A reality beyond our current, limited human reality
Peter Seal, 19 July 2020
Genesis 28: 10–19a; Romans 8: 12–25; Matthew 13: 24–30, 36–43
We’re told, Jacob left Beer-sheba. Well, it’s not quite as simple as this. The storyteller is being easy on Jacob. The bald fact is, he has to clear out, because he’s swindled his brother Esau. He has despicably deceived his father into giving him his brother’s inheritance.
So Jacob runs. It’s interesting that he heads north for Haran, because that’s where the family came from years before. Jacob, being Jacob, already has a plan for Jacob.
We hear how, taking one of the stones of the place, he puts it under his head. This sounds strange to us, but to this day people in the desert still do this, using their head-covering as a kind of pillow.
As Jacob slept, he dreamed. This is a very famous dream, a very well-known dream. Indeed, the images, you could say, are somehow: universal. In Jacob’s dream, earth and heaven are connected by a great ladder. We’re told that beings move up and down on it.
In some way it’s dream of shalom, of unity, of connectedness. It shows Jacob a much bigger reality than he or we tend to allow ourselves to see. In Jacob’s dream there is, as it were, a door between realities. Human beings – you and I – are not restricted to this world.
In these very limiting Covid times we badly need to dream Jacob’s dream again. We need to be reminded of bigger realities. The ladder in all its symbolism shows us the way home: the way to God’s life, beyond this life. It’s not surprising, is it, that we sometimes at the moment feel trapped and isolated in a small time, and in a small space?
Science fiction – all kinds of imaginative writing, and fantastical games – remind us that many people are fascinated by that which is beyond the everyday and the tangible.
What does the dream do for Jacob? Well it gives him a sense of the presence of God, a reassurance that never leaves him for the rest of his life – which as we know was often a wandering one, and sometimes despicable. At this moment, the Lord God stands beside Jacob and makes him an extraordinary promise. This promise is not just for Jacob, not just for his family or even the people around him. No, it’s far bigger. This dream includes the whole world! ‘All the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
This promise is not just for Jacob or the people around him. No, it’s far bigger. This dream includes the whole world.
The promise of the dream is very beautiful. God says, ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go … for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you’. There’s a sense, of course, in that God says this to each and every one of us – if, that is, we’re prepared to listen. As we heard from last week’s gospel and the parable of the sower: ‘Let anyone with ears listen’.
This story about Jacob works in its biblical context; it also works as a standalone story. It’s capable, in fact, of standing gloriously alone, and of speaking to the deep places within us.
‘Jacob woke … and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”’ So very often this is true in our own lives. There are times – very ordinary, everyday sorts of times, or experiences – when we’re just getting on with whatever it is we’re getting on with. We’re not consciously thinking about God or praying and suddenly, unexpectedly, we become aware of deeper levels of meaning, in the flash of a moment. And all this comes as complete surprise. It’s at such moments that we can say with Jacob, ‘The Lord is here. The Lord is here with me.’
It’s in those moments as though we are effortlessly climbing the ladder. We find ourselves moving up and down it, between realities. Such moments come as pure gift. They can’t be manufactured. And when they end, it’s as though we’ve woken from a kind of sleep.
I hope this makes sense. I hope you’ve had this sort of ecstatic experience. Someone put it this way: the life we usually refer to as our waking life is really a kind of sleep, from which we eventually wake to a life utterly beyond our imaginings.
We sometimes say of a loved one who is nearing the end of their life, ‘I just hope that she falls asleep tonight and doesn’t wake up in the morning’. Dying in our sleep is the greatest gift we can hope for at the earthly end of our lives. Jacob’s ladder can be pictured and experienced as a vision of the resurrection. This ladder reminds us vividly that there is a reality beyond our current, limited human reality.
Jacob cries out in amazement, ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’. We will use our own words of expression, but there are precious moments when this truth shouts out from within us. For example, when in the late afternoon we pause to look at the westering sun as it fades; or when someone puts their newborn baby into our arms. Or, most topically in these Covid times, at some future point – hopefully not too far away – when the best scientists in the world will be able to announce, ‘We’ve developed a vaccine; we’re confident it will work’. Collectively, we will heave a huge sigh of relief, realising that we’re free again. Countless lives the world over will then be saved from the ravages of this plague.
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he 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.
No wonder Jacob could not leave without marking the spot. For the rest of his life it would be a holy place, because there he had encountered, and been encountered by, God.
Memorial benches are one of the ways in which we mark holy places. We read inscriptions like this, ‘In memory of Sally who loved this view’. We all know such places, which are marked in our experience, and which have a special place in our memories.
In these Covid days, which can feel life-crushing and faith-bashing, it can be profoundly encouraging, in a deeply foundational way, to take time to recapture our life-defining experiences. These memories set us once again on the ladder between heaven and earth; the ladder which connects all kinds of realities; the ladder on which we, too, with the angels, will find ourselves both ascending and descending. This will continue for us for as long as we have breath in our lungs … and a beating heart … and energy to love and receive love. And, of course, vivid imaginations, which fill us with vision and hopefulness.
I conclude with a prayer: Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy, we give you thanks for the blessings of the past, praying your sustenance in the present, and with a sure confidence that there are new realities yet to be revealed, through Christ our Lord. Amen.