A Sermon for July 16, 2017

Anna Verlee Copeland, Preaching

Genesis 28:10-22

Wilderness Blessings

I’ve been out of the wilderness about five minutes so it’s shocking really that I’m not still wearing a hair shirt and eating locusts and wild honey like John the Baptist, his lone voice crying in the wilderness so very long ago. I’ve had the opportunity while away to contemplate the meaning of life, and significant questions like these. When lying in a tent at midnight during a thunder and lightning storm, I wondered why tent poles are so often made of metal. When encountered by a bull moose at a remote lake at high altitude, I wondered if it’s true that moose have poor eyesight and you have a better chance of getting away if you stand behind a tree. Apparently the answer is yes. And I wondered if the point of the bear proof vault was to keep the bear from stealing my food, or simply to encourage him to leave me alone, and if I buried my trash under a rock in the gushing river would it be harder for a bear to smell. The answer turned out, thankfully, to be “yes” to all three.

For those of you who have been away, or are visiting for the first time, our other pastor Dan Hollis has been quite capably holding down the fort while my husband Ellis and I took a couple weeks off to be with kids and grandkids. Then last Sunday morning quite a bit earlier than this I set off for a prayer walk and backpacking trip from the front range of Colorado over the continental divide to the western slope.

Some folks who knew my plans thought me daft, or reckless, taking off for the wilderness alone. But as it turns out I was in good company. When I reached the top of Flat Top Mountain at about thirteen thousand feet last Sunday morning, a young man stood at the top arms outstretched and said, “This is my church. ”God encountered our forebears in faith as far back as Abraham and Sarah and Moses under starry skies. And David the Shepherd didn’t write a single Psalm in downtown Jerusalem. Only in a place wild and dangerous could he have asked God to guide him through the valley of the shadow of death, a desolate place through which he had to pass with his sheep in order to reach the green pastures and still waters he could only imagine on the other side. John the baptizer became known as the lone voice crying in the wilderness and Jesus frequently went off to a lonely place to pray there.

Sometimes we go to the wilderness to escape, but frankly it isn’t a very effective strategy. Wherever you go, there you are. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Jacob tried to do in today’s story.

Jacob set off on a wilderness journey of many days back to his ancestral home in Haran to escape from the consequences of his behavior, and to start life over. While in the wilderness, God encountered him and transformed his life. You may remember that Jacob, born about thirty seconds behind his twin brother Esau, had just cheated Esau out of his birthright and inheritance.

Running from the potential wrath of his betrayed brother, Jacob was but a day or two into his wilderness escape when he came to the shelter of an almond tree in the hot desert sun. He was thirsty, hungry, and perhaps more than a little scared. A few days previously, Jacob thought he would have everything; today, he had nothing. Exhausted, he lay down in the dust, pulled up a rock for a pillow and fell fast asleep. He slept uneasily and his restless dreams were vivid.

He dreamed of angels and a giant ladder or a staircase reaching from the ground to the sky. On this stairway to heaven, angels went up and down, commuting between heaven and earth.

The title of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” comes from this story.

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold and she’s buying the stairway to heaven. When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed with a word she can get what she came for. Ooh … and she’s buying the stairway to heaven.

The lyrics may seem far removed from Jacob’s experience at Almond Tree, but maybe not. A lot of people think they know where they can find the stairway to heaven: making their fortune, buying a boat, creating a safe little corner of the world filled with family and flowers. We try to create our own little piece of heaven on earth, not just through diversions like too much food or drink, but from how good things too.

It isn’t until we go away to a lonely place that God has the attention of some of us. Perhaps we’re the difficult cases, the ones who require a little two by four therapy to get our attention. God is relentless in searching for us until we are found. Wherever caught, God teaches us the difference between the stairways we tend to climb searching for heavens of our own making, and the extravagant abundance God makes available even during the most challenging seasons of our lives.

If he were an ordinary man, Jacob surely thought that he would find the stairway to heaven in all the stuff that being Isaac’s heir would bring him: comfortable tents and flocks of sheep and herds of donkeys and servants to meet his every need. Oh, the good life! But that’s not where Jacob finds the stairway to heaven. If we keep reading the story, we find that Jacob basically has to start building his life from scratch in Haran. It’s twenty more years until he experiences the abundance he’d dreamed about, enough time to remember his experience and God’s promise at the almond tree. That his life and all his provision come not from his striving and conniving but from the hand of God alone.

Cheating his brother out of his birthright, Jacob doesn’t find the stairway to heaven or the life that he imagined his scheming would bring him. He thinks, in fact, that his life is over. Rather Jacob finds hope in a desolate place, on the run and in danger, alienated from his family, uprooted from everything that mattered to him. And in God’s grace, God reveals himself to Jacob in a dream about a heavenly staircase that promises a new path to life that will come to him from God. Rebuilding his life on the cornerstone of God’s promises took the following twenty years, but Jacob never forgot his encounter with God in the wilderness.

In Jacob’s dream, God stood at the top of the staircase and spoke to Jacob.

