“Where Else Could A Loser Go?”Dr. R. Lee Carter Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24, Romans 8:12-25 Year A - Proper 11 (16) - July 19, 2020
Where does a loser turn when he has deceived his father? Where does a loser turn when he has cheated his own twin brother out of his inheritance? Where does a cowardly loser go when he has nowhere else to turn? To the city of Luz (LOOZ), of course! Jacob had loser written all over him. As we open our Scripture text for today, we find our loser in Luz.
Of course, from the standpoint of coming to understand God’s plan for our lives, we go to any place suitable for God to find us, and such a place is everywhere. The Psalmist (Psalm 139:7-12) describes this so well:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there;
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Wherever God finds us and finally sits us down, we have a lot of self-searching to do, a lot of life-reflection, a lot of facing up to the painful truth about ourselves, the truth about the piteous gap between what we are and what we should have been. Call it an encounter with God, a showdown or a “come-to-Jesus meeting,” there comes a time when we can no longer run from ourselves, our situation or God’s will for our lives.
Historians of religion use the term “axis mundi” (“axis of the world”) to describe that place- spiritual, psychological or even geographical- where God meets us. Think of this “center of the world” as the place where we center ourselves. At that sacred center, we discover ourselves, the self that has lost its way and the self that God seeks.
Jacob is unknowingly about to discover both God and himself in Luz. The ordinary stone that Jacob chose for a pillow would become a memorial stone and mark a milestone for his life. Jacob would return to that very place over the years to reclaim God’s promise and to chart his spiritual growth.
The account of Jacob and the ladder is remembered in story and in song. That night Jacob had an experience with the uncanny. Some students of religious experience, following the lead of the noted scholar Rudolf Otto, would describe it as an experience of the Holy or the Wholly Other. It is the overwhelming, awe-inspiring experience of “tremendous mystery.”
But so much for Religious Studies jargon, the Bible describes it as a ladder or a stairway “set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28: 12). Such experiences might be rare for us, but when they occur they “knock our socks off;” they change the way we come to view what is real, they liberate us from the parochial notion that all that exists is common matter and we come to understand that there is a Reality beyond all that we used to think was real.
The Bible speaks of such deep, life-changing experiences of God in terms of a burning bush (Moses), the animation of the Temple (Isaiah) or an encounter with the Risen Christ (Paul). How God speaks to us in these teachable moments is often dependent upon where we find ourselves in the journey of life.
Moses, a murderer on the lam, burns with an unconsumable passion for liberating his people who are enslaved in Egypt yet finds himself hiding out in the most remote area of the desert like a coward. In the burning bush, Moses not only discovers God but his own passionate, yet unrealized inner self.
Likewise, in his vision of the Temple coming alive with the majesty and sovereignty of God, Isaiah comes face to face with his own uninspiring and grossly limited conception of who God is and what God can do. Through this overwhelming experience of the power, richness and mercy of God, Isaiah discovers the Holy One of Israel. His life is forever changed and he discovers that the “call” of God is upon him.
Paul, in his experience of the risen Christ on that renowned road to Damascus, discovers not only the mystery of God, he discovers himself– not as the righteous person he thought he was, but as a murderous enemy of God who was thwarting the divine plan.
In each case it wasn’t a sinner finding God, it was God finding a sinner. That makes all the difference. That’s where life-transformation, self-discovery and redirection for living meets us face-to-face and redemption of self begins.
Where does God find us and what would He have to say? Where can we go for God to break through to us? Where do we run to discover that center, that axis mundi, that sacred place, that “thin place” as Celtic Christians used to call those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses?
St. Augustine found it in an open Bible lying in a courtyard where an unidentified voice told him to “take and read.” St. Thomas Aquinas found it one December day in an ordinary chapel. Martin Luther found it, of all places, in the privy. Many Christians have found that “thin place” at a retreat center, a revival meeting, or in the quiet of their own bedroom.
Wherever God encounters us, what God says to us is embedded in a promise. For people of the Old Testament faith, that promise came in the form of the personal name of God, Yahweh. Yahweh is more than a name. It is a promise: “I have always been with you. I am with you now. I will always be with you.”
For Jacob the words of promise articulated God’s great plan for the world:
“I am the Lord [Yahweh], 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; and 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. Know 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.”
The great plot of Genesis 12-50 is that in spite of all the threats, God’s promise of land an
descendants to Abraham and his seed would never be thwarted and that God works his will through such rascals as Jacob, Laban and ourselves. The ultimate end may have been salvation through Christ but God, probably because of His sense of humor, has invited us to be part of the Story.
Although God’s Story is still unfolding to us, of this we are certain: God may speak to us through stairways to heaven or through burning bushes, but God speaks most clearly to us through the cross. The cross is God’s center and our own. It is that axis mundi where God meets each one of us.
The Word that God speaks through it is embedded in a promise; “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Therefore, as the great Apostle reminds us (Romans 8:12-25):
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation- but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
About the Writer:
The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and serves as the William C. Bennett Chaplain there. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy, and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
Psalms 139:1-12, 23-24
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Nearer, My God, to Thee
Come, Ye Thankful People, Come
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
The Church s One Foundation
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart
Creating God, Your Fingers Trace
Peace I Leave with You — Walter Pelz
O Lord, You Know Me Completely – Hal Hopson
Every Time I Feel the Spirit – Dawson
Upon This Rock — John Ness Beck
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty — Mark Andrews
Then Shall the Righteous Shine Forth — Mendelssohn
Surely the Presence of the Lord
He Who Began A Good Work in You
On Eagles Wing’s