Sermon 06-05-16: “Stairway to Heaven”

June 10, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

Jacob is nobody’s idea of an obvious candidate for the many blessings that God bestows upon him. But God still chooses him. Why? Because of grace—not because Jacob does anything to deserve these blessings. This sermon explores the meaning of grace and how a God of perfect justice can give us grace so liberally. Hint: This is where we see Jesus in today’s scripture!

Sermon Text: Genesis 28:10-22

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Since I became an adult, I have been afflicted with recurring bad dreams. They’re almost always related to school. In one of these dreams, I get a call one day—out of the blue—from the principal of my high school. I’m sure Mr. Burns has long since retired now—and, besides, my high school is no longer a high school; it’s a middle school.

But in my dream it’s still a high school, and Mr. Burns is still the principal.

He informs me that there was a mistake in the record-keeping back in 1988 when I graduated, and, as it happens, I’m going to have to go back to high school in order to receive all the necessary credits I need to earn my diploma. And, oh, by the way… If I don’t go back to high school, they’re going to call Georgia Tech and Emory University and tell them to take away the three degrees that I earned between those two schools.

I’m pretty sure my old high school didn’t have the authority to do that, but in my dream it did!

In another dream, I’m back at Georgia Tech, except I’m the age I am now—taking classes I took twenty years ago. Except this time I have no idea what’s going on. And I have no idea why I’m taking these classes again, since I already have my degree… Which I’m not using anymore anyway. It doesn’t make sense. And that’s what finally causes me to wake up: I think, “I don’t have to take these engineering classes. I’m a pastor now. What am I doing?”

So I wake up as if in a cold sweat. Nervous! Then I feel a great sense of relief—after a few moments pass when I realize that it was only a dream! “Thank God, it was only a dream!”

If only I had more happy dreams—dreams that are so gloriously good that I’m disappointed to wake up! “AwwThat was only a dream! Too bad it wasn’t real.”

Jacob’s dream, in today’s scripture, was obviously one of the good kind of dreams—the best kind, in fact. Because when Jacob woke up, he didn’t wonder whether it was real or not. He knew it was real. He knew that God was really in that place, that God was really speaking to him, that God was promising to bless him beyond his wildest dreams!

Let’s first talk about what he sees in his dream. He sees a stairway to heaven. I promise if Dana weren’t just starting her new job as music director today, I would have had her play that classic Led Zeppelin song—at least instrumentally—but I don’t want her to think I’m completely weird before we’ve even had a chance to work together! But it’s a stairway from the ground reaching up into heaven. And he sees angels—possibly hundreds, thousands—ascending and descending on it. And suddenly he sees the Lord himself standing beside him—as if pre-incarnate Jesus Christ himself had come down the stairway, from heaven to earth, to be with Jacob—to give Jacob access to heaven, access to God.

Jacob’s vision reminds us of a story in 2 Kings 6, involving the prophet Elisha. Elisha is in a city that under siege—surrounded by enemy forces. And Elisha’s servant is deathly afraid: “What are we going to do? We’re finished!” And Elisha is unusually calm. And he tells his servant, “Don’t be afraid. There’s more who are with us than are with them.” And he prays that the Lord will open his servants eyes to see the truth. And the Bible says, “So 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.”

“We are standing on holy ground/ And I know that there are angels all around.” That song is an every day reality for all of us! Did you know that? There’s nothing special about the place where Elisha and his servant were standing; there was nothing special about where Jacob was sleeping; yet God lifted the veil separating heaven and earth and they saw that they were surrounded by a spiritual reality that was so much greater, so much deeper, than what they could normally see with their eyes or touch with their hands. God’s angels were all around them—fighting for them, working on their behalf, working to accomplish God’s purposes and plans for their lives and for our world.

