10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord, and He said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 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. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 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.” 16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’ 18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
John 1:43-51 43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, He said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote - Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” 48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” 50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Have you ever been somewhere for the very first time and just felt that place was special? It’s the strangest feeling, and it really is hard to explain, but most of us have experienced that feeling. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know that there is something unique and unusual about this place. This is what Jacob experienced at Luz, a place he later renamed Bethel. Jacob was on the run. He holds a special place in the history of our faith, but he really was quite a shady character. Jacob was not the most likeable person. In Genesis 25 we’re told that even before he was born, Jacob fought with his twin brother Esau in the womb. Jacob took sibling rivalry to new heights, and he was pretty ruthless in his determination to get his own way. Jacob was the kind of man who would follow you into a revolving door, but come out ahead of you. He swindled his brother’s birthright from Esau, and tricked his own father into robbing Esau’s blessing from him.
Jacob had to flee for his life, and he left the country for fear of the revenge which Esau had promised. Genesis 27:41 says “Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” We pick up the story as Jacob is on his way to Haran, and he stops to rest for the night. And it was here where Jacob discovers a place which is special and will change him forever. While he was sleeping he had a dream - a God–induced dream. In this dream Jacob sees a stairway which leads from the earth all the way to heaven. There are angels going up and coming down the stairs, and at the very top of the stairway stands the Lord Himself who then talks to Jacob.
The Lord has a revelation for him, and as he speaks to Jacob, God makes him a promise which echoes the same promise He made to Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s grandfather and father: all the land will be his. And then God makes Jacob a wonderfully assuring promise: “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.” Jacob, when he wakes up, is understandably deeply moved by this experience. This is a special place. The Lord is here. This is an awesome place. This is the house of God. This is the gate of heaven. And so he names it Bethel - “Beth–el”, the House of God. Basically three things have happened to Jacob, which changed his life. Firstly, God revealed Himself to him in a very personal way. Secondly, the Lord assured him of the future, and finally, and most importantly, God showed Jacob that there is a way from his sinful nature to heaven.
Now let’s fast-forward a little bit: about two thousand years and fifteen hundred pages to our reading from John 1. This is where we read the account of Jesus calling His disciples. The story really starts in verse 35. John the Baptist sees Jesus approaching and says, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
Andrew and Peter follow Jesus. Jesus calls Phillip the next day and Phillip calls Nathanael to come see this Man. Nathanael comes, and Jesus tells him things a normal man wouldn’t know, and Nathanael recognises Jesus for who He really is, and proclaims Him as the Son of God. Jesus replies, (in 21st century speak) “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that. I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The connection between Jesus’ words to Nathanael and Jacob’s dream all those years ago is clear. Jesus promises Nathanael that he will see heaven open, and that he will see the stairway to heaven.
But it goes even deeper than this. As the disciples spend more time with Jesus, and as we look back at the story which unfolds throughout the rest of the New Testament, we learn something truly amazing. Bethel is not a place, but a person. The vast majority of dreams are abstract and very difficult to understand, but not in this case. We now have the complete interpretation of Jacob’s dream. The true stairway to heaven is a person – Jesus Christ. With this in mind, the name Jacob gave this place takes on a whole new significance too. Bethel is the place where God dwells. Jesus is the person where God dwells. You see, Jesus was not just a good teacher or a prophet. He was and He is God Himself. This man who spoke to Nathanael and the others was God Himself, in human flesh. Bethel - Emmanuel – God with us.
And when we put these two stories together, what do we discover? We learn that Jesus is the Revelation from Heaven. In his dream, God revealed Himself to Jacob. Up until that point Jacob’s life was a mess, and it was only going to end up one way – badly - but God took the initiative to intervene in Jacob’s life. Jacob had certainly grown up hearing about God, but living a godly life was the furthest thing from his mind. He was just a nasty piece of work, fleeing for his life because of the mess he’d made of it. Does this sound familiar? It should, because Jacob’s life before God showed up is a mirror image of our own lives. Just trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else, surviving day by day. But then God intervened in Jacob’s life. God broke into his life at a time and place when he was least expecting it. The God of mercy and grace revealed Himself to Jacob, spoke to him and revealed His plans and will for Jacob.
In much the same way, we have been running away from our past lives. We have all made some seriously bad choices, just like Jacob, and we have fooled ourselves into thinking that if we just keep running, maybe the problems will go away. But they won’t. But thanks be to God! Just as He revealed Himself to Jacob and Nathanael, so He reveals Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. God has taken the initiative to intervene in the life of the whole world, and in your life too. Jesus came into the world to show us who God is, up–close and personal. He came into the world to show you who God is, up-close and personal.
As in the case of Jacob, God knows that we won’t look for Him on our own. Sin drives us from God, not to God. He knows that we get caught up in the things of life and the things of this world, and our first response is to keep on running, so He took the initiative to break into our lives. How will you respond to Jesus?
Today we celebrate Holy Communion. This morning we will be reminded that God took the initiative to enter our world – your world – up close and personal. And it is hard for us to be confronted by the holiness of God. His very nature shames us, simply because of who He is and who we are. But you need to make the choice for yourself. You can keep running away from Him, fooling yourself into thinking that by staying one step ahead of Him everything will work out just fine, or you can stop and look to Jesus, the only stairway to heaven.
Maybe today for the very first time, you might be experiencing the reality of a God who is really there. In a sense it’s just as well that the Christmas season is over. The tinsel and the pretty decorations have been packed away, but Jesus is still here. God is still here, and He still speaks to you today, offering you the opportunity to stop playing games with Him, and to turn to Him for true forgiveness and true peace. Because you won’t find it anywhere else.
Jesus is the Revelation from Heaven, and He is the Assurance of Heaven. When God broke into Jacob’s life, He gave him assurance that just as He had provided for and protected Abraham and Isaac, He would do the same for Him. And He wants you to know those same promises and assurance too. God has given you life itself. He created you, and He loves you with an everlasting love. Even when you rejected that love and chose to live your life for yourself, He did not stop loving you, and He came Himself, to offer Himself as a sacrifice in order that you can spend eternity with Him. Jesus is that way. There is only one stairway to heaven, and His name is Jesus Christ. Jesus has provided a way for us to come to God. It is through Him. He has provided a way to forgiveness. He has provided a way to eternal life. He has provided a way for living life the way God always wanted you to live.
And Jesus is the assurance that all of this can be yours.
He gave Himself on the cross to show you the way to forgiveness.
He rose from the grave to assure you death is not the end, and He lives today to assure you that it is possible to live for Him in this dark world.
Jacob felt the importance of the place where he was. He just knew that there was something about the place where he found God. Have you found that place yet? Have you seen the stairway to heaven for yourself yet?
Jacob named that place Bethel. He called it the Gate to Heaven.
God spoke to him, assured him, and showed him there was a way to heaven.
Years later Jesus fulfilled that dream, and He is still fulfilling it today.
He breaks into our lives and shows us the One True God. He tells us that there is a way to God.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This can be a special place to you today. This can be the place where you let God into your life. This is the day you can find the true stairway to heaven, Jesus Christ.