In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jacob son of Isaac son of Abraham was on a journey, a trek that would see him transformed from the conniving trickster he was into the pious patriarch that God had planned for him to be. At the beginning of the old testament reading today, we hear simply that “10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran.” A lengthy journey, this. Haran was over 500 miles away; it was far to the north. Jacob was not on a simple errand to go get a wife for himself... He was in many ways fleeing home. Why? He was the younger son, yet he had tricked his elder brother Esau into despising his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup (Gen 25:29-34), and had tricked his aging father Isaac into bestowing the blessing for the firstborn son and heir (Gen 27). Isaac and Esau were both enraged, but what was done was done. The birthright involved inheritance of property: the flocks and herds and servants and so forth… yet more importantly, this birthright blessing meant being part of the messianic line. God had promised that through them all nations of the earth would be blessed… the messiah was to be born in human nature from the house and lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and now… Jacob.
Yet even as he traveled, surely Jacob had to wonder. Now what? He’d prized cleverness, he’d gotten the inheritance, the naming rights, so to speak, but what good was that really if he had to flee in fear of Esau, and seek his fortunes and future and family so far away? What had he gotten himself into? What was this blessing and covenant from the God of his fathers?
Weary from a day’s journey, Jacob rests. Fearful of what the future held, disappointed with the inheritance. What was this blessing all about if it didn’t provide him with even the creature comforts of a pillow, a place to lay his head? “11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.” All too often this is the temptation for our own fallen flesh, to measure life in terms of creature comforts, food and shelter, wants to satisfy our fleeting fleshly needs. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. The paralyzed man in the gospel reading needed far more than a few years of healing for his body. So also in the grand scope of things, you need more than a brief respite from your poor miserable condition.
If you remember that pyramid – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I think it’s called – the claim is that our first need is shelter in the world, then food and drink, and then all sorts of other creature comforts and finally some kind of vague self-actualization. Where would our relationship to the Lord God be? Since we know that the Lord God created heaven and earth, that He upholds it by His mighty power, that not a sparrow falls without Him knowing, our need for a right relationship with the Lord God is fundamental, even more fundamental than food or drink or shelter or even pillows on which to lay our clever little heads. If God is for us, who could be against us? Which matters more for Jacob – having wealth and property from his parents, or the continuation of the messianic line, through which the savior Christ the Lord would come.
So it is that the Lord has set this clever wretch Jacob on the long road, so that His will to save our fallen race would be done. While Jacob sleeps, God confirms and re-affirms to him the blessing of His covenant promises. Verse 12 continues: “12 And [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.””
This vision of the ladder serves as a reminder. Ladders are for climbing – either going up, or coming down. Yet it is not given for sinful man to climb his way up to heaven by force of our own cleverness or good intentions, as if we could even get on the first rung. Our prideful human race tried that with the tower of babel, and it failed. Our salvation does not come from building our way up to heaven, but rather in that heaven comes down to earth.
Christ Jesus the Lord came down from heaven, ‘descending’ down to take on our human nature and live among us as God incarnate. He Whose human nature is the offspring of the house and lineage of Jacob, He was raised up on the cross to atone for our sins descended into the tomb, and ascended again on the third day, raised for our justification. Yours sins are forgiven. So doing, Jesus the Messiah fulfills the promise of mercy made to our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All nations were blessed in Him. His holy precious blood is sufficient to forgive the sins of all the world, this precious gift to be received through faith in Christ alone.
The connection between heaven and earth is not shaken, because the Lord God stands on high to hold is steadfast. If you can imagine it… when we work, we usually brace the ladder from below, but in this case, the sturdier ground and the steadier hand is from above, where the Lord God holds us and all the earth steady from Heaven above. So also the certainty we have of salvation in Christ Jesus is held fast by the power and promise of the Lord God.
He is the the ladder to heaven, the way of entry to the blessed paradise by the wood of His cross. In the gospel of John, Jesus said: “7b “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. … 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” (Jn 10:7,9). And again He says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
You who hope to go up to heaven, or even who have any plan to stand with any kind of uprightness here on earth, leave off the hopes of tricking God through cleverness or show. Even the most guileful or clever guys like Jacob, for all that they could fool their families, could not deceive Him. He Who knows the heart, Who knows every hair on our head and every trick up our sleeve. Wrestle with Him and His Word, praying at all times for the Holy Spirit to continue sanctifying you in the true faith.
That’s the renewal we need. Even more than Jacob, who left Beersheba and came back a changed man, we need the renewal of the Holy Spirit. We heard in the Epistle reading [from Ephesians 4] how we are being taught by the Spirit “22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” In the work of the Spirit, we can take heart, have courage, knowing that our sins are forgiven. The promise of life and joy everlasting surpasses by far whatever sorrows we have here, and in time we find that God is actively redeeming us in and through the suffering and rising of Christ Jesus for our sake.
“ 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.””
We hear later how Jacob set up a pillar in the place, and named it Beth-El, that is, “the house of God” (Gen 28:19). The physical place on the map would become a place to worship the Lord in later years. But ultimately, the “holy place” and “house of God” is where He gathers His people, to renew and re-affirm His word of command and Word of promise, where He distributes His Holy sacrament to sustain us for our journey. The “House of God is not defined by a specific place or illusions of worldly wealth, but it goes where God gathers His people to hear the Word. Whether we have many creature comforts or few, whether we face great suffering or an easy road, take heart. Do not be afraid. In the presence of Christ Jesus, especially in His sacrament, we have the house of God, the very Gate of heaven. In the name of + Jesus. Amen