After a lifetime of having only a vague idea of my family tree, seven summers ago I delved into it and got it moved online. It didn’t take long before that digital work made some real-life connections, and I met one of my Mom’s 49 first cousins, a woman named Sarah whom my Mom never met – a sprightly 100 year old woman in Seattle, who was an absolute delight.
Some parts of that ancestry work were quite fun pointing me to places my ancestors had lived that will be worth visiting in future. It also revealed places of hurt – emigration spurred by the potato famine in Ireland and the highland clearances in Scotland – and I read stories of the specifically bad treatment received by Gaelic-speaking ancestors, who were derided upon their arrival in southern Ontario because English did not come easily to them.
Download a PDF of this sermon: Sermon_30July2023
For the next few Sundays, we’re going to be doing some spiritual ancestry work, digging into some of the stories of our forebears in faith. The stories we will encounter in this spiritual genealogy work are from the book of Genesis, the first book of the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible. As a book that attempts to explain the origin or “genesis” of things – the beginnings of a faith tradition, a people and indeed the world – the characters we meet in Genesis are larger than life, and their stories often archetypal. We engage these stories, in the full knowledge that these are not eye-witness accounts written down by ancient journalists, but stories of human and holy significance, shaped and reshaped for centuries before taking their present written form. The fullness of these stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs have great potential to inform our journeys, our hopes, our foibles, our desires to find God’s way in life, and our resistance to God’s urgings.
This morning we heard a story that comes part-way into the story of Jacob, the recounting of a dream in which God presented to him a ladder or stairway connecting heaven and earth. As a fan of classic rock I have to admit that it was while working on this sermon it was a bit challenging to stay focused on what the book of Genesis says about Jacob rather than drifting into wonderings of what Led Zeppelin were on about in “Stairway to Heaven” – if any of you have guidance on the meaning, for example, of “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, it’s just a spring clean for the May Queen”, I’d be keen to hear it! – yet the stairway to heaven, apart from what Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had to say about it, is a truly iconic Biblical image. As far as I know, I have never preached on before so it’s a combination, for me, of iconic and previously unexplored.
With many helpers on the journey, then, here goes. Our scripture lesson begins with Jacob on a road trip and needing a place to sleep. Scripture gives us a couple of reasons why he was even in this place: one version says that he had been sent away by his parents, Rebekah and Isaac, to seek a wife; the other version indicates that he was on the run from his brother, Esau. Personally, I’m more drawn to the second reason and its built-in imperative, as Jacob had a unique ability to repeatedly irritate and swindle his brother. Jacob and Esau were twins, and the rivalry started in vitro: Jacob, though born second, was said to have entered this world grabbing at his brother’s heel. Esau was rough and beloved by his father, while Jacob was smooth and beloved by his mother. Esau, as the eldest, had the birthright and was entitled to his Father’s blessing but through some deft and sneaky maneuvering by his little brother, had lost both of these to Jacob – and was furious.
For his own safety, then, Jacob gets out of there and arrives at a place to bed down for the night, wary that Esau might be hunting him down. That night, with a stone for his pillow, Jacob has his sleep interrupted by a vivid dream of a ladder or staircase, with Angels ascending and descending, and words from God Almighty reaffirming his position as the Father of a nation, a promise previously issued to his father and grandfather. We’ll delve into the pros and cons of that promise a bit next week, but for now the key is that the promise is confirmed.
So what does this all mean? As mentioned I am on somewhat unfamiliar ground here, so I’m largely going to rely on the wisdom and knowledge of others. We start with American seminary leader Esther Menn, who shares these thoughts:
“Jacob’s dream discloses the hidden yet active presence of God: a striking vision of stairs reaching from earth to heaven. A Jacob on the move encounters a vision full of movement. Divine errand runners continually ascend and descend to do God’s work in the world. Only the LORD appears stationed at the apex …. Consecrating his rock pillow as a commemorative pillar, Jacob fittingly names what will become the major Israelite shrine of Bethel”.
Vancouver Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker writes,
“‘Jacob’s ladder’ shows up in all kinds of places. I have always been struck by the idea that the ladder is named for Jacob, even though it doesn’t really belong to him. He dreamt of it, but it seems to me it is more accurately God’s ladder, as God created it; or perhaps it is the angels’ ladder, as they are the ones ascending and descending it in continuous motion. Regardless of who actually owns it, the symbol of a ladder that connects heaven to earth is clearly one that captures imaginations”.
