Stairway to Heaven
Genesis 27:46 - 28:22
John 1:43 – 51
A Stairway to Heaven
Jacob’s dream, a reality by 2030?
Last week in Thailand, a group of Japanese researchers demonstrated some technology they’ve developed;, A small robot pulling a capsule along a cable, 100 metres up the side of a building. Not a bad effort, but a long way short of their goal, of the 36,000 kilometres required, in order to build a space elevator.
A space elevator, if you don’t know, is, at this stage a hypothetical construction, consisting of a counterweight up in geostationary orbit, and a ground station, linked permanently by a very long cable.
And cargo, and people, would be loaded into capsules, which would be moved robotically along the cable, carrying them into space. The theory is that it would be much cheaper than rockets, and so would reduce the cost of launching satellites and other payloads by 99 percent!
But as yet, we don’t have the technology or the materials, to link the heavens and the earth, with one news report putting it this week, this “stairway to heaven” could be a reality by the year 2030.
But actually, a link between the heavens and the earth was established a long time before anyone dreamed up the first space elevator.
That’s the message of Genesis 28.
Isaac blesses Jacob in line with God’s intentions
But let’s get the context first!
The drama we saw unfold last week continues here,
Remember Esau wanted to kill Jacob for tricking his father, and getting the family blessing for himself, and so his mum, Rebekah had said to Jacob, “you’re going to have to run, flee to your uncle Laban’s house, and stay there a while.”
But it’s one thing to head off to your relatives overseas as the black sheep of your family, kind of leaving under a cloud,
Much better if you can come up with some kind of plausible explanation.
So 18 years ago, when my sister moved to the UK where our grandmother was born, it sounds much better for us to say, “she moved there because she’s a nurse and she got a job in the hospital in Cambridge”, better to say that than, “her younger brother wanted to kill her, so she had to flee for her life to where our relatives came from.”
You can work out which of those 2 explanations you think is probably the likely one!
So Rebekah tells Isaac, I’m disgusted with living,
If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.
It has the desired effect. Isaac sends Jacob to Paddan Aram, so that he can find a wife, a woman who’s not one of these Canaanites whom God has determined to judge.
Clever move on Rebekah’s part!
There’s nothing wrong with the suggestion,
She herself had come from Harran as a wife for Isaac.
But once again, there’s the sense that what’s right, and what’s convenient for Rebekah, just kind of happen to line up.
If you’ve seen that movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you might remember Toula’s mother saying to her, “Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”!
It’s kind of what’s happened here, isn’t it?
She plays Isaac on both his worst points and his best points.
Esau’s pagan wives make life a pain for Isaac, the author told us that last week,
But also he knows as the head of the family that God has called, it’s better for Jacob to marry someone like he had, rather than someone who’d be a stumbling block to his faith and obedience.
One of my kids asked recently if there’s really such a thing as “shoulder angels.” You know, the good angel and the bad angel who try to get you to do different things?
You’ll be pleased to know I gave a well-rounded theologically precise answer, but here it would be like both the good one and the bad one urging the same thing!
Whether it’s his selfishness, or his faithfulness that matter most, Isaac agrees, and so he calls Jacob, tells him to hit the road, and he blesses him.
May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples.
4 May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now reside as a foreigner, the land God gave to Abraham.” 5
Now, we notice straight away, Last week, in chapter 27 Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing, now Isaac’s doing it voluntarily.
He recognises that he’s been paddling upstream against God’s intentions. Trying to hold off God’s will gets you nowhere, so now he willingly and deliberately, prays God’s blessing on Jacob.
And you’ll recognise the language of this blessing, echoing the promises that God had made to Abraham,
And repeated to Isaac;
The promise of becoming a great nation,
The promising of possessing the land of Canaan,
And the promise of both receiving, and being a blessing.
If you like, Isaac is finally on board with the fact that Jacob is going to be the one whom God uses, to bring his blessings to all the world.
It’s taken Isaac a while to get to this point, and he’s done some serious damage to his family trying to avoid this outcome, but, better late than never.
As long as you’re still breathing, it’s never too late, to repent of your foolishness and sinfulness and turn to God, and say “I’m going to stop trying to do things my way.