If that’s true for God’s people back then, it’s equally true for God’s people today! So what do we have to be afraid of? When you’re in the operating room, having some scary surgery, God’s angels are surrounding you. When you’re taking that final exam or standardized test or SAT, God’s angels are surrounding you. When you’re facing a difficult challenge at work, or in your family, or in your marriage, God’s angels are surrounding you. Don’t be afraid! God has got this under control—even if you can’t understand exactly how!

Pastor Tim Keller, in New York City, preached on this scripture in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. And he pointed out that people are often getting angry with God for allowing so much pain and suffering and evil. Especially in light of 9/11. “Why, God, didn’t you stop this?” And Keller said something profound: he said that if you believe in a God who’s great enough and powerful enough to prevent some bad thing from happening, then you also believe in a God who’s great enough and powerful enough to see something about this situation that you yourself can’t see—to see how God is working through this event, and using this event, to accomplish his will and his purpose and his plan in the world—to see how God is protecting us and loving us and working for our good.

It stands to reason that this is true. We are finite; God is infinite. We see this much of reality [fingers together]; God sees this much [arms apart]. So we can trust him. ““Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

But if we have followed Jacob’s story up to this point, then we ought to be surprised that God comes to Jacob in this way—and makes these gracious promises to him and reassures him in this way.

You may remember Jacob’s story: Jacob is the second-born fraternal twin son of Isaac. Esau is his older brother. Their mother, Rebekah, reported that it felt as if the two were fighting in her womb. And it doesn’t get any better after they’re born. As the first-born son, Esau was entitled to a special birthright—which meant that he would receive two-thirds of his father’s estate after his father died. Except Jacob takes advantage of his brother and persuades him to sell his birthright to him for next to nothing.

Even worse is what Jacob does to acquire the special blessing that his older brother was entitled to receive from his father. Late in his life, when Isaac’s health is failing, including his eyesight, he’s on his deathbed, and he’s ready to give his blessing to Esau. He asks Esau to go hunt some game, prepare a delicious meal, and serve it to him. And when he does that, Isaac will give Esau the blessing that’s reserved for the older son. When Jacob finds out what his father is going to do, however, he conspires with his mother, Rebekah, to trick his father into thinking that Jacob is Esau. While his brother is out hunting game, Isaac puts on his brother’s clothes, which smell like Esau. His mother cooks up some meet in the kitchen that she already has. And Jacob brings it in to Isaac, pretending to be his brother. When Isaac wonders how “Esau” managed to go hunting and prepare the meal so quickly, Jacob says, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Which, in addition to being a lie, is also taking the Lord’s name in vain.

But the ruse works, and Isaac blesses Jacob instead of Esau. And Esau is so angry he vows to murder his brother.

When Jacob finds out about his brother’s intentions, does he summon the courage to confront his brother—try to work things out, seek his brother’s forgiveness, be reconciled to brother—which is the Christian thing to do. Or does he get the heck out of Dodge while the getting’s good! That’s right… He gets the heck out of Dodge. With his mother’s help, he runs away—far away.

And that’s what we see him doing in today’s scripture: running away; fleeing his father’s household; fleeing the Promised Land; going back to Haran, the place where God first called his grandfather, Abraham.

After all that—after he schemes, swindles, manipulates, and cheats his brother, Esau; after he hurts Esau so badly that his brother vows to murder him; after he lies to his father; after he takes God’s name in vain and shows no faith in God whatsoever; he doesn’t pray; he isn’t seeking God; he doesn’t care about God, except for what God can do for him—after all that—God gives him this heavenly vision, and reassures him with one grand promise after another: “I will give you the land you’re lying on. I’ll make your descendants like the dust of the earth. I’ll bless the world through them; I’ll protect you always; I’ll be with you always; I’ll bring you back safely to this land.”

And even after God makes all these unconditional promises to Jacob—notice God doesn’t say, “If you do this, that, and the other thing, then I’ll bless you”—does Jacob repent? Does he say, “I now see how wrong I was”? Does he say, “I’m sorry, God, for being so selfish and self-centered. Please forgive me for all my sins. Having seen the error of my ways, I’m now going to trust in you completely”?