South African Old Testament Professor Juliana Claassens writes,
“Jacob is portrayed as a fugitive fleeing for his life; a vagabond somewhere between a conflict-ridden past and an uncertain future. At exactly this point of limbo, landless, rootless and with no real prospects for the future, God meets Jacob at a place of no particular significance and transforms it into the house of God.
“He dreams of a ladder that reaches to heaven with angels (messengers) of God going up and down on it. This stairway to heaven does not give Jacob access to heaven; rather, God speaks to Jacob where he is, denoting God’s immanent presence rather than a faraway removed God calling from a distance.
“It is significant” she continues, “that God’s interruption of Jacob’s anxious journey…does not contain a word of judgment regarding Jacob’s prior actions with regard to his brother and his father. Rather God’s address to Jacob contains one unconditional promise after the other. This trickster who since birth has lived in strife with the people around him can be transformed by God into a richly blessed man who serves as a source of God’s blessing to others.”
The Taize religious community in France shares this:
“For the first time in his life Jacob recognises that he is not the centre of the universe….The dream shows him another reality: God, who accompanies him and who upholds him. Jacob can keep going because of this dream and God’s promise.
“The dream came to Jacob at a time of crisis. Earlier, when his life went along planned paths, he would not have been so open to God’s message. In our life, too, fixed certainties have to be shaken sometimes, so that we can become open for what God wants to say to us. And then we can have the healing experience that we are not the masters of our life.”
Other sources point at possible symbolic meanings in this scripture, such as the heavenly staircase as a revisiting of the story of the Tower of Babel, or a prefiguring of the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Numerous authors mentioned John 1:51, which uses the ladder metaphor to describe the way that Jesus connects heaven and earth.
So what’s the take-away in today’s bit of spiritual ancestry work? To start with, I am once again impressed by the inherent honesty in our sacred text. Jacob, who would indeed be the “father of the nation” is not portrayed in particularly flattering ways in the first part of his life, as he outwits his brother and deceives his father. Cunning, yes, resourceful, yes, but there’s good reason why he hit the road and if I’m honest, I wouldn’t have minded if Esau had caught up to his little brother on the road… but more on that next week.
Yet in this place – Bethel, one of the significant sites of worship in the early days of Israel – Jacob, who did not particularly deserve safe passage did find a safe place, and God revealed, through a dream, a metaphorical way to picture the connection between earth and heaven, a connection that is not static but constantly in motion. We see here a faithful and gracious God who was not distant or isolated or disengaged, but easily able to bridge the chasm between this life and the heavenly realm beyond; and as God is present here and now in the fullness of grace, we see Jacob have his ego re-sized down to more accurate human proportions. Jacob was awe-struck by this, and while he needed a few more times of being corrected by God, he was truly moved, and his heart was claimed.
To me, that may well be the big take-away from this part of Jacob’s story. There are ways that we, as individuals, as communities, as nations, as people of faith, find ourselves “on the run” – from past personal events from which we cannot hide, and from our estrangement from the earth and the first peoples of many lands. God calls us, like Jacob, to drop our pretences, open ourselves to the hard realities around us, and get engaged in those big things, not just our own petty concerns or persistent fears. And the good news, is that we’re not left on our own to do this: the way the stairway or ladder was constructed, emphasized not that we are here and God is way up there, but that God was close, and there were messengers going back and forth between us all the time. The God of Grace, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the same God we meet in Christ Jesus– invites us to be transformed.
The final word this morning goes to Juliana Claassens:
“The lectionary text in Genesis 28 attests to the ability of an alternative reality to break into a world of fear, terror, and loneliness. In this text, Jacob’s dream, which he dreamed somewhere in the middle of nowhere, permits the dreamer to imagine an alternative way of being in the world, as the dreamer is encompassed by God’s presence that has a transformative effect in the waking world”.
May this transforming, indwelling power of God be with you this day and always; Amen.
Dunsker, Elizabeth. https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/jacobs-ladder
Page, Jimmy and Plant, Robert. “Stairway to Heaven.” https://genius.com/Led-zeppelin-stairway-to-heaven-lyrics
Taize religious community. https://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2007-04-01
And for a bit of fun, a theological reflection on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven:”
Godfrey, Steve. https://churchintheworld.com/2014/07/13/buying-a-stairway-to-heaven-it-makes-us-wonder/
© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church. Preached in Canmore.