The Wilderness of Fear

peter-adams-statue-of-jesus-known-as-cristo-redentor-christ-the-redeemer-on-corcovado-mountain-in-rio-de-jaScripture Text:  Genesis 28: 10-17

 10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he 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. 13And the Lord stood beside him 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; 14and 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. 15Know 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.”   16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”


Jacob came to a certain place, a certain place in the wilderness. I don’t think it was a magical place. I’m not sure that it was even “destined” for him to be there. It was just an ordinary place with an ordinary stone. But then Jacob dreamed. And what a wild dream that was! Now, remember the “back story” of this. Jacob is not just wandering through the wilderness to get a little exercise. He is actually fleeing from his family and fleeing from the hatred of his brother Esau (you know that one that Jacob tricked into giving up his birthright.) So Jacob is also fleeing from himself, from his trickery and his duplicity. Perhaps he has had enough of himself. He is at the lowest point of his life. He is afraid, afraid of what will come next, afraid of Esau, probably a little afraid of God. The wilderness was nothing but for the fear.


And then a dream, a remarkable dream, probably the world’s most famous dream, fills his night.  He dreams that a ladder or, as interpreters claim is more likely, a stairway or a ramp extends from earth to heaven.  (Although, that really messes up that song!)  The Hebrew word is sulam, which is from the same root as “to cast up”, and so a ramp or a stairway probably does make more sense.  And on this ladder (or stairway or ramp or ziggurat or whatever it was), there were divine beings traversing up and down.  In this dream, we on earth were not left, as we sometimes think, to our own devices, to wander in the wilderness alone, and the place of the Divine, the Sacred, Heaven, or whatever you want to call this realm, is no longer off-limits to us.  In the wilderness, the two are intertwined, a part of one another.


The point is that, when the dream had ended, God was there.  The Hebrew is a little ambiguous.  It’s not clear if God was “before” Jacob or “beside” him.  I think maybe the ambiguity is the point.  No matter where we are, God is there.  And then, Jacob, this trickster, this one who is always looking out for himself, is given the promise that those before him had been given—land, prosperity, presence, and, homecoming.  God promises to bring Jacob home.  Upon awakening, Jacob realizes the importance of his dream and he proceeds to interpret its significance.  He recognizes that he has a completely new idea of who God is.  He has moved from revering and even fearing the God of his family, the God of Abraham and Isaac, to realizing that God is present even for him.  He also realizes that he has to respond to this God of Jacob, because he has encountered God.  So Jacob takes God’s promises and claims them as part of who he is.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Jacob was still Jacob.  He was not miraculously healed of his own sinfulness.  Jacob was still “the trickster”.  The experience does not make Jacob perfect or even, I would say, all that righteous.  It does not give Jacob early access to heaven.  God is God; we are not.  But what it does is opens his eyes to the realization that God’s presence is always and forever with him.


We are like Jacob.  Sometimes we, too, are wandering in fear—fear of being found out, fear of our past and what we’ve done, fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear that it will not go as planned.  Perhaps we are afraid of what it means to encounter God, to follow Jesus, to come near to the Cross (not the cleaned-up one…the Golgotha one).  Perhaps we are afraid that our lives will change beyond our control.  We want to encounter God but we want to do it on our terms. And we don’t want to overstep. We don’t want to overreach. We don’t dare to even imagine that we could possibly do what God is calling us to do. And so we stay here, feet firmly planted in what we know. In her book, “A Return to Love”, Marianne Williamson contends that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate…[but that] we are powerful beyond measure.” She reminds us that “playing small does not serve the world…We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” In other words, we are born to scale to new heights because that is the way that we encounter God. That is the way we find the God who has been with us all along.


That is what this season calls us to do—to scale new heights.  I’m not sure that we are called to let go of fear.  After all, it’s a normal and a sometimes healthy human emotion.  Personally, as I’ve said many times, if I quit being a little nervous about what I do, if I don’t fear just a little every time I step into the pulpit, then I need to go do something else because this is a really big deal!  Maybe God’s “fear not” (That supposedly occurs 365 times in the Bible! I haven’t actually COUNTED them, but maybe that means that you can only fear on leap day!) is not asking us to stop fearing but rather to let the God who will never leave us take our fears and turn them into who God envisions us to be.  Maybe “fear not” is calling us to encounter the God who walks with us.  For surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!  I was so wrapped up in fear that I did not realize that God was holding it.


Be patient.  When you feel lonely, stay with your loneliness.  Avoid the temptation to let your fearful self run off.  Let it teach you in wisdom; let it tell you that you can live instead of just surviving.  Gradually you will become one, and you will find that [God] is living in your heart and offering you all you need.  (Henri J.M. Nouwen)


FOR TODAY:  What do you fear?  What stops you from being what God is calling you to be?  No more excuses.  Give God the fear and go forward.


Grace and Peace,


The Wrestling Wilderness

Jacob Wrestles with AngelScripture Text: Genesis 32: 24-30

 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”


We know this story.  Jacob is running from Esau.  (You know, the brother that he duped into handing over his birthright to Jacob.)  And during the night, he wrestles.  It doesn’t fully say why he was wrestling.  Was it fear?  Was it regret?  Was it guilt?  After all, he had taken Esau’s life, pushed him into something that he was not and, in turn, became someone that he himself was not.  So he wrestles, begging for a blessing, begging for forgiveness, begging that his conscience be clear.  As daybreak approaches, Jacob is struck in the hollow of the thigh.  The blow has a crippling effect and brings the struggle to its climactic moment.  But Jacob retains his hold.


Jacob will never be the same again.  He has looked God and also himself square in the face and everything has changed.  The wrestling has been an act not of destruction, but of transformation.  Each step is now marked by the Divine touch.  Jacob becomes Israel, the God-wrestler.  He has experienced a true rebirth.  He names the place Penuel, or “I have seen the face of God”.  Not only has he seen the face of God, but his life is such now that he will continue to experience that over and over again.


The truth is, sometimes we have to get out in the wilderness to do our wrestling.  We think we can do it on our own turf, protected by our armors of plans and preconceptions.  We think we can do it according to some preset schedule.  But the wilderness is the real wrestling place.  Like Jacob, we have sometimes to go it alone, sometimes forsake all of our supplies and our help.  We have to be vulnerable.  We have to be real.  We have to strip away all of our armor.  And, there, exposed, there is nothing to hide who we are.  We face ourselves and we face God.  The wilderness is the place where we encounter God and begin to know ourselves.  The wilderness is the place of blessing.  God wants us to wrestle.  That’s why God gave the name of “God-wrestler” to God’s people.


The season of Lent is a wrestling season.  It begins in a wilderness and ends on a Cross.  And God is there for each round of the game.  Because only those who wrestle with God understand what it means to be blessed, understand what it means to see God face to face, understand what it means to become the one that God sees with the name that God knows.


Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God…They prayed and wrestled and sought…in season and out, and when they had found [God], the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking. (A.W. Tozer)


FOR TODAY:  Strip away the armor that protects you.  With what do you wrestle?  With whom are you wrestling?  Why are you afraid to wrestle?      


Grace and Peace,