Sermon notes 07-19-20                      Promises Reaffirmed              Pastor David King

Genesis 28:10-19a 10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder 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! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, 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.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”17 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.”

18 So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel.

 If I were to ask you what you dreamed last night, I wonder if you would be able to tell me? Some people seem to remember their dreams more vividly than others.  Kim will often tell me first thing in the morning about a dream she had the night before.  It is rare for me to ever remember dreaming at all; and it is especially rare for me to remember enough about a dream to be able to describe it to anybody.  When Kim does tell me about a dream she has had, it can often be connected to something going in her life that ends up expressing itself in the unreal world of dreams.  We are often amused by the weird ways in which the events of our lives wind up in Kim’s dreams.

You may have heard about the phenomenon of people having very vivid and strange dreams since the pandemic began.  Since I first heard about this, I have had a theory that it had to do with sleeping in, and just this week I read an article that supported my theory.  The article was in Time magazine online and it said this:

In general, people’s sleep patterns have shifted over the past few months …. With millions of Americans working from home, people are sleeping in more and using alarms less.  Since we generally experience our most vivid dreams in the early morning hours just before waking naturally, dreams can go on for longer and become easier to recall. Graphic dreams may be with us for as long as the virus is.

So in other words, the pandemic is causing a lot of people to sleep in more than they did before, and sleeping in more contributes to remembering our dreams more vividly.

I am talking about dreams this morning because our Scripture passage today is a story about a dream.  The story of Jacob’s dream is one of many dream stories in the Scriptures.  We tend to view dreams much differently today than the way dreams were viewed in biblical times.  We typically regard dreams as an expression of the dreamer’s psychological state, or an indication of stress or anxiety or subconscious fears.  But in the Bible dreams are often a means by which God reveals his will or otherwise communicates a message to someone.  This dream Jacob had was not about the unreal world of Jacob’s mind; it is the story of an actual world that God allows Jacob to see, and it is the story of an actual event in which God becomes present to Jacob in a very real way.

This passage of Scripture is at the same time very strange and very familiar.  It is strange because of this weird dream that Jacob has, but it is familiar because of several references that we have derived from it and use often in the church today.  Even if the passage itself is not familiar to you, you are familiar with some things that have come from it.  Most of us are familiar with the African-American spiritual song, We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.  Some of us may be even more familiar with the iconic Led Zeppelin song Stairway to Heaven, which very loosely refers to this passage.  That’s not one we sing in church, but the song we just sang as our preparation to prayer, Surely the Presence of the Lord is in This Place, was also derived from this passage.  The words of that song echo the words of Jacob when he wakens from his dream and says, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”  And for yet another reference to this passage, think how many churches have claimed the name that Jacob used to rename the location of his dream when he awakened and made the observation, “This is none other than the house of God?”

Jacob set up a monument and called the name of the place, Bethel, which means house of God. Most towns in America today have at least one church with Bethel in its name.

So this passage has resulted in many lasting references in and out of the church, but what does this dream of Jacob mean for us?  That is the primary question I would like for us to consider today.  Let’s begin by reviewing the story and remembering the events that led to Jacob having this dream.

As the story begins, Jacob is fleeing from his older brother Esau, whose rights as the firstborn Jacob had stolen from Esau through trickery and deceit.  At the advice of his mother Rebekah, Jacob flees Beersheba and heads toward Rebekah’s family 550 miles away in Haran where he hopes to find safe shelter from the wrath of Esau.  So we see that Jacob is threatened, on the run, alone, evidently reaping the consequences of his deceitfulness.  While he is still within the territory of Canaan, Jacob is forced by the onset of darkness to settle down for the night out in the open. Without even the comfort of a soft pillow, he lays his head on a rock.  At this very vulnerable and very low point of his life, neither the present nor the future look very bright for Jacob.  But it is just at this moment that God appears to Jacob, not to judge or condemn him, but to affirm him as the one chosen to carry on God’s promise to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac.

