2nd Sunday in Lent
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
March 12, 2006
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
----- "Come Thou Font Of Every Blessing"
514 "Jesus And Shall It Ever Be"
577 "Nearer My God To Thee"
198 "Saviour Again To Thy Dear Name We Raise"
HERE I RAISE MINE EBENEZER
TEXT (vs. 18-22): “So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee.’”
“Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come.” We sang that line in our opening hymn this morning, “Come Thou Font Of Every Blessing.” Do you know what that line means, particularly the word “Ebenezer?” If you do, then I would say that you are among a precious few, because it is a Hebrew word that has been transliterated into the English alphabet.
Oh, certainly you’ve heard the name before. Our first thoughts might turn to the Charles Dickens novel entitled “The Christmas Carol” which features the story about Ebenezer Scrooge.
Or your thoughts may turn to the inner city of Atlanta Georgia, where you will find the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King was the pastor. This church became rather famous in the 1960’s during the racial riots in the south. In January of each year, they have a huge festival there on the commemoration of Martin Luther King’s birthday. His mother was shot and killed in that church while she sat on the bench playing the organ. Most recently, the body of Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King was lying in state there, while members of the public paid their last respects.
So when we sing, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer,” what are we talking about? Are we raising up an image of Martin Luther King shouting “I have a dream?” Or are we raising up a miserly old man who keeps his office too cold and doesn’t pay Bob Cratchett enough? Even though those might be the mental images we conjure up in our heads, that’s hardly what the hymn means.
The word “Ebenezer” is actually two Hebrew words put together. The word “Eben” means “stone.” And the word “Ezer” means “help;” so literally in means “stone of help.” Where does this come from and what does it mean?
The Bible uses the actual word “Ebenezer” only three times, all of which are in 1 Samuel. The hymn “Come thou font of every blessing” actually is based upon I Samuel 7:12 which reads: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’” The Lord had been with the Israelites in their battle with the Philistines. They had been subdued, and did not invade the territory of the Israelites again.
However, Ebenezer was mentioned twice before this time. Commentators have had various speculations about where this earlier Ebenezer was. Some say that it referred to the same place before Samuel named it. But others indicate that it referred to the stone at Bethel. The Bible mentions that Samuel was at Bethel, which the place where Jacob had his famous dream. The story of Jacob at Bethel is our text for today, which is where Jacob raised his Ebenezer.
Jacob was a fugitive, and not really the type of fugitive that we would have any sympathy for. He was on the run, not because of what others had done to him, but for the nasty things he had done to others. He was also very much a “momma’s boy,” who owed his life to his mothers intervention on two occasions: The day she gave birth to him and his twin brother Esau, and the day she saved him from being strung up by Esau.
Jacob is a cunning individual, which certainly was key to his survival. His integrity and moral fibre is definitely less than admirable, and his adventures recorded throughout the 25th to the 36th chapters of Genesis read almost like a Biblical soap opera. But one thing stands out here—Jacob never seems to get what he deserves. Jacob always gets more, and he is blessed.
He cheats his half-witted brother Esau out of his birthright, and gets away with it. Then years later, he cheats him again, this time out of the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s, and he gets away with that too. He not only gets away with it, but once his crime is knows, both Rebekah and Isaac cover up for him. When Rebekah discovers that Esau is ready to murder his brother for what he has done, she convinces Isaac that it would be a bad idea for Jacob to marry one of the Canaanite women like Esau had done (actually Esau had several wives, one of which was his first cousin). This also separated Esau from the line of blessing, the proper patriarchal lineage of the promise. This is exactly the information that Isaac needed to know in order to tell Jacob to go to the ancestral homeland while Esau cools his heels in Canaan.
And so now starts the story told in our text for today. Jacob is “on the lam” so to speak, running from a place where he is no longer welcome to a place where he has never been. He’s guilty, defenseless, and scared; and he doesn’t have a friend in the world.
Now he finds himself out in the hill country north of Beer-Sheba. He is fatigued and completely stressed out. So he lies down under the night sky with nothing but a stone for a pillow.
As Jacob sleeps, he dreams a dream. Now logic would probably tell us that Jacob should have been wrestling with his guilt, and perhaps having nightmares about the father he had deceived or the brother he had cheated. This would have been more in line with what he deserved.
But that’s not what God had in mind at all. Instead, Jacob dreams a dream that is so full of beauty and wonder that it would almost bring tears to one’s eyes. Jacob sees a ladder extending up into heaven. The Hebrew word here is “sullam” which comes from the root, meaning “to cast up.” A better translation or picture would be a huge ramp or staircase, rather than an aluminium extension ladder we would buy at Home Depot to paint our house. Angels are ascending and descending on this huge staircase; and there, right beside him, is the Lord God himself.
God speaks to Jacob—not with words of accusation or chastisement, but words of comfort and blessing. Verses 13-15 of our text record these words of God: “…the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth…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.”
This is not just some wistful expression of the unconscious mind while Jacob slept; rather, this was the very voice of God speaking to him. Very pointedly, God says that he is going to give Jacob, the biggest liar and swindler around, everything he could ever want or need. He will have more land, family, power, and honor than he could ever imagine. It was more than Jacob ever dreamed of trying to get through his craft and cunning. It was more than his own father could have given him. It was more than God had ever promised to anyone. He even reassures Jacob by saying that he will stick with him until every part of his promise has been kept. It was quite a promise, quite a blessing, and quite a dream.
