Scripture: Genesis 28:10-22
I want to make three main points in today’s sermon: Point Number One is about God’s grace. Point Number Two is about God’s promises. And Point Number Three is about God’s provision—which, as always during this year-long “Journey Through the Bible,” will focus on Jesus.
But Point Number One, God’s grace…
Many of you of my generation will recall the movie Wayne’s World, about two teenagers growing up in the early-’90s, Wayne and Garth, who host a very low-budget cable-access TV show. Wayne and Garth are musicians—not very good one—and they often played rock and roll—not very well. There’s a scene in the movie in which Wayne and Garth walk into a guitar shop. Wayne picks up an electric guitar on display and begins playing the very famous opening guitar riff of the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven.” The employee in the store stops him immediately, and says, “Hey! Look at the sign!” Then he points to a sign on the wall: “No ‘Stairway to Heaven!’”
This scene was funny because—as I know from experience as a 13-year-old wannabe rock star—every kid with an electric guitar wants to play the opening guitar riff of “Stairway to Heaven”! It might be the most famous and most beloved rock song ever—and surely a song that guitar-shop employees get very tired of hearing!
Well, don’t think I wasn’t tempted to ask Ken and Keith to work up an arrangement of that song this morning!
Because today’s scripture is about—guess what?—a “stairway to heaven.” It’s true that our ESV, which we read from in church—following the tradition of the King James—translates the word as “ladder,” most modern translations including the NIV, NLT, and CSB, translate the word not as “ladder,” but as “stairway.” Thus my sermon title, “Stairway to Heaven.” The difference isn’t important, of course.
But since most of y’all, I hope, have already read the chapters leading up to today’s scripture as part of our church’s “Journey Through the Bible,” it’s very possible that by the time you got to today’s scripture, Genesis chapter 28, this description of a ladder or stairway to heaven reminded you of another episode from the Book of Genesis—back in chapter 11.
There, you’ll recall, the people of Babel built a “tower” to heaven—the infamous Tower of Babel.” Genesis 11:4 tells us that the top of the tower was “in the heavens,” meaning it went pretty far up in the sky.
But of course it didn’t actually reach “heaven.” That would be impossible; heaven isn’t a place within our physical universe. In fact, in verse 5, using very human, very figurative language, we’re told that the Lord had to “come down” from heaven to see the tower. From God’s perspective, therefore, the Tower of Babel—however hard the people worked to build it, however impressive it was—didn’t come close to reaching God.
And that’s a fitting symbol of our human condition: We usually believe that if we just work hard enough, if we put forth enough effort, if we just follow all the right steps—if we just climb the rungs of ladder or climb each step of the stairway—we will reach God.
I’m reminded of something that billionaire investor Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, said about ten years ago: he announced that he would donate 85 percent of his $44 billion fortune to five charitable foundations. When asked to comment on this extreme act of generosity, he said, “There is more than one way to get to heaven, but this is a great way.”
The first thing I want to tell Warren Buffett is that there’s actually only one way to get to heaven: Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 1 The apostle Peter said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” 2
So that’s the first big problem with what Buffett said… But the second big problem is that Warren Buffett believes that giving 85 percent of $44 billion—which is $37.4 billion—will somehow enable Buffett get into heaven!
Even 37.4 billion dollars of charity isn’t enough to build any of us a stairway to heaven! No amount of good works, no amount of human effort, no amount of human achievement can build or buy or earn a stairway to heaven!
Yet I discern from talking to people—even people right here in Toccoa, Georgia—that most people in the world are counting on their good works to get them into heaven.
Do you happen to be one of those people?
If so, please hear my urgent warning, “It won’t work!” The Bible warns over and over that our sin is an unbridgeable chasm separating us from God. It warns that we can do nothing to fix this problem, at least apart from God’s grace! “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” 3
Not a single one of us!
That being the case, please notice how very different Jacob’s “stairway to heaven” is from the Tower of Babel—how very different the starting point of this stairway is. Notice that it’s not built by human effort from the earth… reaching up to heaven, which is impossible anyway.
No! It’s created by God from heaven… reaching down to earth:
Why? Because God knows that our sin makes us unable to reach him, no matter how hard we try. So God has taken the initiative to reach us! And if we’re going to make it to heaven—that is, if we’re going to be in a saving relationship with God—it won’t be because of anything that we do… or anything that we deserve… or anything that we’ve earned: it only will always only be because of what God alone does… for us… out of an incomprehensible love that God has for us!
It will be, in other words, because of God’s grace alone!
After all, what has Jacob done to deserve or earn or pay for or make himself worthy of this “stairway to heaven” that God offers him? What has Jacob done to deserve these promises that God makes to him? What has he done to deserve the favor that God shows him?
You may remember Jacob’s story: Jacob is the second-born fraternal-twin son of Isaac. Esau is his older brother. Esau, as the older brother, was entitled to a birthright… to inherit two-thirds of his father’s estate after his father died. And Esau, as the older brother, was entitled to receive his father’s special blessing before he died.
