Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Jacob's Ladder--A Sermon

photo by Jay Gavin / flickr
Have you ever wondered how God works in our world? Doe he get up on Monday morning and put on a suit and kiss his wife goodbye, drink one last sip of coffee and get in his car, turn on the radio and go to work? Or maybe she sits there in a long, flowing robe pushing buttons marked “rain,” “sunshine,” cloudy,” “tornado,” “summer,” “winter,” “spring.” Or maybe God just sort of works the buttons like a video game and plays the combinations and sees what happens. Hmmm?  But somebody here is ready to say, “No! That’s not the way it happens. God started the thing and has let it go and is off somewhere hibernating while the world runs it's merry course.” But if none of these theories are true--how does God work in the world? That’s our question for today.

In 1985 our family spent a summer in England seeing many things. Toward the end of that trip one of the members of the church where I was working volunteered to take us by car up to Bath. It was a wonderful city. And the centerpiece of the city was the Abbey Church—which somebody has called the finest example of English cathedral architecture that there is. But as we started to leave, standing outside the church, somebody said, “Did you see them? Did you notice the ladders?” “Where?” I said. And pointing up somebody said, “Outside the entrance of the church on both sides. And looking up on both sides of the entrance to the church were these magnificent stone ladders. They were called Jacob’s Ladders. On one side the angels were climbing the ladder upward. On the other side the angels were slowly making their way down the ladder. Some of them were hanging on for dear life and some were gently coming down. Walter Scott said that when he was five years old one of his earliest memories was seeing those angels outside the church and when he looked up they scared him almost to death.

And so our sermon today is about ladders and angels. Angels ascending and descending because, you see, they tell us a great deal about how God works in our world today.

In our Genesis scripture Jacob was in a terrible state. He had made life miserable for his brother Esau. They were as different as two brothers could be. Jacob had lied and cheated and stolen the blessing that was rightfully his brother’s. And when his brother—naive, trusting man, loving his little brother—when he discovered the trickery of Jacob he couldn’t believe it. He kept saying, “Jacob wouldn’t do that.” And when it finally sank in what his brother had done—stolen his birthright which was a big deal—Esau's anger knew no bounds. “I guess I’m just going to have kill him. I don’t know what else to do. I’m going to kill him if it is the last thing I do!”” Trust betrayed is a terrible thing. And when Jacob heard how Esau felt he got scared and ran away. He ran and ran and did not look back.

And so this is background for the scene we find in Genesis 28. Here was a man on the run. It’s an all-too-human-story. It’s a story of how God works in a world filled with sin and failure and sometimes deceit and treachery. 

What do we learn here? Well, we first learn that God comes to Jacob in an unlikely place. The place really had no name. Some though called it Luz. Isn’t that a wonderful name? Luz. How would you like to have come from Luz? It was a no-name kind of a place. The kind of a place that has an ugly sound one that we don’t talk about very often. We know about those kinds of places, don’t we? Sometimes we call it loneliness. Sometimes we call it fear or anxiety. Sometimes we call it numbness and other times we call it sickness. This place could be called cancer or heart attack or doubt or anger or even the death of someone we love. Where Jacob found himself was an awful place.


All the landmarks were gone. Nothing was familiar. Genesis says it was night. And he was afraid--it should be translated scared out of his wits--because he was. The interesting thing about this story is that it says that God came to this unlikely place.

Don’t you sometimes feel a little bit like Jacob? Life may not have turned out as you wished. There may be some things in your life that you just can’t fix—and you hate it. Maybe it’s the middle years of marriage and there’s more blah than anything else. Maybe you have lost somebody that mattered. And you sit here this morning hanging on but the landmarks are mostly gone. And some nights you wake up afraid. And I would say remember Jacob’s Ladder. Out there in the darkness where the wind blew and sand was in his mouth and it was cold and the animals howled just over the hill. And this story says that God came to this unlikely place.

What happened? The Scriptures say that God spoke to Jacob in a dream there in the darkness. Later Jacob would tell others: “There was this ladder and these angels ascending and descending”. His friends would listen and you could see them holding their lips together so they wouldn’t laugh. A ladder? Angels? Up and down from heaven to earth? This poor man must have lost his mind!

What does it mean? You always have to ask what it means because unless you understand the meaning you don’t get the meaning of the text. What does it mean? What does God want us to hear in this passage. It means there is a connection between up there and down here—between heaven and earth. That’s what it means. Between the man who was afraid and who had cheated and lied and done terrible things to his brother. God come all the way down. Jacob was in a deep sleep and suddenly he realized he was not alone. He was not left to his own pitiful resources. Heaven touched earth. His earth. And he was not cut off, even after all he had done. Paul  Scherer one of my favorite preachers used to say, ”On that night of nights (Christmas) God came down the stairs of heaven with a child in his arms.” 

