Over the past few weeks we have been hearing some of the great stories of our faith, and not just our faith, but that of Jews and Muslims as well. Often called the stories of the Patriarchs, we certainly haven’t neglected the Matriarchs involved either. This morning we have heard another quite familiar story from the Hebrew Scriptures, one immortalized in song and imagination – the story of Jacob’s ladder. Now, the lectionary, or the schedule of scripture lessons we read from week to week, keeps moving quickly through the narratives of the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, so, in the summer months of vacations and lazy Sunday mornings, it is all too easy to miss one of the pivotal plot developments along the way. So bear with me if I recap a little.
Our story so far…
In the days after Noah, God called a man named Abram and his wife Sarai to leave their home and move to a new land. In faith and obedience Abram and Sarai moved as God had told them. God changed their names to Abraham and Sarah and promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky. One problem – they had no children. In the first of many miracles, Sarah became pregnant in her advanced age and gave birth to Isaac.
One day God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, this miraculous gift from God. In faith and obedience, Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, with God staying his hand at the last second, providing a substitute sacrifice instead. Isaac matured and took a wife, Rebekah. Rebekah gave birth to twin boys whom she said had wrestled in her womb. The first one who managed to be born first was red and hairy, named Esau. The other who emerged holding his brother’s heel was smooth and fair, named Jacob. The name Jacob actually derives from a wrestling move, you guessed it – grabbing the heel of the opponent, and had the characteristics of a usurper, an over-thrower.
Esau, the rugged outdoorsman and hunter, was Isaac’s favorite. Jacob, more domestic and subdued, was his mother’s favorite, but he was not the first born son – therefore he did not have his father’s ultimate blessing, nor did he have the birthright that entitled him to all of his father’s wealth and lands.
You may recall the story of how Jacob, egged on by Rebekah, had masqueraded as Esau, wearing animal skins on his arms so his blind father would think he was his brother. Jacob, this usurper, successfully tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing that was due to his elder brother Esau, from whom Jacob had already secured the birthright, leaving Esau with nothing. Esau, perhaps true to his nature, saw this trickery as a declaration of hostility. His anger burned, and he was intent upon killing Jacob. A family feud had begun.
Now their mother, Rebekah, told Jacob to flee to Haran, her ancestral home, to live with the family of Laban, her brother. In fear, Jacob leaves his home in search of another, and it is on the way to Haran that Jacob has the encounter with God we heard in the reading from Genesis.
Jacob, who had seemed to be the winner so much of late, tricking his way into both blessing and birthright, was suddenly a fugitive. He was without a home, forced to leave his family. He may have the birthright and blessing, but he had to flee the family’s land. What good are a birthright and a blessing if you have no land?
One could imagine Jacob filled with fear, regret and probably feeling utterly alone.
You see, we know what happens to Jacob later in the story, but he doesn’t. It’s the not-knowing that can be the most discouraging and frightening. This is so early in the story. If we didn’t know the rest of the story, we might not be so sure that things were going to work out for Jacob.
It is in this place of doubt, fear and uncertainty that God meets Jacob. In his dream, Jacob sees what we have come to call a ladder, but the Hebrew would be better translated as a ramp or even a stairway. On it, angels are ascending to heaven and descending again to the earth.
And then suddenly the LORD is standing beside him. And what does God promise to this fugitive, this usurper? God reiterates the now familiar promise that God had made with Abraham and Isaac before him. God promises this childless, homeless man that his descendants would be like the dust covering the ground.
By appearing to him, God has endorsing Jacob as the rightful heir of the promises made to Abraham, and then God promises something new – I will be with you.
God has promised to abide with Jacob – not forsaking him but guiding him. And God further promised to bring Jacob back to this very place. God has heard the prayer of this fugitive man, a man with only a promise and no land. God would give him land, and children, and most of all God’s presence. In the classical language of the Hebrew Scriptures, God has made a covenant with Jacob.
The symbol of this covenant is this stairway connecting heaven and earth. God used other symbols when previous covenants were made – with Noah God has hung up his war bow in the sky promising never to make war again on the human race, with Abraham God provided an alternative sacrifice so that Abraham would not have to kill Isaac his son. So now God is making a statement about this new relationship with Jacob, symbolized in this stairway.
