************ Sermon on Genesis 28:10-22 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on September 22, 2013
"Stairway to Heaven"
"Stairway to Heaven." It is the most popular rock song of the past forty years. It has been played over 3 million times on the radio. Do the math: that means it has been played an average of 205 times every single day.
"Stairway to Heaven" is a song about a spiritual quest. The lady of the song is looking for something. She is looking for meaning and hope. She thinks she can buy a stairway to heaven.
In our Bible reading this morning Jacob dreams of a stairway to heaven. I doubt if what some call "Jacob's Ladder" has anything to do with the 70's rock song.
I Man's Greatest Need
A Our Scripture reading ended last time with the darkness of Esau's sin. Esau increased his sin and his guilt by marrying a third heathen wife (Gen 28:9; cf Gen 26:34). This is the result when you don't understand the holiness of God and the depth of sin. As Paul puts it in Romans 1, their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom 1:21).
B Meanwhile, the sun was setting on a fleeing Jacob, and he found a place to stop for the night (Gen 28:11). The setting of the sun is not merely an incidental detail in the story. This detail vividly depicts Jacob's situation: night has caught up with him. He is outdoors, with no shelter from the heat of the sun, the cold of night, or wild creatures. From a literary point-of-view, it would be fourteen years before the sun would again rise for him (Gen 32). During those fourteen years he would be in exile from the Promised Land, he would be in darkness, he would be an alien. It is in this setting that Jacob dreams of a stairway to heaven.
C Look at Esau. Look at Jacob. Look at the 70's rock song. They all reveal to us man's greatest and deepest need. Which is what? Man's greatest and deepest need is a relationship with God. This is Kaylee's greatest need. This is the greatest need of Anna Danzeisen and Wouter Vander Goot. But how does sinful man fulfill this need? That's the question we are facing this morning. Man needs God. But how is this need fulfilled?
II A Tale of Two Stairways
A Do you realize that "Jacob's Ladder" is the second time we see a stairway to heaven in Genesis? The first time was the "Tower of Babel" (Gen 11). That tower was not like today's skyscrapers. Rather, it was a ziggurat, a pyramid temple with steps on the outside that – according to its builders – "reaches to the heavens" (Gen 11:4). Let me emphasize the last part: the Tower of Babel was supposed to reach to the heavens.
Do you know the original meaning of the word "Babel"? "Babel" originally meant "Gate of God." By building a tower to the heavens the peoples of Babel believed they were reaching the home of the gods. Now, do you see what man was doing in building the tower? Man was attempting to find his own way into heaven. Man was attempting to find his own way into the presence of God. Sinful man was attempting to come into the presence of God without an atoning sacrifice for sin. Sinful man was attempting to come into the presence of God without the services of a Mediator. Sinful man thought he could find God on His own forgetting that God needs to seek Him out – as we see with Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen 3:9). Needless to say, the people of Babel failed in reaching God. Instead of building the "Gate of God" they ended with the "Tower of Confusion" – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world (Gen 11:9).
B Now we come to the second stairway. On the run from Esau, outside in the cold, under the stars, after the sun had set, Jacob had a dream.
(Gen 28:12) 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.Unlike the "Tower of Confusion," this stairway did reach into the heavens. This stairway did reach into the very presence of God. This stairway did connect earth with heaven. And, as a sign of this, the angels of God were ascending and descending. They climbed all the way up and then came all the way down. Round and round they went. Think of a double staircase with a rail in the middle. A row of angels were going up on one side, turned 180 degrees, and came back down on the other side. "Jacob's Ladder" reached into the very presence of God.
Jacob was not seeking an encounter with God. Anything but. Don't forget, he was a liar, a cheat, a deceiver, one who took advantage of a situation. If anything, Jacob rightly was scared of God. So, his encounter with God was unsought for, unexpected, undeserved, unearned. He had done nothing in his life to earn God's favor. All he was looking for was a place to lay his head and rest on his journey.
Yet he found something far greater. What the builders of Babel strived for in vain was graciously given to an undeserving Jacob. Jacob was given an encounter with the living God.
