“And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-eighth chapter of the book of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ: Jacob saw a ladder. For a moment, heaven and earth, linked together. In a dream, the barrier between God and man, abolished. For a brief space of time, the division between Creator and creation, healed. At that instant. every obstacle between a holy and righteous God and His sinful people, removed, so that a highway could be established between the throne room of God and the dwelling place of man. Jacob saw a ladder, the angels of God ascending and descending upon it; he saw a glorious picture, one that could not be further from what he would see when he awoke.
Jacob wasn’t lying on a lavish bed in the tent of his father, he wasn’t sojourning in a rich man’s house as an honored guest. He was an exile, an outcast, alone and on the run, lying on a pillow of stone. “Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.” Why did he leave Beersheba, why is he going to Haran? Why does he use a stone for a pillow? He’s fleeing the rage of his brother Esau. He and his mother tricked father Isaac, they seized the blessing that God had promised to Jacob even from the womb, and now Jacob must escape the rage of Esau, who had something stolen that was never to be rightfully his. Jacob heard the Word of blessing from his father, no matter how deceptive the circumstances were; he heard that he would receive the inheritance, that he would rule over his brother, that any who cursed him would be cursed, that any who blessed him would be blessed. But that is not what he sees. He sees an exile and outcast; he who was to inherit the tents of Isaac, driven from them. The promises of God through his father seem very hollow now, they don’t seem to have anything to do with reality.
He sleeps the sleep of misery, the sleep of doubt. God has promised so much, but He hasn’t delivered. Jacob’s life is considerably worse than it was before he received the blessing. Maybe the words he heard weren’t worth much, maybe God wasn’t really speaking through Isaac his father, maybe God is a deceiver himself, who promises much but never delivers. Maybe He doesn’t really care for Jacob, as He said, or maybe He isn’t really there in the first place. But then Jacob goes to sleep. “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven.” Jacob sees a ladder, and from that ladder, God speaks. “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” The promise given to Abraham, the promise given to Isaac, the same promise given to Adam and Eve, is now given to Jacob. In his offspring shall the world be blessed; it would be his descendant who would crush the serpent’s head. And for that reason, for the sake of his offspring, Jacob now has the assurance that he is not alone. The promises of God go with him, not for his own sake, not because he deserves it, but for the sake of the Messiah whose blood runs in his veins. “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Then he awakes. The vision is gone; it was only a dream. Only a dream, yes, but much more than a dream: a dream that brought to Jacob the very Word of God. He looks around him, and seemingly nothing has changed. He’s still an exile and outcast, he’s still lying on a stone pillow. But in fact, everything has changed. He is no longer alone; the God of his fathers is with him. He is no longer without hope; God has affirmed His promise, He has proclaimed to him a reality that will remain true despite the danger that lies behind and the trials that are ahead. And he has learned something very important: in the midst of an evil country, on the run and surrounded by enemies, even there is the house of God. He cries out, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” The house of God is not where it is safe, where there are no problems, only prosperity; the house of God is in the midst of devils, surrounded by enemies.
The house of God is there because that is where you dwell, with Jacob, resting on stones, pursued by enemies, with no sign of blessing around you. You hear the Word of God, giving to you great and various promises. It all sounds very impressive, promises like: ‘I AM with you; I love you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ You go into the world with the blessing of Almighty God ringing in your ears: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” You hear these words, these great promises of God, declaring great things to you, but as you walk through this life, they start to ring hollow. If God really loves me, if He is really with me, why is my life so miserable, why do I get only sadness? Why do my friends abandon me, betray me? Why did my child die, why did my mother leave, why am I struck with this disease when I should have so many more good years to live? Maybe the words we hear don’t mean much, maybe God wasn’t really speaking through the pastor, maybe God is a deceiver himself, who promises much but never delivers. Maybe He doesn’t really care for me, as He said, or maybe He isn’t really there in the first place. Maybe the promises are all lies.
But then we gather in the place to hear again the Word of God. “And [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” The dream of Jacob was given for your sake; it is God’s gift to you. As it reassured him so long ago, affirming God’s promises to him, despite all that he saw, so it does the same to you today. Jacob’s ladder is the promise that one of his offspring, one chosen descendent, would link together earth and heaven, He would reconcile God and man. He would do this by being both God and man, by placing Himself between earth and heaven on the cross, linking the two by His blood, shed for the sin of the world. Jesus tells Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” They ascend and descend to gaze with wonder at the mystery that is incomprehensible, that is for your salvation. They lift up their eyes and see the glory and majesty of God above them. They look down, and they see that same Divine Majesty subject to the violence of men. The highest is the lowest, the lowest is the highest. The God of God and Lord of Lords has been made the lowest creature, subject to death, even death upon the cross. The highest and the lowest are completely united in one and the same Person, Jesus, the highest God nailed to the cross. There, suspended between earth and heaven, the Son of Man, Jesus the Offspring of Jacob joins heaven and earth together, there the promise given to Jacob is fulfilled. “In you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
This is the reality that God’s Word proclaims to you this day, and every day that you gather here, that Jesus has linked together earth and heaven, that your every sin is forgiven and your inheritance is heaven itself. Jesus and His cross abolishes every barrier between you and your God. Jacob saw a ladder, we see the cross, but they are one and the same, they proclaim the same reality, to Jacob in prophecy, to you and me now fulfilled. This reality is true despite all the evil that enters your life, it is greater than anything that might happen to you in this world of sin. We walk by faith, not by sight. Martin Luther wrote: “This is the constant course of the church at all times, namely, that promises are made and that then those who believe the promises are treated in such a way that they are compelled to wait for things that are invisible, to believe what they do not see, and to hope for what does not appear. He who does not do this is not a Christian. For Christ Himself entered into His glory only by first descending into hell. When He is about to reign, He is crucified. When He is to be glorified, He is spit on. For He must suffer first and then at length be glorified.” And having heard of this reality, proclaimed to us by God’s holy Word here in this place, we have learned the same lesson that Jacob did: God establishes His house in a land of enemies, in the midst of devils, to reassure you, to continually remind you of the promise, despite all that appear contrary. “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob saw a ladder, we see the cross. For eternity, heaven and earth, linked together. In living reality, the barrier between God and man, abolished. Forever, the division between Creator and creation, healed. At every moment until time ends, and then where time is no more, every obstacle between a holy and righteous God and His sinful people, removed, a highway established between the throne room of God and the dwelling place of man. Jacob saw a ladder, we see the cross, but it gives us the same promise as we gather here: “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Where the cross is proclaimed, that place is the house of God, that place is the gate of heaven, and that, dear friends, is where you dwell right now. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.