Does Jacob say that?

Not even close. While God says, “I will do all these things” with no strings attached, Jacob says, in response, “If God does this, and if God does that, and if God does the other thing, then—then—he will be my God.”

You gotta admit, it’s kind of a disappointing response, right? And why does Jacob’s response disappoint us? Because when we get right down to it, we don’t like grace very much. We don’t like the fact that Jacob doesn’t deserve any of these blessings. We like earning our blessings! We live by the maxim, “You reap what you sow.” We like when everyone else gets exactly what they deserve. At least as long as we don’t reflect too much on our own thoughts and actions—and what we deserve. Because when we do that—when we see how foolish and fallible and sinful we often are—well, then we’re all about grace, grace, grace! 

I mean, think about the story that everyone was talking about last week. Before last week, who would have guessed that there were about 193 million zoo-keeping experts in the world? Worse, who would have guessed that there were at least as many parenting experts in the world? This mother, these experts say, deserves punishment—from law enforcement, from the courts, from state agencies—on account of her criminal negligence. “Throw the book at this mother!” they say. “Call DFACS. Take her children away from her! She’s obviously unfit to be a parent!”

Why? Because she did something, of course, that none of the rest of us parents have ever done. We’ve never failed to watch our small child for a moment or two! We’ve never let our attention lapse for a moment or two. We’ve never been distracted for a moment or two…

I’m not denying that she isn’t at least partly responsible, or she isn’t at least partly to blame! Of course she is. It’s just… speaking as a parent… “There but for the grace of God go I!” If she deserves punishment for her wrongdoing—in parenting or any other part of life—so do I! Thank God there’s grace!

And this is true in church, you know? We often get so angry and indignant with our brothers and sisters—we get angry with our pastor, we get angry with other leaders in the church. And we say, “How could they do that! They’re terrible human beings.” But when we do, I wonder, are we forgetting who we are? Church is a hospital for sinners. None of us would be here if we didn’t have a serious problem with sin. And yet God has forgiven us. I mean, God has already had to forgive so much within each one of us just between the time we woke up this morning until now.

So we remember God’s grace toward us. And that will help us be grace-filled toward others. Thank God that through Christ God doesn’t give us what we deserve!

After all, Jacob deserved a lightning bolt from heaven. What he received instead was a stairway from heaven. That’s God’s grace. Where does it come from? How is it that God is able to relate to us on the basis of grace instead of justice—giving us what we deserve?

They say in children’s Sunday school, “Jesus” is the right answer to every question. Well, he’s the right answer here in Genesis 28. How do I know this?

Well, in John chapter 1, one of Jesus’ disciples, Nathanael, also known as Bartholomew, places his faith Jesus because Jesus knows something about him that only God could know. And Nathanael says, “You’re the one! You’re the Messiah! You’re the Son of God!” And Jesus says, “You believe in me because I said this thing to you. You  haven’t seen anything yet! Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Notice: Jesus is referring to today’s scripture. And what does he say? I’m the stairway to heaven.

See, all other religions in the world promise some sort of “stairway to heaven.” That’s nothing new. So how do you ascend the stairway—you follow these steps; you meet these requirements; you obey these laws. So, for example, religion offers things like the Five Pillars of Islam; or the Eightfold Path of Buddhism; or the Ten Commandments of Judaism. In Christianity, by contrast, Jesus doesn’t say, “I’ve come to show you the steps you have to take in order to get to heaven.” Which is a good thing, because one of those steps is “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and Jesus knows we can’t do that! Jesus doesn’t say, “You have to be perfect in order to get to heaven.” He says, “I’ll be perfect for you.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Here are the steps you need to follow.” He says, “I am the steps.” Jesus doesn’t say, “I’ll show you the way to the Father.” Jesus says, “I am the way to the Father.”

