One of the greatest love songs ever written begins with these words, “I may not always love you”. The writer continues, “I’ll make you so sure about it. God only knows what I’d be without you.” How do you start, perhaps the greatest love song of the 20th century, with an acknowledgment of amorous doubt? It would seem to be counter-intuitive to whole idea of a love song. Brian Wilson was a musical genius in his ability to blend sounds, notes, and compose melodies. He also understood a little something about poetry.
The first line of the song is not a statement of doubt. The song’s title isn’t an expression of exasperation. This love song, which you’ve heard hundreds of times, is more like a Psalm and prayer, than a Top 40 hit. Why? The first line and the title do two important things also shown by our scripture readings this morning: one is an admission of vulnerability. The other is an awareness of God’s presence. Vulnerability and awareness: if we want to be fully aware of God’s presence it means becoming vulnerable. For instance, I may not always love you (that makes me pretty vulnerable to admit this) but by acknowledging that I’m unable to love now or even into eternity without God, my inherently flawed promises are less important. They are, however, backed by the full faith and credit of the creator of the universe. My vulnerability, nor my promises, exists in isolation. That’s what Wilson says.
It is much the same way for Jacob. Most of know Jacob’s story the same we know the Beach Boys; we grew up listening to his song. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder; soldiers of the cross.” You’ve been singing that one since before you heard “Help Me, Rhonda”. However, when we look closely, there’s much more to this story than a ladder or stairway to heaven.
Jacob is a man on the run from time itself: the past, present, and future. At one point, Jacob thought very little of his family and friends. He robbed his brother of the most precious gift he might ever receive, his birthright. Lie begat lie. Jacob was an outlaw among a displaced people. Physically, he belonged nowhere. Spiritually, he was disconnected from the God of his father and grandfather. His past was dead, the present was dying, and the future would not exist. The only way to survive was to keep moving toward whatever existed beyond the horizon. Fight those in your path. In stopping, he risked death.
Sleep was his greatest enemy. At night, when the memories of Isaac and Esau could not be banished and his legs were too weak to move, he hid in the darkness; among the rocks. When Jacob stopped he became vulnerable. When Jacob could no longer walk he became vulnerable. Sleep and rest opened the door to Jacob’s greatest vulnerability.
The dream, the one with the famous ladder, isn’t hard to interpret. Jacob is most vulnerable when is when he’s confronted with the idea of being related and connected to other people. That’s Jacob’s issue. In the dream, God speaks to him about descendants, springing forth from the dust. God promises to protect Jacob and those descendants. Jacob is the consummate loner. This dream touches him at his most vulnerable point. He wants to be connected. Jacob desires community, fellowship, and family. But he can’t! He’s burned those bridges. Yes he has. They are well and truly burned.
However, here is the good news. At our weakest and most vulnerable points, this is where we become aware of God’s presence. God is already present and involved in our lives. Until we acknowledge our vulnerability, our need to be completely open about who we are with the world and God; it’s hard to realize (or accept) God is messing around in your world.
Look at what Jacob says when he awakes. For me, this is the most important part of this story. It’s a verse I see repeated in my life time and time again. “The Lord is (present tense) definitely in this place but I didn’t know it.” He became aware of God’s presence and admitted, “I didn’t know it”. Have you ever walked away from an encounter like this? I’ve never walked away from brush or encounter with the divine where it wasn’t preceded by a feeling of intense vulnerability. God should throw us off balance, make us a little nervous, cause some butterflies in our stomach, and leave you feeling a little stunned. When you find yourself opening up in a conversation to a stranger then you ask yourself, “I don’t what happened?” Maybe that was a God moment? God is in the place, are you aware?
The Bible thinks and speaks clearly about the most powerful human emotions. Vulnerability and awareness are essential for maintaining healthy communities as well as seeing God at work in the world around us. It’s also evident in this morning’s Psalm. Doesn’t it seem like the Psalmist is writing directly to us?
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
Can there be a greater acknowledgement of our vulnerability? “You have searched me and known me”. God knows us in our totality. Before God, nothing is hidden. God is aware of every aspect of our lives. Even before we speak, God knows our thoughts. The more God knows about us, the more God is aware of our lives. Awareness is care, awareness is love. For the Psalmist, even for me, this is overwhelming.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. 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.
As Jacob realized, at our most vulnerable, when we are sleeping, God is present and aware. Here’s where God’s idea of vulnerability becomes visionary. The Psalmist says that God becomes vulnerable for us. Yes, vulnerability is central to our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. The Psalmist takes this vision one step further. God becomes vulnerable for us. We worship a vulnerable God. A God, who, if we make our bed in Sheol (hell) is already in hell waiting to bring us home. This is a God who will wait for us in hell.
God becomes vulnerable for us. What’s more vulnerable than a baby born in a stable? What’s more vulnerable than an innocent put to death? What was it the Roman centurion said, after Jesus died, when confronted with Jesus’ vulnerability? He became aware of the presence of God.
When we allow ourselves, like Jacob and Psalmist to open up and be vulnerable to God’s presence in our lives, we will discover something: God is in the place and we didn’t even know it.
God embraced vulnerability for us. To do the same seems the least we can do for God.