This sermon is part of the sermon series "A Messy, Blessed Life". See series.
There's a story oft-told on the Internet—true or not, I don't know—about Susan, a 34-year-old woman who lost her sight due to a medical misdiagnosis. She fell into a deep depression. Once fiercely independent, now she couldn't function. Her husband, Mark, suffered along with her. Mark loved his wife and was determined to help her, so he worked with her on each of the skills needed for her to return to independent living. After many months, Susan decided she could return to work. Every day, Mark, an Air Force officer, would drive his wife to work, walk her into the office, make sure she was settled, leave to go work at his base across town, and then pick her up at the end of the day. This went on for several weeks. But for reasons of distance, cost, and time, it couldn't go on that way. Mark told Susan that she would have to learn to take the bus. "But I can't ride the bus to work," she replied. "I'm blind. How am I going to know how many stairs there are? How am I going to know what path to take? I feel like you are abandoning me." Just as he had done from the very beginning, Mark promised that he would do whatever it took to help her until she felt confident and independent on the bus. He helped her with the routes. He helped her learn the stairs and learn the paths. Finally, after two weeks of practice, Susan faced the journey alone one Monday morning.
No matter where God takes you, God is with you.
During the events outlined in our passage, I think Jacob felt like Susan. He was a homebody. The Bible says he preferred "staying among the tents." He was not your "wild at heart" kind of guy. But now he was on the run. His brother Esau had threatened to kill him for tricking him out of God's blessing. As a result Jacob had taken off with nothing but his walking stick—and guilt for all the trouble he had caused at home.
The text tells us that Jacob was heading for Haran, the place God had told his grandfather Abraham to leave. It was nearly 600 miles north of his home in Beersheba—a journey of maybe a month. He was all alone, looking nervously over his shoulder. He had a long, frightening journey ahead of him and a very uncertain future. He soon bedded down for the night in the desolate, rocky hills.
Maybe you're in the same situation as Jacob—stuck in a dark, lonely night filled with uncertainty. You go to your first AA meeting. You have an appointment with the attorney. You're in the hospital room or the empty house. You just received the pink slip. You're stuck in endless depression. All these places are desolate places. Maybe, like Jacob, it's your own fault that you're in that desolate place. Maybe it's not. But either way, you're out there on your own.
But are you?
Let's go back to the story of Susan. Susan made her way to work, on her own, every day for a week. On that Friday morning, Susan made her way onto the bus, and as she went to pay her fare, the bus driver said, "Ma'am, I envy you." Susan said, "Are you talking to me? What do you mean?" The driver replied, "Every morning for the past week, a fine looking gentleman in a military uniform has been standing across the corner watching you when you get off the bus. He makes sure you cross the street safely, and he watches you until you enter your office building. He never takes his eyes off you. Then he blows you a kiss, gives you a little salute, and walks away. You are one lucky lady."
For Jacob, it happened this way: on that dark night he had a dream. The drama of it all is recorded in verses 10-13. Let me roughly translate: He had a dream. Look at that! A stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching to heaven. And there—look! The angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And do you see that?! Above it [or 'above him'] stood the Lord!
In other words, God had fixed his love on Jacob, just as he has fixed his love on you—if your faith is in Christ. What Jacob learned that night is still true for those whom God blesses: no matter where life takes you, God is with you. Most dreams are windows into our own heads, but Jacob's dream that night was a window into another dimension. He saw in his dream a reality that we are not equipped to see: God is actually near us.
When we say, "God is with me," the concept is a bit vague. But here we get a look at what God's presence with us is like. Jacob thought he had stumbled onto a holy place no one knew about—the one secret passage from heaven to earth. "This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!" he exclaims in verse 17. But the stairway from heaven was there because Jacob was there, and God was with Jacob.
There is, you might say, a stairway from God to wherever you are. When Jesus was choosing his disciples, he met Nathanael. Jesus astonished Nathanael by telling him he had seen him under a tree before they even met. Here's their exchange from John 1:49-51:
Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel." Jesus said, "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that." He then added, "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."
