‘God has no grandchildren’. I think I first heard this phrase years ago from Billy Graham. What he meant was that being raised in a Christian home doesn’t necessarily guarantee you will become a follower of Jesus yourself. It’s a good thing, yes—but there will still come a day when you’ll have to make a decision for yourself about the Christian faith.
Maybe you’ll make the decision intentionally: you’ll think and pray about it and decide “Yes—this business of following Jesus is exactly what I want my life to be all about.” Or maybe you’ll weigh up the evidence and think, “You know what? I just don’t think I believe it anymore.”
Or maybe you’ll make the decision unintentionally. You’ll get busy with lots of stuff, and you’ll take the weekends as times to go holidaying, and you’ll hit the ground running every morning with no time for praying. And slowly, gradually, you’ll leave orbit around God and move off on a new course away from him. It won’t be a single dramatic decision. It’ll be lots of little ones, but the cumulative effect will be the same: you’ll gradually find yourself far away from God.
This is a tricky business for Christian parents. We can take our kids to church and send them to Sunday School. We can make sure they know some Bible stories and watch some Veggie Tales videos and know some Christian songs. But can we actually pass our faith in Christ on to them? Is it possible for faith in Christ to be second hand? Doesn’t it have to be caught first hand from the Holy Spirit? Or, to put it another way: is it really enough for us to pass on our Christian faith to our kids? Isn’t it true that what we’re really longing for is for them to meet the living Christ for themselves? Surely we want them to grow a faith that’s truly their faith—a faith of their own.
This isn’t a new issue. In today’s Old Testament reading God says to Jacob, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Genesis 28:13). In later years, this same God will be known as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,’ but at this point in the story Jacob hasn’t taken his place yet in the family tree of those who know God for themselves. All he’s got to go on are the stories he’s heard from his father and grandfather about how God led the family out of Haran and brought them to the land of Canaan to live there. He’s heard how his father Isaac was born when Abraham and Sarah were nearly a hundred years old. He’s heard of the times God appeared to his grandfather and his father and made promises to them about a land and descendants and blessing the whole world through them. But he’s never had that sort of experience himself. His relationship with God is second-hand; he only knows God by hearsay.
I suspect some of our kids, and perhaps even some of us, feel the same way. We’ve heard other people talk about knowing God and feeling close to God, but somehow it seems to have passed us by. Perhaps our parents had a close relationship with God, but somehow we never picked up from them how that happened. We picked up the churchgoing habit, yes, but when we hear about a personal connection with God, we feel this longing inside. We wonder, “How can I find that? What do I have to do? Do you have to be some sort of special person, especially good and holy and all that? Or is it available for everyone?”
Let’s back up a bit and learn a bit more about Jacob. Last week we read the story of his birth; his mom Rebekah was barren, so her husband Isaac prayed for her, and the Lord answered his prayer and gave them a son. Not only a son, but twins! The pregnancy was tough for her; she sometimes felt there was a war going on in her womb. When she asked God about it, he explained it to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger’ (25:23). When the time came for them to be born, the first one was covered in red hair, and the second one was hanging onto his brother’s heel. They called the first one ‘Esau’, and the second one ‘Jacob’, which means ‘he takes by the heel’ or ‘he supplants’.
When the boys grew up Esau was a hunter who loved going out on the land; his father loved him because he liked the wild game he brought home. But Jacob was a quiet man who preferred staying home in the tents, and his mother loved him best. The time came for their father, who was old and blind, to give the paternal blessing to his firstborn. So he called Esau and told him to go out and hunt some game, cook it up and bring it to him, and then he would give him the blessing. Rebekah heard this and came up with a plan to get the blessing for Jacob instead. She killed an animal from the flock, cooked the meat, and took the skin and put it on Jacob’s arms and shoulders, because he wasn’t hairy like his brother. Then she sent him in to pretend he was Esau, so he could get the blessing in place of his brother.
Jacob did as he was told, and strange as it may seem to us, it worked. But of course, when Esau found out, he was furious, and he began to whisper dark plots: after Isaac died, he said, he would kill Jacob for what he had done. So Rebekah sent Jacob away, back to the land of Haran where the family had come from, to stay with her brother Laban. It was while he was on this journey that Jacob had the dream we heard about in today’s reading.
As I said last week, we’re not dealing with a family of spiritual superstars here! We’re dealing with an ordinary family who make mistakes and fall short of perfection by a long way. We’ve got a father who seems quite passive and will do anything for a quiet life. We’ve got a mother who seems manipulative; she’s got plans for her favourite son, and she isn’t above deceiving her husband to get what she wants. We’ve got two parents who play favourites with their sons, and we can only begin to imagine what that meant for the inner dynamics of this family.
What are we supposed to learn from this? Is this family supposed to be a good example for us to follow? No. As we said last week, God is teaching us that it’s not his policy to reserve his blessing for the most deserving specimens of humanity he can find. If God were to look around to find a perfect family to use to spread his light, the world would be a very dark place. The family of Isaac and Rebekah isn’t a perfect family, they’re an ordinary family, and this doesn’t disqualify them from being channels of God’s blessing to others. That should be good news for us.