And I hope you’ve read the story, but the Reader’s Digest version is that Jacob lies, cheats, and steals—he even deceives his own father—in order to receive the birthright and blessing in place of Esau.
And Esau is so understandably angry about it, he vows to murder his brother…
As soon as his father dies, Esau thinks, “I’m going to kill Jacob!”
And Jacob finds out about his brother’s plans.
But instead of summoning the courage to confront Esau—to try to work things out with him, to seek his brother’s forgiveness, to be reconciled to his brother, however risky. Instead of trusting in God to protect him, Jacob does the cowardly thing and gets the heck out of Dodge while the getting is good! With his mother Rebekah’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 his grandfather Abraham settled down before he followed God’s call into the Promised Land.
Even after all that—after all the schemes, all the swindling, all the manipulation, all the cheating, all the lies; after Jacob hurts Esau so badly that his brother vows to murder him; after he deceives his own father; after he takes God’s name in vain and shows no faith in God whatsoever; after he fails to pray; after he fails to seek God’s will; after he proves he doesn’t care about God at all, except for what God might do for him—even after all of that…God gives Jacob 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 this is Point Number One… Our “stairway to heaven,” our access to God, our acceptance by God, our ongoing relationship with God… is made possible only by God’s grace. And not anything that we do to earn it or deserve!
Doesn’t Jacob prove it?
Point Number Two: Let’s talk about God’s promises… And my main point here is, God keeps his promises no matter what we do.
See, at this point in the story, you may think, “Well, yes, Jacob was a scoundrel in his early life… But surely once God shows up in today’s scripture, surely then Jacob gets his act together, right?”
You may think that… but you would be wrong!
I mean, look at today’s scripture and see for yourself!
Notice God doesn’t tell Jacob, “If you do this, if you do that, and if you do the other thing… then maybe—assuming you stay on the strait and narrow and don’t mess up too badly… only then maybeI’ll bless you.”
God instead tells Jacob in advance, “I’m going to do these things for you, Jacob, and it doesn’t depend on anything you do in response!”
If you don’t believe me, listen to Jacob’s words in verses 20 to 22:
If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go [Notice Jacob’s if… If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go], and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God [Notice from Jacob’s perspective, God’s got to prove himself first… even this amazing encounter Jacob has with the living God, even this heavenly vision, isn’t enough for Jacob! God still has a lot to prove. But if he does, then, Jacob says… then the Lord shall be my God]…
Get the picture?
God tells Jacob, “I will do all these things”—with no strings attached.
Jacob tells God, “I’ll do these things for you, God, if, if, if, if, if.”
Jacob’s obedience to God has plenty of strings attached!
You gotta admit, this is a deeply disappointing response from a man who is one of the great heroes of the Bible, isn’t it?
And I’m not suggesting that Jacob doesn’t get a little better over time… a little more faithful… a little more sanctified… I mean, praise God for that! Jacob does grow in his faith, he does get a little holier… over the course of many, many decades!
But it’s clear from scripture that God’s promises to Jacob simply don’t depend on anything that Jacob does!
And brothers and sisters, if we are in Christ, the same is true for us… The same is true for us…
Listen, I know for sure that, at this very moment, I’m talking to some people in this service who got converted, who got born again, who professed faith in Christ, who got baptized… a long time ago. And when that happened, a long time ago, you were on Cloud Nine. You were on fire for the Lord. You just knew way back then that God loved you, that God forgave you, that God made you part of his family, that God gave you eternal life, that nothing—neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation was going to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! 4… You just knew that… a long time ago… And you got off to a great start in your Christian life…
But… that was a long time ago. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then… a lot of mistakes… a lot of failures… a lot of sins…
“I mean, sure,” you think, “God loved me back then, but now… Whew! God has surely lost patience with me. He has surely grown tired of me. He is surely angry with me. Even if I still happen to be saved… I’m barely saved.I have no reason to expect God to do anything good for me… I have no reason to expect God to answer my prayers, or show me his favor, or cut me any slack, or give me any further grace.”
If you’re tempted to think that, let me please put your mind at ease: You are not any worse than Jacob! You’re not any worse than good ol’ Jacob… and look what God did for him!
God kept every promise that he made to Jacob in verses 13 to 15. Every single one of them!
And that’s Point Number Two: If God keeps his promises to a scoundrel like Jacob, why do you doubt that he’ll keep his promises to you? You’re not any worse than him!
And this is Point Number Three: God’s provision: What has God given us—and what has God done for us—in and through his Son Jesus Christ… and where do we see that even in today’s scripture?
First, consider this: Back in John chapter 1, one of Jesus’ disciples, Nathanael, otherwise known as Bartholomew, places his faith in Jesus because Jesus reveals something to him that only God could know. And Nathanael’s like, “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 ain’t seen nothing yet!” He goes on, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” 5
Notice: Jesus is making a direct reference to today’s scripture… Except the angels aren’t ascending and descending on a stairway, but on the “Son of Man” himself—that is, on Christ himself!
Jesus is saying, in so many words, I’m that stairway to heaven that Jacob saw way back in Genesis chapter 28!
