Nothing we do can achieve our entry into heaven. Nothing. Heaven is promised us because of Jesus. It’s important at the outset for me to make that perfectly and patently clear. But there is nonetheless the question of what we do with that promise. What do we do in the meantime, before heaven? There isn’t a lot more to ask today beyond that. What do we do with our lives knowing that nothing we can do, good or bad, impact the relationship we have with God? Do we even bother? What difference does it make anyhow? What are you going to do this side of heaven? Consider that as we go into the sermon today.
Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today we’re going to talk about ladders. In the simplest terms, a ladder is a tool which is made for people to climb up or down. Ladders have been around since prehistoric times. Archeologists find evidence of them all over the world. The oldest evidence we have for ladders dates back about ten thousand years from a cave in Spain. It’s actually a cave painting of a ladder. The painting shows people using a ladder to reach a honeybee nest to get to the honey. The ladder is depicted as long and flexible, possibly made out of some sort of grass. Ladders can be made of metal, wood, or rope. Step ladders are used in the homes and gardens for things that aren’t too high. They have a hinge, so that they are shaped like an upside-down V, and you can set them up most anywhere. I’m sure some of you’ve also seen some of the ridiculous pictures of people doing crazy unsafe things with ladders. And of course, there’s the superstition about walking under a ladder bringing bad luck. That dates back to ancient times as well, to Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians believed that the space between the ladder and the wall was home to good and evil spirits. If disturbed, the spirits would be angered, so it was forbidden for anyone to walk beneath a ladder.
In today’s first reading, Jacob—who later is renamed Israel because he wrestles with God—Jacob is on a journey, and when night comes, he sets up a pillow of stones, lays down, and falls asleep. And he dreamed: A ladder was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky. Angels of God were going up and going down on it. And in the dream, God appears to him, saying, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and 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.” This is a promise. In this dream, God appears to Jacob and makes a promise to him that he, like his grandfather Abraham, would be the ancestor of multitudes. But what God says next is really the greater promise. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” God says, “for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” God not only promises Jacob the land on which he is sleeping, but he more importantly promises never to leave him.
When Jacob wakes up, he realizes how fantastic this vision he just had is and he declares that this very place is the gateway to heaven. He saw angels of God ascending and descending on a ladder, and then God himself speaks to him. God came down from heaven in this place, and he made a promise to Jacob never to abandon him. Jacob names this place, this gateway to heaven, “Bethel,” which simply means “House of God” in Hebrew. In this place, Jacob knew he had been taken up to the house of God just as the house of God had been brought down to him. Heaven’s ladder had come down to earth, and Jacob was blessed to commune in this place with God.
That promise is reaffirmed, or perhaps we might better say, that promise is fulfilled in Jesus—who today when he’s talking to Nathanael tells him, “You will see heaven open up and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” The whole exchange between Jesus, Nathanael, and Phillip is filled with allusions to Jewish patriarchal history, and it comes to a climax here where Jesus tells these men that just as in the vision Jacob had at Bethel, the heavens will open and the angels of God will descend and ascend.
But did you notice what was different about what Jesus says to Nathanael and Phillip and what Jacob witnessed at Bethel? Jesus tells Nathanael and Phillip that the angels will ascend and descend upon the Son of Man. They will ascend and descend upon him, upon Jesus. In Jesus the gateway to heaven is once more opened. And heaven’s ladder is none other the cross upon which Jesus is lifted up for the healing of the world, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness and those who looked upon it were healed.
Jesus who came down to us from heaven to right our relationship with God—he is the one who descends the ladder of faith so that we might ascend with him in final glory. Jesus on the cross opens the gateway to heaven for us. Having descended from the heights of heaven to live among us as one of us, on the cross he transforms all bane and blessing, all pain and pleasure. He sanctifies it. He sanctifies us. And by the cross of Christ once more heaven’s ladder reaches from earth to heaven. In that glorious moment, love triumphs over hate, light conquers darkness, and life defeats death. God once more descends to the depths of the earth, in order that we might reach the heights of heaven to commune with him. Once more, in the cross of Jesus, the promise made to Jacob is kept, and it’s renewed in us—“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.”
