SUNDAY SCHOOL FOR GROWN UPS: (2) JACOB’S LADDER
The Bible, among other things, is a book of stories. Stories are some of the first things we learn as children. Even before we can read, even before we can do math or spelling, even before we can understand abstract concepts, we can absorb stories and find wonder and delight in them.
This is why the stories of the Bible have such an important place in our Sunday School classrooms. These stories are the first way a child can learn about God. Long before a child can understand the doctrines of the church they can experience deep truths of our faith through stories. It’s clear that God knows what he’s doing when he reveals himself to us in story form. He knows that from our earliest days we have been drawn to stories, and it’s through stories that we’ve gained our deepest learning.
The stories of the Bible, like all good stories, need to be read and re-read many times. It’s not enough just to skim over them once or twice. Each time we read them, we discover something more – something new that we didn’t notice before. And as we move through life, we find that the story intersects with our lives in continually new ways. The story never stops teaching us, if we open our minds to the lessons it contains.
One such story is the story of Jacob’s ladder. It’s a perennial favourite in Sunday School – helped, no doubt, by the fact there’s a song you can sing about it: “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder; we are climbing Jacob’s ladder; we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross. Every rung goes higher, higher; every rung goes higher, higher; every rung goes higher, higher, soldiers of the cross.”
As children we learned that this ladder went from earth up to heaven. We knew that made it very special indeed. But what else did this story have to teach us? And what can we learn now - as adults – from Jacob’s ladder?
The story of Jacob’s ladder is really part of a much bigger story – and we can’t begin to understand what Jacob saw on that remarkable night without looking at the larger picture – both what went before and what came after. When we do this we discover that Jacob is more than just a man who dreamed a dream. In fact, we discover that he’s is a rather complicated character. If you were taught, as many of us were, that if you can’t say something nice about someone you shouldn’t say anything at all, then you’re going to have a hard time coming up with anything to say about Jacob. Jacob is not a very good person. He’s a trickster; he’s a deceiver; he’s a crook. He’s betrayed his own brother, and deceived his own father. And he doesn’t seem to feel the least bit guilty about it.
Jacob and his brother Esau were twins – but they had been rivals since before they were born. Esau was born slightly ahead of his brother, and when Jacob emerged from the womb he did so grasping at Esau’s heel. This is why he was given the name Jacob. It means “he grasps the heel” – which was a Hebrew way of saying, “he deceives.”
Jacob’s grasping didn’t end there. His slightly older brother Esau was the firstborn. That made him the heir, and that didn’t sit well with Jacob. Jacob wanted what Esau had. He didn’t want to settle for being second in line. And he saw his opportunity one day when Esau came in from the fields desperate for something to eat. Jacob was cooking stew, and he said, “I’ll give you this stew in return for your birthright.” Esau was so wracked with hunger that he agreed, and Jacob claimed his birthright.
But even that wasn’t enough. Encouraged by his mother Rebekah, Jacob also schemed to get his father Isaac’s blessing. This was a blessing that Isaac, in his old age, wanted to give his eldest son, Esau. But Rebekah and Jacob conspired to intercept that blessing. They came up with a plan that involved Jacob impersonating his brother. This could only work because Isaac’s eyesight had failed. One day, while Esau was out hunting game for his father, Jacob went in and pretended to be Esau. He put on Esau’s clothes, covered his smooth skin with goatskins, and brought the same kind of food that Isaac was used to having Esau bring him. Isaac was suspicious. Something didn’t seem quite right. But in the end the ruse worked, and Jacob received the blessing that was intended for Esau.
When the truth was revealed, there was an almighty uproar in the household. Esau was fit to be tied, and Jacob had to flee for his life. His mother suggested that he hide out with his uncle Laban in Haran for a while. So Jacob headed out for the far country, where he faced a very uncertain future. On the first day of his journey, as night fell, he decided to lie down to sleep – out under the open sky – out in the middle of nowhere. The only pillow he had to put his head on was a rock. While he slept, he had a dream. And this was no ordinary dream. In this dream he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven; the angels of God were going up and down on this stairway.
That was it – that was Jacob’s ladder – although ladder may not be the best word to describe what he saw. We think of a ladder as something you use to change a light bulb or clean the eaves troughs. But this was something more substantial than that. It was probably more like a pyramid, with a long staircase on it, reaching from the base of the pyramid right up into the sky. It was solid enough that Jacob could see angels travelling back and forth on it - going up and down. It wasn’t one-way traffic. The angels were going in both directions.
But what did all this mean? Was it just a strange vision – an extraordinary glimpse into the heavenly realm? Or did it have something to teach Jacob? Did it contain a message that Jacob needed to hear?
When we look at the story more closely, we realize that Jacob didn’t just see a ladder, he saw God standing above the ladder. And God had something to tell him. God said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth... All people on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 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.”
Why, of all people, is Jacob the one to whom God says this – Jacob the deceiver – Jacob the crook? According to our own measure of things, Jacob should be punished for his greed and his trickery. Perhaps to some degree Jacob’s exile from his family is a punishment. Alone and in the middle of nowhere he may well feel that. He may also feel that he’s not only cut off from his family, he’s cut off even from God. And yet here in the pitch darkness of the wilderness God comes to him and speaks words of blessing. Despite everything he’s done, God comes to him in mercy and love.