God gives Jacob an amazing dream that night, a dream of a ladder.  The Hebrew word used to describe it might more accurately depict a flight of steps or a stairway—yes, Led Zep may have had it right; it was more like a stairway to heaven.  There are angels ascending and descending the steps of this stairway, but we are not told what their role or function is.  The angels do not speak in Jacob’s dream, but God does.  God identifies himself as the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac.  And then God echoes the same promise that he had given to Abraham and Isaac regarding the Promised Land: “The land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring.”

I want us to think how incredible this reaffirmation of God’s original promise would have been to Jacob.  Jacob is at that very moment being forced to flee from that same Promised Land.  Jacob must have felt like he had nullified God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac by his deceitful, conniving behavior.  He must have thought he had completely blown any claim to God’s promises.  Yet God tells Jacob, ‘Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, covering this land in every direction, and through you and your family all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ Jacob must have gone from feeling like he had blown it to being completely blown away by the reaffirmation of God’s promise.

Then God adds his own behold to Jacob.  God says, “Behold,” (Check this out, Jacob).  “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.”

Now I want us to really think about this, to ‘behold’ it for a moment.  Jacob was a world class deceiver, a liar, who had tricked his own father and stolen his own brother’s birthright.  He was running for his life to a foreign land because his actions had rendered his own home and land unsafe for him.  He was suffering the consequences for his sins, but at this very moment God comes to Jacob and assures him that God is with him and will not abandon him until he fulfills the promises that he has made.  This is nothing less than an act of incredible, amazing grace!

Brothers and sisters, this story should give us great hope.  We followers of Jesus Christ are people like Jacob, longing for the fulfillment of promises.  Jesus Christ has promised never to leave us or forsake us.  Jesus has promised that all who believe in him will not perish forever, but have everlasting life.  We cling to these promises, but let’s be honest, we can sometimes feel like we have voided the promises by our actions and behaviors.  When we fall short and fail, when we do and say things that are not in keeping with someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, we can begin to believe that the promises of Jesus no longer apply to us.  When we examine our lives and look around at the state of the world, we can easily conclude that God has given up on us and on his promises to us.

But friends, in spite of appearances, God has not abandoned us or given up on our world.  Surely the presence of the Lord is in the world and in our lives, even if we did not know it.  God revealed to Jacob a stairway between heaven and earth.  Jesus identified himself with Jacob’s stairway when he said in John 1:51, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  Jesus said himself that he is the one way to heaven; that no one gets to the Father except through him.  Jesus is our stairway to heaven.  And his promises are not voided by our shortcomings and failings.

Now I want to be clear in saying that the promises of Jesus are not forced on us.  We can make the choice to turn our backs on God and we can refuse the salvation God offers us in Jesus Christ.  But the good news is, when we earnestly seek to follow Christ, when we turn back to him in repentance, neither the sins that we have committed in the past nor the mistakes that we will make in the future can deprive us of the promises we embrace as Christians.

If we were to read just a little further in Jacob’s story in Genesis 28, we would find that after Jacob saw the dream of the stairway to heaven, he made vows to God and determined that the Lord would from that point on be the God of his life.  This is a model for us.  When we realize the amazing grace that God extends to us, our response should be not to think that anything goes and that we can remain in our sin.   Our response to God’s grace should to gratefully commit our lives to serving him.

Friends, God is still in the business of revealing himself to his people.  He reveals himself through his creation, through his Holy Word, through his activity and presence in our lives, maybe even through our dreams.  But most importantly God has revealed himself to us in his Son Jesus Christ.  God the Father sent Jesus to be the stairway, the pathway to heaven for us.

God sent his Son to die for our sins on the cross, so that we can ascend that stairway.  It is not just a dream.  Christ is real and he is alive and is interceding for us at the right hand of the Father.  God gave Jesus for us, God gave Jesus to us, and God gave us to Jesus.  And here is what Jesus says about those whom God has given him:

And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

Friends, no matter how deceitful or conniving or selfish or mean or sinful we have been, Jesus has promised that he will not lose anyone whom God has given him.  God has made the way for us, the only way to eternal life, and he will raise us up on the last day, when this earthly life will dissolve like a dream and we will realize the fulfillment of all God’s promises.  Until then, may we gratefully give our lives to love and serve others in his name. Thanks be to God.  Amen.