I wonder if you know the famous Old Testament story of Jacob’s ladder? Let me tell you the story as it appears in the Book of Genesis.
Isaac was the son of Abraham and was married to Rebekah, and they had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was a few minutes older than Jacob, and there had been a rivalry between them since the day that they were born. The Genesis story suggests that this rivalry even existed at the moment of their birth; Jacob was grasping his older brother’s heel as he came out, as if there had been a kind of competition between them as to who should be born first. And so they called him ‘Jacob’ which means ‘he grasps’ or ‘he supplants’.
Esau grew up to be an outdoorsman and there was nothing he liked better than to go out hunting; his father loved him best because he loved to eat the wild game Esau cooked for him. Jacob preferred staying close to home, and he and his mother were very close. Rebekah comes across in the story as a classic manipulator, and she taught her son well. His whole life long he was trying to manipulate people to get what he wanted out of them: first his brother Esau, then his father-in-law Laban.
Esau and Jacob had a couple of scrapes when they were young men. We’re told that one day Esau came in really hungry from a day’s hunting, and he smelled a red stew that Jacob was cooking. “Give me some of that to eat!” he demanded. Jacob said, “I’ll give it to you – if you sell me your birthright”. “What good is a birthright if I’m starving?” Esau replied, and so he agreed to sell his rights as firstborn son just so he could eat what the King James Version calls ‘a mess of pottage’ – hence the old saying, ‘selling his birthright for a mess of pottage’.
But the news that Jacob now had the rights of an oldest son didn’t seem to have made it to old Isaac, his father. In those days it was a very big deal to receive your father’s blessing as the oldest son, and the time came when Isaac thought he ought to give Esau his blessing. So he told him to go out into the field and hunt some game, bring it home and cook it for him, and then he would give him the blessing of the firstborn. Rebekah was listening in, and she heard what her husband said.
So Esau got his bow and arrows and off he went. But Rebekah went and found Jacob and told him what was going on. “Now listen”, she said, “let’s go and kill a goat from the flock and cook it for your father; he’s old and blind and he won’t know it’s you. That way you can receive the blessing of the firstborn”. But Jacob wasn’t so sure. “He may be blind, but he’ll be able to feel the difference – my brother’s all hairy, but my skin is smooth!” “Leave it to me”, his mother replied.
Jacob did as his mother suggested. When they had killed the animal and cooked it, Rebekah spread the skins on his arms and shoulders, and Jacob took the stew to his father. So they were able to deceive old Isaac, and Jacob received the blessing of the firstborn in place of his older brother, Esau. Esau of course was very angry when he heard about this, so angry that he threatened to kill his brother. And so Rebekah told Jacob to run away across the desert to Haran, where their family had come from, where he could find refuge with her brother Laban. So he ran away.
Now we might ask ourselves the question, “Where is God in this story?” These people seem like the typical dysfunctional family, and there isn’t much of a sense that obeying God and living by God’s laws is very important to them. Isaac and Rebekah each have favourites among their children, and the boys know about this, and of course it causes trouble. Outwardly they are a religious family; Isaac is the son of Abraham, who had heard God calling him to leave Haran and find a new place to live in Canaan where his family would be God’s chosen people. But God seems pretty distant to them and they don’t seem to spend a lot of time seeking God’s will for their lives. And so it might well be said of Jacob, as it was said of Samuel in our Old Testament reading for today, that he ‘did not yet know the Lord’ (1 Samuel 3:7).
Let’s stop here for a moment and ask ourselves how many people and families we have known in our lives where something like this is going on? Children have been brought up in a family that is at least outwardly religious and goes to church on a regular basis. It’s possible that the parents have had a real experience of God at some point in their lives, but, like all of us, they are flawed and imperfect people, and they don’t always give the best example to their kids of what it means to be godly people. The children participate in the religious rituals of the family because ‘that’s what we do’, but for them it hasn’t yet become a personal reality; they do not yet ‘know the Lord’. In years to come, after they leave home, they will probably fall away from institutional religion altogether – unless they have some sort of a conversion experience in which their institutional faith becomes more of a personal and experiential reality for them.
