Let’s not forget the context of Jacob’s marvelous dream. Jacob dreams not from the comfort of his own bed. He dreams this dream in the open air, under the stars. No comfy pillow caresses him, only a hard rock. And he’s not camping. He’s running from brother Esau who wants him dead.
Oh, yes, Jacob got the blessing. He convinced a hungry brother to “sell” his birth right for a bowl of soup.
He tricked his nearly-blind father by dressing up like Esau and having his mom cook Esau-style food. True enough, God told Rebekah, “The older will serve the younger,” thus marking Jacob as the heir of Isaac, the one through whom Jesus would come. Yet, just as little as Abraham’s adultery with Hagar fulfilled God’s promise of a son, did Jacob’s trickery fulfill God’s prophecy of him gaining the blessing.
So, now he must leave. Even this is under false pretenses. Rebekah goes to her husband Isaac and makes up a story about wanting to find a proper wife for Jacob, a wife from their own family (just as Abraham did for Isaac). And Isaac consents and sends his son off to Haran and Uncle Laban.
Look at sin and sin’s consequences. Jacob’s trickery paid off, but the law of unintended consequences also drove him into exile and divided the family. Jacob goes from being the scion of a wealthy family to being the servant of an equally tricksy boss. And after twenty years, he still wasn’t sure that Esau wouldn’t kill him. Look at your life and your sins. What unintended consequences have they brought you? What confusion? What chaos? What disorder? What anger? What division? It’s almost the law of things that when you do whatever it takes to get what you want, what you need, when you go against God’s will, that it never tastes as sweet once you have it. Because of how you got it. Because of what you had to do. Because of your sin.
Ultimately sin leads to Jacob-like exile. It cast Adam and Eve out of Eden. It made Cain a permanent wanderer. It resulted in first the northern kingdom of Israel and then the southern kingdom of Judah being destroyed and driven from Temple and home. In the end, of course, there’s hell. The wicked do not inherit heaven. They end up on the outside, facing a locked door, hearing the Father say, “I don’t know you.”
So we find Jacob on the road. The sun goes down. His body needs rest. He finds the most comfortable rock he can and makes do. Because he has nothing else. Returning home twenty years later Jacob says, “I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan.” In sin we wander, with less than we imagined we’d get to take with us. Because the world cruelly strips us of our things. Because the devil gives, and then he takes away. He offers us sweet fruit, and forgets to tell us the price of eating is to lose everything: to gain the world, but forfeit your soul, and usually lose so much of the worldly right along with it.
And Jacob sleeps. Here the story takes a turn we wouldn’t expect. We expect the sleep of the guilty, hounded by dreams of a vengeance-filled brother. Instead, the LORD Himself invades Jacob’s sleep. And He shows Jacob Christ. He shows Jacob forgiveness. He shows Jacob grace. He gives Jacob back His faith.
We cannot climb up to heaven. We cannot bridge the chasm fixed between us and God. The rich man learned that in hell when he begged for a drink. Even here on earth, we have no choice, no chance, no hope on our own. Cast out of the garden, marked for death by the image and likeness of our parents, we have nothing. All our tricks are for naught. We can’t hide. We can’t blame others. We can’t run far enough.
Except God broke into the sleep of our sin and invades our world with His Son, His Chosen One, Jesus, who said, “You shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus announced Himself to be what Jacob saw, the connection between earth and heaven, the only way to the Father. And at the top, Jacob saw Him, Him Whom he’d offended by His sins, Him Whom he’d begged and pleaded with for forgiveness. And the LORD speaks.
“I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.” He identifies Himself to Jacob. And He uses the Name above all other names: LORD, Yahweh, I AM. He comes not as Master, not as Terrifier, but as Promise-Maker and Promise-Keeper. He comes as the God who spoke to Abraham and Isaac, and who now speaks to Jacob. “I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Despite your sneakiness and sin I will prove faithful to my promise.”
Here we find evidence of Jacob’s repentance, or else the LORD would have treated him like Cain, “Sin crouches at your door.” Instead, He says to Jacob, “You’ll be back. You’re leaving now. But I’ll hold this all in trust and reserve for you. Esau won’t take it. Enemies won’t move in. You’ll come back. I’ll bring you back. Because I will give you the land. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.”
Oh, the wonder Jacob must have felt at hearing the LORD use the second-person singular pronoun, “You.” “You will be a great nation. You will spread out to all four compass points. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.” And then the big one, the Messianic promise once more. Everyone will be blessed because from you comes the Seed, that is, Christ, who will save His people from their sins. “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Here the LORD makes explicit what before He implied. You will survive this. I will keep you alive.
Every word drips with forgiveness and peace for Jacob. The LORD appeared to bless, not chastise. The LORD shows Jacob He makes a connection between heaven and earth. The LORD announced that though Jacob had proven faithless, He would remain faithful. The LORD didn’t bring up Jacob’s past (or future) faults, He only said, “Listen to what I will do for you, what I will give you, what you will receive from me.” For in this dream the LORD clearly announced, “I will do the giving, you will not do the taking.”
And thus stands our own relationship with God. Miserable sinners we are. When we grasp and grab and go after we are only tricksters, Jacobs. We live in fear of all the things surrounding us – an attacking devil, a hostile world, a bitter flesh. They all want a piece of us, and gladly take it. We believe God to be the same way. And we’ve earned nothing less. And then Paul speaks theologically about what Jacob saw in his dream: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And now “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” We grasped and schemed and stole and destroyed. But God gave, not what we earned and deserved, but out of His love. He used His own flesh, the flesh of His Son Jesus, to build the stairway that gives access to heaven. He did the giving of what we couldn’t take: Himself into death, and faith in that death, faith that saves us, faith that walks us up the stairs of Christ into heaven.
The context of Jacob’s marvelous dream is no different than the context of our own life when we hear this amazing pronouncement. Poor, miserable sinners, we’ve filled our own lives with pain and agony, with stony pillows. But God fixes what’s broken. He plants the seeds of salvation by announcing a bridge to somewhere, to heaven, and He gets it built: “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
Christ said that, and Christ did that. Christ made Jacob’s dream real. By faith we grasp this. By faith we cry: “Surely the LORD is in this place…. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Where Jesus is, we find the gate to heaven, the escape from our sinfulness, the escape from our death. And He tells you where He is. He locates Himself in a revealing Word. He locates Himself in a forgiving Meal. He locates Himself in a sin-washing Baptism. Not dreams, but reality. In Christ. Amen.