A Staircase to Heaven
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Richard Niell Donovan
Richard Niell Donovan
I am always surprised that God chose Jacob to be the one through whom the world should be blessed. Jacob was a schemer. He had coerced the birthright from his brother, and he had tricked his father into giving him the blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother. Then, when Esau discovered Jacob’s treachery, Jacob fled for his life.
Jacob’s flight took him toward the old family homeland. Abraham had left Haran many years before at God’s command. Now Jacob was headed back that way.
When Jacob stopped for the night, he pillowed his head upon a large stone. After he had gone to sleep, he dreamed of a great ladder. The bottom of the ladder sat on the ground, but the top reached to the heavens. Angels were ascending and descending on the ladder.
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God sometimes used angels to deliver messages to people, but he did not do that here. He came in person to address Jacob. Given Jacob’s trickery—his scheming ways—we are surprised at what follows. First of all, God introduces himself, just in case Jacob misses the point. He says:
“I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father,
and the God of Isaac” (28:13a).
Then, God begins to tell Jacob all that he plans to do for him:
“The land whereon you lie,
to you will I give it, and to your seed.
Your seed will be as the dust of the earth,
and you will spread abroad to the west, and to the east,
and to the north, and to the south.
In you and in your seed
will all the families of the earth be blessed” (28:13b-14).
I am surprised that God would make such promises to such a schemer. I understood it when God made a covenant with Noah. Noah was a righteous man.
I understood it when God made a covenant with Abraham. Abraham was a man of great faith.
But I am surprised when God makes a covenant with Jacob, because Jacob is pretty much a scoundrel. But God didn’t rebuke Jacob. He didn’t tell him to mend his ways. He simply began to promise him blessings.
God was offering Jacob special blessings. He said:
“In you and in your seed
will all the families of the earth be blessed.”
Until this conversation, God was known as the God of Abraham and Isaac. Prior to that, he had been known as the God of Abraham. Now, forevermore, God would be known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What an honor!
This story tells us some very important things about God. First of all, it tells us that God can come to us in the most ordinary places and in the most terrible circumstances of our lives.
The place in which Jacob had camped that night was not a beautiful campground or a pleasant meadow.
“It was a hilltop of barren rock;
and its barrenness seemed to represent at that moment
Jacob’s claim on life.
He was a fugitive, and he was afraid.”
(Walter Russell Bowie)
But Jacob’s guilt was even more terrible than his surroundings. He had cheated his brother and had deceived his father, and was running for his life. He was not a man who often let his conscience trouble him, but his conscience troubled him now.
• He did not deserve God’s blessing, and he knew it.
• He did not deserve God’s blessing, and could not believe that God would give it.
• He did not deserve God’s blessing, so he did the same thing that he had done when Esau offered to sell his birthright cheaply. He tried to “seal the deal” and to “lock it in.” He prayed, “God, if you will give me these blessings, I will give you a tithe of all that I receive.” What a deal he was offering God. He was saying, “God, if you will make me rich, I will give you ten percent.” How generous!
E. Stanley Jones was a missionary to India. He tells of seeing women from that country who had shaved their heads, and explains what that meant. These women had offered their hair to one of their gods in return for a blessing. They had made a strict bargain: “If you do this for me, I will offer you my hair.”
That is a pretty serious bargain. Which woman among you would be willing to shave your head in return for a blessing from God? My guess is that you would, but the stakes would have to be pretty high. You would not shave your head for a thousand dollars, but would shave your head to save the life of a loved one.
But Jones goes on to remind us that Christians don’t need to bargain with God.
• We can trust God, knowing that he will give us better than we ask or deserve.
• We can trust God, knowing that God will not let us down.
• We can trust God, knowing that God loves us better than we love ourselves.
Jones also told of an insurance executive who suffered from terrible headaches. He went to a physician, who eventually referred him to a psychiatrist. He visited the psychiatrist three times a week for three and a half years. They spoke of many things, and the man received much good counsel. But his headaches remained.
One day, Jones had an appointment to meet with the man. When he arrived at the man’s home, the man’s wife met him. She wanted a words with Jones first. She whispered, “The problem is his wrong view of religion.” She went on to explain that her husband was a perfectionist. Like all perfectionists, he strove for perfection but never reached it. His sense of guilt set up a barrier between him and his wife—and between him and his God. The man was living in a hell of guilt.
When Jones met with the man, he began to explain to him how God comes down the ladder through Jesus to meet us, not on the top rung, but at the bottom. He loves us even when we are sinners, and he asks only that we bring him our guilt and receive his forgiveness.
The man responded, “It’s too simple,” but he listened. He and Jones knelt together, and Jones helped him to ask God for forgiveness. The man arose from the prayer with tears in his eyes and relief on his face. The next day, his headache was gone.
God offers us his blessings and his love. Like Jacob and the insurance executive, we find it difficult to believe the promise. We know that we are undeserving, and feel compelled to become deserving before reaching out to receive God’s blessings. But Paul assures us that:
• God loves us even while we were sinners,
• and that Christ died for us even while we were sinners,
• and that we might receive the gift of his promise even before we deserve it.
And that is good news!
The key, then, is not becoming good enough to deserve God’s blessings. It is maintaining a relationship with God in which he can bless us. We need to be people of prayer. Mother Teresa puts it clearly:
“Prayer enlarges the heart
until it is capable of containing
God’s gift of himself.”
So let us be people of prayer—so that we might have an open channel to God—so that we might truly be children of our father who is in heaven—so that he can bless us with every blessing—so that we might receive his grace.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan