THE NINTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1) and thus begins the unveiling of God in the canon of Holy Scripture, starting with the first book of Moses commonly called Genesis. Our summer exploration of the book of Genesis has led to many discoveries about the God of Heaven and Earth, the One, True and Holy God of Israel: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
We read Scripture, and there, from the pages of Divine Revelation, we come face to face with the living God. And, we have found him not merely in an abstract sense (words speaking about God), but His actual divine presence in the Old Testament. We have found Christ, the second person of the Trinity: promised in the garden of Eden, typified in the Ark of salvation, and the sacrificial ram offered up for the life of Isaac.
“The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb 4:12) And why? Because it is in His word, present, actively accomplishing the Divine work. God says, "[the word] goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). God works in and through the revelation of the word because he is present.
Now, when we read Scripture, we also come face to face with ourselves and what we find is that Scripture actually reads us. We read ourselves into the Old and New Testament stories. With Adam and Eve, we find the burden of sin and the reality of our delicate natures to be intolerable. With Noah, we can identify with a man who in the face of public scrutiny and mocking still resolves to trust in God, who “builds the Ark” though it has never rained. Or perhaps like Sarah, we’ve laughed in unbelief in the face of God’s promises, “how can this be, as my husband and I are old and beyond the age of children!” Their stories are our stories. Their faults alive in us as well, as is their capacity to please God and trust in him, even in the face of life’s most significant challenges. Or, when God asks of us the impossible as he did Abraham.
You see, one cannot encounter the presence of God in Scripture and remain utterly unaware of self. The presence of holiness simply will not allow it. For the holiness of God draws out the stark and brutal reality of who we really are. With Isiah, we too cry out to heavenly hosts “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa 6:5). And with Peter, we too fall on our knees in brokenness and confess, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Lk 5:8). In the lives of the saints, we come face to face with our human condition (what it means to be fallen). A confrontation with the Divine always exposes what it means to live Coram Deo: before the face of God.
Scripture speaks. Yet, it speaks not only about but to us because the gracious and merciful Lord desires to bring us to the end of ourselves. And there, at the end of self, is where He begins the recreative and reforming work of actualizing his great desire for us: that we would be conformed into the image of his Son Jesus Christ. But there’s another important aspect of coming face to face with God in the Bible: finding once again the reality of his covenant faithfulness and real presence with us. Friends, the Lord is with us.
From Garden to Garden, from Eden to the glorious garden beheld in St. John's revelation, “Lo, I am with you, always.” As God was faithful to redeem all that went wrong in the garden, so he is faithful to redeem us. The God who delivered Noah upon the surety of dry ground is the God of our deliverance. He makes the most outlandish and impossible promises and keeps them, as he did for Sarah. In every temptation, every single testing, and dicey predicament, God is with us. Just as He was with Noah, Abraham, and Isaac, so he is with all who put their trust in the strong name of the Lord. And as importantly, maybe even more so, God is with us even when we fail, when we doubt, when we are beset by fear... even when we are fleeing from whatever it is: on the run as fugitives.
“And Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran" (Gen 28:10). So begins today’s Old Testament reading, which tells the story of the revelation of God which came to Jacob in a dream as he lay asleep in the dark of the night. Now, this opening sentence may seem inconsequential, but without knowing why Jacob is on the move, we’ll miss the fullness of what God would say to us this morning.
From birth, Jacob's was a life of struggle and contention, even wrestling with his older brother Esau in the womb! He took advantage of his brother and cheated him out his birthright in exchange for a bowl of red stew. While in the Philistine town of Gerar, he craftily tried to protect his wife Rebekah with a lie, telling king Abimelech and the men "she is my sister." And in addition to all of this, he deceitfully stole the blessing of his father, Isaac. Esau's response is heartbreaking, listen,
"And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father. And he said, Thy brother came with subtlety, and hath taken away thy blessing. And he said, Is not he rightly named Jacob? For he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing" (Gen 27:34-36). Jacob has most certainly lived up to his name: he is a cheat; he is a deceiver.
And now, he is a fugitive running from the repercussions of sin. He is fleeing from his brother Esau. A troubled son in search of his place in life. A shrewd shepherd in exile journeying out from the land of promise. He is getting as far away from the contention and strife as he possibly can. This is the man upon whom scripture records, the sun has set. "And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep." Jacob is utterly alone. In the dark. Vulnerable. One can only imagine the anxiety, wondering if he is being followed. Fear is his companion as he places a stone under his head and falls asleep under the covering of the sky.
Verse twelve, "And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac." Now there is so much we could explore both theologically and biblically about Jacob's Ladder. But we have set out these many weeks to find the faithfulness of God in the Old Testament, in particular, the faithfulness of God in Christ. And this is precisely what God reveals to Jacob in this mysterious dream; by divine image and divine word.
