Stairway to Heaven

Passage: Genesis 28:10-19
Date: July 20, 2008
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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It seems to me - - that Biblical characters encounter God more often than I do.

The Bible is FILLED with stories about people meeting God.
So why not me ? Why not you ?
And - even if you HAVE a story - why not - - more OFTEN ?
Why don't we talk more - about our meetings with God?

My seminary roommate once said that IF I ACTED more like a Biblical character - maybe God would come around more often. But REALLY - how do you act - - - - Biblically ?

In this morning's story, from the Book of Genesis, JACOB is a LONELY TRAVELER in the wilderness - - and he comes to REST at the end of a long day - - and lies his head down on a ROCK - - in an attempt to sleep. As Jacob sleeps, he ENCOUNTERS GOD in a DREAM.

Maybe it's just - - Jacob's UNCOMFORTABLE sleeping arrangement. After all he's using a ROCK for a pillow! Maybe. There are a lot of ways to explain it away...

But the heart of this story is an encounter with God, and so if we are going to take anything away from it for our lives, it seems to me, that the thing to do is open ourselves to what it might mean for us - to encounter God. This dream IS Jacob's encounter with God.

And that's the only way into this story, it seems to me.

And so - - AS I AM drawn into the story - - - then, other questions arise: In MY life, I make DISTINCTIONS - - between dreams and my AWAKE experience. I ask the question, "Is this a DREAM - or is it REALITY ?" Sometimes I PINCH myself - - to test it.

Dreams are a just in my head. Real life is the place to carry out business.

But if THAT'S true... then - why should we pay any attention to a story that's about a dream ? It's clear - - from the story - - that Jacob's night-time experience was MORE than a FANTASY. It was MORE than an INNER CONSOLATION. More than a psychological - event. IT WAS real - - in one way or other. In order to make sense of the story - - we have to make sense of that. Something HAPPENED to Jacob - a REVELATION of God - - which would effect what Jacob would DO - when he woke up.

Now it DOES seem - that THE WAY God often speaks - is through some kind of a vision about the future - something that COULD BE - that is imagined - or DREMPT - if you will. / Or - - given as REVELATION. Or - as DIVINE ENCOUNTER. And maybe part of the reason I lament not hearing God - - or seeing God - - is because I'm not listening, and not looking for this kind of thing. So one way this story works on me is to push me to do discernment.

To try to not only listen, but to envision...

No one that I know, would seriously try to deny that for Martin Luther King Jr. - - and for many of those associated with him - - his "dream" WAS in some way a divine revelation from God. When he said " I have a dream" it was a vision of a NEW future.

Another way to describe a dream - is by referring to those things we see on our eyelids while we sleep. / REM sleep - - a replaying of events of the day - - often connected with deep psychological memory. / This is a more scientific and psychological explanation.

And a lot of times, those dreams we have at night, tell us a LOT about ourselves, and our inner fears, and our inner desires. And a lot - - of that - is true about ourselves. / And - it's up to us to listen.

Another - piece of this whole conversation - - is a caution - - and it involves what happens when something in the mind - - does things we CAN'T explain completely. / Things that are NOT considered NORMAL. Sometimes people's minds malfunction - and they see all kinds of outlandish stuff in their heads. There are schizophrenic episodes. And we don't fully understand these things. But I don't think the intention of the Bible here is to move into that territory.

In any case - there are distinctions to be made between - - mental illness - - and Jungian dream analysis - - and seeing a vision of the future from God.

What the text speaks to me - - - most strongly - - - is about listening to our HOPES - for the FUTURE - and for how it could be. / Our DREAMS / And then making a connection BETWEEN our vision, and God's vision. How can we let our discernment be connected to - what God is up to?

How can we make a connection between what WE would do, and what God would have us do? Or how can we refine what we would do, by listening to what God might be up to?

To return to the Biblical story: Jacob's dream EFFECTED what he would DO when he woke up. / His dream prompted him to BUILD an altar. / He took that uncomfortable STONE which was under his head - the STONE PILLOW, which REPRESENTED all his HARDSHIP and WILDERNESS - - and he SET that stone on END - upright - it was set up as a pillar in honor of God.

And THEN - - Jacob gave this "no-place" a name.

