Jacob’s Ladder according to Luther, Midweek Lenten Message for March 13, 2013
Midweek Lenten Message:
March 13, 2013: Jacob’s Ladder
Just briefly, the story is in Genesis 28: 10-22 and Luther’s interpretation can be found in our Luther’s Spirituality book, page 172-184.
We remember how Jacob is in full flight from his enraged brother and takes a stone for a pillow and dreams that he sees angels ascending and descending from heaven on the rungs of a ladder and God makes a covenant with him and give him promises like that to Father Abraham. Jacob then calls the place Bethel that means, the house of God, and promises to give ten percent of all he had as an offering to God. Bethel becomes Shiloh and is the holy place of Israel until David takes the arc to Jerusalem.
Luther uses Jesus’ interpretation of Jacob’s ladder to Nathaniel and his disciples: “You will see greater things than these…very truly I tell you, you will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51) Luther sees the angels lost in wonder that God became a human being and thus they look at the baby at the breasts of Mary in the lowly manger and then ascend up to God in Heaven’s majesty, back and forth ascending and descending from the highest majesty to the lowest creature, in wonder as the Shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night experienced. So the angels ascending and descending respond to the Incarnation. Luther believed in the continuous creation, that is, not six thousand years ago nor 14 and half billion years ago, because God is not finished with this world yet. Nor is God finished with you and me, because following Luther we can take another step and believe in the continuous incarnation, because through God’s grace, we can grow and mature into the full stature of Christ and become brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Luther mentions the traditions that Lucifer was a very handsome archangel and thought God would become an angel and became enraged that God became a lowly human being, human beings who are so sorry, wretched, and full of sin. Because Lucifer rebelled, he was thrown out of heaven and we have to take care not to rebel against God in his evil spirit.
Note that it always says ascending and descending and not the other way around, because you’d expect them to descend from heaven first: so heaven is not up there, but right near us and opens up so that this celebration of the angels can be seen. It is a little like Psalm 121, where it says that God will keep your departure and arrival from this time on and forever more. Thus it does not mean our birth and death, but our death as entering into heaven and our arrival there.
Luther uses many earlier commentaries to interpret the rungs of the ladder and the ladder itself. Of course, the angels don’t need one. He tells that the rungs may represent the generations leading to Christ, the patriarchs, the preachers proclaiming Christ, and let me present the existential rapture and the stages of first born, nobility, priesthood, Christhood, and up into God as another. While one commentary says that the ascent comes about in the saints through devotion and prayer, the ascent in faith and the descent in love are very near that interpretation.
Also notice back in Jesus’ words, “you will see greater things than these” and he says that his disciples will also do greater and greater things. Thus the higher the rung of faith takes us, the more angel power we have to do the spontaneous acts of kindness, compassion, mercy, and love.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Every step goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the cross.
Finally Luther maintains that the ladder stand for the unity of the divine and the flesh, God and human being. There is the union of the Father and the Son, the union of the divinity and humanity of Christ, and the union of the Church with Christ.