That’s the situation for Jacob at this point in the story. However, things begin to change for him on his way to Haran. He is in a desolate place, but he finds a patch of ground to sleep for the night, although all he can find for a pillow is a stone. He falls asleep, but he has a strange dream – possibly because of the stone pillow, you might think! In his dream he sees what seems like a ladder, suspended between earth and heaven. He sees the angels of God going up and down on the ladder, between earth and heaven. And in his dream God comes and stands beside him, assuring him that he is the God of Abraham and Isaac and that he will be Jacob’s God too, and all the promises he had made to Abraham and Isaac are good for Jacob as well.
Obviously this dream has a big impact on Jacob; when he wakes up in the morning he names the place ‘Bethel’ which means ‘house of God’, and he sets the stone up as a memorial to remind him of the spot where he had first met with God. And from that day onward God begins to be more of a reality in Jacob’s life, although it will take many years for him to be cured of his trickster ways! If you want to find out more about his story, you’ll find it in Genesis chapters 25-36.
Now why am I telling you this story? Well, perhaps you’ve often wished you could find a ladder to heaven. Perhaps you’ve had a hard time connecting with God or feeling that God is a reality in your life. Perhaps you’ve only felt the distance of God, rather than his presence. Perhaps you too grew up in a religious family but had a hard time making the faith of your parents your own. This is especially common in religious traditions like ours, where we have a lot of formality and structure to our worship and practice. Children can grow up participating in the formality and structure, but without making the experiential connection with God in their hearts.
In our gospel reading for today Jesus alludes to this story of Jacob’s ladder. In our reading Philip, one of Jesus’ new disciples, finds his friend Nathanael and says “Come and meet this man we’ve found – we think he’s the one the scriptures prophesied – you know, the Messiah! He’s Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth!” “From Nazareth?” Nathanael scoffs; “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” “Come and see!” Philip replies.
So Philip takes Nathanael to meet Jesus. When Jesus sees him, he says, “Ah – this one’s a true Israelite; there’s no deceit in him”. Nathanael is skeptical: “How do you come to know all about me when this is the first time we’ve ever met?” Jesus replies, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you”. At this Nathanael’s jaw drops in astonishment, because he had indeed been sitting under a fig tree, but there is no way Jesus could have known that. “Rabbi”, he exclaims, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” And then Jesus seems to smile. “Are you so impressed that I saw you under the fig tree? Let me tell you, that’s just the beginning! You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”.
Did you catch the allusion to Jacob’s ladder? In Jacob’s dream the angels were ascending and descending on a ladder, but what Jesus is saying is, “I am the ladder”. Jesus is the one who has joined earth and heaven; he has come down to us to bring heaven to us, and he will lead us to his Father, because he is the Son of God.
What exactly does it mean to be the ‘Son of God’? In Old Testament times God calls the nation of Israel his firstborn son, and later on in Israel’s history the king was thought of in those terms as well. In the earlier New Testament writings, when Jesus is called ‘the Son of God’, that seems to be the main thing on people’s minds: he’s the Messiah, God’s anointed King. We see this in Nathanael’s words: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” To Nathanael those two phrases were two different ways of saying the same thing.
But John in his gospel uses the phrase ‘Son of God’ in a much more significant way. At the end of his prologue, in John 1:18, he says, ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18). Here we get the Christian idea that Jesus is not just an extra-special human being; he is in some sense God, although not the whole of God. The Father is God and the Son is God, but there are not two gods, but one. The Son is close to the Father’s heart, and the Father sends the Son into the world to save the world. The Son has ‘inside knowledge’ about the Father, if you like, and so he can tell us what the Father is like, and he can take us and introduce us to the Father. In this sense, he is the one who has ‘made the Father known’ to us.