This "no-place" was transformed - - because of an encounter with God. / It was transformed into a place of great SIGNIFICANCE. It was called "Bethel" - and would later become an important CITY in the history of Israel.

This story of Jacob - is - in a way - - a GLANCE BACK in time. /

People reading the Bible - or hearing this story - in Old Testament times - they would have KNOWN of the CITY of BETHEL. They would have known of its SIGNIFICANCE. And I think that they would have been INTRIGUED - to read this - and to get a vision of Bethel - as a BARREN LAND.
It might be a bit like the PICTURES in my FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM - - - - and yours ?? / In my album there is a picture of my DAD - standing next to a 1966 Buick - with sideburns - wearing a LEISURE SUIT. / With a shirt from 1971 that has almost made it BACK to being in style again. / You know the kind of pictures - right ?

In this picture - my dad is LOOKING OUT across the EMPTY FIELD behind our house. THAT FIELD - - is NOW transformed. / Transformed by contractors and developers. It is FULL of HOUSES. The trees are much bigger.

This BIBLICAL STORY - is a picture of the great city of Bethel - BEFORE the HOUSES ! / When it was a barren field.

AND - it is MORE than that.

Going BACK to the picture in my photo album - it is NOT ONLY the field that has been transformed. My DAD - looks different now - too. No more sideburns - for him - - even THOUGH they have come BACK in STYLE. / He no longer wears a leisure suit. / Which as far as I know - has not really come back in style - YET.

In the Biblical story - it was NOT ONLY the PLACE that was transformed.
JACOB was transformed. The people were transformed.

Through TIME - the PLACE would become the great city of Bethel. /

But Jacob was transformed as well. When Jacob WOKE UP- he set up that stone pillar - - as an ALTAR to God - - he WORSHIPPED - - and he OFFERED BACK to God. / He offered ONE TENTH of all that he had to God. / One tenth of ALL that God had GIVEN him.

In addition, Jacob's vision gave him COURAGE to CONTINUE - toward the future - of promise. / And it WAS - - a future of PROMISE. / A future in which - his OWN NAME would be changed to ISRAEL. / And he would lead God's people.

Jacob's WAKEFUL world - of loneliness - was answered by POSSIBILITY and PROMISE - of an ALTERNATIVE future - with God.

And through this text - - we ponder - - the connections between PLACE and IDENTITY. How do our visions about a PLACE - a place of life - - a new house - a church sanctuary,
or a building yet to be transformed by a capital campaign that is just getting started - -
how do they connect with our TRANSFORMING identity ?
God - - through this text - - CALLS US to make our DREAMS into REALITY.
God, CALLS us to transform - NO-PLACES into SOMEPLACES.
God, CALLS US to have COURAGE - through our hardships.
And - - God WILL MEET US - - as we respond to the calling.
That's the promise.

The WORK involved - - is the work of lifting that STONE - of BUILDING the ALTAR - of listening for God - of waiting on the encounter.

And I think about that - as I glance BACK - at the PAST.

Three former locations for the congregation of Westminster - indicated on the pew cushion - the lunch counter - the Weidler street building...
Vacation Bible Schools. / Youth mission trips / Ministry with homeless. / A ministry of MUSIC. / A partnership with Cuba. /
Just this past week I sat with Jim, and Nancy Johns, and members of the Outreach Committee, as we talked with Pedro about the Cuba partnership, and the last 10 years. 10 years! We celebrated the past. And we wondered about the future.

Think for a minute - - about YOUR PAST. / Your Church's and your OWN. / Our NATION'S past. / Wars and struggles. / Joys and triumphs. Glance back in time.

And THINK - of those events - in which ORDINARY things - were TRANSFORMED by God's Spirit - - and DREAMS came true.
NOW - - think - - of those dreams we are STILL GOING AFTER.
Ways WE might take hold -
- - of God's promise of transformation in our lives.

One dream I have - - is that we might ALL - - reclaim our FAITH - - as Christians - - for PEACE - - in a troubled world. / I dream that we could more clearly articulate the connections between our faith in God, and our human activities. And I believe that when we do that with people who are different from ourselves, we are on to something that God wants from us. And that through that we could bring healing and reconciliation.