I’m going to follow your path.”
While you’re breathing, it’s not too late.
Even if you take a look at verse 3, notice the title he gives to God, God Almighty, that’s the Hebrew title El Shaddai which, if you’re my age or older and grew up hanging around churches, you probably remember from a song!
But more importantly, it’s the name that God used for himself when he spoke to Abraham in chapter 17, and he made the covenant of circumcision with him.
There’s no mistaking that Jacob is in the line of relationship and blessing. What was promised to Abraham, will come about through Jacob.
How not to get a blessing (v 6 – 9)
But it doesn’t really look like that way now, does it? Verse 5, Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way. He leaves the land he’s supposed to posses!
But at this point the author draws our attention back briefly to Esau.
See verse 6, Now Esau learned that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him to Paddan Aram to take a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he commanded him, “Do not marry a Canaanite woman,
Esau hears what’s gone on;,
He’s gone to find a wife,
And he’s been given the family blessing.
Conclusion? The way to secure your parents’ favour and blessing, is by marrying a relative rather than by marrying a pagan Canaanite.
So, verse 9, he goes and marries Mahalath, the daughter for Ishmael son of Abraham, his uncle.
Marry a relative, mum and dad will be happy, get blessed.
But Esau already has 2 wives! They’re both Canaanites. As if the blessings of God could be gained simply by adding a third wife into the mix!
You don’t work your way into God’s blessing by piling up more sins, and hoping that these new sins will cancel out those old sins!
And clearly Esau doesn’t understand how God’s blessings are going to come into the world, because he marries into the family of Ishmael, whom God has already passed over!
God had said, “Ishmael is not going to be, the means of my blessing coming to the world”,
But Esau seems to think, as long as I’ve got the right family connections, everything will be sorted.
As long as I’m married to the right person, I’ll be in the realm of blessing,
If I’m married to a Christian then God will be pleased with me, regardless of what the rest of my life looks like,
If I can just say that there’s one bit of my life here, that looks on the surface, the same as those who are God’s people, then it doesn’t matter what’s going on below the surface, or in every other part of my life.
But the blessings of God are not a reward for choosing God,
It’s not a quid pro quo.
If I do the right thing;,
If I honour my parents,
If I care for my family,
If I use my money well,
Then everything will go swimmingly in my life.
Not at all.
And in fact, look at the very next scene in the story of Jacob’s life.
How to have a blessing, but nothing else! (v 10 – 11)
Jacob is, for the moment, perhaps for the first time in his life, doing the right things.
He’s got his father’s blessing,
He’s been assured of God’s kindness, but he has nothing else.
Jacob left Beersheba, and verse 11, When he reached a certain place he stopped for the night because the sun had set.
It’s a certain place. There is no distinguishing feature here at all. No tree, no well like we see elsewhere in Genesis. It’s like he’s stopped in the centre of the Hay Plain.
This is the middle of nowhere,
Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.
It’s a funny little detail, isn’t it?
I don’t know if you’ve ever used a stone for a pillow, I don’t think I ever have!
Because if you had, literally anything else, you’d use that! That would be more comfortable than using a stone, wouldn’t it?
A pair of socks rolled up!
Exactly anything is going to be more comfortable than a stone!
I saw a travel pillow for sale the other day, and it was a clever 2 in one design, a travel pillow that folds up into, another type of travel pillow! Genius!
It’s exactly what Jacob needed, right?! To give him options!
But he doesn’t have options!
He’s got nothing.
He’s found a stone for his head.
This is the literal definition of rock bottom.
But, we know that’s not entirely true, is it?
That’s what it looks like,
That’s what he has in his hands, nothing!
But he’s got God’s blessing, verse 3.
He’s got God’s promise,
We know he’s a key link in the chain of God’s plans to bless the world.
We know that he’s going to become the father of the nation, that’s supposed to bless all the other nations,
We know that through his descendants God will one day bless all the world, by sending Jesus to live and die, to take the punishment for our rebellion against him.
We could say he’s got everything that matters!
, And nothing else.
