I love heights, planes, mountains, cliffs, houses, ladders… I enjoy the climb, but if I’m honest I also enjoy the danger. So when I first read the story of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis I immediately wonder what it would be like to climb that ladder too.
Jacob is on the run. His name means “deceitful supplanter” and for good reason. He just deceitfully supplanted his elder brother Esau out of his father’s blessing and birthright, and Esau is ready to kill him for it. So, at his mother’s advice, Jacob flees, a fugitive.
He stops along the road one night and makes a little bed for himself under the stars, and like his grandfather Abraham before him, out under the stars is where God speaks to him. In a dream he sees a huge ladder up to heaven with God’s angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. And then, lo and behold, God is standing by his side speaking to him.
God speaks to him the same promise God had made to Abraham and Isaac before him that through their barren, broken family God intends to bless all the families of the world, adding to that plan this promise:
“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
This is a promise held in common by three of the world’s great religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; but it doesn’t seem to be winning us any popularity contests these days.
It’s in the news once every few weeks, the decline in religious affiliation in the US and all of Western Civilization. But some commenters and sociologists are quick to point out that just because we are less likely to affiliate with a particular religion does not mean we have become less religious. In fact we may be more religious than ever.
We humans are inherently religious. We have a basic impulse to find ways to cope with life by finding something to worship, some set of beliefs or practices that orient us toward some higher good. We want it so badly that when we cannot find it easily, we invent our own.
We may be harder to convince these days that the Prophet, the Law, or the Lord are the one way to heaven, but we remain convinced that there must be some way, some path, some steps to take to a happy life, some ladder to climb. We are innately religious, and thus when we can’t find one we are quick to make ladders out of just about anything.
There’s the corporate ladder, the perfect parent ladder, the perfect student ladder, the college acceptance ladder, the 401K ladder… and each ladder has its own rungs like the right skin care regimens, and social media likes, and self-care practices, and workout routines, and weight loss plans.
Every round goes higher, higher. If we can just do the right stuff, eat the right stuff, avoid the right stuff, say the right stuff, believe the right stuff, do enough, make enough, try hard enough, perform well enough, believe enough, then we will reach the top of the ladder and be holy, be happy, be enough.
This is the heart of human religion, the tendency to make anything into a ladder. We do this to established religions too, some of you came to church today because you think that’s one of the rungs on the ladder that you have to climb in order for God to love you.
Like all climbing, there can be a rush to it, the rush that we have the power to climb our way to heaven or happiness. There’s also a relentless pressure to it, that can leave us weary of the climb. And there’s also of course the fact that often the higher we climb, the farther we fall.
It makes me wonder, when Adam and Eve reached for that forbidden fruit, do you think they used a ladder too?
The thing about Jacob’s Ladder is it turns out not to be Jacob’s ladder at all. Jacob is not once commanded or even invited to climb it. In fact, there are no humans on the ladder at all, only angels, messengers of God, bearing the Word and Presence of God, ascending and then descending to earth as it is in heaven.
In Jacob’s life of grasping after what he wants, racing up whatever ladder he can get his hands on, God shows up today as a different kind of ladder. A ladder that reveals not what Jacob must do, but what God is doing in spite of Jacob, through Jacob, and ultimately for Jacob.
There’s an echo of this in the Gospels, a moment early in the Gospel of John when Jesus is calling his first disciples. One of them, Phillip, runs to find his friend Nathanel and tells him “We found him! We found the man the prophets promised would come to us.” But Nathanael isn’t so sure.
As he approaches Jesus says “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” (In other words, here’s an Israelite in whom there is no Jacob!)
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asks.
Jesus answers “I have known you since back when you were under that fig tree,” a reference to the tree Adam and Eve climbed in Genesis.
Jesus shows up and knows Nathanael not because Nathanael has, like the angels of God, finally ascended to Jesus. Jesus shows up as the One who has known him in Adam.
Apparently that’s all Nathanael needs to hear. He says “You are the Son of God, aren’t you? You are Israel’s king.”
Jesus responds “You think that’s something? Just wait. You shall see heaven open up and the angels of God ascending and descending on (not a ladder, but) the Son of Man.” In other words, Jesus is saying “I am Jacob’s ladder. I am how God has come from heaven to be with you.”
The odds are good that like me, you are fond of ladders. I’ll bet that you, like all of humanity, look for ladders wherever you can find them even without realizing it. You may do it for the rush, for the sense of accomplishment, or for hope that you can become good enough.
Or, perhaps, like Jacob, life has you up nights and you find yourself under the night sky looking up to the heavens praying for a way to climb yourself out of here and up to there.
Or, perhaps you find yourself weary of an endless climb that has gotten you nowhere.
If so, look again at this story. When Jacob was in just such a place, that’s when the ladder appeared, not for him to climb up, but for God to come down. Right as Jacob began to imagine himself climbing the ladder to heaven, lo and behold, heaven was standing beside him whispering a word of a promise.
The same promise offered to us in the flesh of Christ.
That’s why in some paintings of the crucifixion if you look closely you can see a ladder there, leaning up against the cross. It is not placed there for you to climb up either. Instead it is there as a sign that this is how God has chosen to come to you, for you. Christ and his cross are not given to reveal another ladder or even the best ladder for us to ascend to God. Christ and his cross reveal to us the good news of a God who has climbed down the ladder to be with us.
Before his ascension (the now risen) Christ speaks one more word to his disciples. One last sermon. Does he give them basic instructions before leaving earth? Does he give them directions for where to find and climb Jacob’s ladder. No, he speaks a word of promise, the same promise made to Jacob, “Behold, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
This is not just one more ladder-climbing religion we’re getting here. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is news of a descending God who has come to make to all the world this promise: I have come down to you, I am with you, I will remain with you, and, I promise, I will bring you home.
This is Good News for barren broken climbers, God is not waiting for you at the top of some ladder. God is not commanding you to climb to him. God is here, with you, at the bottom. Thanks be to God.
[…] itself in the way Burton references, here’s a wonderful sermon from Drew Colby, “Ladder Day Saints“, inspired in part by Matthew Milliner’s brilliant video devotional from a couple years […]