when I got scared I could be reassured by Donald Duck’s plastic smiling glowing face ☺.

I am no longer afraid of the physical dark, but like everybody else at times I find myself afraid of other kinds of darkness, darkness in which not even a Donald Duck nightlight is very helpful—perhaps you can relate.

At times life may include journeys you never planned on making, journeys that lead you into darkness—in the words of singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn:

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend

(from the song “Pacing the Cage” on the 1997 album The Charity of Night).

A few months ago there was a story in Time magazine about Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, author, and resident of Georgia. Listen to what the author of this article, Elizabeth Dias, writes:

We are taught to fear darkness as children, (Taylor) says, when parents line the halls to the bathroom with nightlights to scare away the closet monsters. As we grow older, the monsters take a different shape: darkness descends with the call that a loved one has cancer, months of unemployment, a child with an addiction or an unanswered prayer (“Let There Be Night” in Time 4/28/14, p. 38).

But there is good news in the darkness, as Taylor writes: “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark” (39).

This morning I’m preaching on today’s lesson from Genesis in which the Old Testament patriarch Jacob received good news in the darkness.

Jacob was the younger twin brother of Esau, and was closer to their mother Rebecca while Esau was closer to their father Isaac. And Jacob was no saint, and he took full advantage of Esau’s weakness and deceived him out of his birthright, which meant Jacob rather than Esau received the blessing of the firstborn from their father Isaac.

As Isaac neared death, Esau, seething with rage towards Jacob, plotted his revenge—“The days of mourning for my father are approaching,” he said, “then I will kill my brother Jacob” (27:41). Rebecca overheard Esau’s threat and feared for Jacob’s life and so even before Isaac’s death Jacob was sent on a journey through the wilderness to Paddan-aram.

Talk about family dysfunction! (Truth be told, every family is dysfunctional in one way or another—it’s just a matter of how and to what degree. My wife Steph and I have joked that if our kids go to therapy for different issues than we did we’ll count that as a victory ☺).

So in today’s passage Jacob finds himself on a journey that he had never planned on making, in the wilderness, and literally running for his life from his own brother.

In addition, it is dark, as we read: “(Jacob) came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set” (28:11).

But the sun had not set on God’s love for Jacob.

Weary, hurting, afraid for his life, in the wilderness, in the dark, sleeping on the ground with a rock for a pillow—Jacob received good news in the darkness:

(Jacob) dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, ‘I am the LORD… Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land’… Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!’ (28:12-13, 15-16).

God reminded Jacob that He was present with him, assured Jacob that He would protect him, and promised Jacob that He would bring him back home.

And God was true to His word—and if you read on in Genesis you will see that in the subsequent years God was indeed present with Jacob and blessed him tremendously, that God protected Jacob, and that God even brought Jacob back to that very spot about twenty years later with his large family and flocks and herds as well.

Of course there was still rampant family dysfunction for Jacob—after all he had two wives, two concubines, thirteen kids, and worked for his father-in-law (it probably would have been a popular reality show for cable TV)—but none of that prevented God from fulfilling his promises to Jacob.

And when Jacob returned to that spot, guess who greeted him after twenty years? Esau. And while Jacob was still afraid of Esau’s anger toward him for deceiving him out of his birthright, as it turned out, he needn’t have been; for listen to what happened when Esau saw Jacob approaching: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

God kept his promise to Jacob and brought him back home.

Nobel Prize-winning poet T. S. Eliot wrote “Little Gidding,” the last poem of his Four Quartets during a time of great darkness when London was enduring air raids during World War II. Published in 1944 Four Quartets gave people hope during the final months of that war. Near the end of “Little Gidding” Eliot writes:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well

And this hope that “all shall be well” is not wishful thinking, for it is based on something rooted in history. Back to Jacob’s dream for a moment… in his dream Jacob saw “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

God gave Jacob a glimpse of that ladder connecting heaven and earth, symbolizing the relationship our compassionate God has with us, especially when we, like Jacob, are on a journey that leads us into darkness—as nineteenth century Lutheran scholars Carl Keil and Franz Delitsch observe: “The ladder stood there upon the earth, just where Jacob was lying in solitude, poor, helpless, and forsaken” (Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. I, 180).

Moreover, this ladder points to something else that expresses God’s compassion to deceitful sinners, something else that reminds us that “Surely the Lord is in the place” even when we do not know it: the cross.

In commenting on Jacob’s ladder 4th century church father St. Chromatius puts it this way: “The ladder fixed to the ground and reaching heaven is the cross of Christ, through which the access to heaven is granted to us, because it actually leads to heaven…And therefore we know well that this ladder is the symbol of the cross of Christ” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. II, 188).

On the cross Jesus, like Jacob, was “solitude, poor, helpless, and forsaken.”

And on the cross Jesus died to give us life, costing Him not less than everything.

And Jesus rose from the darkness of the tomb because Barbara Brown Taylor is exactly right: “New life starts in the dark.”

And in the same way the angels descended and ascended Jacob’s ladder, Jesus descended from heaven to earth, ascended from earth to the cross, descended from the cross to the grave, further descended to hell, and then ascended from the grave and finally ascended into heaven.

This means that you don’t have to be afraid of God for the times you, like Jacob, have been deceptive. In the same way Esau ran to Jacob and embraced and kissed him, Jesus expressed the heart of God toward deceitful sinners in his Parable of the Prodigal Son in the father’s response to his returning deceitful son: “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Perhaps in your life today you find yourself on a journey that you never planned that has led you to a place of darkness, and maybe the monsters in the dark are really scary.

Well, there is good news in the darkness.

The sun has not set on God’s love for you—never has; never will.

And Jacob’s ladder is your ladder.

Amen.