God knows all about Jacob. God’s eyesight has not failed. God hasn’t been fooled by a disguise involving a brother’s clothes and goatskins. God is fully aware of Jacob’s deceptive actions, and he’s fully aware of the greed in Jacob’s heart. And yet God still comes to him in the wilderness. He comes to him to promise him blessing upon blessing. He comes to him to tell him he is with him and will never ever leave him.
Jacob doesn’t deserve any of this. If he deserves anything it’s the exile he’s experiencing. And he’s still going to have to endure that exile, for quite a long while. It’s going to be many long years before he’ll be able to go home. He’s going to have to live with the consequences of his actions for some time to come. But despite all this, he now has an incomparable blessing to sustain him. He has the blessing of knowing that God is with him and is never going to leave him. He has the blessing of knowing that he will never be cut off from the presence of God.
This is the symbolic meaning of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob’s vision reveals a stairway linking heaven and earth in the very place where he experiences his greatest feeling of loneliness and desolation. The angels going up and down on the stairway demonstrate there is traffic between heaven and earth, in both directions. In other words, heaven is not shut off from the affairs of earth. There is a link between heaven and earth, between time and eternity, between God and humankind. At the very moment when Jacob undoubtedly feels all alone in an uncaring universe, God gives him a glimpse of the deeper reality lying behind his earthly existence. For a moment the sky is ripped open to reveal the unseen spiritual dimension of reality. It’s as if Jacob has been in the audience at the theatre, when all of a sudden a big hole has been torn in the scenery, bringing into view all kinds of previously unseen stagehands, and even the director himself. All this has been going on behind the scenes, and Jacob has never realized it. This only lasts a moment, and then the hole closes up again, but Jacob will never be the same, because now he knows that God is present, unseen, in every moment of his life.
There are many times in life when we are inclined to believe that God stays shut up in heaven, far away from our lives, with no involvement whatsoever with what is going on here on earth. We feel God is distant, uninterested and uncaring. That feeling can become even stronger if we think of the sinful things we have done, and the greed that fills our hearts. That can convince us that God is deliberately ignoring us because he’s mad at us - because we’ve offended him in some way.
The story of Jacob’s ladder shows us this is absolutely not the case. God isn’t walled off behind heaven’s gate, oblivious to what’s going on here on earth. The dividing line between heaven and earth is not nearly as solid as we might assume. Heaven and earth are interconnected in ways we can only begin to imagine. Jacob’s ladder wasn’t a one-time event. Instead it was a glimpse into what goes on all the time – it’s just that we don’t see it. God is not just up there in heaven – he’s down here alongside us – even though we’ve done nothing to deserve that – even though, like Jacob, we’re quite good at making a mess of our lives. God has come to be with us – not to fix every mess that we’ve created for ourselves, but to surround us with his loving presence, and to promise us that he will never leave us.
Jacob’s ladder shows up again in another story – a story found in the early verses of the gospel of John. This is the story about Philip bringing Nathaniel to see Jesus. Nathaniel is a bit skeptical of what he’s heard of this new teacher from Nazareth, but Philip says, “Come see for yourself.” When Jesus sees Nathaniel coming, he declares, “Here is a true Israelite.” Nathaniel wonders, as do we, how Jesus knows enough about him to make such a statement – and Jesus hardly clarifies things when he explains to Nathaniel, “I saw you while you were sitting under the fig tree.” But this is enough to make Nathaniel realize there is something absolutely unique about Jesus, and he blurts out, “Teacher, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” And then Jesus says something really mysterious. He tells Nathaniel, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that. I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Heaven open? Angels ascending and descending? That’s exactly what Jacob saw. Only this time, there’s something different about the ladder. The ladder isn’t the one Jacob caught a glimpse of. This time the ladder is a person. It’s the Son of Man. It’s Jesus himself.
This is an image that really stretches our imaginations. It’s pretty much impossible for us to picture what it would actually look like. But the symbolism is obvious. It’s Jesus who has now become the bridge between heaven and earth. It’s Jesus who has become the link between God and humankind. In Jesus God came down from heaven and met us here on earth. He came to be with us wherever we are, in whatever desolate and lonely places we find ourselves. We are never alone, because in Jesus God is always with us.
It doesn’t even matter that we have made a mess of our lives. It doesn’t even matter that we have been deceitful and greedy. It doesn’t even matter that we have grasped for what does not rightfully belong to us. God’s grace is bigger than all of that. God accepts us, broken and flawed as we are, and draws us to himself.
When Jacob woke up from his dream, he was struck by a life-changing realization. He said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” If the Lord could be in this place – in the bleak and lonely wilderness – then he could be in any place. If God could be present here, then he was present everywhere. This new awareness led Jacob to do something he had never done before – he worshipped God. He took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar. He poured oil on it and called that place Bethel, which means “house of God”.
Jacob was still in exile. He was still fleeing for his life. He still faced a hard future. None of his circumstances had changed. But he had changed. The awareness that God would always go with him meant that from that day forth he would live with one foot in heaven. Jacob had not been able to climb up to heaven himself – but, by the grace of God, heaven had come down to him. /p>