Tag: jacob’s ladder

Sermon: Even When We are Unaware, God is Still at Work!

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:

  1. 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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 —

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.

Sermon: Seeing Greater Things

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow from John 1:43-51 about Jesus calling Nathanael.  There’s a great story from David Augsburger’s book at the end. I hope you have a wonderful Lord’s day!

Seeing Greater Things

John 1:43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

 44Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.45Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

 46“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. 
      “Come and see,” said Philip.

 47When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

 48“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. 
      Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

 49Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

 50Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” 51He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

A Skeptic Gets The Call

In today’s passage, we read the story of the second group of disciples that Jesus calls to follow him.  The first group according to John’s account, consisted of Andrew who immediately found his brother Peter saying, “We have found the Messiah.”  

The next day, Jesus finds Phillip, who like Andrew and Peter is also from the fishing village of Bethsaida.  Phillip in turn runs to find Nathanael.  The exchange goes like this:

Phillip to Nathanael: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Nathanael (with a scowl on his face): “Nazareth! Can any good thing come from there?”

Phillip: “Come and see.”

Nathanael, who is called Bartholomew by the other gospel writers, follows Phillip reluctantly.  When they approach Jesus, Jesus himself calls out so that all around can hear:

“Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing to hide.”  

To Nathanael, this sounds like a sales pitch.  Like someone is trying to butter him up.  Like a very insincere greeting.  It must have because Nathanael doesn’t say, “Thank you.”  Or “Please, don’t go on so. I’m just a fisherman.” Or anything.  Instead he asks Jesus a question that is loaded with skepticism:

“How do you know me?”  Now let me translate this from the original Greek for those of you who might not get the exact meaning.  Nathanael is really saying, “You don’t know anything about me, why are you flattering me?”

For Nathanael it was kind of like meeting someone at a party whom you have never seen, who starts telling you about your house, and your kids, and your job, and what the neighbors are saying about you.  How do you know me?  Where did you get all that?

I am sure Nathanael expected Jesus to be caught off guard.  After all, who doesn’t like a compliment?  And, most people are polite, even if the person praising them is overdoing it a bit.

Not Nathanael.  He puts Jesus on the spot.  But he’s not prepared for Jesus’ answer.  Rather than stumbling around, Jesus says, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.”  

(“Oh.  Oh, wow!”)  Because about that time, Nathanael is remembering that he was stretched out under the shade of a gigantic fig tree, taking a nap when Phillip interrupted him.

Nathanael’s brain is now working overtime.  Quickly he calculates all the people he remembers passing him as he rested under the fig tree:  

(“Well, there was an old woman with a water jar.  A noisy kid with a stick running and hitting rocks on the path.  An old man shuffling back to his home.  That was it!  No one else could have seen me.  How in the world does this Yeshua guy know I was under the fig tree?  My own family didn’t know where I was.  Wait.  No.  Yes.  NO!  YES!  The Holy One, blessed be his name, told him.  Wait.  That makes Jesus…what?….the Messiah!”)  

And all of a sudden without thinking further, Nathanael’s skepticism falls from him like a cast off coat, and he blurts out, “Rabbi….you…you are the Son of God, you…you are the King of Israel!”  

Now the tables are turned.  Jesus is clearly in charge of this conversation now.  He speaks to Nathanael, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.  You shall see greater things that that.”  

Then, after a pause, Jesus adds, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

One Story Leads To Another

End of story.  Except what in the world does it mean?  What could Nathanael see that would be more amazing than Jesus telling him where he had been only a few hours before?  And how had Jesus done that?  It had to be God, so at least Nathanael had settled that question.  

But now Jesus is saying, “You think that was amazing? You haven’t seen anything yet.”  And then Jesus says three very interesting things.  

Jesus could have stopped at any one of these sentences —

  • “You’re going to see heaven opened.”  That would be amazing, but he keeps going.
  • “And angels ascending and descending.” Remember angels?  Every time they appear people are afraid and fall down.  That’s amazing, but he keeps going.
  • “On the Son of Man.”  Jesus here means himself, but how can angels ascend and descend on him?  

Here’s where Nathanael has us beat.  Remember when Jesus said of Nathanael, “Here’s a true Israelite in whom there is nothing to hide?”  

I don’t think Jesus ever calls anybody else an “Israelite.”  There was no Israel anymore.  That was Old Testament.  The northern tribes, gone since 721 BC.   Now they all lived in Judea.  Or Galilee. Or Samaria.  But, not in Israel.  

But, remember where the name “Israel” came from?  God gave it to Jacob after Jacob wrestled with God one night.  Okay, stay with me now because the payoff is coming.

