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This story about Jacob’s ladder is one of those passages, one of those Biblical stories that we know so well. It’s such a famous story that perhaps we might need to re-visit it every now and again to see what spiritual truths God has to say to us through it.
And we need to begin by recapping the context of this story and what is happening leading up to it.
You might remember the story. Isaac was an old man and was dying and was going to give his blessing to Esau. But Jacob, Esau’s brother, tricked his father into giving him the blessing instead. Esau, understandably, was livid about this because he was to inherit nothing from Isaac as a result. So, in 27:41, Esau says, “The time to mourn my father’s death is near; then I will kill Jacob.” Rebecca, Esau and Jacob’s mother, overheard what Esau said and warned Jacob and told him to go and stay with his uncle in Haran until Esau’s anger cooled off.
So Jacob leaves home and flees for his life. And that’s where we pick up the story. Jacob is running for his life; he is scared, tired, lonely, he is carrying deep pain inside, feeling guilty, feeling remorseful for what he has done. Jacob is in a dark, dark place. Essentially, Jacob needs a healing experience from God and this passage goes on to tell us something of what it means for us to receiving that healing touch from God in our lives.
There’s three things I want to focus on in this regard…
1. We are all on a Journey into God’s healing
For all of us, life is a Journey. We come from God and we are journeying back to him. In 1 Peter, we are reminded that we are aliens and exiles in this world. We are all on a journey from the cradle to the grave. But at times in our lives, we seem to lose our way on our journey.
As the story unfolds, we see that Jacob is suffering the same predicament. The story starts, “Jacob left Beersheba and started towards Haran. At sunset, he came to a certain place and camped there.”
The wording of this is so important for us. Jacob was on a journey: he was going from Beersheba – to Haran. But when the dream happened he was just in a “certain place”. A place with no name; an anonymous area. His journey had come to a temporary halt. He was languishing, tired, over-wrought in some anonymous part of the country. Jacob was not expecting anything to happen. He had no desire to meet with God at this point in his life. His only concern was survival. He was running away from his brother Esau who wanted to kill him.
And more than that, when he saw the Ladder, it was in a dream. Jacob was asleep and there is no other time when we are least in control of our destiny than when we are asleep. And so this picture of Jacob reflects the life situation of some of us, perhaps. Tired, scared, with the spirit of adventure knocked out of us. Perhaps some of us do not feel in control of our own destiny…we are on our journey through life and we currently find ourselves at this certain place, which is an uncomfortable place to be. And we may be feeling just too tired to do anything about it…or not know what to do about it or maybe feel unworthy to have God sort us out…Like Jacob, we find ourselves at this certain place of discomfort.
If that describes your situation, then there is good news…
2. God meets us on that Journey
The crunch point of the passage is that God chooses to meet with Jacob and brings healing to him and encourages him into a life of faith. There is an encounter here between Jacob and God. And that, ultimately, is what healing is: it is a personal encounter with the Living God. But what might that encounter look like? This story of Jacob tells us two things.
i. That our encounter with God will be all about grace, grace, grace
This story of Jacob has a beautiful picture in it – the picture of a stairway from heaven to earth and there are angels ascending and descending. It’s a beautiful picture of how, through grace, heaven comes down to meet us here on earth most completely, of course, in the Person of Jesus. It’s a beautiful picture of an incredible truth: that earth can be linked to heaven: that there really is a “Stairway to Paradise”: a way for us to have a relationship with God that is real and alive.
The truth of the Christian message is simply this: through the grace of God, revealed and completed in Christ, humanity and God are united forever. Healing and Salvation are made real to us through Jesus. Because that Stairway to Paradise is Jesus himself. He is the Stairway. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It is through Christ that the healing power of God comes to us.
ii. The central feature of this encounter is God’s Word to him
Now this may seem like an obvious point but it needs stressing. This story is often known as Jacob’s Ladder. But, actually, the Ladder is not the important point at all. What completely revolutionises Jacob’s life is not the Ladder but what God says to him. The Ladder is just the Introduction. What counts is the promise that God makes to Jacob.
In this passage from Genesis 28, there is a 3-fold Promise from God to Jacob: The Promise of Presence: vs. 15: “I will be with you”; The Promise of Protection: vs. 15: “I will protect you wherever you go”; The Promise of Blessing: vs. 14: “Through you I will bless all nations”. The Word of God to Jacob, the Word of God to each one of us today is the same: God promises to be present with us through our trials in life, God promises to protect us in our most vulnerable times, God promises to pour out abundant blessings on our lives. Healing begins when we receive this word from God, when we encounter God’s presence, protection and blessing.
We have thought about him being on a Journey. We have noted that God meets with Jacob on his journey. Thirdly, and finally, we note that Jacob makes a response.
3. Jacob’s Response
The reality is that, when we are encountered by God, we must make a response to him. Jacob, in this story, responds in 3 ways…
First, this anonymous place, no-man’s land, this place becomes crucial, vs. 18: “Jacob got up early the next morning, took the stone that was under his head, and set it up as a memorial. Then he poured olive oil on it to dedicate it to God. He named the place Bethel which means House of God”.
The place where people find God becomes a holy place where God is worshipped. Rather than just being a place to hang out, it becomes holy ground. People often say, “Ah, church – it’s just a building”. That is not true. That is not what the Scriptures teach. Because this place in which we sit today is holy ground. Not because some Bishop has consecrated it or because the Church of England says so…This is holy ground because, for 1000 years, people have come here and been encountered by God and received his healing touch in their lives. Century after century. Decade after decade. Year after year. Day after day. This place is a place of encounter – it is holy ground.
Jacob begins this story and we are told he is in ‘a certain place’. But by the end of the story, he has been encountered by God and the place has a name: Bethel: House of God. So church can be for us a place of transformation, a place of healing, a place of encounter between us and the Living God.
First, then, Jacob responds by marking the place of encounter.
Second, Jacob responds by making the promises of God personal to him.
In verses 14 and 15, God had said: “I will be with you, I will protect you, I will bless you”. But by verse 20, Jacob had reflected on those promises and internalised them and made them personal to himself. Vs. 20: “You will be with me, you will protect me, you will bless me”. He makes a personal response to the promises of God.
But actually, there’s something interesting in the way Jacob phrases this in verse 20 and 21: he uses the word, “If…” “If God will be with me…then the Lord shall be my God…”
Jacob seems not to be absolutely sure. He is stepping out in faith here. Jacob is still a man full of doubts and I think that is of real comfort to us because I know that I am full of doubts, and perhaps you are too…
Personally, I love a faith that begins “If…” Because a faith that begins “If…” is a faith actively looking for God to do something. It’s a faith that is ready to receive, awaiting the activity of God as proof of his love and grace.
So this passage reminds us that we are all on a journey in life and for this moment, we inhabit this space, this place. This is not an empty or meaningless place; it is holy ground – because this is the place that God has chosen to encounter with you today. And he meets with us and offers us the promise of his presence, the promise of his protection and the promise of his blessing in our lives.
Like Jacob, we may still be full of doubts – but that’s OK. Our doubts do not negate the promise of God in our lives. The promises of God are greater than our doubts. God’s words are as true to us today as they were to Jacob all those years ago: “Remember, I will be with you and protect you wherever you go…I will not leave you until I have done all that I have promised you.”
God waits on us today and wants to encounter us here today. And so we come with our faith, and with our doubts and we ask God to bless us and to journey with us so that we know his blessings this day and for evermore. Amen.