Verse 12 of our Gospel Reading tells us that Jesus said, “I am telling you the truth: you will see heaven open and God's angels going up and coming down on the Son of Man.” This brings to mind the dream the Patriarch Jacob had out in the wilderness, in which he saw angels ascending and descending on a stairway, that joined heaven and earth. How Jacob came to that point, you can read about in Genesis, Chapters 25- 28. It’s a long story, which I shall try to summarise.
Jacob had an elder brother, Esau, who was favoured over Jacob by his father, Isaac. Their mother Rebekah however, favoured Jacob. Jacob took advantage of his brother one day, when Esau came in saying he was starving hungry. Jacob got him to swap his birthright for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:33). In the Old Testament, the birthright was bestowed upon the firstborn son, who was not only the one who normally received a double portion of the inheritance but was also the one who would inherit his father’s role as head of the family. Later, when Isaac was old and nearly blind, in collusion with his mother, and by trickery, Jacob also got Isaac to give him the blessing due to the elder son. A blessing could be given regardless of birthright. However, a greater blessing was given to the one who held the birthright. After that, we can read in Genesis, ‘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”’ (Genesis 27:41).
When Rebekah was told of this, she realised that her favourite son was in mortal danger. She got Isaac to send Jacob far away to find a wife among their own people in Haran saying, “If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living” (Genesis 27:36 NIV). From past experience, Isaac knew that this nagging wasn’t going to stop until she got her way. I’m saying nothing. So he took Jacob on one side and told him he must go to his uncle’s house at Paddan Aram to find a wife. And that’s where we join today’s story about Jacob’s dream.
After sunset on his way to Paddan Aram, Jacob lay down to rest. The bible tells us, “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” (Genesis 28:12 NIV).
I don’t know how you picture what has been just described but I don’t think it will have been the odd angel dotted here and there on that staircase. It would be more like the first day of the January Sales in a department store. In John’s vision of heaven, he said, “Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.” (Revelation 5:11 NIV). So, quite a few of them then, (actually 100 million) and I don’t think any of them would be standing around idle. They were always alert to God’s wishes and made themselves available to carry them out. God always has work for willing hands.
What a pity Daniel, that great interpreter of dreams, wasn’t there. Neither interpretation nor explanation is given for this dream ? ever! At the top of the staircase, Jacob could see the LORD, who gave him some prophesies about himself and his descendants. God also said that, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Genesis 28:14 NIV). Looking into that is for another time. I can find no other reference in the Bible to the ascending and descending of angels, except the one we heard in our Gospel Reading this morning.
I don’t think that anything Jesus said or did was pure coincidence. So what can have been the significance of what he said with regard to Jacob’s dream? What were the angels doing in that dream – ascending and descending; to what purpose? Perhaps these angels were the ones carrying messages from God to his prophets, or to someone with a special purpose such as Abraham (Genesis 22:11); Hagar (Genesis 16:7); Lot (Genesis 19:1); Moses (Exodus 3:2); Gideon (Judges 6:11) and of course Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:28). As we see, this chain of command was used often. When Jesus came, He turned the dream of the Patriarch into reality by becoming a living, breathing ladder carrying God’s words, mainly to His chosen people, the Jews, but to others as well like Cornelius (Acts 10:1-6).
That could explain the angels descending the stairway. What about those going up? They might represent our prayers rising up to God. Jesus taught us how we could pray directly to God, personally, as our Father in Heaven, without the need for angels.
When Jesus returned to the father, the conduit became the Holy Spirit, reaching everyone who opened their heart to receive it. The Holy Spirit is a part of God living within us and gives us complete two-way contact with God anytime we want or need it - billions of conduits instead of just the one. What a giant leap in communications. It’s like the difference between carrier pigeons and the Internet.
The Internet is a truly marvellous thing, especially if you have a fast fibre connection to it. For me, it’s there whenever I want or need it and I suppose I take it pretty much for granted. When I’m not actually using it, I never give it a thought. It’s only a machine! It doesn’t have feelings.
However, if I don’t look after it, updating programmes that keep nasty viruses at bay, these can grind the computer to a halt and damage everything in it, losing the connections I might need in a hurry sometime. Most people only find their computer is infected when things start to go wrong. They find that programmes that might have helped their situation, have been disabled or deleted by the very clever thing they want to be rid of.
Fortunately, there are always people around, who have more experience in computers than we have. They can be amateur or professional. They have to keep up to date with all the new invasive programmes that pop up all the time.
They will always tell you that the most common way to get an infection on your computer is to download something you haven’t checked out beforehand. A single click on the mouse or a key can land you in serious trouble. So we always need to be aware of what we are allowing onto our conduit with that all-important Internet.
All these bad things can happen to our computer by our own negligence or unthinking actions whilst we are using our conduit to the Internet. What about the conduit we’ve been talking about earlier. The one which links us to our God? Like our computer, we can use that conduit whenever we need it. Unlike many computers, this conduit is open constantly – all the time! Every thought we have, every word we say and everything we do goes directly to God via this precious connection.