So what about this ladder, or stairway? Scholars have debated its meaning about as long as any other biblical symbol. What I think is important to take away from this encounter is a vision of Heaven and Earth in relationship. Angels are ascending and descending, drawing closer to God and then drawing closer to humankind. There is a give and take. One scholar even suggested the beings on the stairway represent both our prayers and our actions. We draw closer to God through our prayers, and God communicates to us through prayer as well. Our choices affect God as well, and God interacts with us in return. Again, a divine give and take, drawing near and returning.
Jacob doesn’t seem to do much theological reflection when he awakes from his dream. Indeed his first reaction seems to be fear.
He says he did not know that God was in this place. God’s point may have been to remind Jacob that God indeed was with him and would be with him wherever he went. This omnipresence of God is beautifully recounted in today’s Psalm – “Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”
It seems God is present with the fugitive in the wilderness just as much as God seems to be with a king in his palace.
God interacts with Jacob at this precise moment, a moment full of fear and isolation and doubt. And God reminds Jacob of his promises – he makes sure Jacob knows what he needs to know.
Now God doesn’t tell Jacob everything. Probably Jacob could not bear to know all the details of his immediate future, how he would have to marry TWO wives, and how his 12 sons would quarrel, plunging the family into strife and grief. And they’d all wind up in Egypt!
Instead God told Jacob what he needed to know at that moment, to get him through to the next stop on his journey, and this is a turning point for Jacob.
Remember, these characters don’t know the rest of the story. This is an example of what is known as God’s progressive revelation. Throughout the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, we witness this constantly growing self-revelation of God as God’s relationship with the people of Israel deepens and grows more complex.
Things they couldn’t imagine lay before them – the Egyptian captivity, the Red Sea, Mt. Sinai, the conquest of Canaan, David, Solomon, exile – all of that is in their future. God reveals more and more to Israel about their relationship as the story unfolds. God tells them what they need to know now…
In the ladder or stairway, God encountered Jacob in an unexpected and very intimate way. It was in his fear and loneliness and isolation that God broke through to Jacob. It was as if to say to him, "This very sense of alienation and disconnection you feel may yet lead you to find me in entirely new ways." This is a private, intimate meeting between God and a man. No sacrifice. No audience. Just Jacob and God.
When he awakes, Jacob’s exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” After the shock and fear wear off Jacob turns to praise and blessing and what does he do? He builds a shrine.
We may think, how odd! How culturally quaint! He erects a stone and pours oil on it. He even calls it, Beth-el, which literally means, “The House of God.”
We may think it odd, but we are no different. Jacob set up a stone for remembrance of God’s goodness and promise toward him, to memorialize that space, that encounter and that promise. Over the centuries since God has continued to meet with people, and in response, we have established places to remember this fact about God. We are in one right now, one made of stone.
We are in the midst of remembering and commemorating the founding of this parish, some 150 years ago, when planting a parish was sometimes a very risky venture, especially on the frontier in the wilderness, so far from Richmond.
Of course, when we call buildings like Christ Church the “House of God,” we know that God cannot be contained in a box, and yet what does a house represent? Something that God promised to Jacob, something Jacob did not have – a place where a family dwells. This is “God’s house” in that this is where God’s family gathers, here and in thousands of other places of worship across the planet. This is not to say that we cannot be with God in our homes or that God is not with us wherever we are, but this building this “house of God” represents a marker, in our case a marker made of stone, where we can remember how God has visited us. The great archaic term is an Ebenezer, a stone raised for remembrance. We in this community know all too well what it means to raise stones in remembrance. And yet this church building is a similar monument, but what we recall when we gather here, is the goodness of God over the years, in trials and sorrow and in joy and celebration.
For those on the outside of this or any house of worship may miss the point entirely – until someone has personally experienced God’s presence, this may just seem like a building. But once we have had an encounter with God, whether it be in the quiet of our own hearts or in the love of God’s people that gather here, we know that this place is “special.” It is “set apart” in some intangible but deliberate way. The church was here before us, built by the faithful people of God, and it will go on after we have departed this life. Generations after us will encounter God in this place, hearing God’s promises and teaching them to their children.
God is with us. God has drawn near. We remember this fact in an ultimate sense when we approach the Lord’s Table this morning. God has not forsaken us. We may not know the rest of the story. We may feel like homeless fugitives at times. We do not know what the next chapter holds, but we can trust God – the God who has been with us in the past will be with us in the future. We as the family of God have gathered in God’s house to celebrate that fact and to thank God for his goodness. With Jacob we say, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Amen