Sunday, July 19, 2020

Sermon: “Make a Joyful Noise: Take My Life”, Genesis 28:10-19 (July 19, 2020)


Sometimes, you make plans. Sometimes, they’re great plans: they’re carefully thought-out and designed to make the world a better place. Other times, your plans are less than noble: they involve putting yourself first or running away from your responsibilities. Either way, God often has plans that are quite different than yours: as the saying goes, we plan, and God laughs.

I had good plans this week. I had an outline of a sermon all ready to go, and I had planned to sit down and get it all taken care of early in the week so that I could relax a little bit this weekend. But God laughed, and put a new sermon, with completely different scripture and a completely different message, in my heart and on my lips. So much for that relaxing weekend!

Jacob had plans, too, although his were a bit less benign than mine. At first, his plan was to steal his brother Esau’s birthright; a plan that worked perfectly. After that, he made a new plan to escape from his brother’s wrath. And his mother added to his plan by instructing him to marry one of his cousins, so that he might avoid the scandal (*gasp!*) of marrying a Canaanite woman.

But Jacob was mistaken. Aside from his scheme to steal Esau’s birthright, all of his plans would all eventually be thwarted in one way or another: he wound up having to work 7 years for his uncle before he was able to marry Leah, and another 7 before he was able to marry his beloved Rachel. And God eventually commanded Jacob to return to his homeland, forcing a long-avoided confrontation with Esau.

But the plan about which he was most grievously mistaken is the subject of our scripture reading today. And frankly, it’s the one error that he should have been able to avoid, if he’d paid closer attention to his dream. In biblical times, dreams were well understood to be a common way for God to communicate with humanity. Jacob’s dream has three major aspects to it: a staircase (or a ladder, in many translations) that connects heaven and earth, God’s messengers travelling freely back and forth between the two, and God saying, “Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants.”

God is clearly trying to communicate something specific to Jacob. The clues are all there: a tangible connection between heaven and earth, free communication between the two, and Jacob’s descendants being named as the ones who would spread throughout the world, blessing it. But the conclusion that Jacob draws has little to do with any of these clues. He figures, “Ah, God must have gone to all this trouble to let me know that there’s something special about this place, right here where I’m standing!” So he sets up an altar and makes another plan: to establish a holy city called Bethel…and then he leaves and doesn’t return for another 30 years.

I don’t think God could have cared less about establishing sacred place in that city. God’s plans were entirely different from Jacob’s, and Jacob was completely clueless. Now, granted, God probably could have been a bit less opaque with the message, and it’s certainly reasonable to consider anywhere one encounters God “holy ground”. But to me, it seems pretty clear what God was hoping to communicate here: God wants for heaven and earth to be intimately connected to one another, with direct and open communication between humanity and the divine. And most importantly, God has decided that *Jacob’s descendants are the vehicle by which this will be accomplished.* It’s not the PLACE that’s holy; it’s the person: Jacob’s descendants are the ones through which humanity will be fully and completely reconciled to God. Bethel isn’t meant to be the ladder that connects heaven and earth. JACOB, through his descendants, is the ladder.

Now, between hindsight and the New Testament, we might be tempted to think this is just a clever reference to Jesus. As a direct descendant of Jacob, Jesus is certainly one of the ways that God fulfilled God’s plan. The King of kings and Lord of lords was born, lived, taught, died, and was resurrected for the purpose of reconciling humanity and God. Jesus IS the ladder. But Jesus isn’t the only way that we’re reconciled to God. When he ascended into heaven, Jesus left the ongoing work of reconciliation in our hands. Whether or not you’re a direct biological descendant of Jacob, you, too, are the ladder. Through Christ, we’ve ALL been adopted as children of the Covenant, and therefore we’re ALL responsible for this work set before Jacob so long ago. You—yes, YOU—have been given the task of making it possible for the world to see, hear, touch, and know heaven here and now. YOU are the ladder.

I can only speak for myself, but I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like this is too big of a burden for me to carry. The obligation to share the gospel, to convince others that God loves them (and their enemies) unconditionally, and to bring about God’s kingdom on earth—in other words, being that ladder that connects the human to the divine—often feels not only overwhelming, but hopeless. It’s easy to criticize Jacob’s cluelessness, but maybe it was actually a defense mechanism; maybe he NEEDED to not understand what God was saying so that he wouldn’t be paralyzed by the sheer enormity of the responsibility. I mean, there are plenty of times in scripture where a person responds to God’s call by protesting, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord!” and doing everything they can do avoid their call (Jonah comes immediately to mind). Maybe if Jacob HAD understood what God was telling him, he would have collapsed in a heap and never gotten up again. I know that’s what I feel like doing sometimes.

There’s a song by the singer Paula Cole from the ‘90s that beautifully expresses how I imagine Jacob would have felt had he realized God’s plan right away.[1] It’s certainly what I feel whenever I realize that by choosing to be a Christian, I have chosen to be the ladder. I don’t know for sure if she had this passage of scripture in mind when she wrote it (in fact, I have no reason to believe that), but the song is called “The Ladder”, so, you know…it’s a real handy coincidence if not. The song begins, “Look…at how futile this is. I’m so weak, so fragile, so torn.” Might Jacob, who’d deceived his father and run away from home to escape his brother’s wrath, have felt this way? Might you, an imperfect sinner, feel this way when you consider what God is asking of you in a broken world?

The chorus then perfectly describes what the work of connecting heaven and earth feels like: “I am climbing a ladder of urgency/Climbing a ladder of hope/Climbing a ladder of my emotions/Climbing a ladder of unravelling rope…” This work of reconciliation between heaven and earth is urgent, hopeful, emotional…and constantly being undone by forces both without and within us. It’s neither easy nor straightforward, but it’s imperative. And at the end of the song, Cole affirms what Jacob’s vision was, in fact, telling him, what it’s telling each of us: “I am only one thing, one thing I see, one thing I feel…I am the ladder.”

We don’t have the benefit of cluelessness to protect us from this reality. We’re the product of thousands of years of holy writings and prophets and teachings—we can’t claim ignorance of our responsibility. But there’s good news in Jacob’s vision, too. We don’t have to singlehandedly forge a meaningful connection between God and humanity on our own. When we’re tired or doubt ourselves, all is not lost. We’re in good company: Jesus is the ladder, Jacob is the ladder, Jacob’s children and grandchildren and you and I are all the ladder together. It’s a huge task, but it’s enough for each of us to do our part. To connect one person at a time, step by step. We don’t have to be the whole ladder at all times. We just need to be the next rung.

There are so many ways to do this, to connect heaven and earth. It doesn’t have to be convincing someone to come to church or to be baptized (although it certainly can be!). It can be as simple as standing up for the biblical values of love, mercy, and equality in Christ. It can be as quick as signing a petition that seeks justice. It can be as quiet as being God’s comforting presence for someone who’s suffering. It can be as boring as voting for leaders who promise to embody the principles that Jesus stands for. It can be anything, as long as it brings heaven just a little bit closer to earth.

So as you seek to be the ladder (or at least the next rung) that connects humanity to God, I commend this hymn to you. “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.” This is a big job, so let us commit whole-heartedly to the task. Take our hands, Lord…take our feet…take our voices…take our lips…take our silver and our gold…take our intellect…take our will…take our hearts…take our love…take all that we are in service to your wonderful plan. May we remember your call on our lives to connect humanity to the divine, and may we find our true identity in this purpose. I am only one thing, one thing I see, one thing I feel: I am the ladder. So are you. And together, we will bring heaven to earth and earth to heaven…just as God planned. Amen.


[1] Paula Cole, “The Ladder”:

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