Sermon: Jacob’s Ladder
I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 13, 2011 at the Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC.
Readings: Genesis 28:11-22; John 1:35-51; Arcana Coelestia 3701
Throughout the Lord’s Word we find stories of competing brothers: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and in the story for today, Esau and Jacob. We did not read the earlier part of this story, but Esau and Jacob were twin brothers. Esau was born first – but Jacob had sold him a pot of stew for his birthright, and tricked their father Isaac into blessing him rather than Esau. When Jacob left for the land of Haran, he left for two reasons: to find a wife, and to flee from Esau, who had threatened to kill him.
Why are there all these stories of competing brothers in the Word? For the Lord’s Word to truly be His Word, it has to be about spiritual things – even in those places that seem to simply be literal histories. These competing brothers throughout the Word are a picture of two things that compete in our minds for priority: love and wisdom, charity and faith, good and truth. Which is the most important? In the earliest days of the Christian church, Christians knew the answer; the apostle Paul wrote, “And now abide faith, hope, love [or charity], these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:3). The most important thing is love. But it is not always as straightforward as this. The goal is that all of us will act from love; but we are not born into acting from love – first, we have to learn truth, and live by it, and only gradually do we come to love doing that.
In this story, Esau specifically represents the love side of things on the natural level – the feelings, the pleasure, we get from love. And Jacob represents the wisdom side of things on that same level – not the deeper wisdom, but simply knowledge of what is true. Esau is born first – because love is really the more important thing. But early on in a person’s development, that love is unfocused and mixed up with bad loves – a person can’t act based on his feelings alone. So while a person develops, Jacob has the lead – that acting according to knowledges. That’s what it means for Jacob to have stolen the birthright.
The story begins in a place called Beersheba. The name Beersheba means both “seven wells” and “well of the promise.” The deep wells of water there represent doctrines, the many teachings of the church. Since Jacob represents knowledges, and he lived in Beersheba, he represents part of us that knows the doctrine of the church. But at this point, that knowledge was not married to life. It was simply knowledge. Looked at from this spiritual sense, we can understand what it means that Esau, that love side of things, was getting frustrated with Jacob. The same thing happens when we spend a lot of time learning things but not much time using it. The will within us gets frustrated – we just want to start doing, not learning. It’s a good impulse – but at first we can think it means we should stop learning altogether, that our knowledge is useless. Esau wants to kill Jacob. But rather than get rid of our knowledge, the right course is to see how we can live by it.
And so Jacob leaves his home, and sets out toward the land of Haran. After a day’s journey, Jacob needs to rest, so he piled up rocks for a pillow. This place where Jacob was, with those rocks he used for pillows, a place remote from Beersheba or doctrinal things, represents the Lord’s truth on the most external level. This is the Lord’s truth as it exists in the stories of the Lord’s Word, such as this story itself of Jacob’s ladder. When we are beginning the process of regeneration, even though we might have a lot of doctrinal knowledge, when we’re starting to look at how we ought to live, we have to start with the basics – the essential, literal teachings of the Word.
And Jacob lay down there and slept. As he slept, he dreamed, and he saw a stairway stretched out before him, from the ground up to heaven. And on that stairway he saw angels ascending going up to God and returning back down to earth. The way this is described is a little unusual – we might expect the angels first to be described as coming down from God, then returning to Him. But this vision is a vision of the process of regeneration, and it does take place in this way – first as an ascent, and then as a return. It’s a process that takes place on a larger scale over the course of a person’s life, but it’s also a process that occurs again and again on a smaller scale throughout a person’s life to eternity.
Remember, that ground where Jacob lay represented the literal stories from the Lord’s Word – it represented the most external level of truth as it exists with a person, in those basic knowledges. But from these knowledges, there is an ascent to God. Arcana Coelestia gives an example (from AC 3690): the first thing a person learns about the Ten Commandments from the Word is the story of how they were given – how the Lord descended on Mount Sinai in smoke and fire, how Moses climbed up the mountain, how he returned to deliver them to the children of Israel at the bottom. That story forms a foundation. As a person grows older, he begins to see that those commandments were not just part of a story, that they were not just for the children of Israel, but that they are necessary for all society. He begins to intentionally try to live by them; for example, he begins by honouring and obeying his parents in accordance with that law of the Ten Commandments. But as he gets older, his understanding deepens – he realizes that truly following this commandment does not mean literally agreeing with everything his parents say, but honouring what is good in them. As he goes further, he realizes that honouring this commandment means loving good and truth itself, and above all, loving the Lord as His father. That is the ascent up that staircase, to the Lord at the top.
But all this progress is made when a person lives by what he knows, forcing himself to act according to his understanding of what is right. And something else happens as he does this. More and more, he starts to love following these commandments. At some point there is a switch – instead doing good because he knows it’s right, he starts doing what is right because he feels the love and goodness in it. This is the angels’ return back down to earth – when a person acts primarily from love, rather than truth, and brings love down to earth, putting it in practice.
And it’s important that the Lord is at the top there. That is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Divinely Human God. All of this stems from His love, as all the angels acknowledge. From Him, a person goes through this process, in different areas of his life. It is the Lord who changes our hearts, and gives us the love to do what is right.
