Do you remember the game, Chutes and Ladders? It’s been a while since I’ve played this board game, but here’s a quick recap of how it works.
You have a game piece, spin the spinner, and hopefully you end up landing on a space that will take you up a ladder so that you can get ahead in the game. But sometimes, you end up landing on a space that forces you down a chute which is a real bummer. You don’t want to go backward.
This simple child’s game encourages players to find where the ladder spaces are on the board and you hope and pray that you will land on the right space.
It took me a while but I finally bought a ladder that was tall enough to take care of some basic household chores. Without a ladder, it’s kind of hard to get anything done around the house.
Ladders don’t just help us with projects around the house. They can help us in our faith as well. Sometimes, instead of choosing a ladder that can lift us closer to God we choose a chute instead which ends up spiraling us downward and away from where God wants us to be.
The story of Jacob from the Old Testament is more a story of chutes than it is of ladders. Jacob seems to have an uncanny ability to choose chutes over ladders and here’s a quick summary of his life to help us understand the context of our Old Testament scripture for today.
Many of us are familiar with the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau. It would be an understatement to say that Jacob has been a real pain in the backside toward his own family members.
Jacob is the guy, who when no one is looking, kicks his golf ball from out behind the tree before hitting his next shot. Jacob is the guy who lies about his past accomplishments if it will help him get a promotion. Jacob is the guy who sells you a car without telling you that there’s a problem with the transmission. Jacob is the guy who stabs you in the back, if it will help him to get ahead.
Jacob began his cheating ways when he was in his mother’s womb, if you can believe that. Trying to beat his brother Esau by a few seconds so as to be the firstborn, the scriptures tell us that Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel while they were both in their mother’s womb, but to no avail. And this is where Jacob got his name, which literally means “heel grabber.”
And from there, he just keeps on choosing chutes over ladders. One of the most popular stories in the Bible is the one where Jacob ends up taking advantage of Esau’s extreme hunger one day by exchanging some stew straight up for his birthright.
But that’s not all. Heel grabber tricks his own father who is lying on his death bed by impersonating older brother Esau, and Jacob ends up receiving the blessing that was meant for his brother.
Now, the problem with heel grabbers is that even though they may get what they want, they make a lot of enemies along the way. And when Esau found out what his brother did, he set out to kill his own twin brother, Jacob.
Jacob’s mother, knowing that things are going to get ugly really fast, tells Jacob to run away and hide out at Uncle Laban’s house. While on the run, Jacob stops for the night, and finding the most comfortable rock he can, he places it under his head like a pillow. Jacob’s decisions which involved going down one chute after another, has literally led him to hit rock bottom.
And the really sad part of it all? I don’t think that Jacob has any clue how far he has fallen or how bad his decisions have been. You almost get the impression as you read up to this point, that Jacob probably even thinks that rocks are meant to be pillows.
One of the striking features of the bible is that nobody, not even people who you would think should know better, are immune from making bad decisions or from allowing themselves to drift away from God. The bible is a frustrating book to read at times, because just when God’s people seem to be moving in the right direction, somebody messes it all up.
It kind of reminds me of Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island. Remember how the Skipper and his crew would be this close from being rescued, and then just before the end of the show, Gilligan would do something that caused them to stay stranded?
But let’s not just blame Jacob. We can find many more names of people who like Jacob, make decisions that leave us scratching our heads and shouting out, “what were you thinking?”
And truth be told, if we really think about it, we’re just like them in many ways. At times, we too, find ourselves drifting away from God. Sometimes it’s due to our poor choices and sometimes it’s because…well let’s face it. Life is hard. And we just say, “What’s the use? I’ll take the easy way.”
The problem is that when we choose to take one chute, it’s that much easier to take the next one and the next before we find ourselves in a free fall away from God and our faith.
A while back, a friend of mine who’s a pastor was talking to me about the importance of taking time out of our schedules to just be with God and to find renewal in his faith. And he said, “Every time I take time to do be with God in an intentional way, God seems to help me to get back on track again. And I end up feeling stronger in my walk with Christ. But for some reason, I allow myself to wander away again from the faith.” And with a puzzled look on his face, his next words were, “It’s the strangest thing.”
And I thought to myself, “He’s right. It is so easy to fall away from God, even when we know what we need to do and to whom we should go.”
