And I Did Not Know It

I preached this for a grad class a few days ago. I wanted to post it here, in honor of my mother, whose love I miss dearly.

Sermon: “And I Did Not Know It” – Genesis 28:10-16

Focus: God is faithfully present in the places we least expect to find him, even in darkness and pain.

The sermon seeks to use the biblical text and personal narrative to evoke the feelings of surprise and praise that result when God is found in unexpected places.

In the darkness…
In the night…
This refrain rises and rings out over the plain…
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”

The Biblical account recalls Jacob as a rather despicable character. Our text for today comes fresh on the heels of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac. In the Bible’s first account of identity theft, Jacob pretends to be Esau, duping his blind (!) father into conferring upon him the blessing that was the rightful possession of his older brother. But we should’ve seen this coming all along. When these twin boys are born, the text says Esau came first, but Jacob is born clinging to his brother’s heel. His name means “he takes by the heel” or “he cheats”. He’s already swindled Esau’s birthright; now he steals the blessing, too.

The text says that Isaac preferred Esau, the firstborn, the rugged “man’s man”. He liked to feast on the game his hunter-son would bring home. Jacob no doubt knew of this preferment. In fact, that seems to be what prompted the deception in the first place.

For Jacob, you see, was the favorite of his mother, Rebekah. She is the one standing in the corner, aiding and abetting the deception of Isaac. She is the one who, in the aftermath of the deception story, convinces Isaac to send Jacob off on a journey to find a wife, a shrewd tactic to assist Jacob in avoiding the wrath of his older brother. And so we find Jacob in the midst of this journey. The text says he came to a certain place and the sun was setting, so he makes the decision to spend the night.

It is here on the plain that we find Jacob. Here, in this darkness, in this night, he beds down alone. And in this darkness, in this night, loneliness begins to envelope him.
He is not lonely because he misses his father. To tell the truth, he was used to being without Isaac. Not being in his father’s presence – this is no new experience for Jacob. No, it is his mother that he misses! For she is the one who loves him! She is the one who nurtures him! Can there be any doubt that he is on his way to his mother’s homeland to find a wife that will love him the way Rebekah has? It is his mother that Jacob misses at this, the hour we stumble upon him here in the text.

And so, we find Jacob, alone in this darkness, in this night, with nothing but the barrenness of the plain, the barrenness of his own soul.

Jacob drifts into a deep sleep, until…

Behold! He sees a ladder, a staircase, more precisely, coming down from heaven to the place where he lays on the ground. He looks and Behold! The host of heaven! Angelic beings surround him! These celestial beings are ascending and descending in the firmament between heaven and earth. And Behold! A voice booms from beside him. “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father, the God of Isaac!” And Jacob realizes that he is not alone after all. He is in the presence of God. Behold!

It must be noted that the text gives no indication that Jacob had ever encountered this God before. Oh sure, he’d heard the stories. He’d heard the stories of his grandfather Abraham and how God had spoken to him. No doubt he’d heard the stories of this God who had appeared to confer blessings and promises upon his father Isaac. But Jacob? He’d known nothing of this God. And yet, here He stands, beside him. “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham and Isaac.” The implicit question here is: Will I be your God, Jacob?

God offers blessing and He offers promise. “Behold, I am with you,” He tells Jacob. And Jacob awakes from his dream, and he says, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know.”

When I was 10 years old, my father passed away. He contracted a very rare form of lung cancer in the winter of 1986. My mother and I watched him die a very slow, painful death. He died on October 20, 1987. In the years that followed, my mother took on an even greater role in my life. She was still there to bind up my scraped knees with nurture and care and Sesame Street Band-Aids and chocolate ice cream. But she also started taking me to my baseball games. She showed me how to change a tire. She said real men love God. She even tried to have “the talk” with me; I wouldn’t let her, but she gets credit for trying.

In short, she became both mother and father to me. That’s what made the spring of 1994 so difficult for me. In the fall of ’93, we noticed a change in Mom’s energy level. Simple things, like working in the garden, would just wear her out physically. We also noticed a mole on her back that was beginning to concern us. She’d always had a half-dollar size mole on her back, and she was suspicious that it was changing shape and getting some jagged edges. She called her dermatologist and they told her to come in. Said they’d “squeeze her in.” My mother, a school teacher, left at the end of the school day and she was the last patient the doctor saw that day. He took a quick glance at the mole and told her she had nothing to worry about. Said he was late for his tee time, but if she noticed anything else that concerned her, she could give him a call. That was September, 1993.

