At the Edge of the Wilderness

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 23, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 28:10-19a

Bilbo Baggins was a happy hobbit, living peacefully in his beloved home in the Shire, when suddenly his contentment was interrupted by an unexpected visit from a wise old wizard, Gandalf. Before he knew it, Bilbo Baggins was leaving town with this wizard and an odd group of dwarfs, embarking on an adventure. Leaving behind the comforts of home, Bilbo and friends would overcome multiple obstacles and enemies, barely surviving assorted threats and challenges, until their mission was accomplished. And then Bilbo returned to his home. It was the same place he had started, but during his quest he has changed and matured; he’s a new man (or, hobbit). That’s the basic plot of The Hobbit: There and Back Again, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

My guess is that many of you are familiar with this story, having either read the book or seen the movies. I first experienced this story as an audio book, back when they were “books on tape”, on an actual cassette tape.

But even if you don’t know The Hobbit, perhaps its general plotline, captured so succinctly in the subtitle There and Back Again, sounds familiar to you because you’ve seen the original Star Wars movie. Luke Skywalker lives a quiet life in his home, until suddenly his life is turned upside down as he embarks on an adventure with the wise Obi-Wan Kenobi and an odd assortment of companions. They overcome various dangers and obstacles as they complete their mission, growing and maturing in the process.

But even if you haven’t seen Star Wars, perhaps this plotline sounds familiar to you because you’ve seen The Lion King, where young Simba must leave the comforts of home, going out into the unknown wilderness, where he finds an odd group of friends, grows up and figures out who he is, before ultimately returning back home as a new man (or, lion).

Or perhaps this plotline sounds familiar to you because you’ve seen the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy discovers she’s not in Kansas anymore. Or you’ve seen The Matrix, where the hero Neo must leave behind the comfortable normal life to enter a bizarre alternative reality. Or Harry Potter, where a young boy leaves the only life he’s ever known to enter a new world or wizards and magic.

And on and on it goes. The scholar Joseph Campbell famously described this archetypal story as the Hero’s Journey, which has appeared in literature, myth, and storytelling throughout human history. Something rings true about that.

Because even if you’ve never heard of Joseph Campbell, and even if you’ve never seen any of the movies I mentioned, perhaps this story sounds familiar because you’ve experienced it in your life. Beginning in the comfort of home, before venturing out into the unknown, overcoming obstacles and growing in maturity, so that when you finally return from that journey, you have tested yourself and discovered more fully who you are. Like Bilbo Baggins, you ventured “there and back again.”

There are endless variations on this story, but there seems to be something universal about it. Something about the human experience involves leaving the familiar and finding your way through the unknown.

It should be no surprise, then, that this human story appears to us over and over in the Bible. Think of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness, Saul going to Arabia after his conversion, Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt, young Moses fleeing Egypt before returning to lead the people out, or the Israelites themselves, wandering through the desert for 40 years. There are many examples of this type of story, but the one we’re focusing on today is the story of Jacob. The Jacob narrative pretty remarkably follows the pattern of the hero’s journey, this “there and back again” cycle.

The passage Diane read for us comes partway through, as he first stepping out into the unknown.

The whole Jacob story is too long to go into all the details today, but the outline is pretty straightforward. As you may remember,

Quick recap: twin brothers Jacob and Esau have been fighting since birth, culminating with Jacob tricking his dying father Isaac to get the blessing that should have been Esau’s. A furious Esau then sets out to kill his good-for-nothing little brother, so Jacob takes off. Afraid for his life, he has to leave home, and he heads toward a city where he is told some relatives live.

That’s where today’s reading begins. Verse 10 tells us, “Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.” We tend to skim past those verses, since they aren’t places that mean much to us. But this verse is actually crucial to the story. He left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.

