As with every day of the Christmas readings, which are filled with new beginnings, fresh starts, and new births, today’s passage from Genesis fits right in.
Today the city of Bethel is born. Jacob, in his vivid dream, awakes and declares “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” He rose and took the stone he had used as a pillow and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on it. He was honoring this place, and named it Bethel, which means the city of God.
What was cause for such an act? It turns out Jacob’s first vision was a similar promise that had been made to his grandfather – a double promise of land and progeny. “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.” God also declares that “I am with you.” These words drop onto my ear – an ear which is sensitive to the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts, and a huge part of me asks, “Yes, but what about the people who were already given this land by God?”
I suppose it is the the promise of presence that makes it a Christmas reading, a time when God-with-us declares this same promise, but in the form of a tiny babe in a manger. I suppose I am being asked to take my own advice from yesterday’s sermon and look beyond the surface of the story, and the obvious conflict of given land to people that has already been given to other people.
So what is the deeper part of the story? And why get so excited about a promise that had already been made to Abraham, his grandfather? Didn’t we know he would already be blessed? Yeah, maybe. Remember the rules? Land and blessing passes from eldest son to eldest son. Jacob was not. Not only did we as a people survive through Isaac almost being a sacrifice, we had also witnessed Esau and Jacob, with Jacob deceptively stealing the birthright from his father, who in his old age did not know any better.
Now the question….would God continue to bless Jacob, who was clearly in violation of the laws of humanity? The answer, surprisingly, is “yes.” God chooses differently and separate from man’s laws.
This extends to our Christmas narrative. Did Mary and Joseph deserve to be the parents of the Messiah? Were they royalty? Shining moral examples? No. And Jesus’ twelve disciples…did they deserve being chosen? No. Do we? No. And yet Jesus the Messiah came to that time and place, and even to this time and place, and chooses us. Are we worthy? No.
But God did it anyway. This is the true miracle of Christmas. God comes in unexpected ways, and breaks down our rules and standards along the way, instead preferring the way of grace and goodwill to those in whom God’s glory may shine best. Today it is Jacob. Tomorrow it might be you.