So, just like watching out for bad things on our computer, we need to watch out for anything that can weaken our connection to God in any way. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (Ephesians 4:29-31 NIV)
When we ignore our connection with God, and allow bad thoughts or things we say and do to move us away from the purity of the Holy Spirit, we begin to feel distant from God and from our brothers and sisters in Christ. If some remedy isn’t found, there is great danger of moving away from our faith altogether. Yes it can happen! Paul wrote to Timothy “…[hold] on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith” (1 Timothy 1:19 NIV).
It’s possible that some may feel they have moved so far away from God that they can never get back to Him. Well, our conduit to God isn’t made of jelly, it’s strong and resilient. The Holy Spirit still links us to God, even though we may not feel it. At work I used to have a poster on my office wall. It said, “Does God seem far away? Guess who moved? We can use the Holy Spirit that is still inside us to re-join the Holy Spirit of God and feel that wonderful love flow once again into our hearts.
Even with a promise like that, there will be those who just can’t bring themselves to face God after something terrible they’ve done or said. How terrible it might be is in their own thoughts, not God’s. We must always bear in mind that, as Daniel said, “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him;” (Daniel 9:9 NIV). No matter how bad we think we’ve been, others have almost certainly been worse.
Look at King David, of whom God said, “I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart…” (Acts 13:22 NIV). This was a man who committed adultery with a beautiful woman and then had her husband murdered so he could have her for himself (2 Samuel 11). Have we really been that bad? The more we read about our God in the Bible, the more we realise just how forgiving He really is.
Not a very big reader, or can the enormity of the sin we feel we’ve committed be so bad that we can’t even bring ourselves to read the Bible? I’m pretty sure there would be plenty of people willing to read it to us. Would it make our ears tingle with what we might think is guilt? Good, what that means is that the Holy Spirit within us is still alive and kicking, just waiting to get that connection with God back on line. Or do we feel that our connection with God is so broken that it is beyond repair?
Well, just like there are experts who can get a computer connected to the Internet again, no matter how much the problem has been the user’s fault, there are those who can help people to get using their conduit to God once more and feel the fullness of His love and the confidence to face up to things they thought they couldn’t. These will be people of strong faith and experience. They’re willing to pray with or for anyone in need, especially for the repair and strengthening of someone’s faith. Why do they need to have a strong faith? Because Satan will already be smacking his lips at the thought of a Christian being wrested away from the path to salvation and joining his path to destruction.
How do we recognise such a person? Well, for a start, they won’t be walking around with a halo above their head. They’ll just be ordinary folk who will have demonstrated their faith in how they live and how they act towards others. If we think about it I’m sure we’d probably bring a few to mind.
But what if such a person were not available? If you were somewhere around water and you saw someone struggling, what would you do? I suppose the first thing would be to look around and see if there were someone near who might make a better job of rescuing than we could. No one in sight? What about 999? Even the fastest response would almost certainly be too late. I would think that most swimmers would probably have a go themselves. The result could be either something to celebrate or a disaster and there’d be no way of knowing which it would be.
Such a situation has very little chance of cropping up in most people’s lives, so why am I mentioning it with regard to a soul in trouble. Well, unlike us, lifeguards will face this problem many times and lessons have been learned. (Don’t you just hate hearing that phrase when some terrible mistake has been made and will almost certainly be made again)? Sorry, a pet hate of mine. So let’s look at how the lifeguards do it in the drowning situation. Most, these days, have a torpedo buoy attached by a rope to one wrist. This is much more easily towed through the water than a ring buoy. We can learn two things from this. Firstly, without the buoy, there is a danger that even a trained lifeguard might be overcome by a stronger or heavier person, which could end up with both losing their lives. So the person in trouble is given the buoy to hang onto instead of the lifeguard, then they can be towed to safety with no danger to either.
Linking that situation to one of helping someone in a bad place spiritually is easy. The danger again is that the weaker person might be influenced or even overcome by the stronger, which could end badly. So what we need, like the lifeguard, is a tether. How fortunate that we all have one. We’re not tethered to a little floating buoy, we’re tethered to Almighty God by His Holy Spirit within us. Let Satan try pulling Him under. Remember what Paul said about hanging onto your faith? That is our tether and can be called upon to help others when needed.
So, two things it would be helpful for us to be aware of. One is a person or persons, who could be of help in a crisis of faith. Two is that we shouldn’t just watch out for ourselves and our own personal walk with God. That is the most important thing in our lives but it shouldn’t exclude all other considerations. We don’t have to be nosey or prying to find out if someone might be struggling. Look for the signs. A general unhappiness, or even forced joy can be markers of someone who needs help. So, like the angels on the staircase, we must be always alert ? and available.
1. What might you say to a person you could see was ruining their own lives due to bitterness resulting from a past slight, real or perceived?
2. Have you ever observed an instance where “local” people were excluded from the selection of a future husband/wife by a person and/or their parents, on grounds of ethnicity, colour, accent etc.?
3. Do you think an angel(s) might be playing a part in your life or the life of someone you know?
4. What would you do if someone/something caused you to doubt your faith?
5. Do you consider yourself alert and available as described in the talk?