But notice the order: Jacob did not come to God; rather, God came to Jacob. Because sinful man is not able and is never able to come to God on his own. The Apostle Paul reminds us that no one seeks for the God of the Bible (Rom 3:11); rather, God needs to seek us out. At Bethel, Jacob was given a glimpse of redemptive history: Jacob saw that God takes the initiative to rescue sinners by coming down and eventually taking some to be with Himself.
C Today's world hates this second stairway. Let me explain by asking a question: What is the number one charge our culture makes against Christians? What is our chief and worst sin in the eyes of 21st century America? We are accused of being intolerant because we claim Jesus is the only way. The world hates us because we give no saving credit to other faiths and religions. Well, the world is right. In saying Christians are intolerant, the world understands Christianity better than many Christians do. They correctly understand that our claims about Jesus make us intolerant. The world hate us for this because, as with Babel, man wants to find his own way to heaven.
Do you remember, in the Gospel of John, the calling of Nathanael as one of the disciples of Jesus? Before He had been introduced to him, Jesus knew Nathanael's name, Nathanael's character, and where Nathanael had been sitting under a fig tree (Jn 1:47-48). In response, Nathanael confessed Jesus to be the Son of God, the King of Israel (Jn 1:49). And, then, in a clear reference to "Jacob's Ladder," Jesus added, "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (Jn 1:51).
In Jacob's dream, on what were the angels ascending and descending? They were making the journey from earth to heaven and back on a stairway. According to Jesus, on what were the angels ascending and descending? They were making the journey from earth to heaven and back on the Son of Man (Whom we know to be Jesus). Telling us what? Telling us that Jesus is the stairway to heaven. Telling us that Jesus is the gate. Telling us that Jesus is the door. Telling us, as Jesus Himself put it,
(Jn 14:6) "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
The only way to God, the only way to heaven, is through Jesus. There is no other way. In fact, all other ways, like the "Tower of Babel," are but "Towers of Confusion."
When it comes to forgiveness and salvation, where do you find yourself? You are either at the "Tower of Confusion" or you are at the cross of Jesus. It is either one or the other. There is no other option. There is no in-between. So, I invite you to come to Jesus even as Nathanael came to Jesus, even as Kaylee has come to Jesus. Come to Jesus because, as baptism and the Lord's Supper shows us, Jesus is the only Way.
III God Comes to Jacob
A Do you notice what happens next? God comes and stands by Jacob and assures him of His presence and His covenantal faithfulness. He came to "bless" a man who deserved no blessing. He came to bless a man who wasn't sure if he would ever come home again. He came to bless a man who was on the run. And God said,
(Gen 28:15) "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 to you."Can you even imagine more comforting words than these to a man who is fleeing for his life and isn't sure if he will ever be home again?
B I know there are people before me this morning who can relate to Jacob's experience. God has come to you when you, like Jacob, were down and out. God has come to you when your world has caved in. God has taken you through dark times and revealed His light to you. God has sought you when you were not seeking Him. God has found you when there was nothing good or attractive about you. God has found you, even as He found Jacob, and has saved you and has blessed you and promises to be with you forever.
God's promise to Jacob is God's promise to everyone of His children in Christ. "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go ..." (Gen 28:15). In fact, He promises to never leave us or forsake us (Deut 31:6,8; Heb 13:5). He promises to be with us always, to the very end of the age (Mt 28:20). No matter what you face, congregation, no matter what your struggles may be, no matter how dark it may seem to you, God is with you. Though your father and mother forsake you, the LORD will receive you (Ps 27:10). That is God's promise.
IV Jacob's Response
A What is Jacob's response to the God Who revealed Himself. What is Jacob's response to the God Who sought him out? We see four responses.
First, Jacob responded in fear (Gen 28:17). Elsewhere in Genesis the other patriarchs do not stress out at all when God appears to them. Jacob alone was astonished and surprised and afraid. Why? Jacob realized he was unworthy – to meet with God, to see God, to be in God's presence. He was admitting – perhaps for the first time – that he was an unholy sinner in the presence of a holy God.