Relationship with God,
A place in his plans and purposes,
The blessings that come to us through Jesus,
They are no guarantee at all, that at any given moment in our life, we will find wealth,
The lifestyle that we want,
The relationships that we long for.
I meet people, I hear people, who tell me that this is the case;
That if you are God’s woman, if you are God’s man,
If you are in relationship with God,
If you are trusting that God’s way for you is best,
Then the wealth,
And ease, that you desire,
The lifestyle that you want,
The relationships that you long for, they will all be yours, we’re told.
Well, tell that to Jacob, who has God’s blessing, but literally nothing else, not even a rolled up pair of socks he can stick under his hear.
Tell that to the Christian men and women in Eritrea, who today are imprisoned in shipping containers, and will there in the desert heat,
In fact, tell that to your brothers and sisters here, today, right now, who have made sometimes costly decisions for obedience,
Or who have lived very ordinary faithful Christian lives,
And yet have struggled with relationship breakdown,
Unemployment or difficult jobs,
The frustration of bodies that break down,
Not having enough money to care for those around them like they wish we could, or to give to gospel work in the way they’d like to.
Imagine saying to one of them, or to Jacob, that being God’s person means you’ve always got somewhere comfortable to lay your head.
Don’t ever think that when you come to church, you need to cover up those bits of your life, where things are hard,
Where you struggle,
Where things aren’t as you long for them to be.
A good friend of mine who used to come to our church, would have a little go at me every now and then, for my good, of course! and he’d say, “TMB is very ‘white bread.’”
It’s a funny term, but what he meant was, we, often look neatly packaged,
Each one looking exactly like we’re supposed to, and each one exactly like the others.
I don’t want any of us to ever think that we need to hide some bits of our life from each other, because we have some mis-placed expectation, that if I’m a Christian, then all these areas of my life will fall into place, and they’ll look like X, Y or Z.
You’re not less of a Christian, because you don’t have a high paying job,
You’re not less of a Christian, because you family is somewhat dysfunctional,
The fact that you’re sick, that you battle chronic illness, publicly or privately, doesn’t mean you don’t have enough faith,
That you’re outside of God’s will,
That you’re not trusting in his promises.
It might actually mean you’re just like Jacob,
The good bit of Jacob, Jacob in his best moments,
Called by God into relationship,
Clinging to the promises that are yours in Jesus,
And waiting, waiting patiently and faithfully, for the many blessings of God to be poured out on you in all their fulness.
For us, of course, they’re not tied to the land,
And to a nation,
And to material prosperity,
But to an eternity in which we’re showered with what the Apostle Paul describes for the Christians in Ephesus as every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Heaven is open to Jacob (28:10 – 19)
Because as Jacob is about to discover, heaven is open, to those whom God calls.
Have a look at verse 12 with me, 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. 13 There above it stood the Lord
Stairway is a better translation than “a ladder”, which the old translations used.
There’s this continuous flow of many angels up and down at the same time.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to climb past somebody on a ladder? It’s slightly awkward and perilous, isn’t it?
A ladder is not a 2 way street!
This is something bigger than a ladder!
In fact the word in the Bible that’s closest to this word, is the one word used in places like Isaiah’s prophecy against Assyria, where he speaks of a siege ramp;, a mountain of earth and rocks against a city wall, that can get a whole army over the top.
Picture that, and we get a better sense of what Jacob sees, than merely a ladder.
No surprise then, that down in verse 17, Jacob was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
Heaven is open. He gets to look right in. He sees the angels of God coming and going between heaven and earth.
The New Testament tells us that angels are ministering spirits sent to serve God’s people, and here, Jacob watches them clocking on and off.
When I was in school I did work experience in the quality services department at the Holden factory at Elizabeth, which was pretty awesome work experience for a 16 year old kid! I got to drive cars on the test track and all kinds of fun things!
But while I was there one of the staff told me about a time when the gates were locked at the end of the shift. Nobody told the workers why, as a crowd built up, and so they concluded that they were going to be searched as they left.
And so when eventually the gates were opened, and everyone walked out, where they’d been waiting, the ground was littered with nuts and bolts,
And protective gear, that the workers had unloaded from their pockets, because they thought they were going to get searched!