See, all other religions in the world promise some sort of “stairway to heaven.” That’s nothing new. They teach that in order to 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. And as I said earlier, plenty of people who call themselves “Christians” don’t believe in Jesus so much as they believe in their own good works!
But in true Christianity, 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,”6 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 live 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…
Maybe there are people in this sanctuary this morning who need to do that. It’s time. Today is the day salvation. Please stop putting it off. You don’t know how much time you have left. None of us is guaranteed another moment of life…
But for the rest of us—for those of us who are already saved, who’ve already been born again, who’ve already been made part of God’s family through faith in Christ—I need you to consider Jacob’s words in verses 16 and 17:
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Please notice: Jacob was wide awake when he said, “How awesome is this place!”
He didn’t speak these words while he was still dreaming. He was awake! So he’s no longer seeing the stairway to heaven; he’s no longer seeing the Lord himself; he’s no longer seeing the multitude of angels.
Which means that this so-called “awesome place” thatJacob was staring at was—as far as the eye could see—nothing more than a pile of rocks. This was no “beautiful oasis in the middle of a desert.” Jacob was in the middle of nowhere. And Jacob had nothing at all. The very fact that he used a stone for a pillow indicates that he had nothing else on him. If he had a knapsack or a piece of luggage he would have used that for a pillow… If he even had a change of clothes he would have surely balled it up and used it for a pillow. He had nothing…
Or maybe I should say, he had nothing… but trouble! Remember: He was on the run from his brother who vowed to murder him!
My point is, nothing about the circumstances in which Jacob found himself, nothing about the challenges that he faced, nothing about his own prospects, seemed favorable or promising or encouraging.
Except one small thing… which he realizes in verse 16: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” He says “is in this place,” present tense. Not was, is. “The Lore is here, right now, even though I can no longer see him. When I was asleep, the Lord lifted the veil separating heaven from earth, and I saw, at least for a moment, that the Lord was with me, even here in this seemingly barren, god-forsaken place… even now, facing enemies and problems that seem insurmountable.
“And knowing that the Lord is in this place, right now… that makes all the difference in the world… Because the Lord is right here with me right now, suddenly, my trouble, my problems, my challenges… all these things I’m afraid of… they don’t seem nearly as significant… nearly as fearsome… nearly as intimidating.
“Yeah… I think I’m going to be okay. Even this pile of rocks, ugly as it seems, is… it’s actually the gate to heaven… Because this pile of rock is the very place where I can have a personal encounter with God!
“No, this place is not bad at all.”
We Christians have something even better than what Jacob had—as amazing as that was. I mean, yes, by all means, wherever we are we can be confident that “the Lord is in this place.” But the New Testament teaches something more: Not only is the “Lord always in this place”; the Lord is always within us! The New Testament teaches in several places that we have Christ actually “dwelling within us” through the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 3:17, we’re told that Christ “will make his home in our hearts as we trust in him.”
And I just want to invite us to consider this: In your life right now, you may be facing circumstances that seem, objectively speaking, nearly as bleak and depressing and hopeless and scary as Jacob faced: You’re living with a scary medical diagnosis or you’re facing a terminal illness, you’re facing financial challenges—maybe you’re even facing financial ruin—your marriage is on the rocks, your kids won’t speak to you, you career is in jeopardy, you’re in the throes of addiction or alcoholism, you’re dealing with depression or grief or loneliness that you just can’t shake, you’re struggling to make it in school or college.
Whatever it is, it may feel exactly as frightening and inhospitable as that rocky, barren, dangerous place in which Jacob found himself.
Maybe what I’m about to say seems trivial, by contrast, but you have to understand that in the case of yours truly, even relatively small things often frighten me. ButI found myself depressed last week in part because we still have important positions remaining to be filled in our church leadership for next year—including for Finance Chair…
We’ve got deadlines, we’ve got charge conference coming, and despite our best efforts, we can’t seem to find anyone to fill these important roles. I feel helpless about it. I can’t be Finance Chair, even assuming anyone would want me to be. That’s a job for laypeople.
So I let myself be depressed about it last week.
And I don’t know what to do… Except, oh yeah… pray, and trust, and believe all the promises of scripture that I preach every week!
But that’s my problem…
Whatever problem you happen to be facing, I invite you—and me—to ask ourselves this question: How differently would we feel about this problem if Jesus Christ himself, at this moment, walked up beside us, put his arm around us, and said, “I’m right here with you. I know all about what you’re facing. I love you more than you can imagine. I’ve got all the power to solve this problem. So trust me: we’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get through this. Okay? And on the other side of this problem, when I, by my power, have come through with a solution, I guarantee it is going to be glorious. Even this pile of rocks will become something glorious! Just wait and see! And trust me in the meantime.”
If Jesus Christ did that, wouldn’t that make all the difference?
Wouldn’t it make all the difference to realize, despite what you see with your eyes, “The Lord is in this place, and I didn’t even know it!”
I didn’t even know it…
Well, guess what? Now you know…