STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Over the next few weeks, actually for the rest of the summer, we’re going to be focusing on some of the great Bible stories in the Old Testament. These are the stories that were foundational for me and for others when I learned them in Sunday School as a wee lad. These are stories that have stuck with me over the years because they were such great stories and, like most kids, I loved a good story and I listened to them intently with the innocent ears of a child. But it’s interesting, as adults, to read them again through the eyes of decades of experience. They’re still great stories all by themselves but, as adults, we are apt to catch nuances that make us sit up and listen to them in a different way. So, to borrow a phrase, whoever has ears them listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.
The first story we are going to look at is found in Genesis 28:10-19a. It’s the story of Jacob and his dream about the stairway to heaven. But before I read it, I want to give you some background because, as always, context is important and it is crucial to understand the context of this story.
Jacob, if you recall, is the twin brother of Esau. They were born to Isaac and Rebekah. And while they were twins, Esau was actually born first and, therefore, should have received all the benefits of the firstborn son which, in those days, were substantial. These twin brothers were as different as night and day. Esau was the hunter and warrior, the favourite of his father while Jacob was the homebody and the favourite of his mother.
But Esau was also naïve while Jacob was sly. In the end, Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing that should have gone to his older twin Esau. It happened like this in Genesis 27. Isaac was old, blind and near death. He knew that he had to give his blessing to his oldest son Esau before he died but just wanted one thing. He asked Esau to go and hunt some game, take it and make his father one last, tasty meal. And after enjoying his food Isaac would give Esau his blessing.
Jacob and Rebekah caught wind of this and Rebekah hatched a plan for her favourite son. She had Jacob go and kill a young goat from the flock. She cooked it up into a tasty meal. Jacob disguised himself as Esau and took the food to his blind father in the hope that Isaac, thinking that Jacob was Esau, would give his blessing to his younger son before the older one returned from the hunt.
The plan went off without a hitch. Before Esau returned with his fresh game, Isaac had blessed Jacob. It was a done deal and could not be taken back. And so Jacob cheated Esau out of their father’s blessing that should have been his.
Esau, of course, was not the least bit pleased. We find his response in Genesis 27:41 (NIV) which says: “Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’” So basically, Esau vowed that after his father Isaac died, he would kill Jacob to avenge the wrong that had been done to him.
Jacob may have been a cheat and liar but he wasn’t stupid. And so, discretion being the better part of valour, he fled for his life and, following his mother’s advice, went to the land of Haran to see if he could find a place to stay with his Uncle Laban.
That’s where we find Jacob now. He is on the run, on the road to Haran in search of his Uncle Laban whom he has probably never met. His life has been turned upside down – by his own actions of course. He may have secured his father’s blessing but he has little else going for him. His future is uncertain and he is not at all sure how this is all going to work out.
That’s the context of the story that we are about to read. Jacob has been traveling all day and stops to rest for the night. Reading from Genesis 28:10-19a (NIV):
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.”
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 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.”
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, though the city used to be called Luz.
So here we have Jacob after a long day’s travel, fleeing his brother, searching for an uncle he has never met. The sun is going down and he needs a place to lay his head for the night. He’s probably not sure exactly where he is. It could have been anyplace. It certainly didn’t seem like anyplace special. It was just an ordinary place.
But he needs a pillow, something to lay his head on for the night. So what does he use? He uses what is nearby – a stone. Have you ever tried to use a stone for a pillow? I can’t imagine how uncomfortable that would be. But he needed something because, if you don’t use anything, you’re certain to wake up in the morning with stiff neck. But is a stone any better? At least it would keep his neck a bit more in line and maybe he had a hat or something that he put between his head and the stone to act as a bit of a cushion. But to make a long story short, sleeping in those condition, we should not be surprised to hear that Jacob started having weird dreams. Most of us would have had a headache.
In his dream, Jacob sees a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending. And then he hears the voice of God who affirms that Jacob’s descendants will form a great nation whose people will number more than the dust of the earth. From these descendants, the whole world will be blessed.
When he awakens, Jacob comes to the realization that, much to his surprise, something special has happened. He, an ordinary man, in an ordinary place using an ordinary stone as his pillow has had an extraordinary experience of God. In fact, for me, the key verses in the whole passage are verses 16-17 which read, “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ 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.’”