Well, minus the contraband car parts, that’s what Jacob sees here. God’s workers, returning home having done their work, and others, being sent from heaven, to earth, to begin theirs.
There are numerous occasions in Genesis where God’s people encounter angels; Hagar, Lot, Abraham.
Sometimes the angel brings a message from God,
Sometimes they protect people.
They do what God wants done in the world.
And so Jacob gets a glimpse at the sheer magnitude of God’s direct involvement in his world.
A reminder that God is about his work,
A picture of the sheer majesty and power of God,
And access to God himself. There above it stood the Lord,
Heaven is opened to Jacob.
It tends to be the massive staircase that captures our attention, but the most significant part of what Jacob sees, is not the staircase, but God himself.
And notice also the little footnote in verse 13, perhaps a better translation is that “beside him” stood the Lord stood
You might know in Genesis 11 we find the story of the Tower of Babel, where people tried to reach heaven for themselves, Well here we have a picture of God opening heaven,
God showing that heaven is open to the earth.
The Tower of Babel tells us that you don’t reach to heaven by what you do,
By the work of your hands,
By your effort, or cleverness,
Even by humanity banding together, working as one,
That’s not how you get to heaven! That’s not how you get access to God.
Heaven is opened, by God himself.
Access is given to those whom God calls.
Jacob didn’t earn access to heaven,
He didn’t deserve an audience with God.
He encounters God when he has literally nothing to offer God, not even a pillow, and God shows Jacob that heaven is open, even to him.
Heaven is open to us (John 1:43 – 51)
Which is good news for us, don’t you think?
That if Jacob, the deceiver, the Nigerian multi-millionaire email guy, who it seems, almost can’t help by con people, if God’s willing to open heaven to Jacob, then it’s clearly not about being good enough,
Or deserving a relationship with God.
Clearly it’s all of grace.
Clearly then it’s at least theoretically possible, for heaven to be opened to people like us,
For people like us, who are mostly not as bad as Jacob, to have access to God.
We don’t get the vision,
Most of us haven’t had this experience, have we?
Well come with me to John chapter 1. Page 1063 of the blue Bibles.
This is early in Jesus’ ministry, he’s calling his first disciples, and Philip, having become a follower of Jesus, goes and gets one of his mates, Nathanael, and says you’ve got to come and meet Jesus.
That’s often the way with someone new to following Jesus, isn’t it? They want all their friends to meet Jesus too, and then they get dull and boring like many of us who seem to think that our friends don’t need Jesus, but as Nathanael’s approaching Jesus, Jesus reveals that he knows who Nathanael is.
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
“I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
And Nathanael thinks, rightly, “Wow, I’ve just witnessed a great revelation from God.”
But Jesus responds, verse 50, You will see greater things than that.”
51He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
And we think hang on, this sounds familiar! Yes!
And in case we weren’t quite paying attention, the NIV translators even put quotation marks in verse 51, and a footnote, to make it clear to us that yes, Jesus is quoting Genesis 28:12,
But what’ he doing? He’s actually inserting himself into it, isn’t he?
you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’, the Son of Man.
the Son of Man was Jesus favourite way of speaking about himself.
He’s saying I’m the staircase!
I’m the thing that links earth and heaven
Jacob named the spot “the house of God”, Beth-el, but Bethel is no longer the house of God, the place where God dwells among his people,
The place where you go to encounter God.
That “place” is now Jesus.
Jesus is God dwelling among his people,
Jesus is where you go if you want to meet God.
If you’re with us today and you’re not a Christian, but you’re here because you want to know how to encounter God, you’re in exactly the right place!
Not because this building is “the house of God”,
But because here in God’s Word you can meet Jesus,
And since the staircase was a picture of heaven being cast open, of access to God being granted, it serves as a foretaste, of the access to heaven that Jesus accomplishes for us in life, and death, and resurrection.
By standing in our place,
By taking the punishment that we deserve for our rebellion against God, Jesus throws the gates of heaven wide open. He connects heaven to earth in a way that has never been possible before.
