‘A Stairway To Heaven’

Sermon by Terry Macham
scripture reference: Genesis 28:10 – 19a

A young boy runs into the house yelling, “Mom, mom I’ve just knocked down the ladder that was leaning against the side of the house!”  His mother replies with considerable irritation, “Why tell me about it?  Go talk to your father.”  Her son answers, “ Oh.  Dad already knows.  He’s hanging from the roof by his finger tips.”


The song we have just sung – We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder – I’m sure evokes a certain amount of nostalgia in many of you. It can be a fun song to sing.  However this good old camp-fire song is theologically unsound and is also now considered somewhat politically incorrect.  The repeating line “soldiers of the cross” is  thought to be particularly insulting to many non-Christians especially those of the Islamic faith.  Many muslims would consider ”Soldiers of the cross” to be synonomous with “Crusaders”  – invading armies of foreign infidels.  And so another Sunday School favourite from a bygone era slowly disappears from our repetoire of songs. ( And perhaps rightly so.)

Genesis is without doubt my favourite book in the bible.  It is filled with fascinating stories and larger-than-life characters that over many centuries have become an integral part of our Judeao-Christian cultural heritage. Tales of bronze-age heroes and scoundrels; and often they are both one and the same person – can be found throughout this ancient text. It has been said that the plot of every story ever told or written; every motion picture ever made has its basis somewhere in the book of Genesis.

The people that populate this first book of the Bible often display tremendous faith in God as well as great courage in the face of sometimes overwhelming adversity.  But then at other times they are subject to many of the all too human failings that even today many of us also share.  Greed, anger, avarice, envy, struggle for power sometimes overwhelms them, bringing tragedy and failure into their lives.  Yet, God is constantly with them, forgiving them, leading them ever forward.

Now Jacob, the subject of today’s Old Testament reading is a case in point.  Jacob is one of Isaac’s sons. Isaac in turn is the son of Abraham, a man of great faith whom God singled out for a mission…to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Abraham was far from perfect himself but when compared to Jacob . . . well . . . . .

So . . .  Jacob is Abraham’s grandson; that is Jacob is ONE of Abraham’s grandsons, and to be honest, he is not the one most grandfathers would go around bragging about.

For Jacob is considered at best a scoundrel and a thief. The reason Jacob is alone in the middle of the wilderness with only a rock for a pillow is because he is running away from his twin brother Esau, who wants to kill him. Why? Because Jacob has stolen everything from his brother. He robbed Esau’s inheritance and then he stole their father’s blessing…in essence, he has taken away his brother’s future, by tricking their blind and ailing father, Isaac. So now Esau in a rage wants to kill Jacob.  And, their mother, Rebecca (not an innocent bystander either for she has encouraged Jacob to do all these terrible things to Esau.) Rebecca has wisely suggested that Jacob take a long trip to visit her family in a far country and find himself a wife there.

So, now all alone in the wilderness, Jacob falls asleep with a rock for a pillow and has a dream, an incredible vision of a ladder or more correctly, a staircase running from heaven to earth.  Travelling on this heavenly stairway are angels, God’s messengers.  Mortal humans do not climb Jacob’s ladder as implied in our song; only God’s angels do.

“Jacob’s Ladder” is a subject that over many centuries has inspired great works of art and literature. Many songs, both secular and sacred have been written using the theme of Jacob’s vision of a mystical stairway, a gate to heaven.  We just sang such a song. Even the 70’s heavy metal rock band, Led Zeplin had a hit song called “Stairway To Heaven.”  (I played a portion of Zeplin’s “Stairway” in the prelude this morning.)

Jacob’s Ladder is a phrase used to name a variety of diverse objects that include a flowering plant, a child’s toy which has ancient origins, as well as a high voltage device for producing a continuous train of large sparks which rise upwards in an arc.    You may recall seeing this  bizarre electrical apparatus as a scary prop in Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory in the old black and white movies of the 1940’s.
But getting back to Jacob and his dream . . . Now, if you were Esau, this dream of Jacob’s might be just enough to send you over the edge.  Here you are.  You’ve always done everything right, you’re stuck at home supporting your sick, aging father and your scheming mother ( who does not seem to like you very much), and YOU get no dream, no vision, no promise, no blessing from God – nothing but work, hardship and abuse. Yet your dispicable twin brother, after cheating and lying his way into getting all that rightly belongs to you. . . the minute he lies down for a nap, the heavens open, and God turns up with all sorts of blessings and promises for him. It’s not fair! Indeed, it is not fair at all.

But God does not appear to Jacob to be fair or unfair; to reward one brother over another.  God appears because Jacob desparately needs help. God has a plan for Jacob (and Esau too for that matter). God shows Jacob a different way of living, a possibility of a bright and shining future for himself, his family, his descendents and the rest of humanity.

And God, standing beside Jacob says to him, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”

Well, at this point in his life, Jacob wasn’t even a blessing to his own family, let alone all the families of the earth. But God has predicted a very different future for Jacob.

But Jacob must change his ways. . . . . and this will take a while. But it is here, in this place, at this time that the change begins, and to mark that beginning, Jacob makes a vow.

“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

Then Jacob annoints with oil the rock upon which he slept, making a shrine from it and names the site, Beth-el which means “The House of God.”

Some years later Jacob returns to his homeland with his own family and with considerable wealth but also with much trepidation, for he fears his brother Esau will certainly kill him and harm his family as well.  But Esau has long since forgiven Jacob for his past misdeeds and the brothers are re-united with great joy and celebration.

This story of Esau and Jacob and his encounter with God is in many ways similar to Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. A story of two brothers at odds with one another;  one a steadfast, hard-working, good man, dedicated to his family while the other, a selfish spendthrift, a  lazy good-for-nothing drunkard.  Yet their father sees no difference between the two.  He loves both his sons equally as does God with both Jacob and Esau. As does God with us all.

We may never have an occasion to sleep on a pillow of stone nor have visions of a mystical Stairway to Heaven, still just like Jacob when we face troubled times, we too might someday, somewhere awake and think, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!”

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