Jesus is telling him that Nathanael will have a Jacob's ladder experience. Jacob's dream confirmed to Jacob that he was the bearer of God's blessing to the whole world. Jesus is telling Nathanael that he was going to see proof that Jesus is greater than Jacob. What's more, the rest of the New Testament shows us how Jesus became the ladder that leads straight from God to us. The text speaks of "the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." God's stairway leads to you because Jesus is with you, and Jesus is the bridge from heaven to earth. He is the reason the Bible says in Hebrews 4:15-16, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." We can always mount the stairs to God's throne, so come boldly!
We know from our two texts that God's angels travel his stairway to your life. I puzzled over these angels going up and down the steps. Was this for show? No! They are the messengers and servants of God in this world. Angels in disguise had been the ones to bring God's message of hope to Jacob's grandfather, Abraham. In Abraham's day angels were the ones who delivered Lot and his family from Sodom and Gomorrah. I think the angels Jacob saw on the stairs were angels dispatched by God to guard his life. Twenty years later, when Jacob finally parts with his uncle Laban in Genesis 32:1-2, the text says, "Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him." Consider also Psalm 91:11-12: "God will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone." Hebrews 1:14 asks, "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?"
God sends his angels to protect and guide you and me, as surely as he did for Jacob. I would put it this way: God himself watches over you at the top of the stairs. When the text says, "There stood the Lord," had God strolled into that spot at that moment? Of course not! God is always attending to those he has promised to bless. Psalm 139 says, "O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord."
The Lord who stands at the top of the stairs speaks to Jacob in verses 13-14, and as great as the vision of God was, the promises he spoke were a greater gift. These particular promises identified Jacob as the man through whom God would build a great nation and from whom the Messiah would one day come.
Notice God's promise, then, in verse 15: "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go." Just as it was for Jacob, God's promises are our strength. Throughout our lives, this is the promise of God that will sustain us: "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go." The first phrase, "I am with you," promises God's presence, while the second phrase, "I will watch over you," assures us of God's protection. If there is any more oft-repeated assurance in the Bible, I can't think of what it is. It is what God told Jacob's father, Isaac, and it is what God would tell Jacob's son, Joseph. It is what God told Moses when he sent Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt, and it is what God told the children of Israel when he led them out. It is what God told Joshua when it was his duty to take hold of the Promised Land. It is what God told Gideon when he faced a Midianite army too big to count. It is what God promised the chastened Israelites in their exile. It is what Jesus promised his disciples: "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." It is what Paul promised us in Romans 8: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." It is what God promises you in the blessing he first gave to Aaron: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."
There is one more great promise from God in verse 15: "And I will bring you back to this land." It took 20 years, but God did bring Jacob home. Many years later, he would die in Egypt, but his sons honored their vow and brought his bones home to the land God had promised.
Just as we have a better staircase than Jacob saw, so we have a better Promised Land. We have this promise: no matter where life takes you, God will bring you home. For us, it is not only that holy land in Israel, but the new heavens and new earth, where life runs in the rivers and grows on trees. We all have a yearning for a home we have never found. C. S. Lewis wrote, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." No matter where your life's journey takes you, no matter how desolate or far from home, God is with you, and God will bring you home.
Vow that the Lord will be your God.
The way Jacob responded to his dream is an important part of this story. In verses 16-22, he offers a vow of service to God and worship of God. This vow might sound like Jacob may be hedging his bets—"If God will, then I will." Knowing Jacob, that could be what he meant! But the Hebrew word could just as easily mean "since"—"Since God has promised me all this, then the Lord will be my God."
God kept his word to Jacob, and Jacob kept his vow. But what about you? Given God's great promises to you, you need to vow that the Lord will be your God. Like Jacob, vow never to forget how near God is to you. Close your eyes often, and remember how near are the stairs of God, how attendant are the angels to your care, how closely God watches you. Remember God's promise in all the desolate places of life: "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go." Vow to give God credit for all the care he shows you—for the food and clothing he gives you, for the safety of your journey, for his presence in danger. Give him the glory for always being your spiritual home, for the promise that one day he will bring you to that bright land he has promised. Vow to give God a tribute—a tithe—from what he has given you. All this, so that you never forget that the blessings of your life are from him—that you are indebted to his love, and that he is your King.
That dark night, between a rock and a hard place, Jacob saw and heard God in a way that changed his life. He saw that God was nearer to him than he ever imagined, and that no matter where he was or where he'd go, God's promise, "I am with you and will watch over you," was his vigilant sentinel. Thanks to Jesus Christ, so it is for us as well.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.