Four months later, my mother was diagnosed with a full-blown case of malignant melanoma. I’m not a doctor, but from what I understand, malignant melanoma is one of the fastest spreading types of cancer a person can contract. She started chemotherapy treatments immediately, but it was too little too late. The doctors told us she had only weeks to live. 6 weeks later, she was gone. I was 17 years old.

The last time I ever spoke to my mother was at the hospital. I would go to school during the day and then come out to the hospital in the afternoon. I remember sitting on the bed with her and she was asking me about my day. “How is baseball going?” she asked.

“Fine,” I told her.

“When is your next game?”

“I don’t know.”

She asked me about this girl I was dating and I told her I didn’t want to talk about that. I told her I didn’t want to talk about any of this stuff. “We’re not supposed to be here, Mom! You’re not supposed to be here! I don’t like this and I don’t want to talk about anything!”

She looked up from her hospital bed and smiled and said, “Jason, I love you.”

That night, she slipped into a coma. Over the next day or two, she would awake only for a moment, talking crazy stuff. In the end, the cancer spread to her brain. It was very difficult to watch. She died on March 26, 1994, 14 years and 9 days ago.

When we buried her, I made myself a promise. I promised myself that I would not cry. I promised myself that I would not give God the satisfaction of watching me weep. You see, I became the epitome of the angry young man. I wasn’t sure if God was real anymore, but if He was, He sure wasn’t anything like this “God of love” I’d been hearing about all of my life. My experience told me God – if He existed at all – was cruel and sadistic. I half-hoped He was real so I could have someone to lash out at. “What, taking my Dad wasn’t enough? You have to take my Mom, too?” If you can imagine every horrible, nasty thing a person can say to someone else, I said it to God. I hated God. And I told Him, “It’s gonna take a whole lot more than that for you to break me.”

And so, for a full year, I kept my promise. I didn’t cry. Not one drop. Fueled by my anger, I entered into my personal plain of darkness and isolation. I wanted to be alone. People would ask how I was doing and I kept them at arms length. “I’m doing as well as I can,” I’d say. I learned to quote Romans 8:28 to people before they had a chance to quote it on me. Oh, I heard them all: “She’s in a better place.” “Everything happens for a reason.” And my personal favorite: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” And I learned to accept these pithy truisms with a smile and a hug if that’s what it took for people to leave me alone. But inside I knew they were wrong. By all outward appearances, I was a well-adjusted young man orphaned at the age of 17. On the inside, I harbored anger and resentment that I refused to let go of. Like Jacob clinging to Esau’s heel, I refused to let go of my anger.

One evening, a year after my Mother’s death, I found myself literally alone. The family members I was staying with were all out of town for spring break, as were all of my close friends. I checked the youth group calendar, but to no avail; the next youth event was weeks away. All the things I’d filled my life with to keep myself busy…none of these distractions were available to me. The power went off at our house that night, so even watching TV or playing video games was out. To top it all off, I decided to run grab a bite to eat, only to find that my car wouldn’t start! So there I sat, alone in a big empty house, eating a peanut butter sandwich, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but sit and reflect on the barrenness and loneliness of my life.

The cumulative effect of sweeping my emotions under the rug for 12 months must’ve caught up with me. As I sat there that evening, watching the sun slip behind the horizon, I realized how utterly alone I was. I think I finally allowed myself to lay my anger down long enough to acknowledge how much I missed my Mother. In the end, that’s all it took. I began to feel something very much like sorrow brimming up from my heart and into my throat. My eyes turned moist and I thought of her final words to me: “Jason, I love you.” And for the first time in over a year, I thought of the God of my Mother.

I’m still not sure what it was that drove me to pray in that moment. I only got out one word – “God…” – before waves of tears washed over me. I began to sob uncontrollably as I writhed around on the floor. I grieved my dear Mother. I grieved my Heavenly Father. That one word prayer, born out of the darkness of the night, became my cry for reconciliation. “God…”

I really don’t have the words to describe to you what happened next. The best way to describe it is to say I had my own Behold! moment. I felt God’s presence by my side. Amid all the darkness and pain of my life, I felt His presence and I felt His promise. And He spoke this word: “Behold, I am with you…and I always have been.” A sense of peace fell on me that I’ve honestly not stopped feeling since that day. And that peace has made all the difference in my life. That day, the God of my Mother became my God, too.

In the darkness…
In the night…
This refrain rises and rings out over the plain…
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”

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