MISSING WHAT IS IN FRONT OF US
Those are powerful words. Why are they so powerful? Because they challenge us to look for God in the ordinary things of life. Jacob Is an ordinary person. One of the things that I always appreciate about the Bible is that it shows us that the people through whom God works are not always the smartest or the best behaved or the most righteous and faithful. God uses ordinary people like you and me and the Bible does not sugar coat who they are. Jacob is a liar and a cheat but God decides to work through him.
He affirms his promise to Jacob to make him a great nation and gives him a vision of what the future will look like. How Jacob responds to all of this is very significant. He takes the stone that he used for his pillow and sets it up as a dedication stone to remember his experience and then he calls the Bethel which means “House of God”.
The point of this story that I want to emphasize today is that God revealed himself to Jacob through the ordinary things of life. God used an ordinary person in an ordinary place and an ordinary stone to reveal a future filled with hope and blessing. And the truly amazing part of this story is that Jacob recognizes this experience for what it is, an extraordinary epiphany of God.
That is key. We say that God is omnipresent. That means that God is everywhere all the time – like right here, right now. But how often do we run the risk of missing God because we’re looking for the wrong thing? The truth is that we all know what that’s like. You go looking for something and you can’t see it even though it’s right in front of you. Sound familiar?
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been rebuilding part of the deck at the back of our house. The structure is sound but the floor boards were beginning to rot. I was using a blue coloured pencil to measure the boards before cutting them. Between boards, I placed the blue pencil on the picnic table so I knew where it was when I needed it next. But all of a sudden the pencil disappeared. I couldn’t find it. I looked on the table; no blue pencil. I looked in the grass below the table because maybe it had fallen off; no blue pencil. I went over my miter saw to see if I had taken it over there; no blue pencil. I walked up the steps to the deck to see if I had taken it there; no blue pencil. Finally, frustrated, I got another pencil from my stash in the garage. I took it out to the where I was measuring the boards and placed it on the picnic table right beside a grey pencil. I don’t know why, but for some strange reason, in my mind my pencil was blue but it was actually grey. The reason I could not find the pencil was because I was looking for the wrong colour.
This is a very common occurrence. In fact, it’s so common that, in psychology there’s a name for it. It’s called a schotoma. A schotoma is the inability to see something that is right in front of your eyes because your mind is looking for something else. It’s mental blind spot.
A lot of people have schotomas when it comes to seeing God in the events of life. Usually it’s because we’re looking for God in the wrong things. I often see this in people who think that God only does miraculous things. Someone gets healed of a terminal disease who was not expected to survive. We see God in that miracle. You’re short of money this week and one of you kids comes home all in tears because they lost their running shoes. You don’t have money for a new pair right now but you go the mail box and find the GST tax rebate that you had forgotten all about. Truly God has blessed you in this miracle. You’re on your way to work but get held up because there is a flock of turkeys in the middle of the road that just won’t move. You’re delayed about five minutes and it’s so frustrating but, when the road finally clears and you are almost at your workplace you come across an accident and you realize that, if it had not been for the turkeys blocking you for those five minutes, you may have been in that accident too. And so you thank God for the turkeys and his angels who protected you.
I’m not saying that these aren’t God at work. I’ve had enough similar things happen in my life that I know that God works in miraculous ways. I don’t doubt that for a minute. It’s easy to see God in these miraculous events.
But what about the ordinary? It’s in the ordinary things of life that we are more apt to miss God because we’ve developed a schotoma in that area of our spiritual life.
Jacob, for all of his faults, did not have a schotoma. He was an ordinary man, in an ordinary place who had a dream while his head was resting on an ordinary stone. When he awoke from his dream he could have said, “That was a weird dream. I guess I shouldn’t have eaten those sardines before going to sleep last night.” He could have blamed his current anxiety for his dreams and just dismissed them. But he didn’t do these things. He remembered the dream as a message and a promise from God and realized that the ordinary place where he had spent the night was holy ground.
READY TO SEE
People say that seeing is believing and I think that’s true. But the opposite is also true. If you don’t believe in something, you probably aren’t going to see it. If people don’t believe that God is at work in the ordinary things of life, there’s a good chance that they are going to miss the acts of God that are constantly going on around them.
But here’s a question. Why do you suppose Jacob was able to see God in the ordinary when many of us miss him? What’s the difference? Simply put, I think it’s because Jacob was looking for anything that would help him in his messed up life. Remember that he was fleeing his home and family because his brother wanted to kill him – literally – and maybe even for a good reason. He’s on his way to find his uncle who he has never met and has no idea what kind of reception he will get. His life is a mess. But the good thing is that people whose lives are messy are usually in a place where they are open to seeing God almost anywhere. Desperation can do that to people.
