Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
You know it’s going to be a bad day- when your twin sister forgets your birthday, or when your boss tells you not to bother taking off your coat. Yes, you know it’s going to be a bad day-when your birthday cake collapses from the weight of the candles, or when the bird singing outside your window is a vulture, or when your doctor tells you that you’re allergic to chocolate, or when the light at the end of the tunnel runs you over.
Jacob was having a really bad day and it had unfolded into a really bad evening and night as well. Frankly, he knew that he deserved it. Jacob had messed up things for his brother, and with his father and mother. Now he was alone and on the run. As his family acknowledged, Jacob had certainly lived up to his name as one who cheats. Deceitfully Jacob took the birthright and a blessing that did not belong to him. His brother Esau consoled himself with a plan to kill Jacob as soon as his aging father Isaac had died. So in fear and embarrassment, Jacob left the family tents in Beer-Sheba and went off to Haran. He was a wanted man dead or alive not just by Esau, but ultimately by God. This journey of that long night of the soul to Bethel was not just about Jacob’s physical survival. It was the beginning of a long, spiritual awakening.
Most of us, I suspect, know what it is like to live life on the run after a really bad day. Some of us are running from our past, trying to escape guilt, regret, failures, disappointments. Some of us are trying to get away from the present, from the pain, losses, and brokenness of life. And sometimes we just want to leave behind the parts of our lives or ourselves we dislike. You may not have messed up as dramatically as Jacob, nor did you need to flee the wrath of your family, but life has gotten out of control. Misunderstanding and circumstances have left you on some pretty lonely, stony stretches between Beer-Sheba and Haran. My friends, if this has been your experience, than the story of climbing Jacob’s ladder is for you.
I imagine we can all tell a story like Jacob, of our life on the run. Bethel may not be a geographical location for you on a map. It is more of spiritual and emotional orientation. Like Jacob you left the familiar voices and faces of home, and the place you have arrived is not quite the promised new refuge of Haran. You might still be there. At the end of a string of bad days, you have found yourself in a place where you feel most vulnerable, but surprisingly it is also a place where you are most open to seeing and hearing God.
Since, the sun had set, Jacob, with nothing more than rock for a pillow, drifted off into an uneasy sleep. While he slept, he had one of the most famous dreams in scripture. He dreamed there was a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. God had never spoken to Jacob before that night- not even in a dream. God had spoken to his grandfather Abraham, yes, and to his father Isaac, but not to Jacob. With each generation God had renewed his covenant, and now in what Jacob considered to be his darkest, most desperate hour, God came to renew the covenant with him- a man on the run.
Jewish and Christian theologians have long debated the meaning of the Jacob’s ladder. One early Jewish scholar identified the place which Jacob stopped for the night, as Mount Moriah, the future home of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others stated that the ladder was the “bridge” ”between heaven and earth. Just as Jacob had seen the angels dutifully ascending and descending the ladder bearing the messages of God heaven ward and earthward, prayers and sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple would become a new bridge, a new means of discourse between God and his people. Martin Luther liked that interpretation. He wrote, “The dear angels take our prayers to heaven and bring back the answers.” Other Jewish scholars taught that the ladder alluded to the giving of the Torah. They said, God gave his Law as a ladder to be a means of reaching heaven through obedience and good deeds.
Christian theologians have wrestled with these interpretations as well. Evangelical scholars have stated that Jesus presents himself as the reality to which the ladder points. The ladder is a beautiful symbol of mediation and reconciliation. Heaven and earth have been separated by sin and Jesus brings these two together again in a joyous reunion.
In the 4th century, however, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, offered another view. He wrote of ascending Jacob’s ladder as the life and duty of a Christian taking successive steps moving upwards. towards excellence. St. John Chrysostom, added to this argument, “And so mounting as it were by steps, let us get to heaven by Jacob’s ladder… by means of virtue, by which it is possible for us to ascend from earth to heaven.”
To even contemplate reaching heaven by perfection and holiness is not easy, and for Lutherans, it is downright impossible. We remember what happed to the nations who were trying to make a name for themselves by building the Tower of Babel. God quickly put that building project to an end. As the saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” For Lutherans, the pursuit of perfection and holiness in order to reach heaven is like travelling to North Dakota. It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.
So my friends, what if the story of Jacob’s ladder is not simply about the mysterious dream of a man who is on the run? What if the story of the angels ascending and descending is not about the deceitful Jacob and his fleeing from Beer-Sheba to Haran at all? What if the story is really a message for each one of us-especially in this time of uncertainty? What if the story of Jacob’s Ladder is really about God and his promise that he will not let you go, and he will be with you always?
No doubt, we have all had midnight hours when our pillow has felt like a rock, and we wished we could go back to February. Certainly it’s not a sin to remember fondly the year 2019. We can all feel burdened by the losses of these last months, and the anxiety of what is still ahead. Every day I wake up wondering whether we will be one day closer to a vaccine- one day closer to that glorious reunion of heaven and earth when can gather together again with family and friends and freely hug, and shake hands. I long for the day when we can gather with loved ones to mourn those we have lost, to comfort those who have been sick, to rejoice over children that were newly born, and to celebrate the gift of love for those who have married. Frankly, I am not on the run. I am waiting for God and his infinite mercy to catch up with me. Never in my wildest dreams would I have considered singing praises to God in song in church to be risky behavior. Like many of you on a bad day, even this pastor needs the sight of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending.
For me that is what Climbing Jacob’s Ladder means. Jacob’s Ladder is a gift to each one of us. And like every ladder, it is there simply begging and inviting us to climb. Climbing the ladder, rung by rung, allows you to see the world from God’s vantage point. You will not reach perfection, but looking down on the world’s great horizon, it makes you realize how unimportant and trivial many of your concerns are in comparison to God’s creation as a whole.
You see, the wonder of the story is not that the Lord came to Jacob; nor was wonder that the angels were ascending and descending the ladder, as magnificent as that may have been. No, the wonder is that Jacob believed that God had actually spoken to him through this dream, and more importantly, that Jacob chose to listen. God shows up and breaks into broken lives every day. That is always happening. The wonder is when we open our eyes and hearts to recognize God’s creative hand all around us, and to see the rungs of the ladder before us aiming us heavenward. The ladder is revealed in the dark places of life when the sun has set. The ladder is there in the stony and desolate places of life, and in the in-between places as well – and in all the places we would never have expected for God to appear. That was what Jacob realized as he cried out, “Surely the Lord in this place – and I did not know it.” You see, there is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still, and no horizon so bleak and barren, that God cannot appear there. That is our hope and God’s promise.
My friends, I don’t know whether you are on the run, or whether, you are simply waiting for God to catch up. Trust that even on those lonely, places that you have found yourself, somewhere between Beer-Sheba and Haran, that God will find you. But be aware, Jacob’s life did not change overnight. He could not journey home that day. He had 20 years ahead of him as a stranger in a foreign land. He still clung to some his old patterns and was even ready to negotiate with God. “If you will keep me in the way that I go, give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I can come again to my father’s house in peace, then I will surely return one tenth to you.” It wasn’t much of a promise, but it was the first step for Jacob in climbing the ladder. Perhaps, that is all the more you can muster in these times as well. But the first step is always important. It is the first rung up the ladder.
On your bad days, let the sun go down and do not be afraid. God’s ladder is and always has been there waiting for you. No matter who you are, no matter where you go, and no matter what the circumstances you face, God has set up a ladder between earth and heaven and it is waiting for you. Then wake up refreshed and with a new perspective and renewed hope, and say, “Surely the Lord is in this place and now I know it.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.