Stairway to Heaven

Transcribed from the sermon preached July 23, 2017

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: Genesis 28:10-19, Matthew 13:31-33

After taking a stairway to heaven, Jacob wakes up to realize God is down there with him and the rocks: “Surely God is in this place and I didn’t know it.”

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the words, stairway to heaven? It may be Jacob’s dream, or, like me, you may think it is the “4th of July top five hundred rock songs of all time count down,” and they have gotten down to number one. Of course that only works for those of us old enough to have listened to music on the radio.

“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold    and she buying the stairway to heaven     …Oh, “It makes me wonder.

A minstrel’s ballad composed after a jaunt in the Welsh mountains. Robert Plant explained the song was a “cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration.” https://genius.com/Led-zeppelin-stairway-to-heaven-lyrics

But the stairway to heaven image enters Judeo-Christian culture, right here with Jacob, roughly 2,800 years earlier than Robert Plant’s song.

Jacob is beginning his personal exile from his family and land to join his uncle Laban. His Brother Esau is angry with him and wants to do him harm, so his parents send him away. You can imagine Jacob’s future is up in the air.  No doubt he is anxious about what will become of him without his family and home. Perhaps he is reflecting on his own part in the family conflict. Jacob the second son, did steal his brother’s birthright.

Bob Coote would point out that David, whose scribes record the first version of the story without the dream, is making an argument that he, who is not first born, will nevertheless have the blessing of God to rule. And Jeroboam, who flees Solomon’s Son Rehoboam and is exiled to Egypt, then has to make the case that Israel, which broke away from Rehoboam’s Judah, should accept him as a new King. Jeroboam’s version, called E by scholars, is big on dreams, the danger and blessing of sons, and the institution of the anointing of stones with olive oil.  So Jeroboam adds the dream to the story. (Coote, Robert B. In Defense of Revolution. Fortress Press. 1991.p.19)

Now if Jacob is like me, he is probably wondering who came up with the first son gets a double portion  rule anyway.  And we might throw in for the sake of good complaints, why are women left out altogether? I might add, that it is the first born son of the first wife who gets the double inheritance to prevent the husband from playing favorites among multiple wives. Just the same, it doesn’t seem fair. But even if the Bible sets up these rules, we see that God breaks them when She sees fit.

On the other hand, there is some logic to the idea of first come first serve. It is not infrequent in history that those who are sent away in exile rise up to take over a blessing or a land. We may view Christianity as the second son to Judaism, or the United States a younger son to native Americans. For those they take the blessing from, they are second comers. Now some are saying immigrants are the second comers – and those here first deserve a double portion And that often does not seem fair either. Everybody has a perspective.

No matter how you look at it, we have yet to find a law which prevents family relations and politics from being a mess, and we might just find ourselves pushed aside, exiled immigrants, wandering in the wilderness and sleeping with a rock for a pillow.  As mentioned, I’m guessing Jacob is contemplating his separation from his homeland and family, and also his part in the whole mess. We are who we are right now.  We can’t go back and change the past. The sins we have committed, and the unfair nature of the events that may befall us, the sins of others against us, can’t be uncommitted. So we find ourselves where we find ourselves, and Jacob finds himself alone with a rock for a pillow.

An odd thing about grace is that we often find it when we are down and out; when we have hit rock bottom, or when we have a rock for a pillow. Now it is interesting that Jacob sees a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending, going up and down. Leaving the family relations and politics theme, we can pick up the mystical. The North African Jewish philosopher Philo thought this was God coming down in compassion to pull up our souls when we are distressed here on earth, and also pulling up our souls to heaven at death. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob%27s_Ladder )

And we might also suspect, that there is a lesson here about the direction God calls us in our faith. That is, both directions. A balanced faith connects us to both earth and heaven. There is a time for our direction to face up to God, and a time when God sends us to engage life here on earth. A balanced faith and thus a balanced life will have contemplative, prayerful and worship time devoted toward God. This is the time when our vision is cleared, we get a God’s eye view of our connection made with God so that then our action is not mere impulse or reactivity to the chaos of our family and political life. But also this facing the direction of God, going up the stairway, takes the focus off of ourselves, our self-centeredness, whether it be our triumphs, our ambition, our sins or our loneliness.

And despite all that brought us to this, what looks like a forsaken place, we discover that even here God says, “I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back.

Jacob wakes from his dream and says, ““Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

Now Jacob established a shrine, and this is reaffirmed by David and especially Jeroboam. There are places that seem more sacred than others to us. There are places like this sanctuary, where we sanctify time and space, that our souls may rise up to God, where the accumulation of worship, weddings, funerals, baptisms, transformations, knowledge and actions over 110 years make a spiritual imprint. And we can feel the weight of the souls united with us, going up and coming down in a common journey.

We want to honor our inheritance, to acknowledge the time and place God touched our soul and spoke to us. When God lets us know despite all that came before and all that we have yet to go through, God is and will be with us.

As so in this time of Grace, as we discover God is with us, even when we don’t know it, perhaps we can relax the tension on our defense. Maybe we can look forward to ways to mend those relations that have been messed up. Maybe, if God is in this place and we did not know it, God is in other places, with other people too.

Back to Robert Plant for a moment. He is saying to the woman who wants and expects to buy a stairway to heaven that such a stairway is not bought nor owned. And we better change such arrogant attitudes, because soon enough the piper is calling you to join him. “Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know your stairway lies on the whispering wind.”

So Jacob is out there in the whispering wind, without his inheritance that he stole, without his family or land, no doubt in a humbled and frightened state, and as it turns out a rock is his conduit to God. Maybe this idea of setting up a rock and anointing it can be symbolic for what God calls our faith to be. Despite all that has gone on, and all that will go on, let us set our faith like a rock, and trust that even or especially where it seems there is nothing but rocks, there we will find angels “shining white light and wants to show, how everything turns to gold, and if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last, when all are one and one is all, to be rock and not to roll.”

15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And 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.”