Preached on Sunday, 23.07.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
Near the house where I grew up in Stirling there is a shortcut up to the Old Town, the way to the castle; it saves you walking round the long way by the street. It consists of a long staircase, which is quite steep – and it is known locally as ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. It will not be the only one in Scotland, or indeed in the world, because this story of Jacob is one that has captured the imagination – it gives our mind’s eye something to picture, and artists have tried to offer their own interpretation of the dream Jacob had of a stairway to heaven.
You may remember that the rock band Led Zeppelin had their own version of a stairway to heaven, this time one that could be bought by someone who thought that everything that glittered was, after all, gold. There have been arguments about where the musical inspiration for the Led Zeppelin song came from, but it is clear that the idea of a stairway to heaven comes from this story of Jacob.
The idea of a stairway to heaven, though, does not begin with Jacob; it begins with the Babylonians and their ziggurats. These temples were built to be high towers, built with different levels, built with a staircase connecting each level with the one above. And so the dream arises from a built reality being transformed not only into a ladder upon which one may ascend, but one upon which descent is also accomplished – heaven comes to earth in Jacob’s dream.
And that is why in John’s gospel virtually the same words are used by Jesus to describe himself: ‘very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’. In John’s gospel Jesus is portrayed as the ladder, the way, between heaven and earth, between time and eternity, between God and humanity.
Jacob has his dream at Bethel. It’s a significant place: it is mentioned more often in the Hebrew scriptures than anywhere except Jerusalem and Samaria. Bethel was visited by Abraham, who built an altar there, and returned there after disgracing himself in Egypt. Bethel was captured by Joshua after the Exodus, recaptured by the Canaanites, then taken again by the Israelite tribes (so it is sounding more like Stirling Castle all the time!). The Ark of the Covenant was housed for a time at Bethel before being taken to Shiloh, and later to Jerusalem. Bethel became the principal shrine of the northern Kingdom of Israel, a rival to Judah’s Jerusalem. In Bethel Jeroboam placed one of his golden calves, and in Bethel Amos preached a scathing sermon about false worship:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fish-hooks.
Through breaches in the wall you shall leave,
each one straight ahead;
and you shall be flung out into Harmon,
says the Lord.
Come to Bethel—and transgress;
to Gilgal—and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three days;
bring a thank-offering of leavened bread,
and proclaim freewill-offerings, publish them;
for so you love to do, O people of Israel!
says the Lord God.
And in Bethel Amos got into trouble for doing that:
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” ’
And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’
Bethel was an important place, a holy place – a place recognised as a place of God – but it had not always been so, at least not by everyone. ‘Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’’ Jacob goes to sleep quite unaware of where he is, quite unaware of the company he is keeping, quite unaware of where God is to be found. And in that, we might think, even today, he is not unusual. He is, probably, in the city of Luz – and it clearly has nothing remarkable about it. It is just a place pretty much like any other place – but, on his journey, fleeing, he thinks, from the wrath of his brother whom he has robbed and cheated, it is a place which seems to offer a place to pause, a place to catch his breath, a place to rest his head.
It is not even much of a place for that – a rock for a pillow; a rock, allegedly, long and flat, stretched out across an open space, the kind of rock that could, in the morning light, in the enlightened tomorrow, be raised on its end, and stuck in the ground to become a pillar, a monument, a marker of the discovery that, all this time, all unknown, this was God’s place.
And all this was unknown to Jacob – but not unknown to others. Luz, this city through which he was travelling, was already known to the Canaanites as Beth-el – the House of El, the chief Canaanite deity. And now, like other holy shrines in other places at other times, it becomes adopted, embraced, re-packaged; so now it is not the House of El, but the house of God. The name of ‘House of God’ is adopted and adapted from the Canaanites, but in the story Jacob gives it that other name as well – this is not only the house of God, this is also the gate of heaven. And this name takes us back to Babylon – back to the ziggurats, back to their stairways to heaven, back to the more correct name for Babylon – Bab-ilani, which means ‘gate of the gods’.
Jacob, we find, has gone to sleep in a nondescript place, a place which means nothing; maybe he knows it means things to other people, but it certainly means nothing to him. The traditions of others, the understandings of others, the places of others, do not, he thinks, ‘do it’ for him. His spiritual life, if he even thinks he has one, is not fed from these springs. It’s just a place to stop, a place to use, a place of passing convenience, but nothing of any importance – not to him. But he awakens to a different world, a world where he has been touched by a presence he had not previously suspected. It is a world where Jacob has to take seriously what has been special to others but has never before been special to him – and the traditions of Canaan and of Babylon are subtly brought in to the tradition of Israel in the person whose name Israel will later take.
The psalmist writes not of a God who is suddenly encountered in a special place, but of an omnipresent God, a God whose presence cannot be escaped anywhere, a God who is with us everywhere we go – from the womb to the tomb, from the highest place to the lowest. This is a God who knows us everywhere we go, and knows us before we are anywhere, knows us whether or not we know God, is interested in us whether or not we are interested in God.
And this is, in a way, all too much for the writer of the psalm – too much to take in, too much to understand; it is enough to reduce a mere mortal to silence, to wonder, and to praise. And, at the end of the psalm – the part we did not read this morning – he goes on to ask why, if God knows him so well and so thoroughly, he does not take his side more against his enemies
So there are in our readings this morning those two very different accounts of spiritual experience, different accounts of the discovery of God’s presence. In the one there is the setting up of a shrine because of an experience of that presence in a particular place – the realisation of a presence previously unnoticed and unaccounted for. In the other is the acknowledgement of the presence of God in all places, and at all times, the presence of God in the air we breathe, in the ground upon which we walk, in birth, in life, and in death. That in itself should remind us that spiritual experience varies and we should be extremely wary of anyone who tries to say that there is one spirituality which is valid and that all others are mistaken; we should not listen to any who say that one approach, or one experience, is in some way superior to another.
But, as we noted at the start, there is also a third account of spiritual experience in our readings today. It grows out of the other two, but offers a whole new idea of what such experience might be. When Jesus meets Nathaniel, he speaks as one who knows him, who knows where he has been, knows what he has been doing, knows what he has been thinking. He speaks, therefore, as the incarnation of the omnipresent God of the psalmist, the one who knows us through and through, the one from whom there is no escape. But then, as we saw earlier, he goes on to offer an interpretation of Jacob’s ladder in which he himself is the ladder, the one upon whom the angels descend and ascend. So Jesus speaks of himself not only as the destination but also as the road.
Jesus takes the ideas of spiritual experience and offers them to us in a human life, in a person, in the commitment of the eternal God to time-limited human flesh and bone. And he says to Nathaniel, and to us, that the confinement of God to shrines, to particular holy places, has been overcome – he will later talk of himself as the new temple, one to be built in three days to replace the old, now scattered, stones; and he says to Nathaniel that the invisible, omnipresent God is, in this particular life, made visible, made understandable. God is no longer ‘too much’, because God can now be experienced and understood in human life and in human struggle. The gate is open; the ladder is in place.
Spirituality is taken away from the ethereal and the other worldly, and brought into the life of the world, the life of human solidarity. The life of God is one to be found walking our streets, our ordinary streets, the streets of no apparent significance, the streets which are simply the road from one place to another, but the streets upon which God can be found, upon which God may well find us, the streets which at any moment might be revealed to be the house of God, the very gate of heaven.
They are the streets in which the Lord is present – and we did not know it.