Sermon: Genesis 28:10-17
Lent 2 - February 25, 2018 - Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
A number of years ago I had a friend who said something I never forgot. She happened to be a nurse, and on one occasion she related her experience of sitting at the bedside and holding the hand of a faithful member of her congregation who was dying. And she made the comment that in this life she would never be closer to heaven than being at the side of a Christian who is about to depart and be in heaven. And she was right. Though she couldn’t see the heavenly realms they were right there next to her and the dying Christian. The invisible angels were standing ready and faithful to carry his soul directly into the heavenly realms.
Sometimes we have the impression that heaven is faraway up in the sky. We think of Jesus ascending into heaven or Elijah the prophet taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. But the truth is that heaven, the heavenly realms where God and the angels exist, is very close to us. I had a seminary professor who once said that heaven is right next to us. It’s right here. We just can’t see or feel it. In human terms we might say it’s near but in another dimension.
Do you ever feel close to heaven? Feeling close to heaven may mean different things to different people. In our text today we have a wonderful Old Testament account in which Jacob realized that he had been literally steps away from heaven. In a dream he saw the LORD God, the angels of God, and a stairway going up to heaven.
Today we’re going to consider that experience of
FEELING CLOSE TO HEAVEN
As our account begins Jacob felt anything but close to heaven. Jacob had done a bad thing. Jacob was the son of Isaac, and Isaac was the son of Abraham. You may remember that the LORD God had called Abraham and promised him that he would have many descendants, and from those descendants would come one Descendant who would be a blessing to everyone on earth. Today we of course know that was a prophecy of Jesus our Savior.
Eventually the LORD made that same promise to Isaac. Isaac had married Rebekah and they had twin sons, Esau the older and Jacob the younger. It was a family that showed a lot of favoritism, deception, and intrigue. Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, deceived Isaac into giving a blessing to Jacob that Isaac intended to give to Esau. When Esau found out he had been outsmarted by his younger brother, he was enraged and threatened to kill Jacob. Rebekah told Jacob to quickly pack his bags and head north to her relatives.
That’s where we find Jacob, fleeing from his brother’s anger, alone on a road going north to his uncle Laban. The first night he stopped to sleep. He lay down with a stone under his head for a pillow.
He had a dream. It was a wonderful dream. Jacob saw a stairway, or a ladder, resting on earth and reaching to heaven. The angels of God were ascending and descending on the stairway, and, most important of all, the LORD God was standing at the top. And God said to Jacob, “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.”
This was the same promise that the LORD God had given to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and then repeated to his father Isaac. They would be the patriarchs, the fathers, of a whole nation of people out of which the Savior of the world would be born.
And then the LORD added to his promise to Jacob: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.” The LORD would protect Jacob on this journey and eventually bring him safely back to the land where Abraham and Isaac had settled, what would one day be the nation of Israel.
Do you think Jacob deserved this promise? Not really. You know that he had deceived his own father and brother Esau. Jacob was a conniver and deceiver. Jacob’s name literally meant “heal-grabber.” He was born holding on to Esau’s foot. He was born tripping people up.
So how could the LORD God make such wonderful promises to Jacob in such a beautiful dream? God could make these wonderful promises to Jacob because of his grace, because of God’s love that Jacob didn’t deserve. But that’s how God works in this world and among his people. That’s how God works in our lives as well.
God had plans for Jacob. He would one day come back to the land promised to Abraham and Isaac, his father. And God would change his name to Israel, meaning one who had struggled with God. Jacob would have twelve sons. These sons of Israel, the children of Israel, would grow into a nation of millions, the nation of Israel. From them Jesus would one day be born.
Jacob didn’t deserve to be the father of Israel. He didn’t deserve to be blessed by God. He didn’t deserve God’s forgiveness and love. But God made Jacob the father of Israel. He blessed him. He forgave his sins. And he did it all out of grace, undeserved love.
Do you think that you and I deserve blessings from God? We don’t. We’ve sinned against God and deserve only his anger and eternal punishment. But God blesses us just as he blessed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God has blessed us with love and forgiveness. God has blessed us with the promise of eternal life. And why? God’s grace. God’s undeserved love. The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesian, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”
That one Descendant from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from Israel, is our Savior Jesus Christ, the blessing to all nations and people. He died to atone for all our sins. And he rose again victorious over sin, death, and hell. We are blessed and saved only by the grace of God through faith in Jesus.
Jacob woke up from his dream. He thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place and I was not aware of it.” Jacob was well aware that he had been close to heaven. He was literally steps away from heaven.
Have you ever had an experience something like Jacob? Have you ever felt close to heaven? Are there times when you feel close to heaven? Feeling close to heaven will mean different things to different people. It might be a time when you feel very close to God. Perhaps you’ve just read a portion of scripture that really comforts you and makes you very certain of God’s love, forgiveness, and eternal salvation. Perhaps you’ve just read a portion of scripture that describes heaven, and you have a longing to be there. And maybe you’ve just experienced the hand of God clearly working and acting in your life and you feel great comfort from God’s presence and the presence of heaven. Or such feelings of the closeness of heaven may happen in a worship service, perhaps Easter or Christmas, when the hymns and the music and the message give you a special sense of what heaven might be like some day.
Feelings of being close to God and close to heaven are blessings from God, and we want to note them and remember them like Jacob remembered his dream of the stairway to heaven. But there’s something we need to remember about these experiences. We may feel close to heaven, but we’re not in heaven. We may tell ourselves that heaven is right next to us, though in a difference dimension or realm, but we’re not in that dimension or realm. And no matter how hard we might try, no matter how much we might want to be there, we are not there, and we cannot simply step into heaven.
So how do we go from feeling close to God and heaven and actually being there? Remember the stairway that Jacob saw in his dream resting on earth and extending all the way to heaven. That stairway with the angels ascending and descending on it is the way to heaven. Even Jacob noted, “This is the gate of heaven.”
When Jesus first met and called the disciple Nathaniel, he said to Nathaniel, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Did you note what Jesus said? When he spoke these words to Nathaniel he clearly was making reference to Jacob’s dream and the stairway to heaven with the angels ascending and descending on it. But in his words to Nathaniel Jesus clearly put himself in the place of the stairway.
Jesus is the stairway to heaven. Jesus is the way to heaven. Jesus is how we pass from earth to heaven. Jesus is how we get from feeling close to heaven to actually being in heaven. Jesus by his death on the cross took away the barrier of sin that separates us from God and heaven. He redeemed us. He set us free from sin and guilt. Through faith in him we can pass from this world to the eternal kingdom of God. Jesus is the gate to heaven.
Jacob was enthralled with his experience. He said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” I wish we all could learn to have that sense of awe and respect for God and his grace and mercy and love. I wish we could all have that sense of awe and respect every time we read the word of God and feel close to God and close to heaven. I wish we could all have that sense of awe and respect when we think of Jesus, the Descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Savior of all nations, our Savior.
My friend the nurse who felt close to heaven when she sat at the bedside of a dying Christian, herself ascended the stairway to heaven a number of years ago. A terrible brain tumor took her from this life. I remember visiting her in the hospital not long before she passed. The tumor was pressing on a part of her brain so she didn’t quite know me anymore. But she knew Jesus. She was close to heaven, and because she was so was I. And now by God’s grace and through Jesus she’s not just close to heaven. She’s there.
If you ever feel close to heaven like Jacob did, cherish that moment with awe and respect like Jacob did. It’s a reminder of what’s to come. Amen.