STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
| Genesis 28:10-22
||Sun, July 21, 1996
Rev. Ed Searcy
|It came around every year like clockwork. Every New Year's the FM station would countdown the top five hundred of all time. Now, the fact that it never included any Mozart or Beethoven should have provided even the least cultured person with a clue that 'all time' actually referred to a pretty limited period! Every year the suspense built: what would the top rock and roll song be this year? For years it was the same ... as predictable as clockwork ... "and the number one song of all time", the disc jockey would anounce to suitable fanfare, "is 'Stairway to Heaven'". Now I am not sure what this has to do with anything. Was this song's popularity a sign of some deep spiritual seeking on the part of a whole generation? Hardly. After all, the band that wrote the song freely admits that the words hardly made any sense at all. Thank my lucky stars, then, that this morning's old tale from Genesis is at least as well known and - better yet - even makes sense.
Somehow the story of Jacob's Ladder always evokes images of starry nights ... the lure of summer evenings sleeping in the back yard 'under the stars' ... the awe filled sensation of the wide open night skies of the prairies ... that black, black sky and those masses of twinkling lights. On nights like that it is almost possible to imagine Jacob lying down on his rocky pillow next to you. Maybe that is why we always sang of his ladder at campfires. Six summers I spent on the staff of summer camps, six summers of closing campfires singing: "Jacob's Ladder". You know the theory ... put all the loud, action songs and skits early in the evening. Then, by bedtime, work into the yawners to convince the ten year olds that it really is time for bed! So every night we'd sing: "We are climbing Jacob's ladder ... Every rung goes higher, higher ... If you love him, why not serve him". We sang it so much that the story is embedded deep inside ... it has become a part of me, of us. And there lies the problem. It is one thing, you see, to have to make sense of a song like "Stairway to Heaven" that makes absolutely no sense. It is another thing to have to undo the meaning of a spiritual like "Jacob's Ladder" after all these years. But look ... it will have to be done. Perhaps you heard it in the reading of the story. Did you notice ... notice that it is not a ladder that Jacob dreams of ... notice that it isn't Jacob's ... and notice that Jacob never once climbs a single rung! What, in heaven's name, is going on here? This really is a strange, strange story: a huge Stonehenge-sized rock for a pillow ... a deep, deep sleep ... and the dream of a good-for-nothing, two-bit con man who is heading for the Mexican border just two steps ahead of his brother's posse. Yet here we sit, who knows how many years later still singing two of Jacob's all-time greatest hits: "O God of Bethel" and "Nearer my God to Thee"!
It all starts with the 'ladder' reaching to heaven. We hear 'ladder' and picture, well, a ladder. A ladder is a ladder ... right? Wrong. This is no ordinary ladder ... no ... it is a 'ziggurat'. That's right ... a ziggurat. Remember them? Travel to Babylon and you'll see what I mean. The holy temples of the ancient world are called 'ziggurats' ... immense constructions of earth, giant ramps that begin on terra firma and stretch skyward as if to touch the heavens (the original 'sky scrapers') ... so that the priests can communicate on the people's behalf with the gods. Jacob's ladder is a ziggurat ... and a ziggurat is literally a stairway to heaven. The strange thing about this one is its location. Think about it. Remember the old days when, before communion was to be celebrated, the elders paid a visit to every member of the congregation. They brought with them a card ... a card that became your 'pass' to the sacramental feast. It was a time of purification, of getting right with your neighbours and with God so that you would be prepared to encounter the Holy. No one in their right mind dares approach the Gate of Heaven in anything less than their Sunday best ... yet Jacob happens upon it in his Friday night worst! There he is, on the run ... guilty as charged ... and when he lays his head down on the cold, hard jail-cell floor we know what he should be dreaming of ... Hell's Gate, that what he should be dreaming of. Instead ... lying there in exile ... he finds himself closer to heaven than he has ever been before.
Notice what Jacob sees from this new vantage point. The ramp is no quiet circular staircase mounted only by the dearly departed as they climb to the pearly gates. No ... this stairway to heaven is a four-lane, divided highway joining heaven and earth. Jacob may have thought that he was all alone in the world ... that we are left to our own resources and devices ... but here he glimpses an alternative reality. Here Jacob dreams that things are not the way that he had imagined them to be. Here, as one commentator puts it, Jacob discovers that "heaven has to do with earth. And earth finally may count on the resources of heaven." God's angels rush up and down the 'ladder'... not winged, ethereal creatures here but God's royal messengers ... God's 'foreign service' ... doing God's bidding in the world. The dream is clear - God is at work in the world, not just at the predictable 'holy of holies' on Sunday morning but in the 'dog eat dog' real world that Jacob knows so well. It is there - on the jail cell floor, in the 'real world' of the fleeing con man - that Jacob discovers 'Bethel - the House of God'.
