Last week’s Old Testament lesson introduced us to two brothers Jacob and Esau. These twins were very much opposites in temperament and struggled against one another even in the womb. Although by the law and custom it was the first born who is the heir, the Lord tells the mother, Rebekah, that the older will serve the younger. The Lord’s favor falls on Jacob.
Despite this, we learn from the text that Isaac their father loved Esau more. It isn’t hard to imagine how this would make Jacob feel. From his birth Jacob’s ambition and competitiveness are evident. He was born clutching his brother’s heel as if he was determined to be first. While Jacob is willing to stop at nothing to get what he wants, Esau despises his birthright and hands it over to his brother for a bowl of soup. Jacob isn’t content with just that, however, but he even goes as far as to disguise himself as Esau and steal his father’s blessing out from under his brother.
Cheated of his birthright and his father’s blessing Esau is enraged and prepared to kill Jacob. Rebekah, in order to save Jacob’s life, convinces Isaac to send him away to her brother’s house to obtain a wife. With his father’s blessing, he departs on the long and treacherous journey.
Jacob finally has what he has always wanted. All his life has been a struggle. He has cheated his way to the top, but now he is alone wandering through the wilderness forced to flee from his home. He has lived the life of a loner by his cunning and stealth. His only ally has been his mother and now he is separated from her and will never see her again. This is where our reading today begins.
The sun sets below the horizon. Everything is dark. He lays his head down on a stone and sleeps.
Up until this moment, the text has given us no indication that God has ever spoke to Jacob. Jacob acts in such a way that shows that he is completely ignorant of the God of his father even though he has had God’s favor from birth. He acts as if it were Jacob against the world, as if he had to fight for everything he had. One commentator says that “Jacob’s expectations of encountering Yahweh somewhere between Beer-sheba and
Haran were about as great as Saul’s expectations of
meeting Christ between Jerusalem and !” Damascus
Now however, as he dreams, God reveals himself in a dramatic way. Suddenly he sees a vision of a great ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels descending and ascending upon it and God standing beside him!
The Lord repeats the promise he made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and assures him, “Know that 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 you.”
In the Bible and in much of ancient culture, sleep and the state of dreaming, is considered to be a kind liminal space between this world and the spiritual realm. It was believed that God spoke to people through their dreams.
In our state of dreaming, as our conscious mind sleeps, we become conscious of subterranean, hidden, realities that we are often unconscious of in our waking state.
Ironically it is in his state of unconsciousness that Jacob becomes conscious of the presence of God. He awakens in more ways than one and declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
There is more to the world than meets the eye. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes,
“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
Sometimes we feel alone and forsaken in the world, that God is distant, and that heaven is some place far from earth on the outskirts of the universe, and yet God is beside us and Heaven lies just behind our everyday experience. We can’t normally see this reality and we don’t always perceive it, but we are surrounded with a great cloud of witnesses and innumerable heavenly hosts.
The vision that God gave to Jacob shows that there is an open door between Heaven and Earth. There is a communication between God and man. The angels—the messengers of God—descend and ascend on a ladder whose top is in the heavens but whose base touches the earth.
Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have seen in this vision an image of prayer. We ascend to God with our prayers and worship, we lift up our hearts to the Lord, and we have communion and fellowship in his presence. But God also descends to us. Although God is high above, he has regard for his lowly creatures. He descends to us with his guidance, his correction, his love, and blessing.
What if instead of believing we have to claw our way to the top and step over our brother, we trusted in the power of God’s presence, and were content with his promise and blessing? What if we rested in the Lord as our rock and foundation, even as Jacob laid his head upon the stone? Would we not see and understand that heaven is always open to us and God is beside us?
Jacob’s vision is a symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness. It is an assurance of God’s intention to fulfill the promise he made with Abraham. God intends to make a way for fallen humanity to return to him through Jacob’s offspring.
Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Jacob. In the gospel of John he connects himself with the vision that Jacob saw saying,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Being both God and man Christ is the true bridge between heaven and earth. In his very person the two are reconciled. He is God with us, God beside us. He is the one who descended from heaven in order that we may ascend with him. Through the blood of his cross the doors of heaven are open to cheaters like Jacob and sinners like us.
Alleluia to Jesus who died on the tree,and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me!