Jesus did it all for us! Jesus is the stairway—the bridge—connecting heaven and earth. Jesus lived the life of perfect obedience to the Father that Jacob, and you and me were unable to live; and he died the death and suffered the punishment that sinners like Jacob and you and me deserved to die and suffer.

This stairway is nothing less the cross of Jesus Christ. And God is showing us way back in Genesis 28 that it’s available to all of us, if we’ll only confess Jesus Christ as Lord, believe God raised him from the dead, and follow him as Lord of our lives…


17 Responses to “Sermon 06-05-16: “Stairway to Heaven””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I totally agree that God’s action toward Jacob in the “stairway to Heaven” incident is stunning, and a clear manifestation of grace. However, as you know I am reluctant to concur that we, as it were, have “nothing” to do with such blessings (I don’t believe that you do either, but it can come across that way in some sermons like this). It is true that none of us (even Abraham and Daniel, for example) “deserve” the blessings we get from God. Yet that does not mean we can do simply “nothing” and still get them. It was Jesus, after all, who was the one who made the statement: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.”

    So, how do we understand Jacob’s experience in this light, since, as you point out very well, he appears to have done nothing to get the blessings? Quite the contrary, he deserves punishment, as you note. I believe we should recall that “God calls the end as though it was the beginning.” With Abraham, for example, Paul tells us (as Genesis does) that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him as righteousness.” But what does James say? “Was not our father Abraham justified when he offered up Isaac on the altar?” This corresponds to God saying, “Now I know,” in the Genesis account of the “altar” episode. Therefore, in a sense we can say, “Because I know what you will do in the future, I will begin blessing you now.” Regardless, of course, even nothing we can do “in the future” can “warrant” God’s blessings–it is still grace. But that does not mean God is not looking at “something” at all when he decides toward whom to extend grace.

    What sort of “conduct” is it, then, that God is “looking for”? Jacob’s case is again illustrative in that regard–it may not seem to be very much. The most notable thing that I see Jacob as doing is wrestling with God when he was about to encounter Esau. Although perhaps not totally clear, I think Jacob was saying to God, “Only if you bless me will I be able to meet Esau and keep my head.” He was recognizing his need for, and trust in, God–faith. “For without faith it is impossible to please God. For he that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He rewards them that diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6. The tax collector was justified when he said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” He knew that without God, he was doomed. So he cried out to God–in faith. No amount of “works” are enough on their own–it must be by faith. Ephesians 2:8-9.

    Consequently, God is looking for “something,” whether presently or prospectively, to extend to us the grace of salvation (and other things). But the thing God is looking toward, at least (in my view), is the very “crying out to God” in faith that He can and will save us as a consequence. (We still need to recall, with James, that “faith without words is dead.” It may take “action” to demonstrate or exemplify faith, as with Abraham. But I think faith is the key.)

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Here you go again, Tom.

    God is looking for nothing from us, when it comes to His extension of Grace. It it was dependent to something we must do, no matter how small, it would not be Grace.

    Unless, of course, you count the need for us to put our faith in the stairs; in Jesus, which guarantees the fulfillment of God’s promise to hear us and forgive us and take us home.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      You are right, Grant: Here we go again! As I left off in the last exchange we had on this issue, I say God is looking for “something” in to whom he extends grace, while you say, as I understand you, that God is looking at “nothing” in to whom he extends grace. Right? As for me, if it is “nothing,” then God is “arbitrary”, wouldn’t you agree? I don’t like to see God in that light, if there is some way I can avoid that and still be true to scripture. What I say above is chock full of scripture. “Grace” means: “You don’t deserve this.” It does not mean, “I have no particular reason to give you this, but I am giving it to you anyway–but not to the next fellow.”

      • Grant Essex Says:

        No, it doesn’t mean that God is “arbitrary”. It means that God is sovereign, and that He has His own reasons for what He does, whether we understand them or not.

        However, I do believe with all my heart that God expects much from us after He extends His Saving Grace. For, as James says, “Faith without works is dead”.