It’s a much bigger challenge to look for God when life is ordinary and things are good. But here’s the thing to remember. God is omnipresent. When times are tough, God is there. When times are good, God is there. The only question is are you able to see him or do you suffer from a God schotoma?
Faced with unknowns and uncertainty, Jacob recognized the voice of God and had an experience of the holy through the ordinary things of life. Does God work through miracles and the extraordinary? Absolutely. But how much more we will appreciate the presence of God in our lives if we allow the Holy Spirit to enable us to see God in the ordinary things of life.
And here’s something else to consider. In reality, the ordinary things of life really aren’t all that ordinary. God’s miraculous hand provides for us every morning as the sun wakes us in the east. Every day, God provides for us – in shelter and food, in our work and in our play, and in our relationships with one another. Day in and day out, God is present, continuously providing, sustaining, and re-creating. Our extraordinary God is found in the ordinary moments of every day.
There are moments when all of us need to pause and realize that, wherever we are, we are standing on holy ground. The angels of God are ascending and descending all around us even if we can’t see them. God has not forgotten us but is still at work in the little details of our everyday lives just as he has always been for those who have eyes to see.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of All Creation, your Spirit flows around us reminding us of your love and care for even the least of your creatures. We give thanks that you are as close as a prayer. When life seems to be too much to bear, your hand reaches out to us offering hope and help and healing. We give thanks for all of your precious gifts.
We put our lives in your hands. We ask that your Spirit may control every action and every moment. Enable us to come to you with all things, to follow your will and fulfill your purpose for our lives. Thank you that you offer us more than we could ever comprehend or even imagine.
We lift up in prayer the broken people of the world. There are those who suffer from inner turmoil and are broken in spirit. There are those who suffer from broken relationships and unhealthy environments. There is our world that is filled with war and oppression. We are also aware that people right here in this congregation experience brokenness in their own lives. We lift them up to you. Heal our woundedness and our strife.
Bless, O God, those who need your healing touch. We remember, especially, Richard and Gary. Move through them with your Healing Spirit to bring peace and wholeness.
Summer is here and the activities of the season are with us. We are grateful for fresh fruit, corn on the cob, trails and roads upon which to ride our bikes, early morning dew and refreshing evenings spent on the front porch.
Father God, we know that all life is valuable in your sight. We are grateful that your love and compassion are limitless and unconditional. When we are faced with difficult decisions or situations, help us to remember that you are always ready to help offering guidance, strength, patience and wisdom. You provide the example of how we should treat others. Keep us faithful as you are faithful. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
July 19, 2020 / Pentecost 7
Genesis 28:10–19a; Psalm 139:1–12, 23–24; Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43; Romans 8:12–25
CALL TO WORSHIP
Your mercies are wonderful, O God.
Your faithfulness is witnessed on earth and in heaven
Every age shall know your name.
Every tongue shall declare your praise.
Grace us with your favour;
and grant us your peace.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
We come to you, our Father, out of the busyness of a hectic life to find a place of quiet and peace. Many people want a piece of our time. Many forces pressure us to do things in their way. Out of the stressfulness of life we seek your presence. When we do not know where to turn, remind us that you are at our side, sometimes silent, sometimes active, but always there. Be with us now as we worship. Remind us that your Spirit and your angels are all around.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Your mercies, O God, are from everlasting to everlasting. You have offered to fill our hearts with joy and our lives with purpose. But we have chosen to turn away from your path. We have preferred to walk the wide road that takes us to many places rather than the narrow path that leads to our love. Forgive us for wandering and calling to you only when we get into trouble. Forgive us for forgetting about you in the good times but thank you that even in our sinfulness, you will not abandon us.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
In the quietness of our souls, we reflect on our lives and find that we are wanting. The Good News is that no matter how far we might fall, no matter what the direction of our wandering, God is still there ready and willing to take us back home when we truly and humbly confess our sins.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
All that we have is from your hand, O God of Creation. We cannot thank you enough for you many blessings but we do what we can. Our thankfulness is best shown in how we use the resources that you have given to us. Keep us faithful as you are faithful.
Jesus’ disciples found a place to rest. There they found renewed energy and commitment to do the work of God. Our time of refreshment is over. As we leave this place, may we continue the ministry which Jesus began in his life. May God’s Kingdom come. May God’s will be done