Genesis 28:10-22 & Matthew 13:24-35

Reflection by Dan Spragg

Recently I was lucky enough to spend a weekend in the mountains on our West Coast. Some friends and I rode our bikes over the Paparoa Track. 55 km and 1400m of elevation over two days. It was amazing. There is something spectacularly wild about the backcountry. You know you’ve seen some scenery! This first photo is the view from the Hut we stayed in. The second is one of the few swing bridges we needed to cross once we got down to the river valley – and you’ll see I’m in that one – just to prove that I was there…  A few years ago there was a New Zealand film made called, ‘The Hunt for the Wilderpeople’. The movie coined a new term for talking about our amazing scenery – Majestical – Not, majestic, but majestical – suggesting something kind of magical about our majestic landscapes. It sums it up completely. There is the gentle but increasing slope of the plains, the winding foothills, the ruggedness of exposed rock, the vast expanse of the Waimakariri, the intense beauty of the Beech forests and native bush, waterfalls, mountains, snow, the delightful Kea… As one stands in the midst of somewhere like the Paparoa National Park one gets an enormous sense of vitality, of movement, of progression, of energy. The upward thrust of the earth, the grinding of rock against rock, and water eroding away the soil. Even as one stands amongst the seeming quiet of the forest there is a sense that things are happening… I often get an overwhelming feeling that this place isn’t finished yet… the story here goes on… there is a dynamic performance happening here in this, in what John Calvin called, ‘the theatre of God’s glory’.

Standing in the midst of a place that conveys so much magical majesty, so much wonder, one tends to be drawn into a space of reflection and it is in these moments when we discover again just how small we are; our fragility, our bodies, our-selves mere dust in the midst of such large scale movement. One wrong turn of the handlebars while traversing a bluff and I’d find out how at the mercy of the land I am. But yet despite this, we are important. Scripture tells us our purpose is to be co-creators with God, made a little lower than the angels. As humans our thoughts and our energies achieve things. In this theatre of God’s glory, we are more than just props, more than just part of the stage setup; our journey through this part of the story is a meaningful contribution to God’s big story. 

Today we hear of Jacob’s dream. Jacob at this point in his life was making a trip; he was on a journey within his journey. He’d been walking the track from Beer-sheba to Haran and had stopped for the night, the sun had set, and it was time to rest. It was here at this place of being in-between that this dream happened, here at a random rest stop. But Jacob whether he realised it or not was part of a bigger story, one that had begun two generations earlier with God’s call of Abraham. In this story God the creator hadn’t finished creating; this story is the creation of the people of God, a calling out of a people who God was to call God’s own, a people who were distinctive. In this story we find the tangible beginning of God’s restoration of the earth and all that is in it, this story is much bigger than Jacob and yet it encounters him in a profound and specific way.

Buildings have always seemed to play an important part in human life, especially around spiritual aspirations and traditions. These are the places where people believed they would find God, places that formed the centre of society, places that humans built, and where we gather to offer our sacrifices of worship. Think of the Medieval Cathedrals or the town church at the top of the hill, or in our time perhaps think of Westfield Riccarton…

In the Ancient Near East, in Jacob’s day, they built what was called a Ziggurat. The Ziggurat was sort of like a cross between a tower and a Pyramid. The Tower at Babel was probably one of these. The Ziggurat had a large staircase leading up from the bottom to the top and it was up this staircase that the Priest went with the sacrifice of the day to leave at the top for the god or gods to consume. Built by human effort, their purpose sustained by human pride, the movement around these towers was always from the bottom to the top, always from earth to heaven. Humans always had to place the sacrifice at the top for the gods to give anything in return. If we were lucky the gods wouldn’t be angry on that day and so our crops would go well or we’d find a nice spouse. These sorts of arrangements were always conditional and it always depended on the amount of effort we put in.

So Jacob settles down for a night’s rest and dreams about a ladder, or a staircase, a stairway to heaven, not an uncommon image. What is interesting is the movement within the dream. Two-way movement…up and down…  In verse 13, God is located. Not all, but many translations place God beside Jacob in this story. If God stands beside Jacob, this has profound implications. In normal situations involving a Ziggurat, the only movement is the priest going up the tower, that’s the only movement that ever happens, the deity never came down, but here, in Jacob’s dream not only do we have two-way movement between heaven and earth, God shows up right beside Jacob and communicates directly to him. This completely changes the game. This redefines the assumed relationship between humans and God. For Jacob, God, the God of Abraham and of Isaac, had now come to him, without Jacob searching, without Jacob asking, without any sacrifices needing to be made, without any effort on his part, God had come to Jacob. And not only had God come, but God also had some interesting things to say, interesting things that again required no human effort. One-way movement becomes a two-way relationship and conditional superstitions become unconditional promises about land, family, and protection along the way.

