This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 19, 2020, from Genesis 28:10-19. It’s the story of what we call “Jacob’s Ladder,” but there’s much more to it than that. The link for the audio of the worship service containing this messsage is at our church website here.
Even When We’re Unaware, God is Still at Work
Genesis 28:10-19 NIV
10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran.
11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.
12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
13 There above it stood the Lord, and he 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. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
A Familiar Story with a New Twist
This is a familiar story to us. It’s the story from which we get the song, “Jacob’s Ladder.” But, before we go any further today, let’s stop right here because we need to remember the backstory behind it.
The story begins with Jacob leaving Beersheba to go back to his ancestral homeland called Harran.
But Jacob doesn’t just leave Beersheba for no good reason. He has to leave because his brother Esau is planning to kill him.
And why is that? Because these are brothers who don’t get along. These are brothers who, even though they are twins, are as different as night and day.
Abraham and Sarah’s son is Isaac. Isaac grows up and gets married to Rebekah.
When Isaac’s wife Rebekah gives birth, she gives birth to twins. Esau is born first. But his brother Jacob emerges gripping Esau’s heel, as if he – Jacob – is trying to pull Esau back so he can be first.
But Jacob is not the first born, which bothers him to no end as he grows up. To top it off, his mother, Rebekah, likes Jacob best because Jacob stays home among the tents.
Isaac likes Esau best because Esau is a hunter and an outdoors kind of guy. Plus Esau is ruddy and hairy, and a real man’s man. So, Esau and Jacob have not gotten along since the day they were born.
And, it gets worse as they grow up. One day Esau returns from hunting and he is famished. Jacob just happens to be cooking some stew, and Esau begs him for a bowl of it before he dies, which was a bit dramatic, but Esau was really hungry.
So, Jacob says, “Okay, you can have some stew, but give me your birthright.” Now the birthright is the right of the firstborn. It conveys the firstborn’s right of inheritance and blessing.
Have you ever been really, really hungry? Well, imagine that time when you were really, really hungry and multiply that by maybe a zillion and you get how starved Esau thought he was.
So, Esau says, “Why not? What good will my birthright do me if I’m dead?” Again, a little dramatic, but he was really, really hungry.
But it gets even worse.
After Jacob takes advantage of Esau, and gets Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew, he and his mother, Rebekah, conspire to deprive Esau of one more thing.
Their father Isaac is really old and blind by now. Isaac knows that he is going to die soon. So one day, Isaac asks Esau to go hunting, and then make a meal for him of Esau’s famous stew so he can eat it one more time before he dies.
Then, after he has eaten, Isaac says to Esau, that he will give Esau the blessing of the firstborn, which is rightfully Esau’s
Rebekah, the mother of both Esau and Jacob, overhears Isaac asking Esau to go hunting and them cook him a meal.
However, she wants Jacob to get the blessing from Isaac, so she calls Jacob, and fills him in the situation.
Rebekah instructs Jacob to go get a couple of goats, which are in the pens close by. And, Rebekah cooks a meal for Isaac of his favorite foods.
Jacob sees a problem with Rebekah’s plan because he and Esau are so different both in body and personality. Jacob asks Rebekah if Isaac won’t know that he’s not really Esau when he brings his father the meal.
Rebekah replies, “I’ve got a plan for that.” Or words to that effect. And she does have a plan.
She grabs a set of Esau’s clothes, with the scent of the outdoors on them, and gets Jacob to put them on. Then, Rebekah puts goat skin on Jacob’s rather hairless arms to fool Isaac, just in case blind Isaac wants to touch the son that he thinks is Esau.
By the way, nobody ever said that families in the Bible were perfect.
So, Jacob – dressed in Esau’s clothes and with his arms covered with goat skin so that he feels hairy — goes into Isaac’s room with the stew his mother Rebekah has prepared.
Isaac, who is blind, says, “Well, that didn’t take long.” Isaac, although frail and blind, isn’t stupid. He knows how much time it should take for Esau to hunt, find, and kill wild game, and them cook it to prepare his father’s meal.
When questioned about this, Jacob says, “The Lord your God gave me success!”
So, Jacob adds another lie to his deception, and blasphemously brings God’s name into his plot as well.
Then Isaac does what Rebekah and Jacob feared he might do. He asked Jacob, who is posing as his brother, Esau, to “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” So, the old man suspects something!
Jacob comes closer, and Isaac feels of Jacob’s goatskin-covered arms. Isaac says, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the skin is Esau’s.” So, after he eats, Isaac mistakenly pronounces the blessing of the firstborn on Jacob.
No sooner than Jacob has left his father Isaac, Esau returns, brings Isaac the meal he has prepared, and asks for his blessing. Realizing he’s been tricked, Isaac tells Esau that he can’t give him the blessing of the firstborn because Jacob already has it. (No one seems to know why Isaac cannot correct this injustice, but he can’t.)
Esau is hopping mad and says, “After my father is dead, I’m going to kill Jacob.” Rebekah hears about this. Realizing that Jacob had better leave home quickly, Rebekah tricks poor old Isaac into sending Jacob away to get a wife.
Which is why Jacob leaves Beersheba and sets out for Harran. Okay, let’s get back to our story.
Jacob flees from his brother Esau, and travels about a day’s journey where the Bible says Jacob reaches “a certain place.”
