Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Advent 4 : Stairway To Heaven

God will introduce himself to later generations as “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” Jacob – Isaac’s son, Abraham’s grandson – is the third Patriarch.

God comes to Jacob and says, “If you give me your life, I will give you my life.” Jacob’s life was a mess. His name – his identity – meant trickster or cheat, and that defined his life. He cheated his brother out of his birthright, and ran for his life. And the trickster would himself be tricked: he voluntarily worked for his uncle Laban for seven years up front in return for Laban’s younger daughter as a wife...only to be given the older daughter, and forced to work another seven years (though not up front this time) for the right to marry the woman he loved. Laban said, you can marry my daughter but in exchange I’ll get fourteen years of labour out of you, and get you to take my other daughter off my hands into the bargain. The trickster met his match – and responds in the only way he knows, by tricking his uncle, by getting his own back. And trickery upon trickery resulted in an ugly family situation, which would have consequences for the next generation...

God comes to Jacob twice. The first time, Jacob has just run away from home. Exhausted, he lies down to sleep on the open ground - on the very ground where his grandfather Abraham had taken his father Isaac to sacrifice him. But Jacob did not know it. And as he slept, God appeared to him in a dream, standing both at the top and at the bottom of a stair reaching from earth to heaven [note 1], on which angels where ascending and descending. There God renews his offer of covenant – an exchange of lives. Jacob is amazed, and afraid: without knowing, he has stumbled on the place where heaven and earth connect, the house of God. And he declares that if God shows himself to be true to his promises, then Jacob will enter into covenant with him, and make this place outwardly, visibly, God’s house [note 2].

He stands at the open gate of heaven, and does not go in. This is not the end of his story, but it is a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, God will not let it go: generations later, Jesus will declare that the place where the stair between heaven and earth touches ground is not at any fixed geographic point, but in him [note 3]. In Jesus as he went about on earth, and, by extension, in the heart of everyone who will accept his offer:

“If you will give me your life, I will give you my life.”

note 1: The text, Genesis 28, is ambiguous as to whether God is stood at the top or the bottom of the stair, in a way that leads us to understand it as being both at the same time. God in heaven, and God on earth. The Great Father, and the Only and Beloved Son.

note 2: Generations later, Solomon’s temple would be built here. After it was destroyed and the people taken into exile, Zerubbabel would return and build the second temple on the same spot. And, in turn, Herod the Great would build the magnificent third temple – the temple of Jesus’ day – at the house of God, the gate of heaven.

note 3: see John 1:43-51.

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