        It is also true that most people aren’t just walking along minding their own business when God suddenly zaps them with some Grace. For the most part they are “seeker”, knocking at the door. And God says that He will never turn away an ernest seeker. But, there are also “Sauls”, who are not seeking, but whom drags home. I myself was a little of each. 🙂

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Okay, well, it seems that we may agree more than I thought if you are conceding “seeker.” That goes along with Hebrews 11:6. As to Saul, even though he was not seeking “Jesus,” he was trying to follow God as best he understood God to be. Also as to Saul, again as I say God “calls the end as though it were the beginning.” Hardly anyone put out the effort to serve God any more than Paul did.

        However, I still find it interesting that you don’t directly answer my question of whether God looks at “nothing” in the persons he selects, as opposed to “something.” Which is it?

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Of course God “looks”. He sees/knows our every thought and inclination. I just don’t think that what he sees is a factor in the extension of His Grace.

    However, I admit to reality that we are both skating on ice we don’t really understand, and for that reason we have to try and come up with “answers” that make sense to us. I also believe that it pleases God that we make this effort. God always likes it when we take Him seriously. In some sense, I will never cease to be a seeker this side of heaven.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Grant, I think you have basically answered by question when you say, “I just don’t think that what he sees is a factor in the extension of His Grace.” Whatever God sees, his extension of grace is not due to “anything” in us. I disagree with that. As you note, however, and I agree, neither of us “fully understands” God and his sovereignty. For my part, though, I think God is looking for “faith,” whether before or after his “selection” (which is all the same with God).

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    Brent, I just love the last 3 paragraphs of your sermon. You are one Methodist pastor who really “gets it”.

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    Sic fiat.

  6. Tom Harkins Says:

    So, Brent, can I pull you in? Do you think God is looking for “faith” (or, perhaps, humility, or something like that) in to whom he extends saving grace?

    • brentwhite Says:

      I walk away from my blog for an hour or so, and it just blows up! 😉

      Tom, I side with Grant more than you on this question. I don’t think God “sees the end as the beginning.” If that were true, then I don’t see how we avoid works righteousness—even if only in part, in which case we’d still have room to boast. The only basis on which we’re saved is Christ’s righteousness, which (alongside the Reformers) I believe is imputed to us as a free gift.

      So in one sense, what God “looks for” is Christ’s righteousness. And in another sense, God looks for faith: but we are only able to come to faith through the “prevenient” work of the Holy Spirit. While, as an Arminian, I don’t believe God determines our decision to accept or reject Christ, we are also unable to make that choice apart from his grace.

      All that to say, I believe that whatever we bring to our side of this divine-human equation counts for nothing. It’s all God’s grace… based on the atoning work of his Son.

      I swear this question seemed easier in seminary. I wish I had asked more questions!

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Okay, I get the “no boasting,” but I think that may be overemphasized. Clearly (in my view) we have to have faith. Hebrews 11. Both Hebrews and James indicate that faith must be “proved up” by works. So, if the “proof is in the pudding,” so to speak, doesn’t that mean that SOME “works” are necessary, in the ultimate analysis?

        We can’t “merit” heaven based on works (which is the point of the no boasting, as I see it–recall that Paul was responding to the “Judaizers” in his writings, who thought they could “earn” their way into heaven). But I don’t see how “not meriting” and “doing nothing” are “co-extensive.”

        I don’t have to give my kids any allowance. It is enough that I feed and clothe them. But by grace I give them some; however, I do insist on some chores done before I give the allowances. So, do they “merit” the allowances? No–again, they have no claim on me to get that; it is a matter of grace that I give them any allowance at all. But it is still “necessary” that they “do something” to get them. I have a right to make that “demand” of them.