Imagine hearing it this way: Jacob was a farmer who was born in Nelson County and had lived there his whole life, never even going as far as Waynesboro. But now his brother is coming after him, intent on killing him, and it’s not safe for him here anymore. He knows his mom has a brother in New Jersey, and his mom suggests he go there to start over and have a family. So he starts walking north. He gets about a day’s journey away, maybe Charlottesville, but who knows what these unfamiliar towns are called, and he finds a place to sleep for the night.

That’s where our story begins. He left Nelson County and went toward New Jersey; or, in Jacob’s case, Haran, which is in modern-day Turkey. The point is, he is leaving the only home he’s ever known, and heading to a new city, a new country, somewhere entirely foreign and unfamiliar.

With Esau out to get him, Jacob rushes out of town, following unfamiliar roads, watching an unknown landscape pass by. He continues through the heat of the day, putting as much distance as possible between himself and his murderous brother, until it’s too dark to take another step.

There, in that random spot, he lies down on the ground, completely alone, with only a rock for a pillow.

Can you hear his mind racing? “What am I doing here? Where am I going to go? What if this uncle doesn’t take me in, or doesn’t even live there anymore? What if I die out here? Why did even go through with that crazy plan anyway? I miss my bed!”

Alone, disoriented, longing for the comfort of home, unsure what the future holds: that’s how it feels at the edge of the wilderness.

This inner turmoil: that’s what the hero’s journey does to you, isn’t it?

As with Bilbo Baggins, or Simba, or Luke Skywalker, beginning this journey means leaving a life that is comfortable, and going into the wild unknown. That’s how it works—not just because it makes an exciting movie or a memorable story, but because that’s how it has to happen. You can’t skip to the end without going through the middle. You can’t become a grown up without going through middle school. (And middle school… talk about a strange and terrifying wilderness!)

One way or another, we all find ourselves on this hero’s journey at various points in our lives. Think of how many people talk about moving off to college, living away from home for the first time, navigating the new experiences and returning as less of a kid and more of an adult. Was that your experience? Have your heard people tell that story about their life?

Or think of those who describe joining the military, or moving to New York City to follow their dream. A friend of mine moved to Ohio when he was in his twenties, for no particular reason, except that he needed to get out of the town where he grew up.

Or consider a couple who have fallen in love and are preparing to get married, leaving behind a familiar single life and starting a new joint one. Or someone who is taking a strange new step into retirement, leaving the familiarity of the 9-5 and getting ready to find themselves awash in free time (or not—perhaps they can join a few church committees and fill up their days!).

Or, consider a person who is entering the disorientation of a new diagnosis, or the wilderness of unanticipated grief, or the loss of a cherished relationship.

Wilderness can take a host of forms, but the journey always begins by leaving the comfort of the familiar.

Down the road, when we’re looking back on the journey, we can see the way that we traveled and how we made our way through. We may even see the ways that we grew and distilled our identity in the process. It was tough, but we made it.

But at the time, when we’re taking those first tentative steps unsure if the ground will hold, it’s scary. It feels like Jacob, exhausted from a long day of running away, now stretched out on a rock, under the stars.

I love this story. It’s such a vivid image, a traveler too exhausted to keep going but too anguished to sleep. All this stuff rolling around in his mind, his body hurting from walking all day. Add to that the rock pillow, and it’s no wonder than when exhaustion finally wins out and he does drift off to sleep, he has some strange dreams.

Yet this dream, Jacob’s famous vision of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, turns out to be exactly what Jacob needed to see. It may seem fanciful, but really this dream is the key to the whole story.

At this pivotal moment, as Jacob leaves his home and steps into the unknown, he hears God’s voice speaking to him in this dream. The message I see in this has two parts, and as we think about what this story means for us, I want us to hear each of these two parts.

The first message in the dream comes when God repeats to Jacob the promise that God had originally made with Abraham, who was Jacob’s grandfather. Does this promise sound familiar? I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac; I will give you this land; your offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth; all the families of the earth will be blessed by you. This is God’s covenant with Abraham.