A few years ago, a survey was conducted which included several churches in our country and the purpose of this survey was to determine why it is that people end up drifting away from the church. And the number one reason it gave was that for many people, they just don’t feel challenged enough to grow in their faith. The people who leave the church, tend to be the people who want more in their faith, but no one seems willing to help them to go to the next level.
And that makes sense. If you reach one level and plateau, it gets kind of old to just stay where you are.
In addition to folks who stray away because they aren’t being challenged enough, there are also folks who are falling away because life has been tough on them. They’re asking questions like, “Why does God allow bad things to happen” “Why are you allowing me to go through all of this suffering?”
And still, there are others, who like Jacob, simply make bad decisions, sending them down one chute after another until they reach a point where they have fallen almost completely out of a relationship with God.
But here’s the good news for those of us who have gone down our fair share of chutes. God never gives up on us. Just like in our Old Testament reading for today. Here Jacob is on a cold and damp ground with a rock under his head. He’s drifting off to sleep and he begins to see something that will mark a turn around in his life.
He sees a ladder set up on earth. Not a short ladder. But a tall ladder that reaches up to heaven. And not only that, but he also sees angels ascending and descending on that ladder. And as Jacob is given this unexpected glimpse of God’s presence, God speaks to him and reminds him of a promise that was made to his father Isaac, and to his grandfather, Abraham. And the promise is that through their family, God will bless the world.
Sometimes, when we end up going down chutes for whatever reason, we forget the bigger picture of God’s promise that one day the sin and brokenness in our world will be overturned and everything will be made new. And the way that God is going to reclaim his creation and make everything new is through you and me.
So God reminds Jacob of this promise which he had forgotten. God promises to be with Jacob and also assures him that the covenant will be fulfilled through him.
Jacob then wakes up from his sleep and says, “Surely, the Lord is in this place.”
In one of the churches I served, a guy in his 20s whose name was Dave, began attending worship services out of the blue. All I knew about Dave was that he lived a couple of blocks from the church and that was about it. So, I got to know him a little better and one day I asked him just out of curiosity, “What was it that led you to begin attending church here?”
And he told me how he had grown up in the church but then when he got out of school, he just kind of drifted away from God and the church. He told me how he had moved to this neighborhood because of a job transfer. He wasn’t married and enjoyed his new home and especially liked relaxing on Sunday mornings in his closed-in porch.
He said that since moving into his new home, he liked drinking his coffee and reading the paper on Sunday mornings. And he said, “But every Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but listen to your church bells. At first, I didn’t think a whole lot about it, but one Sunday morning, it was the strangest thing. I decided to put my paper down. I got dressed for church, and I’ve been here ever since. I feel like I’m back home with God again,” he said with a smile.
One of my favorite hymns is the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessings.” Robert Robinson who lived in England during the 1700’s wrote the lyrics for this hymn. One of the verses says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.” Robinson was known to backslide in his faith which is why he included those words in this great hymn of faith.
During one of those times when he had backslidden in his faith, Robinson was sitting next to a woman on a stage coach. This woman was quietly humming this tune. Not knowing that she was sitting next to the writer of this hymn, she asked him what he thought of this hymn.
Robert Robinson said to her, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."
This woman responded by quoting a phrase from the first verse of that hymn. She said, “Sir, the streams of mercy are still flowing.” The woman on that stage coach ended up helping Robinson to climb back up the ladder in his faith with God.
Let’s face it. We are all prone to wander from our faith. All of us land on chutes at one time or another. We fall away from God and sometimes it even feels like we’re headed the opposite direction. But then comes along a ladder and it seems to come out of nowhere.
You hear those same old church bells. You sit next to someone humming a tune. You lay your head on that cold rock. And guess what? We discover that we were the ones who moved. Not God. Jacob, the one who grabbed his brother’s heel, all of the sudden realizes that God has a grab of his heel. And God isn’t letting go.
This God is determined to have his way with us. Whether we’re on the run or we have drifted away without even noticing, at the bottom of every chute is a ladder and this incredible promise:
“I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to do through you. Through you, I am going to change the world!”
Never expecting that God would ever catch up with you again, the only words that come to your mind are these words of praise…
“Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place.”