But in God’s plan, it’s not enough for Jacob to have a second-hand relationship with God in which he only knows God by hearsay. God wants Jacob to know him personally. And the time when Jacob is afraid and fleeing for his life turns out to be a good time for this to happen. So we heard in our reading this morning how when he was running away he stopped for a sleep and used a stone for a pillow (which ought to have given him rather strange dreams anyway, I would think!). In his sleep he dreamt he saw a ladder from heaven to earth, with angels going up and down on it. And God stood beside him and spoke to him, confirming to him the promises he’d made to his father and grandfather. God promised to be with him on all his journeys and bring him safely back to his father’s house.
Most of us don’t set much store by dreams these days, but in traditional cultures around the world, they’ve often been seen as very significant. Jacob obviously saw it that way. When he woke up he said, “This is the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” and he took the stone he’d slept on and set it up as a memorial pillar.
Let’s be clear: his character wasn’t instantly transformed. It’s actually rather funny to read the bargain he strikes with God: “If you look after me and bring me food and water and keep me safe and bring me home and all that—then I’ll make you my God and give you a tenth of everything you give me!” Jacob hasn’t yet learned that you don’t make bargains with God. God has begun to transform him, but the process is going to take years—decades, in fact.
‘That’s alright for Jacob,’ you might say; ‘He had a dream and saw a ladder to heaven. But where is that ladder? How do I find it?’
Interestingly enough, Jesus refers to this passage in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. One of his new disciples, Philip, goes and finds his friend Nathanael sitting under a fig tree; he tells him about Jesus and brings him to meet him. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and says, “Here’s a true Israelite with no deceit in him at all.” Nathanael is puzzled: “How do you know me?” Jesus replies, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael is impressed with Jesus’ second sight: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus replies, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these… Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:43-51).
Do you see the reference? In the story of Jacob, there’s a ladder between heaven and earth, and the angels of God are ascending and descending on it. But in John’s story, Jesus is the ladder. He’s the one who connects heaven and earth, and the angels are ascending and descending on him.
That has turned out to be true in my experience. When I was a child my parents took me to church and read me Bible stories and prayed with me, but somehow I didn’t have a sense of the closeness of God. Like Jacob, it would have been more accurate to say that God was the God of my parents; I knew him by hearsay, not personal experience.
The key to getting to know God, for me, was the day in my early teens, at the culmination of a period of spiritual searching, when my dad suggested I give my life to Jesus. I prayed in exactly those terms, and that night things began to change for me. Call it a conversion experience if you like, or my faith coming alive—I don’t really care what you call it. I only know that when I gave my life to Jesus, Jesus became like a ladder from earth to heaven for me—a road to a personal relationship with the living God, in which I began to know God for myself, and not merely by hearsay.
When I look back on this experience I’m grateful that my mum and dad didn’t just pass on to me the customs and traditions of the Anglican church. You can see in the story of Jacob how that might happen. Jacob has an encounter with the living God, and it’s so transformational to his life that the next morning he sets up the stone he slept on, pours olive oil on it and dedicates it as a memorial and calls it Bethel, which means ‘The House of God’. To Jacob it’s a precious place. No doubt in the years to come he comes back to it again and again, with thankfulness to God for what he experienced there.
But the next generation didn’t have that experience; all they had was the memorial stone. In time, they might even come to have an exaggerated sense of the importance of that stone in itself, and not just as a memorial for Jacob of the living God he met there. I think the customs and traditions of the church can be like that stone. These customs and traditions were started by people who had met the living God and been transformed by him. But unless we, their descendants, have a similar experience of transformation, those customs and traditions can be as lifeless as that stone. Passing on respect for those traditions where there is no real relationship with the living God is worse than useless: it’s potentially idolatrous.
I can’t give you an infallible formula today about how to meet the living God as Jacob did. God’s in charge of that relationship. He reveals himself to us when he’s ready to reveal himself to us. It’s not mechanical, like a slot machine—pray exactly these words, in this order and in this tone of voice, and you’ll get the prize! It’s more mysterious than that. People in the Bible are often told to ‘seek the Lord’; we get the sense that it takes time and effort to do so. We can’t command him to make himself known to us. All we can do is ask.
But we are encouraged to ask. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7). The verb tenses in the original Greek suggest this is a continual action—keep on asking, keep on searching, keep on knocking. We can do this. We can pray simply, and persistently, “Jesus, show me the way. Jesus, lead me to the Father. Jesus, help me know God for myself.”
I don’t believe that anyone who prays a prayer like that will be disappointed forever. I actually believe Jesus has been standing at our elbows for years, waiting patiently for us to pray this sort of prayer. And I believe that, as we begin to experience his answer, like Jacob, we’ll be transformed. Not all at once, of course! For decades after his first meeting with God, Jacob was still a deeply flawed human being, and God had to take drastic measures on a couple of occasions to bring him face to face with his own need. For us, too, the moment of genuine encounter with the living God is the beginning of a lifetime’s journey of transformation.
But a journey begins with a single step. And if you feel this morning as if you haven’t yet taken that step, let me suggest that you begin to pray, and keep on praying persistently, that Jesus will show you the way to the Father. Sooner or later, that prayer will be answered, and you will never be the same again.