When the Escalator Breaks Down (Jacob’s Ladder)

Sermon preached on 7/23/2011 at Burke UMC Lifesign service
Text: Genesis 27-28 (Jacob’s ladder with back-story of stealing blessing from Esau)

[Note: The motif for this sermon was inspired by this video that we saw at a Virginia conference provisional elders’ retreat. I showed the video before preaching the sermon so watch it before reading. It’s hilarious and the sermon might not make sense without it.]

Everything was falling into place. Jacob’s life was like an escalator going up to heaven. First he bagged the family birthright from his brother Esau. Then he stole his father’s blessing. Jacob was on his way to greatness. It was as exactly as his mother had told him. She had shared the prophecy from the Lord that she received when Jacob was born clinging to his brother’s heel. God had said that the elder would serve the younger. So she had named her younger son Yacov, which means in Hebrew, “He who supplants.”

Jacob knew that his mother was looking out for him so he followed her advice to the letter. And it worked. He put on his brother’s coat and put the special spices in his stew to make it taste like wild game so that he could trick his father into blessing him and making him the master of his older brother. But there was one small problem. Jacob was an inside boy. While the other boys were wrestling and learning how to throw spears, Jacob had sat quietly inside the tents learning how to write poetry and helping his mother in the kitchen. His brother Esau was only 90 seconds older than he was, but that didn’t stop him from pushing Jacob around. Esau could wrestle with wolves. He was the jock; he was the one who got the ladies; he already had two Hittite wives who drove their parents crazy. Women weren’t interested in Jacob; he didn’t know anything about hunting or even tending a flock. What good could he ever amount to as a man?

And this was precisely why it was such a major coup to snatch his father’s blessing from Esau. But this was also why the major coup turned out to be completely irrelevant. Jacob hadn’t really thought about the next step, the fact that blessing or no blessing, his brother could pin him down and make him cry uncle in five seconds flat. How you can be the master of someone who’s always been your bully? And so what had seemed like such a perfect idea was now a complete disaster. Esau was plotting to kill Jacob. So Rebekah had to cook up an excuse for Jacob to flee to a distant land and stay with relatives he had never met before. Isaac’s blessing was no match for Esau’s muscles. The escalator to heaven had broken down. Isaac had made Jacob the master of his older brother Esau, and now all that Jacob had to sleep on was a rock in the middle of the desert. What do you do when the escalator of your destiny stops?

All of our lives are somewhat like an escalator ride. We all go through various rites of passage that seem like steps on an automatic journey: first steps, first words, first day of kindergarten, first kiss, first college frat party, and so on. And some of us stay on this escalator for our entire lives. Everything just falls into place. We get a job that fits us perfectly, we find a spouse who’s our perfect complement, we have well-adjusted, completely agreeable kids, and we stay healthy enough to enjoy a wonderful retirement that we spend in places like Norway and New Zealand. How many people are living that kind of perfect escalator life right now? How many of you have been through a time when the escalator broke down? How many of you are stuck on a broken escalator right now?

I remember when my life’s escalator broke down. I was always kind of an inside boy like Jacob, never very good at sports or quick on my feet in the joke-telling competition that teenagers call conversation. I was surrounded by Esaus who were always better-looking and better-built and funnier than I was. But I took solace in the thought that I would rule over the Esaus one day if I worked hard enough in school to get better grades than they did. It seemed only fair. The outside boys scored all the touchdowns and got the best girls in high school, while the inside boys quietly learned the skills to be their future masters.

So I studied hard and got into the University of Virginia. In addition to doing well academically, I took leadership roles in campus Christian groups, joined a service fraternity, and founded two organizations: the Undergraduate Writers’ Guild and the Roundtable Group discussion club. In fall of my third year, I had established myself as a student leader on campus and had applied for a coveted honorary residence on the Lawn where the 54 most qualified seniors live together in the original rooms that Thomas Jefferson built. The escalator was moving right on schedule.

One of my courses that fall semester was a very challenging and stimulating religion and literature class that culminated in a 15-18 page term paper that was three times as long as anything I had ever written. Due to all my extracurricular activities, I got behind in my reading for that class and I found myself in a spiraling state of panic as the end of the semester approached, until on December 11th, 1998, the escalator broke. I couldn’t write my term paper, which meant that I would fail the class, which meant that I would fail out of college, which meant that my life would be over. So I went to the medicine cabinet, took out a bottle of Advil, poured the pills out into my hand, chased them down with Nyquil, and lay down on my bed, the whole time whispering to God how sorry I was. After five minutes, I got impatient and called 911.

It turned out that my cocktail wouldn’t have given me more than a bad ulcer. At the hospital, they gave me a nasty black drink, which resulted in a very unpleasant two hours. I’m not going to tell you that God opened up the sky that night and sent angels down to comfort me on a stairway from heaven down to earth like He did for Jacob, but He did send a man named Steve, an ER nurse with a long, white pony tail, a guy with Esau muscles and a Jacob voice. Steve said, “I know you don’t believe me, but you really are going to make it.”

There have been several points in the journey since that I’ve wanted to go back and tell Steve that he was right: when I got an A on the term paper that I thought I couldn’t write, when I graduated college, and every time since then that I’ve told somebody else what Steve told me. When I got out of the psych ward, I kept my hospital bracelet as a sign of a new covenant with God. I wrote on the bracelet nunca jamas, which means “never again.”

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten back on the escalator I was riding on before the weekend that I spent in the UVA hospital. God reset my destiny when the escalator broke down. The bracelet that I kept is a symbol of who I aspire to be, someone who can tell others, “I didn’t think I would make it either, but God can make it happen for you too.”

I’m not sure you’ll believe me, but there’s a beautiful freedom that we cannot taste until God pulls us off the escalator. He gives us a different destiny than the best that our world has to offer. Jacob’s mother Rebekah had completely misinterpreted God’s prophecy by assuming that she knew how Jacob would be greater than Esau. When God came to Jacob in a dream, it was not to reassure him about the destiny he thought he had, but to call him to a new destiny. If you read on in Genesis, you’ll find that Esau ended up with far more cattle and servants than Jacob had when they meet up again decades later.

But God needed an inside boy, an unmanly man to father the nation of outsiders and wanderers that He would use to save humanity. God pulled Jacob off the escalator of his life to make him part of God’s stairway down from heaven to earth, to start the tiny nation of nomads and freed slaves called Israel who would become the hope of all nations by giving birth to our savior Jesus Christ, the One who brought God’s Word from heaven to earth in the flesh. It’s through God’s stairway from heaven to earth that He pulls all the Jacobs and Esaus of the world into His divine embrace.

So if your life’s escalator has broken down, it may be because God has a better staircase for you to walk on. You might not recognize the angels while He’s sending them to you, but years from now, you’ll remember who they were, and you’ll become one for the next Jacob.

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