Jacob’s role is important because of what we see God doing here. God is reminding us yet again of who the real God is. God sets out again to re-create humanity’s images of God. God who comes to Jacob is one who is with him, one who provides without condition, and one who doesn’t rebuke Jacob for his past crimes. The God of his ancestors now was his God. This big story that God draws Jacob into takes a long time. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, his re-naming as Israel, the 12 tribes, etc… Jesse, David… Joseph, Jesus… the disciples, the moment of Pentecost, the church… God’s big story of restoration and redemption didn’t happen in one generation. It didn’t even happen in two. Generation upon generation participated in it.

Jesus is the one who we can see participating in God’s way most honestly and completely. While he’s joining in with God’s big story he tells these little stories, these parables to help those hearing catch on a little more. A parable about wheat and weeds, a parable about the smallest of seeds, a parable about yeast and its effect on the dough. There is a sense in all of these about time, about waiting, about seasons, the hidden things, the big effects of small things… the reorientation of life, about the redefining of everyday things… the kingdom of God is like this… God is at work even if it isn’t seen or seems too small to be any good, or takes longer than we want it to. These little stories are windows into God’s reality which isn’t a new thing.

On the face of it, I can agree with this idea quite easily. God is at work in our everyday life. But quite often I get impatient with God! The injustice in the world certainly makes me wonder if God is over and above all things as we believe then, why!? Why is there so much suffering, why so much conflict and hate… if God is on our team then why the long timeline of decline in the church? The question about God’s seeming inaction over the big obvious evidence of evil in the world is a huge question. One in which our hope of there ever being a different way is tested time and time again. I have to remind myself to say, ‘Surely our God is big enough, the story doesn’t end with tragedy’[1] A problem with us getting despondent is that often it leads to a kind of paralysis or inaction. And, paralysis and inaction weren’t really on the cards for Jesus, even if he teaches that God acts despite us. If Jesus truly meant his followers to be sedentary then why did he send his disciples out to do stuff, why did he call disciples in the first place and what was the instruction to share and teach his way all about? God’s big story is huge, and quite often beyond our comprehension, but in a way that in and of itself is a comforting thought. What we step into when we follow Jesus has a history and it has a future beyond us.

You know, God’s redemption of the world, God’s working towards Shalom – wholeness, it may not come to completion with your part in it. It may not come to completion with my part in it. In fact, I’m sure that I won’t live to see the day when everything in the world is functioning as it should, I’m sure I won’t live to see the day when everyone I know is awakened to the life and love of God in the here and now, awakened to the fullness and true freedom of life that brings. Yes the big story of God is huge, the sense we get when standing in the midst of a mountain range surrounded by waterfalls and Beech forest allows us to glimpse part of it. God’s story is long and wide and deep and high and we are called into it, and we are called by the same re-orientating God who came to Jacob as he was travelling along his way. This God who acts before we do, this God who is above and beside us, this God who promises unconditional love and provision; this God who is into two-way movement and who appears to be more into being beside us than about staring down from above and laughing at our attempts to reach the heavens; this God, the God who is constantly seen to move towards us, to come down the staircase to stand beside us, this God who moved towards us in Jesus Christ, becoming one of us; this God who says time and time again it’s not all up to you, who says time and time again ‘I’m not concerned with how you do religion’, this God who says to Jacob and to us ‘I am with you already, stop running up the stairs’ this God who shows us reality for what it really is. This God who in Jesus Christ gave the final answer to our deepest questions, is the God who calls us and who is with us.

The ‘beside’ nature of God with Jacob. These little stories of Jesus telling the big story. The wonder and awe of our natural world. These are reminders. Reminders to us that God’s redefining reality is present to us every day. May we see beyond the surface. May we see it more. And, may we be drawn deeper into it.

[1] See Paul Tillich on Romans 8:38-39, in The Shaking of the Foundations, p109-12, for a good treatment of this.