Can you imagine how many times Jacob must have heard this as a kid? This was their whole family purpose; this was their identity. Surely Jacob had been told this a thousand times by his father Isaac, if not by Abraham himself. He’d probably heard it so many times he didn’t even really hear it anymore; it was just words. Until this restless night, when suddenly this promise, this faith, becomes personal. God speaks directly to Jacob, not his family, and God tells Jacob that this very ground where you’re lying down, this land that you’re running away from in such a hurry, this is the promised land where your descendants will be a great nation.

It’s the same message, nothing new. And yet, somehow, now it’s his message. Jacob already knew this, in his head, but now he knows it in his gut. Now it’s real. Now it’s his.

Has that happened to you? Has your faith made that shift? It’s one thing to be taught the right words, the tradition, the faith of your parents and grandparents. It’s a gift to be given that from your family. But at some point, you have to figure out what it means to claim that for yourself.

I began that process as a student at UVA, in religious studies classes and with friends at the Baptist Student Union. I had to test the borders of my faith, venture out a ways, leave behind the comforts of the faith I’d inherited to see what was out there in the unknown. And there’s a lot of stuff out there. Some of it came back with me, some of it I visited and then passed by. My faith changed. But when I began to feel like I was out of the wilderness, it was strange to realize that I had come back to where I started. I wasn’t the same, but somehow it was still the faith of my ancestors that spoke to me and now was mine.

Perhaps you’ve taken a similar journey, finding a way to make the faith you’d been taught into a faith that was yours. Some embark on that journey out of curiosity, to see what else there is. Some start because they feel like they don’t fit here in these neat boxes anymore. Some start because something happens to them in life, and the old answers just won’t work anymore. But whatever the reason, the journey leaves the comfort of home and goes into the unknown. Wandering in that wilderness of uncertain faith can last years; maybe you still find yourself there.

But sometimes, when the wilderness time has passed, we find ourselves like Jacob, able to claim what we’d learned about abstractly, now made concrete and personal in our particular way. Now it’s not just our church’s faith or our family’s faith, but our own.

Jacob hears the promise God made to Abraham, a story he’d heard countless times before, but now it’s his story.

This brings us to the second message of Jacob’s dream: God says to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.” As Jacob is just beginning his journey, resting here, alone at the edge of the wilderness, God tells that Jacob that, wherever he goes from here, he will not be alone. The ladder image in the dream shows how heaven and earth are connected in this ordinary, holy place. And that connection is promised to continue: God will go with him wherever he goes, and God will bring him back home.

A year and half ago, University Baptist Church entered an interim chapter in our life together, without a senior minister and with no idea who might come next. Those early months coincided with the season of Lent, and our theme in worship, if you recall, was “Through the Wilderness.” This morning, we are gathered for worship at the other end of this wilderness—on the other side of the bridge, as Gary described it for us so well. One of the hymns we sang during that Lenten season was “In the Midst of New Dimensions,” which we sang again this morning. Its lyrics ask who will lead us through changing times: through the wilderness, if you will. And the answer is the same message that Jacob heard in his dream, so long ago: God will guide us through it. Wherever the wilderness journey takes us, God goes with us. We do not go alone.

Jacob awoke from his dream, looked around, and knew that God was there. This desolate, frightening place was the very house of God. Soon enough, he would continue his journey to Haran, where he would work for his uncle Laban, get married, establish himself, and eventually return home to face his Esau and get on with his life. That would all come, though Jacob didn’t know the details yet. For now, Jacob still faces an unknown future, still doesn’t know where he’s going or how he’ll get there.

But his encounter with God has given him the assurance he needs to take those first steps. The road may be winding, but it leads back home. And God will be with him all along the way.

May it be so for us as well. Amen.

Let us pray:

God, strengthen us for the journeys we face. Give us courage when we step into the unknown, and fill us with gratitude when we find our way back. And wherever we go, remind us that you are there with us, always. Amen.