The Ladder of Success
The Ladder of Success
A sermon by Robert W. Howard, preached July 20th, 2008 at Grace United Methodist Church, Valley Stream, New York
Text: Genesis 28:10-19a
My message this morning: Jacob’s Ladder is the ladder of success.
Our usual ideas of the ladder of success look more like Jack’s beanstalk, at the top of which can be found bags of gold, hens that lay golden eggs, and a harps of gold. Ah, earthly treasures to buy all kinds of wonderful things. One Thursday afternoon in confirmation class in my study across the street a thirteen year old boy, now probably in his forties, arrived and sat down to do his lesson with me. I noticed a word written over and over on one of the covers of a book he carried: L A M B O R G H I N I. I asked him “Who is Lamborghini?” “It’s a car,” he answered. But not just any car, a super car, costing far more than his father’s annual income. It was the confirmand’s heart’s desire. He wasn’t alone, not by a long shot, I must accurately report, lest you think that only one Valley Stream schoolboy hungers for a fast and stylish ride on the open road. My grandsons, for example, have been urging me to buy a Cadillac Escalade, so they can drive it, of course. No way, not on my pension.
There in the study years ago I was reminded again just how hard it would be to get it into a junior high’s soul that, according to Jesus, we should lay up treasures in heaven. Our children (and I mean our) cling to the American Dream which has far more to do with Jack’s beanstalk (or the leprechaun’s rainbow, at the end of which is a pot of gold) than Jacob’s ladder. Of course, we soon learn that the rainbow’s end keeps retreating as we approach. And we tend to forget the lesson Jack should have learned, that bags of gold are usually owned and guarded by ogres who do not lightly regard our borrowing them.
I may not be able to persuade confirmands to abandon the beanstalk version of success; but I am going to try to do so with you, offering the Bible’s version of the ladder of success, ala Jacob’s busy night’s sleep at Bethel with a stone for a pillow. I read it as the Christian Dream.
Let’s review the story. Jacob, the third of the great patriarchs of Israel, Isaac’s son, Abraham’s grandson, is on the road. People are always on the road in the Bible. That’s where awesome things happen. Think Paul on the Road to Damascus where he is blinded by the light. Think the Good Samaritan on the Road to Jericho where he earned everlasting fame for his kindness and compassion to a stranger. Think of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus on Sunday after Good Friday meeting Jesus. You get the point: we move on down the roads of life and while on the move, more than in the midst of contemplation, awesome things happen to us. “Awesome” is not an adjective I favor. I never use it in ordinary conversation; but the NRSV translation of Genesis uses it to describe Jacob’s experience.
The day’s travel has been long, the sun has set, and Jacob needs sleep to be refreshed for the coming day’s journey. No sooner does his head hit the stony pillow but he begins to dream. About a ladder that stretches from earth to heaven. With angels going up and down it. When none other than the Lord God stands next to him, and explains who he is: the God of his father and grandfather, who promised them great things, the same things now being offered to the next generation, to Jacob. No, not bags of gold or Lamborghinis. Something far better, something neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, nor something Jack, of Beanstalk fame, can break in and steal.
What is that? I hope you are asking. In two words, A Future. A blessed future, that is a future in which he, Jacob, and his descendants shall be blessed (meaning happy, fulfilled, joyful!) and a blessing to others, making them happy, fulfilled, and joyful.
We have plenty of historical evidence of God blessing Jacob with a future. (You probably will not remember, that Jacob is the fellow who earned the name Israel, after wrestling with an angel or, maybe, the Lord, through a long night by the River Jabbok). On this score, I’ve exchanged Emails recently with a colleague in the Methodist clergy who noted how very many college presidents were Jews, including the president of my favorite college, Williams, Morty Schapiro. I searched the internet to corroborate a claim I had heard from a friend and college classmate that more Jews had won Nobel prizes than people of any other ethnicity. I found that of the 750 Nobel Laureates since 1901, 23%, 176, were Jews, who represent only .2% of the world’s population. Ah, but only four of 284 inductees in the Baseball Hall of Fame (1.4%) are Jews. Tell me later if you know who they are. For the point I’m pressing here is that the future the Lord promised Jacob, in that dream long ago, is our reality, that “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 all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” By their intellectual accomplishments if not so much by their derring-do on the baseball diamond.
That promise is extended to you and me, adopted children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are, according to the Apostle Paul’s reasoning, offshoots who have been grafted into the sacred history of salvation. So that we may lay claim to that treasure, the one that is better than bags of gold: namely, to endure and to prevail, sometimes, think Holocaust, against all odds. Which thought, having a future in your offspring, is a thought which comes often to a man of seventy-six for whom the days are dwindling down. Lamborghinis no longer (in fact, never did) have much allure for me; but seeing my grandchildren into a useful, happy, and faithful maturity does. I now have reached the point, probably by learning not to want a lot of things, because they never really satisfy the longing in my heart, where I feel the urge to make this world a kinder place for eight in the next generation who call me Pa or Poppy, and, by extension, every child who will share with them the future.
Jacob’s ladder tells us how that blessed future unfolds. First by paying attention, close attention, to the one who erected it, the one who stands by Jacob and the rest of us calling us into tomorrow with bright promises. Right, the Lord God Almighty, whom we identify as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The same for us as for Jacob, no difference. To remember, in the words of my mother’s favorite hymn, “that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” That over, through, and beyond whatever hell we create on earth by our wars and greed and stupidities, there reigns one whose will is indomitable and his will is mercy, kindness, love, goodness, peace. Like we have been taught to sing by a man who also lived in a turbulent time when in the name of Christ heretics were burned at the stake and he was regarded as a heretic: “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.” That’s Martin Luther’s take on Psalm 46. Just some of the dust of Jacob’s posterity.
The future comes, Jacob’s ladder-like, when we pay attention to the one who stands by us and over us, to whose stately mansions the angels are climbing and from whom they are descending. The knowledge of God is not only the beginning of wisdom; it is the promise of a better future.
Which brings us to the angels, those friendly souls going up and down the ladder: they are those all around us pointing us in the right direction, up. Where we are to lay up our treasures. Maybe that’s what they are doing in Jacob’s dream, carrying our treasures up and God’s grace back down. The host of kind faces smiling on us, the angels who have come before us and gone on ahead of us, many of them in this place. As I look out over the congregation this morning I see not only the faces of those with whom I have made the journey here, but also the faces now shining in the presence of God, our guardian angels, people to whom my thoughts turn reflexively in this place, Margaret and Bob and Victor and Bert and Nunzio. When I lay my head upon a softer pillow than Jacob’s, they take their place on that ladder to heaven, the people who confirm for me the promise of God’s abiding care and the conviction that our job on earth is to love one another the way Jesus loves us. That is the measure of our success, not bags of gold: how much we have freely spent ourselves on others. And the angelic chorus of those with whom God has privileged us to live and know for a season are the heavenly chorus who not only sing God’s praises but coax and encourage us on our way to go and do likewise.
All said in the shadow of a cross raised in honor of one of whom we can all say it, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” who came, in other words you should be able to quote, “that we may have life and have it abundantly.” Another Jacob’s Ladder, never an easy climb, but the view from the top is eternally satisfying.