July 23, 2017 7th Sunday of Pentecost
Genesis 28:10–19a Romans 8:12–25 Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43
I loved the story of Jacob’s Ladder when I was a kid. I thought it was really neat that Jacob saw this ladder that stretched up to heaven with angels going up and down it. And we learned the song Jacob’s Ladder in Sunday school so I imagined the angels going up and down the ladder singing the song. And I thought: Wow, I bet that Jacob was a really good person because he got to see the ladder and the angels. And God told him that he was going to inherit all that land that was around him. And he was going to have a million descendants who were going to be all over the earth. Jacob must have been one of the bestest people in the whole world!
Well, when you’re a kid you don’t read the whole Bible. You read the kid’s Bible with all the difficult, questioning stuff taken out of it. When you get older though, you start to read the adult scripture, and that’s when you get shocked by the actuality of who those neat interesting characters of your youth are.
Jacob is not a typical hero. In fact I’m not so sure that we could classify him as the classical hero at all. Apparently Jacob was constantly fighting with his older twin brother Esau to the point of tricking him out of his birthright and becoming the heir to his father Isaac’s inheritance. Things got so bad between the brothers that when their father died, Jacob had to flee for his life back to his uncle’s house in Haran. (It was during that trip that he saw the Ladder.) Jacob then settled in Haran, married two of his cousins, took two of their handmaids as concubines, and fathered at least 13 children – 12 boys and one girl (that we know of). Eventually he tricked his father-in-law out of a substantial number of his goats and sheep and returned to his homeland, and wrestled with an angel along the way. When he arrived he made peace with Esau and was able to continue the rest of his long life.
When I was a preteen and found out the true character of Jacob I was really disappointed. I decided that I didn’t like Jacob. He was a trickster who was always looking for a way get the better of people to benefit himself. I’m sure that he was a very lovable trickster – I think we’ve all known people like that. They’re charming, and they can play on your feelings, and they talk their way in and out of anything. You kind of admire them, maybe even like them a little, but you can never really trust them.
So why would God reveal part of his power to Jacob? Why would Jacob be privileged to see a place where God broke through the barrier between heaven and earth, and then have God stand beside him and tell him that not only was He the God of his father and grandfather but that Jacob, the person who had tricked his own brother out of his birthright, was going to inherit all the land surrounding him? Not only that, but Jacob’s family was going be so numerous that they were going to cover the earth and be eternally blessed. Not only that, but God was going to protect him wherever he went, and bring him back to this land, and make sure that all those promises were fulfilled.
In my opinion Jacob didn’t deserve that. I was very mad at the Bible when I reasoned this out. Mind you, I wasn’t mad at God – it’s hard for me to get mad at God unless it’s really personal. But I was mad at that Bible story.
It wasn’t until I was older, and I read a few other sticky stories in the Bible, that I learned that Jacob wasn’t the worst character out there. And in fact if you look at the entire history of Jacob there’s a maturity that happens to him. He evolves from a know-it-all punk into a mature family man, who really tried to go home and clean up the mess he made in his youth. And he also finds out that children are your parent’s revenge when his own kids commit a series of spectacular mess-ups. At the end of his life we see a man who has learned his lessons, sacrificed a lot, only wants the best for his family, and is willing to take huge risks to ensure that they will survive.
So knowing that I realized that when Jacob sees the ladder and the connection between heaven and earth, and encounters God, that it is a turning point for him.
First of all, he experiences physically a connection to heaven. In the Bible we read about these connections; maybe we also read about them in other books; we think about them; we talk with other people about them; but all those are intellectual exercises of the possibilities of what they are. But Jacob’s dream was a physical reality to him. He wakes up from that dream and says: “Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
That’s not someone who wakes up and says, “Wow, that was a weird dream.” Jacob woke up convinced that the dream was real. And from that moment forward he started to live out his life as if he was connected to God. It takes a while, but he starts to be more responsible, more considerate of people. It starts to be no longer about him alone. And he starts to take a long-range, not a short-range view.
You see redemption is for everyone. Do I like the Jacob before that dream? No – he’s a spoiled little mama’s boy. Do I like the Jacob after the dream? Not right away. But as his story progresses I see the influence of his encounter with God and his struggles with his family issues and his own personality. They are not my issues, but I can still relate to them because I have family issues too and I have personality struggles.
It raises an issue for me. I don’t think I have ever behaved with the amount of selfishness that Jacob did, but would I be any more worthy than he was to have that dream?
Would I be a “good” candidate to witness a connection between heaven and earth? I have experienced some mind-blowing things, and the only explanation that I have for them is that God was there and the barrier between this earth and His heaven was very thin. And a few laws of physics might have gotten bent. When I told one of my stories to a psychologist he asked me, “So what’s your explanation for that?” I said, “I don’t have one. There is no logical explanation for what happened.” And as Sherlock Holmes said: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And the only truth I have left is that God was in those places making the impossible happen.
But really, how am I, with all of my own imperfections, any worthier than Jacob? None of us are perfect. And this one of the lessons of Jacob: God works with imperfection. God works with really imperfectly people to make things happen. God punches holes in the universe to show us that this world is not the be all and end all – there is another realm out there that we are connected to, and it is glorious and wonderful and the dwelling of God, and we have access to it and knowledge of it even if we are not heavenly beings.
But it’s not accessible to us unless we are willing to believe and accept that it is there. Remember that when Jacob woke up from his dream he didn’t brush it off by saying: well that was weird. Instead he accepted that God was real, and from that point on he allowed God to come into his life and to change him.
God is punching holes in the universe for us all the time, but are we accepting them as God in our life, and are we willing to believe that earth is meeting heaven? Do we accept that God is working in our lives when a friend calls with the exact information that you need? Do we accept that God is working in our lives when we are given an unexpected gift? Do we accept that God is working in our lives when difficulties happen, but they turn out to be just what we need to move on to something better?
Do we allow ourselves to change like Jacob did? Do we allow our experiences that God gives us to mold us into something better? Do we follow the prayer: Lord, I am not what I was, and I am not yet what I will be, and I thank you for that.
Where in your life has earth met heaven? How have you encountered God? Did you let Him change you? How is He redeeming you right now? If he hasn’t or isn’t, ask Him to show up as soon as possible and show you His glory. If you accept it, like Jacob, you will be changed for the better, and be changed for the good.