This an interesting passage because so much of it can be read either in a rather negative way or in a really positive way.
In the dream God says to Jacob, 'I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’
On the face of it this is a wonderful promise. Jacob is a penniless fugitive without a friend in the world, but God will be with him, watching over him, ensuring that he will prosper.
On my 19th birthday my wife gave me a little book. It finished with the words, 'Let’s be friends for ever and a day.' But God's promise to Jacob isn't ‘for ever and a day.’ God says, ‘I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’
It's not just a promise, it's a deal. To use management jargon for a moment, it's activity based. While they're engaged in the project together, God will be there for him. But what if the project ended? What if the goal was reached?
Is that how God also deals with us? Maybe it's not such a big issue, because maybe the project never comes to an end. Following God and working in partnership with him is a lifelong commitment on both sides.
Maybe, therefore, the message of Jacob’s dream is that belonging to God is not a passive relationship, where God makes us feel good and doles out tea and sympathy. As Roger Walton puts it, following God in Jesus is 'active and intentional.’ God’s friendship, God’s relationship with us, is about doing more than being. We are formed, and our relationship with God is formed, in the doing and in the living. We don’t get to retire, and we don’t get made redundant or put out to grass.
Jacob wakes up and says, 'Surely God is in this place… How awesome! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’
A negative reading of this story would say that it’s only being told to justify the existence of the shrine at Bethel, which was one of the two great centres of worship in the northern kingdom of Israel, whereas people in the southern kingdom of Judah worshipped in Jerusalem. The story’s telling us that the shrine at Bethel is just as good as, just as sacred as, and in fact much older than, the Jerusalem temple.
Why do we think our churches are important? Is it because each one is none other than the house of God? Is it because they are an awesome place to be? Is it because they are a gateway into heavenly things? Or is it because our church is where we like to come to worship, just as people in northern Israel liked to go to Bethel rather than Jerusalem?
But a more positive reading of this passage points us to something else. Jacob laid down to sleep here unaware that God was already here too. His dream made him realize that God was close to him, God was with him, in that moment and in that place.
The Institute for Contemporary Christianity is fond of asking people, 'Where will you be tomorrow?’ The point of the question is to remind us that wherever we’ll be tomorrow, and whatever we’ll be doing, God will already be there with us. Wherever we are, it will be for us the gate of heaven. It will be none other than the house of God.
However we redesign our building, whatever happens here, whether it's worship that's going on or community work, this will be the gate of heaven. This will be none other than the house of God.
In response, Jacob makes a promise to God. If God's promise to him is activity based, Jacob’s promise to God is - to quote another piece of management jargon - a transactional promise. It's a bargain. ‘If you do something for me, I'll do something for you.’
Now Jacob was that kind of person through and through. He was a wheeler-dealer. 'If you will be with me and will watch over me on this journey…,’ he says, ‘Then you will be my God…, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.’
The positive way of spinning this is to see it as an expression of trust. Here is a marginalized person, a refugee. He's down and out. He's had a powerful dream; but it is just a dream. 'If God will be with me…’ is a big if. He puts his trust in the dream.
Are we trying to make a bargain with God? Are we saying, ‘If you're with us, make our dream, our vision, come true. Give us the promised land, the land on which we are lying.’
Or, are we putting our trust in the dream, in the vision that we've been given, and then giving something back to God in return? Is dreaming the impossible dream part of what it means to look for God and listen for God's voice in every place and every situation?