We see the same process on a much smaller and more natural scale in the way we form habits, or break habits. When we’re first trying to form a habit – say turning off the lights when we leave a room – it can be hard to do. We forget, or we’re in a hurry, and we have to force ourselves to do it. But gradually we do it enough that it becomes second nature.
Now picture the same thing on a more spiritual scale. What if the habit you want to form is not tearing people down. If you’re in that habit, it takes work at first. It feels artificial because it IS artificial. You have to make yourself do it. But gradually, over time, the Lord changes that habit. When that switch happens, when you reach the point where you no longer WANT to tear people down, where that feels unpleasant – that’s that point where those angels are coming back down the stairway. It is summed up this way in Arcana Coelestia: “Act precedes; willing follows” (AC 4353).
But this is a gradual process. We don’t climb up that stairway very quickly – we take one step at a time. In our reading from the Writings this morning, we found an example of the very gradual steps the Lord leads us on, so gentle that we don’t even realize we’re ascending until we look back. At first, early in our process of regeneration, we act mostly from love of self. The Lord doesn’t destroy this love, but He gently modifies it. We learn truths that don’t directly contradict that love, but that also lead us forward. We learn that we do need to take care of ourselves – but that we also need to take care of others. From these truths we gradually progress, until we get to the point where those truths about taking care of ourselves cease to be the highest truths, but instead become the lowest truths, with the love of the neighbour and love of the Lord as higher. There is an inversion, that is, it is flipped around – the love of self is still there, but in the last place rather than the first. The angels come down the stairway after ascending.
Another way to think about this is in terms of families. Within our families, we have tendencies toward selfishness; but at the same time, we do want our siblings, and especially our kids and grandkids, to have the things they need to make them happy. Even people who are mostly selfish tend to want good things for their kids. And even that – wanting something for their kids – is a step up from only loving themselves. From that step, a person can take the next step up – what will really make my kids happy? It isn’t to give them everything they want, it’s to give them the things that will help them live fulfilling lives. The next step up is a love for their use in society, and so on, until what we are really loving in our children is the Lord’s love for others in them. Step by step, the Lord lifts us up the ladder in that particular area of our lives. We reach the top and begin to come back down when our interactions with our families stem from this love for what is good for them and what is good in them.
When those new loves have been formed in us, we start to see even the lower things in the world and the Word in a new way. We start to see things in the world in terms of the use they serve. Those simple stories from the Lord’s Word touch us in ways they never had before, because we’ve experienced the depth within them. They have life in them. When we’re acting from love, we can see the way that the Lord is everywhere, even in the most external things, even in the everyday interactions we have with the people around us. Everything is full of the Lord.
When Jacob wakes up, the Lord promises him that He will protect him and be with him and return him to this land, and would make him fruitful and multiply him. In the internal sense, it’s a promise that when we have been regenerated, we see countless new truths in the Word and in the world around us, and begin to feel countless new affections even on that outermost level. This is what is represented by that rock that Jacob set up and anointed with oil. That rock represents those outermost truths, the truths in the literal sense of the Word, and the natural world. And the oil on top represents the way that these become holy when we see them again from love.
Jacob calls that rock the house of God. When we are able to see the world and the Word from love, we see it as the dwelling place of God. When the people of the Most Ancient Church, who loved the Lord above all else, looked around them, they saw everything in creation as a representation of God. Everything was alive to them. We can see this even now in the way a young child sees the world as alive, and in the delight a child takes in reading the Lord’s Word, which the Writings tell us gives the angels the greatest delight.
And this joy that is provided to the angels when a child or a sincere person reads the Word, or when we see the Lord in the things of this world, is the other lesson of this story of Jacob’s dream. That stairway stretched all the way up into heaven – but it also touched the earth. Heaven could not exist without a foundation on earth. And as human beings, living in this world, we have an opportunity that even the angels do not have – we can be a link between the outermost things of the Lord’s creation and the Lord himself. Arcana Coelestia puts it this way: “Man has been so created that the Divine things of the Lord may descend through him down to the last things of nature, and from the last things of nature may ascend to Him” (AC 3702). We allow this to happen when we use the things the Lord has created in service toward others. When we do something mundane – bake food for a loved one – we are taking things from the animal, vegetable, mineral kingdom, and using them in service to something higher, to love. In the same way, if we see a beautiful garden, and from that reflect on the beauty of the Lord’s truth, we are connecting something in this world with the Lord himself – we are helping form the base of that stairway. Without heaven, this world is lifeless; without this world, heaven would have no foundation.
And this is the house of God. The Lord lives with us even here. When He was in the world, the Lord made His humanity completely Divine – even down to the physical level. The Lord is present in this plane. A lot of the time we don’t notice the His presence in the world around us. But He is here, as Jacob discovered. The Lord was in that place – that place where a person sees the way that even the literal stories in the Word, even the physical stuff of this world, can be a home for the Lord. And we can see this after the angels with us have drawn us step by step up that stairway, and when we have turned around to bring back the Lord’s love into the world. As Jacob said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”