These words indicate the beginning of a new life in the patriarch Jacob. They tell us of the moment when, as it would appear, his soul awoke in him. And they surprise us in some degree, as such awakenings of spiritual capacity often do; for Jacob's recorded antecedents were not exactly such as to lead us to expect the dream and the vision, and the awakening which are described in this passage.
He had cheated his brother out of his father's blessing; he was leaving his father's house in consequence, to avoid this brother's threatened vengeance; and as he slept at Bethel he dreamed his dream of the ladder set up on earth and reaching to heaven; and he saw the angels ascending and descending, and the Lord standing above it, and he heard the Divine voice charged with promise and with blessing: "I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest." This, taking it in all its parts, is a very surprising narrative; and the point in it on which I desire to fix your attention for a moment is this, that this vision startled him into a new consciousness -- "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." It was the beginning of a new life.
That vision, we may be sure, never entirely faded. He was never afterwards the same man he had been before it. It had awakened the divine capacity in him; and it remained with him as a constant reminder of the presence of God in his life, to protect and to inspire him -- "I am with thee, and I will keep thee in all places whither thou goest." Such a voice as this in a man's heart gives his life a new quality; it puts him in a new relation to all common things.
We may well believe that it was this more than anything else which drew Jacob apart from the common heathen life around him, from that day onwards. It was this which, in spite of all his weaknesses, defects, and failures in life and character, gradually raised him to a different level.
It was this which finally culminated in transforming him from Jacob the supplanter to Israel the prince of God.
So far as appears, he had gone out from his home, as so many go forth in all ages, a dull soul, though with latent capacities, his thoughts bent on securing his personal safety and his worldly success. But he woke in the desert after that vision, with the seeds of the new life rooted and growing in him.
It is this moment of awakening on which I desire to fix your thoughts -- this moment of his transfiguration; when he saw and felt a heaven above him, and yet very close, with its ladder of angelic communication, which he had not so seen or felt before; the moment when a new consciousness flashed through his soul, and illumined unsuspected chambers in it, stirring new thoughts and new aspirations. He woke up to be a new man henceforth, moving in a new presence, and having always in his ears the voice of a Divine call.
Do you ask why I dwell on this familiar history, or desire that you should contemplate and realise this change in the young man Jacob? It is because there is just the same soul, the same capacity of higher life in every one of us: in some it is awake already and transfiguring their life; in others still latent, sleeping, undiscovered.
I dwell on it because it makes and will make all the difference in the world to your life whether in your case this capacity is awakened or not. This, then, is what I have to postulate as giving a value beyond the power of words to describe to every soul amongst us.
It bids us recognise and keep always before us that in every common life, of child or man, even in the most worldly or the hardest, the most frivolous, the most cynical, the most sensual, or the most degraded, there is latent, it may be altogether unfelt and disregarded through long years, giving no sign of its presence, it may be, it often is, overlaid, trodden down, even at the point of death, but still there, this living soul with all its possibilities. It is within every one of us, stamped with the image of God, and charged with unimagined possibilities.
And it must be obvious that the whole difference between any two lives, between your life and your neighbour's life, may depend on this awakening of the soul in one of you and its not awakening in the other.
Of the two brothers, Esau and Jacob, I suppose we are all drawn at the outset to Esau; our heart goes out to him, as we read, the impulsive, the impetuous, the affectionate, and we feel a corresponding dislike of Jacob's craft and cunning, and selfish calculations. There can be no doubt, we say, which was the meaner character to begin with.
But neither is there any doubt why it was that it came to be written, "Jacob I have loved, but Esau have I hated." The one was just the child of the world around him, yielding to its temptations, living by its standards. The soul in him never awoke, so as to transfigure his thoughts and purposes. The other is a man of Divine visions, inspired with the sense of a Divine presence and a Divine purpose directing him.
Nowhere do we see more clearly than in this narrative how great a change may come to any of us, if the unawakened capacities of our soul are touched by the breath of some uplifting inspiration.
As we read of this contrast between Esau and Jacob, and their destinies, we feel -- and we feel it all the more because Jacob to begin with seems to be made of such common clay -- we feel what a transforming power in a man's life this awaking of the soul may be.
A life which is without the inspiration that takes possession of us in the moments of this awakening, and is consequently without these visions that flash before the soul as it awakens, a life that is not deeply stirred by spiritual hopes or Divine thought, or the call to new duty, remains in one man a selfish and worldly life, in another a frivolous, in a third a sensual life. But the very same life -- and here is the practical value to us, here is the hopefulness of such considerations -- the very same life, when the breath of God's spirit or His penetrating voice has stirred and roused the soul in it, is felt to be transformed. The man is born anew.
"There is nothing finer," some one has said, "than to see a soul rise up in men, which amazes the very men in whom it rises." They are surprised to find that these new capacities were in them, unnoticed through their careless days, yet in them all the time. This birth of the new life, with all its promise of new tastes, new ambitions, new thoughts, new purposes, may indeed come to you without your feeling all at once how great a thing it is. At first it may be nothing more than some vision of the possibilities of your life, or some electric flash of new consciousness that runs through you, or the sharp pang of remorse for some sin or some neglect, or the flush of shame or repulsion as you think of something or other in your life, or the glow of some good resolution to begin some new life or new duty, or take some new turn, or pursue some new aim. You hardly think perhaps of this as the awakening of your soul. It may never have occurred to you to think of it as being just as sacred a thing as was Jacob's vision at Bethel, as being indeed the work of the same Divine spirit.
But let us consider it a little further. Whatever it is that is thus stirring in your heart, it comes and it comes again; it lingers in your thoughts and feelings; it haunts, it impresses and awes you; it rises before you suddenly and stops you from some sin, or, if it fails to stop you, it turns the pleasure for which you craved into wretchedness; or it encourages and consoles you in some hour of weakness or sorrow. I suppose there is hardly one of you who has not had some such experience as this. And if you ask. What is it? It is, I repeat, the awakening of the soul in you -- nothing less than this -- and happy is it for you, if you recognise that it is the soul striving to win its proper place in the regulation of your life.
When Moses saw the vision of the burning bush, and suddenly felt himself on holy ground; when Elijah heard the still, small voice calling, "What doest thou here, Elijah?" when Saul, on his way to Damascus, fell to the ground conscience-smitten, crushed, blinded, rebuked; when the child Samuel heard the Divine voice calling to him in the darkness of the night; -- in each case it was the awakening or the reawakening of the soul -- the uprising of the spiritual capacities, the vision of the higher life -- and so exactly with all of you. Are you not sometimes conscious of the uprisings in you of a spirit calling upon you to recognise the angels' ladder that connects your life also with the heaven above us?
If so, there is this further thing to note about such moments of experience.
This feeling of some spiritual capacity in you, this call to some higher view of life and duty, this uprising of the moral sense and the repulsion towards the lower forms of life which comes with it -- this is God's personal gift to us, and we pray that you may possess it early; for it is not only a new consciousness, it is itself a new power in your life.
You cannot have it, feeling its presence and hearing its suggestions, and debase your life in any way, as you might have done, but for its presence. It is so very true that, in the life of the Spirit, looking up means lifting up. As the plant turns to the sun, it grows towards the sun; as it looks up to the light, it grows towards the light; so it is with us. We feel that we are sons of God, and we tend to become so. Through some influence or other, we awake to a vivid consciousness that God has created us in His image, endowed us with Divine capacities, and this consciousness becomes a purifying and inspiring force in our life, and it is a new life in consequence.
Pray that such influences may prevail around you here, and that you may hold them fast until they have blessed your life.