“I am the god your father told you about. Eventually, you’ll have more descendants than you can count – as many as particles of dust. And they’ll all live on this land right here.

I am going to make you and your family a blessing to all the world.

I’m going to be with you wherever you go. I’ll watch over you and take care of you, and I’ll bring you back home. You can count on me. It’s a promise.”

When Jacob awoke, everything looked and felt different. He took the rock that had been his pillow and made an altar, calling the place Beth-El, Bethel. The wilderness sanctuary became his church.

I’m not Abraham, or Moses or Jacob, or John the baptizer or Jesus who frequently got up long before dawn and walked out into the countryside, to a lonely place to pray.

While Jacob’s journey started as an escape route to get lost, mine started with the desire to be found. I sometimes mistake busyness in ministry with usefulness to God. So I needed to temporarily stop what I was doing and pay attention.

My own wilderness sojourn by comparison was brief: Thirty miles or so at high altitude in the middle of nowhere. Alone with a multitude of wild animals and rare human contact, I didn’t see a burning bush or a stairway to heaven. But God reminded me there of three humble things I seem to have forgotten.

  1. You are stronger than you think. The first day after hiking for seven hours, I stood on the side of a mountain with no other human, animal or sign of civilization in sight. It started to rain, hard, and I wondered how long, how far I could go on. To be honest, I couldn't breathe and didn’t have much left. I began to repeat the Bible verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, and I kept walking. Within the hour I reached the base camp I trusted was ahead of me, but could not in my previous weariness yet see. You get what that’s like. You’ve poured yourself out to accomplish something for your work or family and at a certain point wondered if it would amount to anything. There’s always that moment when it starts to rain hard on your parade and you start to feel like you can’t go on, and you wonder if there’s any end in sight. And then you stop and ask God for help, and act surprised when God gives you the strength and shows you the way to go on.
  1. When you encounter obstacles you will be given the tools you need to overcome them. I prepared for weeks for this wilderness trek, laying out provisions, putting things in the pile, taking them back out, measuring their necessity. Do I really need the Deet at high altitude? How badly do I want the prayers, journal and book of worship? (They weighed and extra two pounds). In the end, the prayers and the journey stayed and the Deet was out. I prepared for various animals and how much food to take and layers of clothing for every weather. But what I could not have known is that a fourth of the trail was still under snow, and that it would rain every day, and that due to the pine beetle kill of evergreen, the trail would be blocked every fifty feet in places by fallen timber. We know what that’s like. Despite our best-laid plans and careful preparations, obstacles and challenges happen. God is faithful and with the challenges provides the way over, under or out. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to humankind, but with the temptation will provide the escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
  1. When you come to a toxic or evil place, move on. I’d like to read to you for a moment from my last journal entry. “The way to Camp Ptarmigan was neither long nor difficult. After crossing the falls, I returned once again to the main artery called North inlet trail, for all the wear better traveled though not today. Keeping the river to the left, I know I will reach Ptarmigan before her creek empties into Hallett. According to the topographic map, if I reach the River crossing I’ve gone too far.

The rangers worked ahead of me the previous day, removing the wretched obstacle of fallen logs, so I reached camp in under an hour.  Following the signpost off trail to the right, my pace slowed. The camp looked like Armageddon, rain soaked and dreary under sorrowful skies. The rangers had cleared camp here too as they said, carving out a sodden campsite hidden among hundreds of fallen logs. It seemed a graveyard of forest bones, clattered without respect or regard atop one another like a mass grave. Recent rains and a great depth of soggy wood chips spawned a sanctuary for multitudes of mosquito’s ad biting flies. The sky offered little comfort, without a trace of blue at mid-day to cheer. At my feet lay two bleached bones, vertebrae from some large mammal gone to glory by natural or other causes unknown. The feral mood was nothing short of ominous, not just dreary but creepy, evil. I heard the Lord, “You kneed not stay here. When you reach an evil place, shake the dust from your feet and move on.” Unready to abandon the journey, I lingered, making a lunch on the stove, while scanning the edge of the wood. When prayer and blessing failed to lift my unease, I quit the camp and with a certain regret moved on, dreaming of home.

In spiritual terms, the wilderness offers retreat from the mundane things of life, where; in the quietness; the deeper things of God and humankind can be sought, and discovered. It is a place to return from, in order to undertake particular tasks; and a place to return to, when further resource is needed.

Our ancestors have all gone out into the wilderness, and there, relieved of the daily occupations and concerns of daily life, alone with themselves and their God, have encountered the Holy and been transformed by what they experienced there.

You don’t have to be an athlete or a mountain climber or Jacob or Moses to go off to wilderness to pray. An hour in your garden or at the shore or up to camp, on your bike, in your boat, off the phone, off the Internet, off grid, bare feet to earth or water or sand will do. And if you’re so inclined, pull up a rock for a pillow, rest your back on the sand or the earth provided by God and prepare to be surprised by God’s wilderness blessing, for you.