THE MESSAGE OF JACOB’S LADDER
Genesis 28: 10-19
There are cases of fact and of fantasy, of fiction and of non fiction, of Biblical and non-Biblical writings which include stories about mortals getting to Heaven and returning to tell about it, or seeing it’s splendor in a dream. Some of you will remember that almost 30 years ago, Dr. Raymond Moody, in his book LIFE AFTER LIFE, chronicled patients who, by medical measurements, had stopped living. Then, as if by divine decision or personal willpower, they came back to life with amazing stories of well-being, and light, and a tunnel, and warmth, and all the things that would make people’s fear of death dissipate. They had more living or work to do before they were finished on earth. On the paranormal side, the Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore film GHOST looked at how a man who dies is able to communicate with his still living soul mate, an extraordinary experience that was either grace given or love driven. Although the film is fiction, I can tell you I have heard from more than a couple of people that they experienced a loved-one returning from the dead, (not resurrected, but reappearing) in powerful images in the corner of a room, a bed crushed down in the shape of a body, or the feeling in one’s soul of the real presence of the loved one. In the Bible we have the famous vision that John had which he called his Revelation from God. In Revelation 1:10, John told his readers: – “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day…” “In the Spirit” meant transported into the presence or realm of God;” “the Lord’s Day” means Sunday. At a time like this and in a place like this, John experienced a vision of and the presence of his Holy God; not unlike the prophet Habakkuk described ages before (that we heard in the Call to Worship) and Jacob described in today’s passage. In Luke we also find in the 16th chapter the story of a rich man who goes to Hades and is tormented in the flame, who hopes to come back and warn his brothers to repent and avoid his anguish. Yes there are prophesies, dreams, visions, and circumstances that take us into the presence of the Holy, and sometimes they can foreshadow a place of burning torment. Today, however, we are focusing on the times when Heaven touches Earth or when mortals get visions of Heaven; it happens when a bridge, a ladder, a cross, or a Savior connects the seemingly great divide between Earth and Heaven. But sometimes I think I see little slivers of Heavenly light here on Earth, if I just have the eyes to see it. Then I don’t think Heaven is light years away, but very close, a new dimension of living. Have you too seen moments of Heaven on Earth? Of course some of the most famous accounts of God’s connecting with someone on earth are from the stories of Moses on Mount Sinai, of Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, of Mary the mother of Jesus, and today’s text of Jacob’s ladder. Perhaps a little recap is in order so we understand today’s story at a deeper level than a children’s song. One Rabbi recaps the story this way:
“When Jacob flees his father’s house [heading for his Uncle Laban’s] house, his mood, we have reason to suspect, is fearful and depressed. True, Jacob has succeeded in deceiving his father into thinking he was Esau, and thereby gaining the ‘innermost blessing’ intended for his brother. But at some level this must have been a [hollow] victory, for Esau has now resolved to kill him and so he must run for his life! His first night on the run, Jacob stops in a field and goes to sleep, his head resting on a stone. One can imagine his dejection—this somewhat spoiled son of a loving mother now using a rock for his pillow. He has a vivid dream, the first dream recorded in the Bible. Jacob sees a ladder set on the ground, its top reaching to the sky, and angels going up and down its rungs.” [Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, BIBLICAL LITERACY, William Morrow, p. 55-56.]
In that dream, our holy God blesses this rather unglued and fretful young man, with words that come to Jacob in that dream: “Remember Jacob, I am with you and will protect you wherever you go; I’ll bring you back to this land and not leave you until I’ve done what I’ve promised you.” [28: 15]. Jacob awakes, as you may awake from either a dream or a nightmare, wondering whether it really happened or not; had he really encountered God and had God really promised protection for him? He is exhilarated from the holy encounter and, there with his head on a rock, his body on dirt, and the sound of wild animals howling around him, he proclaimed “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it! This place is awesome! This, this place looks like a field, but this is the house of God!” (and perhaps picking up his rock pillow and standing it on end in the manner of a pillar said) “and this is the gate of Heaven!!”
I hope you have noticed Jacob shifting the real presence of God from his dream to reality! He does not refer to the dream as awesome, it is the physical place where he had curled up that is now awesome, because God connected with him there; he erected what the Jews would later call a “standing stone,” an obelisk erected at sights around the Holy Land where God came down and touched the life of someone. The presence of God is often accompanied by fire, such as in God’s appearance on Mount Sinai, but sometimes people are so moved by their encounter that they consecrate ground where it happened, setting it apart from a common use to a place where holy things occur. As you enter the sanctuary of Westminster from the front, you go by pillars that remind you God has touched lives and God is still touching the lives of those who enter here. On common pews with wood backs, a hungry or troubled soul can be visited here by the voice of or an angel of God, and be renewed and guided before entering the world again. As one prepares for worship as Jacob did, silence is only intended to be broken by the sounds of the world around us. And as fire enters the sanctuary in the mode of a lighted taper, it is a reminder of the presence and promises of God. God is with us even now, still wanting to bless and guide us. It takes a relinquishing of our will to God’s will, and a willingness to trust in God to carry us through the dark or uncertain days.
We read a few verses later that Jacob held God to his promises, but in return, Jacob also kept his promises: he put God first in his life, and from that day forward, he returned a tithe, the first tenth of all he got,, to say to God: “You kept your promises; I will keep mine.” Jacob, who did not have all redeeming qualities, at least had some. Perhaps the most important reason God picked Jacob was his unfailing willingness to keep his promises to God as God had kept them toward him. If God could turn Jacob into an example a promise keeper, how much more could God do with our surrendered wills? God is in this holy temple right now! It does not mean that God will vanish as you leave this sanctuary. But Jacob honored a place where he especially felt God’s presence. This also is such a place. Lanny Wolfe characterized it beautifully in the chorus of his contemporary Christian song: “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, I can feel his mighty power, and his grace. I can hear the brush of angel’s wings, I see glory on each face; surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” You may have other places where you have been awed by God too: it may have been a cathedral or an out of the way chapel; but it may also have been a night on a youth retreat or at a summer camp; or while walking on the beach or even in your very own room. Many who were here before me erected this standing stone of a church building here on what was once a piece of palmetto scrub land on South Peninsula Drive. If you have found God elsewhere, you need not build a huge sanctuary there (although you could!) but at least, leave a mark, a pillar, a candle, a book, a visual reminder to yourself and others that you felt the awesome presence of the Holy One; made manifest in darkness or rain, night or day, rainbow, or sunset. Long ago God in Jesus Christ came down and touched countless people with the power and reassuring presence of God. I have been in God’s presence here, and in our chapel, and on mission trips, and retreats, and hospitals, and in my room. You have too. Be mindful of the Holy places, and the Holy God, who is willing to, at times, even bend the rules of science to let you know that the Lord of Heaven and of Earth, still cares very much about you.
Jeffrey Sumner July 20, 2008