So God is no longer distant from us, because Jesus has come and lived among us. When we read the story of Jesus we are reading the story of God. When we hear the words of Jesus, it is God speaking to us. When we hear of Jesus loving his enemies and forgiving them, it shows us that God loves and forgives people too. Jesus is God with a human face.
This means that if we want to know God, the best thing to do is to follow Jesus. All through the first chapter of John people are being invited to follow Jesus. John the Baptist told the crowds that Jesus was ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. He told them that he had baptized them with water, and that was all he could do, but Jesus was able to baptize them – to immerse them, to plunge them in and fill them up – with the Holy Spirit of God, so that their lives would be suffused with the presence of God.
And so two of John the Baptist’s disciples followed after Jesus and asked him where he was staying: “Come and see”, he said, and they went and spent the day with him. One of them was Andrew; he went and got his brother Simon Peter and took him to meet Jesus, and the two of them became Jesus’ followers. Later on Jesus called Philip to follow him, and Philip went and found Nathanael and invited him to come and follow Jesus too. “Come and see”, Jesus said to Andrew and his friend. “Come and see”, Philip said to Nathanael. And now Jesus is inviting you and me as well: “Come and see. Come and experience the presence of God in your life. Put your trust in me and follow me, and I will lead you to your heavenly Father”.
Jesus is the ladder between earth and heaven; Jesus is the Son of God who can reveal the Father to us and lead us into the Father’s presence. But how does this become a reality for us? I’m sure that for some of you, this is the sixty-four million dollar question in your minds. Let me very briefly address it before I finish.
First, let it be said that the Holy Spirit will not be pinned down. He works as he sees fit, and if I describe for you one infallible way to get to know God through Jesus Christ, for sure the Holy Spirit will take a perverse delight in leading you by some other way! That’s the caveat I need to get out of the way before I go any further.
Second, in John’s Gospel the issue over and over is faith or belief – not an intellectual belief so much as trust and commitment. ‘But to all who received (Jesus), who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’ (John 1:12). ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3:16). This faith is often expressed in a concrete decision to put your trust in Jesus and follow him as his disciple.
You and I are invited to make that decision today, this morning. Perhaps we’ve never thought of ourselves as being asked to make a decision. Perhaps we’ve assumed that it’s just about going to church and doing our best to avoid obvious vices in our lives. But in the gospels Jesus always challenges people to make a decision about him. “Come and follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people”. Some people refuse the invitation, some people accept, but it’s not possible to politely ignore Jesus. He’s a catalyst for change; he gets in people’s faces and asks for a decision. Will you follow, or won’t you?
How might we make that decision on a daily basis? Here’s something many people have found helpful.
First, get off by yourself somewhere and pray. Tell God that you really want to get to know him and that you heard this morning that Jesus is the key to knowing God, because Jesus is the ladder from earth to heaven. So you want to get serious about following Jesus, since it seems he can lead you to God.
Second, begin to read one of the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, or Luke. As you read, pray that God would reveal himself to you and that Jesus would become real to you. Don’t read quickly; read slowly and prayerfully, trying to figure out who Jesus is and what God is like.
Sooner or later you will find that some command of Jesus will just jump out at you from the page. It will seem particularly relevant and you will easily be able to make an application to your life. In fact, the application may scare you because it’s so challenging! No matter: Jesus is speaking to you through the text, so ask God to help you and then do what he tells you to do. Begin to try to put it into practice in your life, and meanwhile, read on for the next direction.
I will be very surprised if you are able to continue this spiritual practice for very long before God has begun to be a present reality to you in your daily life. Jesus will indeed be for you a ladder fixed between earth and heaven, a ladder you can climb into the presence of God.
Like Jacob the trickster, we will probably still have some rough edges that need to be knocked off our lives! But God is full of grace and mercy, and he is very patient with us; he’s willing to work with us over a lifetime to make us into the people he wants us to be. So let’s thank God for sending his Son to be a ladder between earth and heaven, and let’s follow Jesus day by day as he shows us the way to the Father.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.