Well, of course he reaches a certain place, but why doesn’t the writer tell us the name of this place? Be patient, because the name will be very important. But to Jacob, this is just any old place, and he stops for no better reason than because it is nighttime.
He then beds down for the night.
Have you ever had a pillow that just didn’t work for you? Maybe it was too hard, or too soft, or too lumpy, or to big or too small. Well, imagine using a rock for a pillow.
Jacob apparently was not as picky about pillows as I am, because even with a rock as a pilIow he goes right to sleep. No wonder he dreams strange things.
Of course, dreams can be important in the Bible. Later on in Genesis, we’ll see how Joseph, one of Jacob’s future sons, is given the gift of interpreting dreams.
Listen to the writer of Genesis describe Jacob’s dream:
- Jacob had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
Okay, this is pretty straightforward. This is where we get the idea of “Jacob’s ladder” and the song by the same name. Of course biblical scholars now tell us it was probably a stairway that curled around and up, like the stairways on the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia — Like the Tower of Babel was supposed to have been, in other words.
In any event, the stairway connects heaven and earth. And God’s messengers — because that’s what angels are — are going up and down from heaven to earth and back again. But here’s the important part of the dream, revealed in verse 13:
- There above the stairway stood the Lord, and he 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.
In the ancient world, ziggurats were built to get as close to God as possible, because ancient people believed God was at the top of the ziggurat. Which is why the earth’s early inhabitants tried to build the Tower of Babel. And so, in his dream, Jacob sees this familiar image of the stairway reaching up to heaven, and God is at the top looking down.
God identifies himself to Jacob with a familiar Old Testament formula: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”
Of course, Isaac is Jacob’s father, but the idea here is that Father Abraham is the first and key figure. That phrase, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be repeated often.
Let’s read the next verses again to see what God promises to Jacob.
- Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.
- I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Here God promises Jacob five things:
1) God will give Jacob and his descendants the land on which he is lying. (v.13)
2) Jacob’s descendants will be numberless, live everywhere, and be a blessing to all peoples. (v.14)
3) God with Jacob and will watch over him…(v. 15)
4) God will bring Jacob back to this land…(v. 15)
5) God will not leave Jacob until God have done what He promised to Jacob. (v.15)
These are the same promises God has made to Abraham and Isaac, and now Jacob. So, God’s covenant with Abraham continues through Abraham’s son, Isaac; and, now through Isaac’s son, Jacob.
Obviously, for Jacob, who is running away for his life, this is very reassuring. And, Jacob, not previously known for great spiritual insight, understands that God is present with him.
In verse 16, the Bible puts it this way —
- When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
Finally, the crafty, cunning and not too likable Jacob meets God! Jacob thought he was running away from his brother, but he was really running right into the plans and purposes of God.
Jacob found out that no matter where you wind up, or why you got there, God is there, too. God still has a plan for us, no matter what the present circumstances of our lives are.
My father is 100 years old. Actually, he likes to say that he’s a 100 and a half, because his 100th birthday was this past January.
He was a pilot in World War II, and he flew C-47s, dropping paratroopers, and delivering cargo. He flew in England and North Africa from 1941 until he had to come back to the US in 1943. He had to come back because he was malnourished and developed physical problems that kept him from being able to captain his plane and crew.
Because his group flew at night and other odd hours, and the mess hall was often closed when they returned from a mission, he was literally starved of the nutrients he needed to stay healthy and fit.
He was sent back to the states and hospitalized for over a month, where he recovered. After he recovered, he was sent to Missouri where he became a flight instructor for new pilots until the war was over.
The day after he was sent back to the states for medical treatment, the group of C47s he had been a part of came under heavy fire. The plane that he had piloted was shot down and the entire crew was killed. If he had not been sent home, he would have died along with his crew.
Dad told me that story several years ago. Then he said, “I didn’t know it at the time I got sick, but God was with me and preserved my life.”
Just like Jacob, it is often in looking back on our lives that we realize, God was there and we didn’t even know it!
But Jacob also realized that God not only was with him in his dream, but that God was still with him. Jacob uses the present tense when he says, “God is still here and I didn’t even know it.” Here’s what happens next.
- Jacob was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
- Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel….
Jacob recognized that he was in the presence of God, and that the place he so casually picked to camp for the night was a sacred place, the gateway to heaven, the house of God.
And so Jacob named that “certain place” Bethel, which is made up of two words. Beth means house, and el means God. Beth-el means “the house of God.”
And then Jacob takes his pillow, the rock on which he had his dream, and erects it as an altar. He pours oil on it as both a gift and symbol, and marks the spot as the place where he met God.
Jacob would go on to marry, have twelves sons, have his name changed to Israel, and have the tribes of Israel bear the names of his sons. But that story is for another time.
The point of this story for us today is that even in the darkest moments of our lives, God is still present with us.
Like Jacob, we have to stop, and allow ourselves to experience God’s presence.
Jacob experienced God’s presence in a dream — a dream that was so real, so vivid, that Jacob knew unmistakably that he had been in God’s presence.
Have you ever wondered if God was aware of your situation, If God knew what you were going through?
The story of Jacob and his dream – the story of Jacob’s ladder – is the story that God is still at work in this world.
God’s messengers are constantly moving between the presence of God and His creation, carrying God’s messages to those who need them.
And, the primary message is this – God still has a plan for us and God is still working in our lives to fulfill His promises.
Let’s pray together.
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