A sermon delivered about Jacobs Ladder on 14th January 2024, by Mary Rathbone
About ten years ago I joined a team of local people, led by the Old Hatfield Residents Association.
We were clearing the overgrowth of weeds on the narrow stairway that runs up from Batterdale, to a point halfway up Church Street, near the south gate of St Etheldreda’s church.
The resident’s association also managed to get the council to refurbish the dilapidated brickwork, and the stairway was good for use by local people again.
The stairway, called Jacobs Ladder, is a well-known local landmark and residents were delighted that it had been so well restored.
However I soon discovered that not many understood the biblical meaning behind it, and I was able to enlighten some about why it had been built there.
I explained that in the Old Testament, the patriarch Jacob had a dream in which he saw a staircase descending from heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it.
God then came to him and told him that through him, and his offspring, all people of the world would be blessed.
Jacob, the son of Abraham, was in the long lineage down through David to another Jacob the father of the husband of Mary who gave birth to Jesus. I told them.
And that the dream Jacob had was a foreshadow of Jesus’s mission to reunite heaven and earth.
I told them that various constructions depicting the ladder were built worldwide in response to Jacob’s dream since. And that they are often pathways to holy places at a higher level – such as here in Hatfield.
It was pleasantly surprising how many people were genuinely interested and open to the discussion.
This morning we heard in the gospel reading that Nathaniel had been meditating beneath a fig tree – which was a traditional place for prayer and meditation in those times.
Jesus recognised, by his holy power, that Nathaniel was a good man without guile and so called him to be a disciple. Nathaniel then recognised Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
Jesus responded with the mysterious words; “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
But what does this mean?
It means that Jesus would fulfil the promise of Jacob’s dream by being the ladder eternally uniting heaven and earth. He would do this through his incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and by his sending of the Holy Spirit.
It is a long story; I’ll start at the beginning…
As we all know Adam and Eve changed the planned order of things and brought sin into the world, which broke the link there was between heaven and earth at that time.
But God did not want to leave it like that, as he had intended for heaven and earth to be linked. So, he set in place a plan which would unfold over thousands of years.
A particularly important part of that plan was the dream Jacob had of the ladder. Because the dream foretold of heaven and earth eventually being reunited by the Son of Man – which is another name for Jesus the Messiah.
Jesus was a descendant of Jacob, and it would be through him that the world would be blessed as promised by God.
The temple in the Old Testament was known as God’s house because after it was built, the Jewish forefathers placed the tabernacle they had carried the presence of God in, throughout their time in the wilderness, in the temple’s Holy of Holiest place.
And this was the place where God’s presence dwelt on earth until Christ’s death. Because as Jesus died on the cross, the link between God and the temple was broken and Jesus fulfilled the promise of Jacob’s dream by becoming the stairway reuniting heaven and earth.
But how can angels possibly ascend and descend upon Jesus?
Also, when did Nathaniel witness this happening in his lifetime as Jesus predicted?
Nathaniel, also known as Bartholomew, experienced heaven opening and meeting earth at the last supper – and we experience it today in Holy Communion – our stairway to heaven.
The well-known Christian minister Matthew Henry unpacks Jesus mysterious words, in John’s Gospel, to mean; Through Christ we commune with, and benefit by the holy angels, and things in heaven and on earth are reconciled and united together (through Him).
And for this reason, in the Eucharist Prayer, we will shortly hear the words; Therefore, with all the angels of heaven we lift our voices to proclaim the glory of your name and sing our joyful hymn of praise;
Then, we sing, with the angels, The Sanctus.
As we gather in his name singing God’s praises, and prepare for Holy Communion, we are not only singing with the angels, but Christ is also present in his heavenly court.
So, it is here during Holy Communion that we experience the fulfilment of Jacobs’s dream, and Jesus’s words to Nathaniel.
Heaven and earth unite as we give thanks for his ministry, sing songs of everlasting praise and glory and partake in the bread and wine.
This Church of England Priest, who composed the well-known hymn Amazing Grace, also wrote a poem about Jacobs Ladder, one verse reads.
Well does Jacob’s ladder suit,
To the Gospel throne of grace.
We are at the ladder’s foot,
Every hour, in every place:
By assuming flesh and blood,
Jesus Heaven and earth unites.
We by faith ascend to God,
God to dwell with us delights.
I like that last line in particular, God to dwell with us delights.
I also like the line; We are at the ladder’s foot, Every hour, in every place:
Meaning that, because of Jesus, God’s presence is not confined now to a holy building, and we can experience him in the wider world – as the poem says, in every place.
Through Holy Communion, we are renewed to go out into the parish to live and witness for Christ and to reflect his glory.
So, our ministry today is in enlightening others with what we know.
That is a daunting thought for most, to express our faith outside of the church.
But some people consider it to be almost like one beggar showing another where to find bread.
And if we can find the right time in an ordinary, and unplanned, moment to share our knowledge with others, then I have found interest in our faith can be quite surprising, and we never know how such seeds sown will develop.
At this time of year, we are often looking back at the year gone by, and forward to the year to come.
But, might I suggest, this is a very short space of time in the scheme of things.
How about spending time also pondering the truths in the ancient biblical prophecies and how they were fulfilled through the Son of Man?
Or the possibilities of eternity?
Maybe we might just wonder at God’s endless compassion for us, and how the sacrifice made by Jesus, allows for his angels and archangels to sing alongside us in worship, as heaven and earth unite here each Sunday morning.
In the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.