Now there are a million ways in which God could have dealt with Jacob. He could have disciplined him. Could have given him over to the wrath of his brother Esau. And, the Lord could have done absolutely nothing; remaining silent and hidden from this fugitive. And imagine what is going through Jacob's mind... "I have stolen the blessing. Is it truly mine?" Yes, his father Isaac confirmed the blessing but if he genuinely is heir, then why is he bolting from the land of promise? "I have lied to family and neighbors alike. My own brother wants to take my life." Will God's blessing be his as it was with Abraham and Isaac before him? Doubt. Fear. Anxiety. And, guilt. But the God of Abraham and Isaac is faithful in spite of the failings of his people. In a dream, God will ease the doubting son and give him confidence for the future.
The Lord shows Jacob a ladder reaching from the heights of heaven connecting to the earth. First, we should think of the tower of Babel which we encountered several weeks ago. A tower by which the men of the earth attempted to reach into the courts of heaven, not to reach God, but to reign over the earth as gods. Man cannot, by his sin, build any ladder by which he will ascend to the Lord. Here, a ladder is built down from heaven to earth. The Divine presence is the first-mover, taking the initiative to build a bridge down to man by which heaven kisses the earth; the angels and heavenly hosts descending down to do the bidding of their Master and taking the concerns of men heavenward.
The descending and ascending angels suggest their presence on earth, an expression of the intercourse which, though invisible to the natural eye, is nevertheless ever taking place between heaven and earth. Remember, the prophet Elisha whose eyes God opened to the heavenly reality in his great time of fear, "Then the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha" (2 Kings 6:17). As angels rush up and down, to and fro, God is communicating his great care and concern for the man. The hosts of angels are with him, guarding, rescuing, and protecting from every peril and danger.
The Divine bidding of heaven will continuously be worked out in Jacob's life through the service of the angels. And here is a foreshadowing of the faithfulness of God in Christ, to whom God promised and fulfilled, "For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone" (Lk 4:10-11). Dearly beloved, as it was with Jacob and Jesus, so it is with us. The angels stand before God on our behalf, as Christ said, "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven" (Mt 18:10).
“And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac." Now we have come upon the central feature of the vision: the Lord, who is standing over the stairway. Jacob sees the LORD (Jehovah, the true and only God). The Divine Lord shows himself in all of his glory standing atop the ladder as the Ruler over all of creation, sovereign over the angels, men, women, and all the affairs of heaven and earth. This means the God of Jacob's fathers is sovereign over every aspect of his life. Sovereign over each and every relational conflict, sovereign over whether or not he will take the next breath, even sovereign over this fugitives sin: for God is free to judge, open to condemn, or free to show grace and mercy.
Through this awesome image given in a dream, God assured Jacob, "I am with you." Jacob must now know that Jehovah is with him as his God; that the God of Abraham—his ancestor in faith—and the God of Isaac, will henceforth also prove himself to be the God of Jacob, from this day forth forevermore. And we who may be fleeing as fugitives, or beset by fear need to be reminded of this today. The God of Scripture is not only in heaven but on earth. He stands atop and beside the ladder which joins the transcendent and material; that which is seen and unseen, the magical and rational. Jacob needed to be reminded of this, and not merely by words, but through presence: the Divine presence above, below, beside... in every place and in every circumstance, the light of his countenance shines upon Jacob, and beloved, the glorious light of Christ shines upon us.
Let us rejoice with the psalmist who sings, "Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it. Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me" (Ps 139:5-11). The assuring presence of God shone upon Jacob as a light in the deep, dark night. The covenant-keeping God is the God of protection because He and all the legions of heaven are with us.
God knew that Jacob not only needed to see but to hear that he had not lost the Divine blessing and accompanying promises. For Jacob had most certainly (by his own volition) put them at risk. So, because the Lord "is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy"... he speaks. He speaks to Jacob because, as the psalmist declares, "The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works" (Ps 145:8-9). To Jacob would be given the land as promised.
Through Jacob, God will fulfill the Abrahamic promise to make a nation as vast as the dust of the earth, extending to every corner of creation. And, through Jacob's seed, he and all the families of the earth would be blessed. What God covenanted to do as Abraham slept deeply, he swears to do for a sleeping exile who fears he has lost the privilege of God's covenant blessing. And here we encounter, once again, the Divine pattern of rebellion, restoration, and promise of fulfillment.
"And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of." How great is the love of God which descends from heaven! He will keep the man no matter where he goes... the protection, blessing, and promises go with him. "He will not leave" until He has done every last word he has spoken. If you have ears to hear, then let the grace of covenant wash over you, "Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps His covenant of loving devotion for a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments." The Divine promise of protection given to Jacob is most surely ours who are in Christ. He will not leave us as orphans. Beloved "be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid: for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee" (Dt 31:6).
The faithfulness of God and every covenant blessing has been given to you in the Lord Jesus Christ. By faith, you have entered into the family of God, that blessed nation comprised of every family on earth. And like Jacob, you have made a baptismal vow to worship and obey the God of salvation and protection, the God of presence. And today, we come to the altar, a stone raised in the house of God, anointed with the presence of the Holy Spirit, the place where heaven and earth collide, the gate of heaven, where we climb up on the ladder which is Christ; He who bridges the gap between man and the God of heaven. Let us, therefore, arise from the slumber of sin and fear and climb into the arms of mercy and love given in the body and blood of this most holy eucharist. And be of good cheer, for the Lord is with you.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it" (1 Ths 5:23). Amen+