But that’s New Testament. But in Genesis we also find a connection. In the very place where we are. And we have our messengers, too, don’t we? You know them. They came 150 miles to stand by that sad grave the day your Mother died. Somebody brought a casserole when you needed to know somebody cared. Maybe it was a note or a phone call. I had a friend going thorough a terrible time and it lasted for quite a spell. And two or three times a week I would send him those crazy off-the-wall Far Side cartoons. Several years later when I was going through my own difficult time there came a letter in the mail--and he had sent me back every Far Side cartoon I had given him. Angels come in all sorts of ways. No wonder the word angel means: messenger. And suddenly we realize that we are not cut off after all. But we are connected. That nothing really does separate us from the love of God. Not even our meanness and deceptions. For you see, there is this ladder. It comes all the way down to where we are, even in the place where you are today. So we are not left to our own resources, that God. God comes. And this is one of the ways God works in our world.

But there’s more. You see God spoke that night. Not in a booming voice of stereophonic sound accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus. No. God speaks and he might sound like a young Billy Graham or old distinguished Walter Cronkite but I hope not like Rush Limbaugh or Howard Coselle or Donald you-know-who.  No. God spoke differently. He came in a dream. Jacob remembered most of what he had heard the next day. God said the strangest thing. “Lo, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to you.”

Later Jacob would tell the story. And he would say, “You know, it was weird. God said I would not be abandoned. He said, ‘I will be there.’ He said he loved me and he cared for me. Me—the loser and the louse. He said, “You do not have to be afraid.”’ He said something I think I will always remember. He said, ‘I will keep you. Keep!’ “Stand by me’—that’s what the word keep means. “I will protect you like a shepherd protects his sheep. I will watch out after you.”

Out of the silence and the night or the loneliness or the fear or even the nightmares—we are to listen closely to what God has to say. Listen this morning to your life. Listen not to the outer sounds but to the inner sounds. For you see, God speaks to us just as surely as he spoke to Jacob. Underneath the confusion, there is that promise, “Behold, I will be with you. I will keep you. I will be in it All.”  Whether it’s a lousy job or a hospital room or a nursing home—“I will be with you. I will keep you.” Remember the ladder. And remember the words God speaks.

photo by Garrett Coakley / flickr
But there’s more. Remember what happened? Well, Jacob never did become an angel. There never was a halo around his head. But he made a response. Before the story ends he will make his way home. Twenty years had passed since he had fled from his brother. Twenty years since he had seen the face of the one he had betrayed—his brother, Esau. The meeting of those two is one of the most beautiful passages in the whole Bible. Jacob came over the hill. And there was Esau. “I saw his face and I saw the fullness of his face in his life.” He looked at what all the years had done to his brother, Esau. Some of his teeth had come out. His thinning hair was gray. The lines that he himself—Jacob—had helped create were written in the creases of his brother’s face. But Esau came with no weapons. He stood there with his arms wide open. And with a voice of many-colored emotion he say, “Jacob...oh Jacob...how much I have missed you!” And Jacob said, “To see your face is to see the face of God.” And this is as good a definition of reconciliation as I know.

photo by cheng / flickr
It never would have happened except for the ladder and angels and seeds planted deeply in Jacob’s heart. After that dream, Jacob was turned inside out. The scripture say hat he marked the spot that had no name. He called it, “Bethel.” Beth-El—which means “the house of God.” It means this is the place where God comes. Hebrew history says it became the second most important place of worship to the Hebrews next to Jerusalem. The place of no-name or a place some called Luz had become to place where God dwells.  If this is true then let me say to you that live on a street with potholes and disappointments—remember this story. He comes all the way down to where we are right now. The streets where we live. Remember the verse that says: “While we were yet sinners…God came to us…”

Jacob made a vow. He said, “I will love you. I will serve you. I will follow you all my days. I will even give you a tenth of all I have.” And isn’t this a proper response for us all? To make a vow. Or to renew some vow we made long ago. Our promise is as personal as the gospel is personal. It could be, like Jacob, to mend a broken relationship.  It could mean knowing that despite all the hardships of our lives God really is with us. It could mean that it is time for us to do something for someone else. 

I hope that you will remember that at the middle of it all there is this ladder—Jacob’s Ladder. It means that God really does come to unlikely places—as unlikely as where you might find yourself today. He comes all the way down. Just like the cross—it’s rooted in the earth. This time...this place.

And God speaks. What God says is that we don’t have to be afraid. Even after all the dumb and stupid things we have done. God has promised to be with us all the way. And let’s not forget that the ladder reminds us that we can be changed. Maybe we’ll never be an angel but we can be changed and made different. Not once, but again and again. And so, as hard as it is, let us remember there is this ladder. And it comes all the way down to where we are. And that, my friends is enough.
photo by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton, SC, June 26, 2016)

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com

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