I dream that Westminster CHURCH will GROW - - in spirit and in love. / To support and love and understand each other MORE FULLY. / And to RISK - - with each other - - to risk being honest and BOLD - - and to put human relationship and reconciliation at the heart of all we do.

I dream hat - - - STEP - by - STEP - - like up a ladder - - - we might even encounter God - together - in ways we can NAME and talk about.
Jacob's dream - - contains the famous vision - - called JACOB'S LADDER. / In fact - it is more accurately TRANSLATED into ENGLISH - from Hebrew -- by saying "STAIRWAY" / The dream - is in fact - about a STAIRWAY to HEAVEN.

Which is the title of a 70's rock album by Led Zeppelin.
But the idea - does NOT belong to Led Zeppelin.

And it is TIME - - we Christians - - RECLAIM it. / That we not be AFRAID - - of the culture - and society - and music around us - - - because it looks different - - - but INSTEAD - to LIVE THERE - - - and to be a witness.

According to the Book of Genesis - - this stairway was 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 - - - ANGELS - were climbing UP and DOWN.
EARTH and GOD - - - WERE - - - connected.
HEAVEN - - IS concerned with us. With EARTH.
And the place where Jacob dwelt WAS the place for Divine encounters. / God encounters us HERE on earth...

I learned - that Mesopotamian temples during this time period - were constructed as large land masses - - with a RAMP - reaching toward heaven. / The uppermost part of the TEMPLE was considered the dwelling-place of God. /
So - - I ask you to REMEMBER this FACT for a minute.
I discovered it as I researched this sermon.

As I thought about it - and about Jacob's stairway - I remembered a temple I had seen in Mexico. / When I was in Mexico City with a friend of mine - we went to a pyramid shaped temple on the outskirts of the city. / It is called the "Temple of the Sun". / We climbed to the top and took pictures like good tourists.
I'm not sure we had any aspirations to reach heaven. / As we were looking through the many possible souvenir choices for sale, someone told us a STORY about the temple:
Apparently it HAD BEEN the TALLEST such temple in the world at one time. / During escavation, archeologists were PLEASED to have a NEW TECHNIQUE at their disposal - involving Dynamite - - As the story went - - an UNFORTUNATE archeologist MISCALCULATED and blew the TOP off the temple. / /

Creating - the world's - SECOND tallest - such temple. / /

I would not want - to have been that archaeologist the next day at staff meeting!

BUT - - - when I think about MY OWN aspirations toward heaven - - I have to tell you- - that I sometimes feel like - - the God part - - on top - - has been blown off - - and is out of reach.
Things are more difficult - when you get INTO them - - more difficult than they first appeared. We set big goals - and then we wonder if we can achieve them...

Financial goals - numerical goals - study goals - mission goals - ministry goals -

But this morning's story - - URGES us - - to continue to aspire toward heaven - - and to KNOW - - that God WILL extend a ladder down toward us.
And when WE CAN'T even find the energy to climb - -
- - God - - will climb DOWN to us.
After all - Jacob was a DECEPTIVE man - - who TRICKED his brother out of his birthright - - - by disguising himself with HAIR on his arms - - before their nearly BLIND father. - - - Remember ? It turns out that Biblical characters are NOT ALL - all that virtuous after all.

Because no matter how SYMPATHETIC we are - - for poor old Jacob in the wilderness - - can our sympathy really overcome the fact that he was DISHONEST.
But - the Bible - does NOT judge that.

The Bible does not ASK the QUESTION - -
"is Jacob a DESERVING man ?".

The Bible - simply tells a story of a - - dishonest - - lost man - - wandering in exile in the wilderness - - who RECEIVES God's grace.

The encounter is COMPLETELY on God's initiative.
Jacob is not LOOKING for it. All Jacob wants is safety.

But like Jacob - - - SO MAY WE BE - - -
- - TRANSFORMED - - when we LEAST expect it.
Transformed - - by an encounter with God's love.

If God chooses to transform Jacob, surely WE have a chance too...

Jacob's life is transformed by a VISION - - - of a new - - and HOPEFUL - - future.

That love - - - and that VISION - - together - -
- - LIFT Jacob - - from his sleep - -
- - and as he awakens - - he lifts that ROCK - -
- - and then he lifts his FEET - - and
- - he BEGINS - - TO - - CLIMB - - up that stairway - -
One step at a time.