Jacob, remember, was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham.  That’s how God always identified himself.  “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

But Jacob, before he wrestled with God, had a dream one night.  He had cheated his brother, Esau, out of his birthright, and had fled from his homeland to escape Esau’s anger.  Actually, Esau wanted to kill him.  

One night as Jacob is on the run, he stops to make camp.  He takes a stone and using it for a pillow, falls asleep. Which if you used a rock for a pillow might make you have strange dreams, but the dream Jacob had was a doozy.

He dreamed that he saw a stairway, a ladder, with its feet planted on the earth and the top reaching into heaven.  The angels of God were ascending and descending on it in his dream.  Then, God appears standing at the top of the ladder or staircase saying, “I am the God of Abraham and of Isaac.”  But not of Jacob.  

Then God makes the same promise to Jacob that God made to Abraham and Isaac.  “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and I’m going to give you the land on which you are lying.”  Now, at that point, God becomes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because God has now made the same covenant with Jacob that he made with Abraham and Isaac.  

Jacob wisely, and fearfully, recognizes that God is in that place.  He takes the rock that was his pillow and uses it to make an altar.  He pronounces the name of the place, Bethel, which means “house of God.”  And, he worships God there.  

Jacob is so overcome he remarks, “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  He had seen heaven opened.  

The New Jacob’s Ladder

When we were in the youth department at our church, we sang,

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross.”  

And that’s it.  The new Jacob’s ladder, the new connection between heaven and earth is Jesus.  The angels will ascend or descend based on the word of Jesus.  The will of God will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven” because of the work of Jesus.  The connection between heaven and earth that was severed with man’s disobedience has been restored in Jesus.

No longer is heaven off-limits, or earth a struggling chaotic mass.  Now heaven and earth are again joined.  And they are joined by Jesus.  

The cross that is planted so firmly on Calvary’s hill reaches into the heavens.  God meets his people on that ladder which only Jesus can climb.  God meets his people in person.  Renewing the covenant, embracing the fallen, choosing the scoundrels, the outcasts, the tricksters, all of whom have no chance at seeing into the gates of heaven without someone to bridge the gap.  

The Ladder At Work Today

So, how does this new Jacob’s ladder, a.k.a. Jesus, work today?  Most of us haven’t seen any angels coming and going, or had any dreams of stairways to heaven.  

In his wonderful book, Dissident Discipleship, Dr. David Augsburger tells this story:

David Shank, a pastor in Belgium, followed a translator into a room filled with Greek, Spanish, and Serbian miners.  At a minute’s notice, he was to tell the Christian story. 

“Fellows, would you agree to play a game with me?” he asked. “Let me try to tell you about yourselves.  If I am wrong, you stop me.  But as long as I tell the truth, you let me go on.  Agreed?”  They nodded in skeptical consent.

“You’ve never had a real chance to get ahead in life until now, so every day you risk your lives to go down into these dirty Belgian mines to give your children a better chance, right?”

“Yes, that’s right, go on.”

“So you work like a slave, day after day, so your kids won’t have to do the same.  That’s your ideal. You get paid on Saturday. You stop at the cafe for a drink or two, a few hands of cards and a couple bets, and when you get home your wife looks at what’s left of your pay and says, ‘Not enough for the week.'”

“Yeah, go on.”

“When she criticizes you, what’s even worse, you know she’s right, you get mad at her; and you lose your head and hit her?”

“Right, but how did you know?”

“Then you feel ashamed, and you ask yourself, ‘Why did I do that?”


“Then you can’t sleep and you lie there thinking ‘My kids are no better off than before, I’ve failed them,’ And you get mad at yourself, at the filthy job, then at your wife, your kids, the whole world.  After you fume for awhile you say, ‘Next week will be different.’ So you go back to the dirty mine.”

“Yes, that’s about right.”

“And when you’re a mile or two under the earth, you start to wonder, ‘What about all the gases down here? What if there’s an explosion? What about a cave-in? What then? What about the wife and kids? What about me?’ But there’s no one to talk to about this.  You’re alone and you feel rotten.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Do you know how I know all this?”

“No, that’s what we want to know.  You’re no miner. How did you get to know about us?”

“I got it out of this book.”

“What book?”

“It’s called the New Testament.  It tells about our hopes and God’s hopes for us.  Do you want to hear the rest of the story?”

“Yes, tell us the rest.”

“It says that at the very point  where we fail, where we betray our ideals and we are guilty and afraid, God wants to help.  And if we accept that help, there’s hope for our children.”  (Dissident Discipleship, p171-173.)

To see hopeless lives connected to the throne room of heaven by Jesus himself is a far greater thing to see than where some skeptic is taking a nap.

We follow Jesus sometimes because we’re amazed at the mystery of God.  We should follow him because we are amazed at the miracle of God’s love.