Babel showed that we can’t get to heaven on our own,
The scientists haven’t even got a way for to get a space elevator to geo-stationary orbit on our own,
And yet Jesus himself makes the impossible possible, and opens the way to heaven, even for sinful, rebellious, characters like Jacob, and like us.
Jacob responds to God while he’s on the run (v 20 – 22)
And so having given Jacob the insight that heaven is open to him,
That God’s plans and purposes will be accomplished, because, well, just look at the angels streaming back and forth doing God’s bidding,
Come back to Genesis 28, verse 13 “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. 14 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.
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 you.”
We recognise these promises,
These are repeated from Genesis 12, when God called Abraham, and put in motion his plan for blessing and salvation that would ultimately find it’s fulfilment nearly 2 millennia late, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
But let’s be honest, with Jacob, it looked liked the plans of God were on shaky ground.
Right now, he’s entirely cut off from his family, one of whom wants to kill him., No great nation there.
He’s on his way out of the Promised Land, so much for taking possession of it.
And he’s such a nasty piece of work, I don’t think he’s been a blessing to a single person in his life!
Is God going to just cut his losses and scrap his promises?
No. Here is the restatement of the promises, for Jacob and for us to see, that God is still committed to plan to bless the world through Jesus.
God’s plans are still on track. Even when it doesn’t look like it.
And even when the people God has chosen, don’t really look like they’re up to the task.
Just take a little look sideways at the people around you.
Take a look at our church, as a whole!
I don’t want to, kind of shatter any illusions, but, we’re not really very impressive are we?!
And if you think about your own sinfulness, and deceitfulness, and then extrapolate that more or less equally to everyone else here, because we’re all pretty much like you,
To think that we are the ones God has chosen to accomplish his purposes in the world,
That we are the ones that God has chosen to bring these blessings of salvation and eternal life that he’s been working at since back here in Genesis, we’re the means God has chosen for those blessings to reach further out into our world, Us, and people like us, in other places,
In other countries,
We might think, there’s not much hope for God’s work.
Have you read the news recently?
If Jacob was a low point, then it’s not looking much better at all today.
It doesn’t always look like God’s purposes are going to triumph.
But Gods’ restatement of his promises to Jacob reminds us that what matters is not how impressive or reliable or deserving the person is, clearly!
But that God has spoken,
And God keeps his word.
And maybe it’s simply that he has literally nothing else to trust in, Jacob trusts in God’s Word.
From verse 20, Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
It reads a little like Jacob is trying to make a deal with God;,
If God will be with me,
then the Lord will be my God,
I will give you a tenth
But since God has already said, I am with you and will watch over you etc etc, then to say, “if Gods’ with me, then I’ll do such and such”,
It’s a bit like me saying “If, when I wake up tomorrow morning, my heart is still beating, then come into work.”
If I wake up, by definition, my heart will still be beating! And so it’s really not that Jacob is making his vow contingent on God doing anything, as much as saying, “Since God as said this,
And this will come true,
Then this is what I’m going to do, in response to God’s gracious offer to me.”
See Jacob is like every one of us, who counts ourselves as a Christian.
We respond to God simply on the basis of his promises, his gracious offers to us in Jesus.
And in fact, like Jacob, we respond to the call of God that he makes on us, while we’re, running away!
Jacob wasn’t looking for God!
He was running for his life, because of the swindle that he pulled when he didn’t trust God to accomplish what he’d said!
And yet it’s when Jacob’s on the run, that God appears to him, makes himself known,
And makes these extraordinary promises,
Drawing him in to his work of salvation,
Jacob is living by faith, isn’t he?
Right now he has pretty much nothing.
Except God’s Word.
Except God’s promise of blessing.
And his belief that God’s Word can be trusted.
And that’s what shapes the rest of his life.
This section is the beginning of a new chapter in Jacob’s life. He hasn’t quite shaken off that label “deceiver” yet, but right now he has nothing to show for God’s promises.
What is it to live now, not yet seeing the reality which we cling to? That’s what it is to live by faith.
To hear God’s Word,
To allow your life to be transformed by it, as you become the person God wants you to be,
The person he uses for his purposes.