        In the same fashion, God is gracious to let us into Heaven–nobody is “worthy” of it except Christ. So he dies in our place to “pay the price.” But, still, God may “demand something” on our part before he “applies” the sacrifice to us in particular. It is clear he does not apply it “across the board” to everybody. In fact, Jesus said “few” will be saved. So, clearly there must be “something” that puts us “on the other side of the line.” As I see it, that “something” is our faith. Can’t brag that we “deserve” heaven or “earned our way there” (as the Judaizers thought). But God does have the right to demand “faith” from us to get in. In my view, he does. It is “by grace” that we are saved “through faith,” rather than “earning it” through works because we can’t do enough, or good enough, works. But “faith” is the “entry fee.” Without that, we have absolute predestination, pure and simple, which to me would make God “arbitrary” under any reasonable interpretation of that term. I prefer “faith” over “arbitrariness.”

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Thanks Brent “It’s all grace”. That is one certainty. But, I admit that the exact nature of God’s “prevenient grace” is a mystery to me. I know it is what enables me to do what I could not do on my own, but why then does it work for me, but not for my non-believing neighbor? Isn’t God’s prevenient grace for all?

  7. Tom Harkins Says:

    A final thought before I leave for the weekend. “Consider my servant Job,” God says. God does not say, “Consider me, for what I have made Job do,” or, “Consider my servant Job, who has done nothing worthy of any praise, but as to whom I will brag anyway because I have done something in him.” No, he brags on Job. In Ezekiel, God lists three people, and says that even if they lived in a certain town, they would “save only themselves,” and not the rest of the town. Almost again sounds like God is bragging on someone. Noah, scripture says, was “blameless, righteous in his generation.” As a result, God chose Noah to save from the Flood. Enoch “walked with God, as a result of which God took him” without his having to see death. Daniel was called by Gabriel as being “greatly loved” or “highly esteemed.” I even think it may be significant of Stephen as he was being stoned that he saw Jesus “standing” a the right hand of God, as one would stand when someone noteworthy is passing by (makes me teary-eyed when the black gentleman in “To Kill a Mockingbird” says, “Stand up, Scout, your father’s passing by.”).

    So, it is entirely clear from scripture that God brags on people, even if they are not supposed to brag on themselves. “Let some other man praise you, and not you yourself.” “Let no man think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (not, “Don’t think of yourself highly at all”). “Each man should esteem the other as greater than himself” (not, “Nobody should think highly of anybody”). God, obviously, is not “making a mistake” in this regard. Consequently, there is a “place” for thinking that people can “please God.” “For WITHOUT FAITH it is impossible to PLEASE God,” not, “Nobody can please God.” Therefore, it is absolutely clear to me that God “looks at something” in people and “thinks better of them” than he does of other people (see again the “if these three” reference).

    Consequently, I have to take the “boasting” reference in Ephesians 2:9 to simply mean, “Can’t boast of having ‘earned’ salvation [as in, good enough to “pay the freight”].” Not, can’t have “faith” as attributed to “something within the person himself.” Note that in Hebrews 11 God says about the faithful, to the effect, “As a result of which God was pleased to be called their God.” God was bragging on their faith! Consequently, I maintain my position that God looks to something in those he elects to save to choose them for salvation, and not the others (selecting Noah–the rest to die in the Flood), and that “something” is their faith. “Go your way, your faith has saved you,” Jesus says.

  8. Tom Harkins Says:

    Grant, your question about the “sweep” or “extent” of God’s grace is very interesting. To me it indicates that the idea that “God simply selects” is a difficult one to accept. That is a major reason why I believe that God “extends grace to be saved” based on faith, or perhaps something else, in the person “graced.” If not, then, indeed, God’s unilateral “selection” of “those to be graced is problematic.

  9. Grant Essex Says:

    I know. We just have a different view on what God is “allowed to do” and still be “fair”.

    I believe that God, in His infinite wisdom, can make choices like that.

    It’s just something we won’t agree on, but not “a hill to die on”, because it is beyond our understanding.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Definitely not a hill to die on! What we know for sure is that we have been recipients of undeserved mercy, forgiveness, and grace. If I truly believed that, why wouldn’t I want to live a life pleasing to God?

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