One would have expected God to have something a little different in mind for this cheating and conniving little momma’s boy—you know, maybe a little taste of divine wrath, maybe a taste of his own medicine, or at least a good tongue lashing. But this unbelievably beautiful dream and this promise from God is what Jacob got instead.
It would take a long time for everything to play out and for Jacob to become the great father of Israel; but it didn’t take too long for Jacob to realize what had happened, and to make the most of it.
When he awoke, he consecrated the stone he used as a pillow by pouring oil on it. He used this as a monument to the place he then called Bethel, which is another Hebrew word: “Beth” means “house,” and “El” is a word for “God.” It was at Bethel where Jacob raised his Ebenezer.
And then Jacob makes a vow to God. Verses 20-22 of our text for today says, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”
I don’t honestly know what could have been going through Jacob’s mind. God gives Jacob an unconditional promise of blessing, and all that he can do is come up with a conditional promise of his own. He is basically saying, “Okay God, IF you do all of this for me, THEN I will respond in this manner to you.” It would appear that Jacob is almost demanding God to prove himself first. This is human logic at its worst, as a mind tainted with sin attempts to respond to a divine promise.
So what can be learned from all of this? First of all, we see how the grace of God works. God responds to sinful man in a way that defies all forms of human logic. God sticks with sinful people like Jacob, and you, and me, and gives us promises and rewards that we in no way deserve.
Through the lineage of Jacob, God brought forth a Saviour. Jesus Christ came into this world as the prime example of God’s grace, his undeserved love for sinful humanity.
We see a God who sticks with us, regardless of what happens. Whatever crooked path we might have traveled, whatever wrong road we have taken, God is still there with his grace. He hasn’t closed the book on us.
Instead of closing the book, he has opened one instead. Through faith in Christ our Saviour, he has entered our name in the Lamb’s Book of Life. As believers in Christ, our names are written in the book of heaven, and we have a guarantee of eternal life and blessing. Just like God gave a guarantee to Jacob, so he gives us a guarantee as well.
We’re really no better than Jacob. We’re as sinful and guilty as he was. Jacob was out in the middle of nowhere, and all alone. He didn’t have a friend in the world.
But God came to him that night, and showed him that he was not alone, and that he would be blessed. God came to him with a type of love that he didn’t earn or deserve. Through faith in Christ, he does the same for us.
What is our response to this love? We might be tempted to say like Jacob did, “okay, now prove yourself.” But he already has proven himself. He did this by sending his son into the world to be our redeemer. Our response needs to be one of love and trust. We know that God will keep his promises; he always has, and he always will.
Jacob responded to God by raising his Ebenezer, his stone of help at Bethel. This was his way of recognizing God’s presence and divine aid.
For us today, an Ebenezer can be almost anything that will remind us of the same thing. God is certainly present with us in our worship and in our church. The various items that adorn our sanctuary all have deep meaning, from the candles on the altar to the paraments which reflect the color of the season of the church year.
One important Ebenezer is the Lord’s Supper, where we have Christ’s true body and blood given to us in, under, and with the earthly elements of bread and wine. Through this sacrament, we receive a physical sign and seal of the forgiveness Christ has won for us on the cross. When we come forward to partake of Holy Communion, we can be assured without a doubt that Christ is truly present, and that we will receive exactly what he has promised us—the forgiveness of sins. We also receive strength for our faith as we go forth and live our lives as his dedicated disciples.
I’d like to close this morning with a story about a woman by the name of Sarah Flower Adams, who was a hymnwriter living in England in the 19th Century.
The year was 1840, and it was about this time of year. She was having a discussion with her pastor, William J. Fox. He mentioned that he would be preaching on the subject of Jacob’s dream. Mrs. Adams asked if there were any hymns on that topic. Pastor Fox said that there weren’t any, to the best of his knowledge.
So Mrs. Adams went home, and wrote the words of the only hymn that exists (as far as I know) which is about Jacob’s dream (notwithstanding the old camp song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.”), which was sung that next Sunday.
Even though Mrs. Adams died in 1848 at the age of 43, the words she wrote will always be remembered. One of the verses of the hymn she so hastily penned that week goes like this:
There let my way appear,
Steps unto heaven,
All that thou sendest me,
In mercy given;
Angels to beckon me,
Nearer my God to thee,
Nearer my God to thee,
Nearer to thee.
We don’t know the original tune the hymn was sung to, because Lowell Mason didn’t compose the familiar tune “Bethany” until 1856, eight years after Sarah Flower Adams passed away. He composed the tune specifically for this hymn, and had intended the tune name to be “Bethel;” but due to a printer’s mistake, it got the name “Bethany” instead, and it has always remained that way.
God’s message of undeserved love, his Gospel has been carried down to us through the ages in many ways. God never will leave us or forsake us. Through our faith in Christ our Saviour, that grace is personalized for each and every one of us. And we can be assured that at the end of our earthly life, he will take us to be with him forever. That’s a guarantee that needs no proof other than the fact that God has spoken it, and we can believe it.