You and I need to come to the same place as Jacob. We need to know and admit our sin, our shame, our unworthiness. Isn't this what the parents said in baptism this morning:
[we] acknowledge that [we and] our children ... are sinful from the time of conception and birth and therefore subject to the misery which sin brings, even the condemnation of GodIsn't this what was said in profession: that you humbly confess you are sinful? We all are sinful like Jacob. We all are fallen sinners standing before a holy and awesome God.
B Second, Jacob responded with a profession – even as Kaylee made a profession this morning. Listen to Jacob's profession:
(Gen 28:17,19) "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven" ... (19) He called that place Bethel ...
The last church I served as pastor was called "Bethel." Do you know what Bethel means? Bethel means "House of God." Meaning what? Meaning Jacob realized that the stairway represents the way to God, God's throne, and heaven. Bethel is where a sinner like Jacob meets with God.
Our Bethel, of course, is no longer a place or a building. Rather, it is a person. It is in Jesus that sinners meet with God. So, what Jacob professed about Bethel is what Kaylee professed about Jesus: "How awesome ... this is the gate of heaven."
Later on in the history of Israel, Bethel would become a place of sin. It was King Jeroboam who set up Bethel and a golden calf as an alternative to meeting with the living God at the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:29). Do you see what happened? The "House of God" was turned into a house of idolatry. A similar thing happened with the bronze snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness (Num 21:9; 2 Kings 18:4). Truly, the hearts of men are but idol factories. We are so fallen and so sinful that we can easily turn the holiest of places and the holiest of things into idols that take the place of the one only true God.
This is a repeated problem in the lives of God's people. We can turn this building or the Lord's Supper table or baptismal font or organ or piano or music or songs into an idol that is more important than an encounter with the living God. We can so easily use traditions and forms to replace true worship. So I warn you, congregation, I warn you about idolatry, about turning ordinary items into a substitute for meeting with the living God.
C Jacob's third response had to do with the stone he had placed under his head as a pillow. Jacob set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it (Gen 28:18).
A pillar is a standing stone, a stone pointing upward towards heaven and God. From this point on standing stones became important in Jacob's life and in the life of God's people. Now, pillars are not the same as altars. Altars are places of sacrifice. Pillars are places of remembrance. Pillars point to great and awesome acts of God and lead people to ask, "What do these stones mean?" (Josh 4:6). Stones or pillars were set up at Bethel, at Mount Sinai (Ex 24:4), at the place where Israel crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land (Josh 4:6).
"Look," says the pillar. "Look at what God has done." Of course, man's evil heart also sets up pillars to heathen gods.
Our Lord's Supper table is a pillar. In the Roman Catholic Church the Lord's Supper table is an altar because they believe Jesus is still being sacrificed every single day. But for us it is a pillar; it reminds us of what God has done for us in Christ. That's why the front of our table says, "THIS DO IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME." It is a memorial. It is a pillar. The baptismal font is a pillar. "Look," it says. "Look at what God has done."
D Jacob's fourth response is a vow of total commitment that the Lord will be his God. Jacob was saying what Kaylee said this morning: that he will love and serve the Lord; that he would give himself totally to God. We see that grace leads to commitment. Grace leads to thankful living. Grace leads to the life of gratitude.
And, as a sign of this commitment, what does Jacob do? He pledges a tithe, a tenth of all he had, to God. Jacob lived before the giving of the Law at Sinai. He was under no obligation to give an annual tithe in the way his descendants were. But the effect of the grace he received was a heart that wants to give something back to God. This was not natural for Jacob. Up to this point in life he thought it was more blessed to receive than to give. But now he was being transformed by grace into a giver.
Congregation, do you see yourself in Jacob? You should. Like him, you are on the run from God. Like him, you are stranded in the dark. Like him, you are unworthy.
But God came to Jacob with His grace. And, He comes to you and me. In Christ, He gives us His stairway to heaven.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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