But look ... Jacob doesn't do anything. What ever happened to climbing the ladder ... rung by rung ... day by day ... deed by deed? This screws everything up. Ladders are for climbing. Everyone knows that. Just ask a child how to play 'snakes and ladders' and they'll tell you: when you step on a snake slide down, when you stand at the foot of a ladder ... climb. Remember the story of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' ... remember the beanstalk ladder to heaven ... and Jack's great climb to confront the giant. That's more like it, don't you think? That's more like the world we know ... a world where we spend our lifetimes 'climbing the corporate ladder', bumping into 'glass ceilings' ... striving to climb our way to the top, to the heavenly reaches of a succesful life. The direction is up, not down. I know, I've seen a Jacob's ladder ... every halloween, at my father-in-law's house. Earl is a retired electrician ... and a kid at heart. Every halloween he puts a sign in front of his workshop window that says "step here" ... and when you step on the button in front of you the black night is suddenly lit by the sight of thousands of volts of electricity leaping between two wires ... and climbing up into space. It's like a mad scientist's workshop! Sure enough ... it's called a 'Jacob's Ladder' ... because everyone knows that the direction is up, not down. Or is it?
Jacob goes nowhere. Jacob just lies there at the bottom of the staircase. It is God who climbs down! That's right God climbs down. Talk about revising old hymns ... this is going to really mess up that old spiritual: "God descending a Ziggurat ... every step goes lower, lower"! Instead of the voltage running up, away from earth and its problems ... the voltage moves down, down to the earth and to Jacob. Well, you can imagine Jacob's fear. Surely, like us, he has heard of the God of the Old Testament ... a God of anger and judgement, not the loving God of the New Testament (or so we've been told all these years). Surely Jacob is in for it now. God's deputies have found his hide-out ... and the big Sherriff himself has come to shoot it out. Right? Wrong! Jehovah shows up at the foot of the staircase and begins to throw promises away like a politician before an election ... except for one thing, with the Almighty a promise is a promise: "Jacob ... I am with you ... I will give you ... I will not leave you ... I have promised you". Nine promises in all of three verses. "Emmanuel", says God, "I will be with you". It is only the first time that the Holy One climbs down to earth with good news. Later, when the nation called Jacob is in a desperate place of exile the dream comes again - "I will not forget you" says the voice. Later still, the One who climbs down a cruciform ladder promises his frightened church: "I will be with you always". This God of Jacob ... this God of the Old and New Testaments ... promises to be present, not absent ... to protect, not to harm ... and to take Jacob home. And all of this without a word from Jacob ... not so much as a "God forgive" or a "Lord, have mercy". It is God, not Jacob, who changes things. The fugitive has not been abandoned. His story ... our story ... is not the hopeless tragedy we had imagined.
Jacob wakes up ... he rubs his eyes and shakes his head. It was all just a dream ... or was it? Is this the real world ... or was the dream more real than this rude awakening? Jacob chooses to trust the dream ... to live, not out of his old world of fear and guilt, but out of the new world of God's promises. Out here ... out here in the wilderness, running from his life and from God ... Jacob discovers amazing grace. And look what he does. He marks the spot by standing his stone pillow on end. Like these stones, standing on end in this wall ... our stone pillows perhaps, marking the gracious dreams of many a fleeing Jacob in this 'Bethel', this house of God. And there is more. Look again at Jacob ... Jacob who makes a marker not only out of his pillow but also out of his life. "If God will be with me and will keep me and will take me home", says Jacob, "then I will be God's". Jacob can not remain an interested spectator on the sidelines ... God's promises call out a response from him. Such vows are two way streets. First one speaks ... and then the other. Why just yesterday, in this very place, she said: "I take you to be husband, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow". Then he answered: "I take you to be my wife, for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer". With those promises their lives were turned, changed, reoriented ... never to be the same again. So it is with our great grand-parent Jacob - the trickster, the grabber, the heel. "I will be with you" says the God of heaven. "The Lord shall be my God" answers Jacob. His life turns on that decisive moment ... as our lives also turn the moment we dare to trust the dream ... the dream of the God who bends down low to send us out and to lead us home.