So what difference does this all make? What difference does it make that Jesus opens the gateway of heaven to us? What difference does it make that Jesus descends upon the ladder of faith, is lifted up in glory on the cross, that we might ascend to heaven?
It matters because in our ascent to heaven with Jesus, we are called to descend like him into complete obedience of the will of God—obedience in taking up the same cross and bearing it as one of Jesus’ disciples.
But in this we aren’t left stranded, helpless, or forlorn. We are bolstered by the very promise of God himself—“Know that I am with you and will keep you where you go.” We know and we believe that the Holy Spirit is with us. The Holy Spirit daily strengthens us with God’s promise to be with us. The Holy Spirit daily enlightens us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Holy Spirit daily renews our trust in God’s faithfulness and brings us deeper into understanding of relationship with God—just as she calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy all the disciples of Jesus the world over and holds us together in a mystical communion with each other and with God.
The Holy Spirit inspires us. Just as she raised Jesus to life from death to the glory of God the Father, so too does she use us in the midst of distress as instruments of peace for the greater glory of God. We do not—rather, we cannot—climb the ladder of faith, up or down, without the strength and accompaniment of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit goads us to get on the ladder of faith and get climbing.
Climacophobia. A genuine fear of climbing ladders, stairs, rock walls. When I was a child, you might say I was a climacophobe—at least to a degree. The entrance to the attic of my grandparents’ house was just below the point of the gable end the house, in the garage. It was right under the door that we used most of the time to enter the house. My grandparents kept a big heavy wooden ladder permanently going up to the attic. Now, that in its own right isn’t terrible, but let me tell you an additional detail. The concrete stairs to the cellar of the house ran directly under the ladder alongside the house. So not only was the ladder spanning the distance between the garage floor and the attic door, but it was in effect also spanning the distance from the cellar floor to the attic door. It made for a pretty imposing drop in my small child’s mind.
I can only ever remember going up to the attic once, and that was with my father. It was an adventure, to be sure. We went up to get some parts for the model train layout that we had in the basement. But I only ever went up once. The thing about the attic was that it contained all sorts of treasures. When my father went up, he would always bring something great down. More stuff for the train layout. This gizmo. That gadget. But I was petrified to go up. I would often pester him to go up and get stuff to bring down—which he most of the time did. But it was just too scary for me—mainly because I imagined myself falling off the ladder and crashing down to the concrete basement floor.
When it comes to our faith, we are often afraid to climb the ladder. There can be any number of reasons for that. I’ve heard people afraid to pray because they don’t think they have the right words. People afraid to come to Bible study because they don’t know enough about the Bible. Maybe you’re afraid to contribute from your time, treasure, or talent. You think you’re too busy, you’re too strapped for cash, or we couldn’t possibly use your skills. Maybe you’re afraid to propose some sort of outreach because you think other people have it covered and you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Perhaps you’re afraid to volunteer to help with worship—reading the lessons, serving as assistant minister, or singing in the choir or even just singing with gusto among the congregation—because you’re worried about being in front of people or that folks might think, “Who does she think she is?”
The thing is, those are all ways that we grow in our discipleship as followers of Jesus. Those are all ways that we climb the ladder—ways that we take up our cross and follow Jesus. These are the ways that our relationship with God deepens, so that we can then fulfill our calling to love as we have been loved.
To be sure, it’s not always easy. Jesus didn’t promise us it would be easy. The life of discipleship is not always an easy climb. But doing these things is just getting on the ladder. Climbing is so much more. But Jesus did promise us he is right there with us, all along the way—and he’s already there where we’re going, arms stretched wide to meet us when we arrive.
Jesus opens the gateway to heaven for us. He comes down to us and rights our relationship with God, and by his cross, the heaven’s ladder once more reaches down and touches earth. Angels ascend and descend upon Jesus on that ladder. As Jesus descends to us, so we ascend to God upon that ladder of faith, upon the cross of Christ. Christ bids us climb that ladder with him—not for our sake, but for the sake of others in imitation of his love for us. In his invitation to climb the ladder of faith, in Jesus’ challenge to take up the cross and follow him, we hold fast to the God’s promise—“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, for I will not leave you.” Forever and always God is with us, loving, strengthening, inspiring, and supporting us. And that makes all the difference.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.