Art: “Nailing of Christ to the Cross (Cell 36)” by Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Available online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fra_Angelico_025.jpg
Written by Drew Colby, Pastor, Grace United Methodist Church, Manassas, VA
I lied in a sermon recently. It wasn’t like a bald-faced lie, just some creative art history. I was preaching on the Jacob’s Ladder story and I even climbed up a 16-foot ladder for the children’s moment.
Jacob, like every human that ever lived, loved a good ladder. Jacob was the kind of guy who would do anything to achieve, to get ahead, to earn God’s blessing even if he had to wrestle it from God’s own hands (see Genesis 32).
The truth is, we are all like this. It is basic human instinct to turn just about anything into a ladder we can climb up, even if it’s just to climb out of the sinking feeling that we are, in fact, not okay.
There’s the corporate ladder, the perfect parent ladder, the perfect student ladder, the college acceptance ladder, the 401K ladder… and each ladder has its own rungs like the right skin care regimens, and social media likes, and self-care practices, and workout routines, and weight loss plans.
This is the heart of human religion, the tendency to make anything into a ladder.
But the thing about Jacob’s ladder in Genesis is it turns out to not be Jacob’s ladder at all! Instead, when Jacob sees the ladder, it is the angels, bearers of the word and presence of God, who are ascending and descending it. Then, just as Jacob thinks about trying to climb it who is standing next to him? God! God is beside him on the ground! This is not Jacob’s ladder to climb up. This is the ladder God has used to climb down to be with Jacob.
There, at the foot of the ladder God extends to Jacob the same promise given to his grandfather Abraham, later to be fulfilled in the Word and flesh of Christ himself: “I will be with you always. I will remain with you, and, I promise, I will bring you home.”
Here’s where the lie came in. “That’s why,” I said with enough confidence that no one would question me, “That’s why in many depictions of Christ’s crucifixion you’ll find artists including ladders… the ladders are not there for us to climb up, they’re there to reveal to us that the cross, and the man on it, are God’s ladder, God’s ultimate means of joining us, living life among us, and even enduring death for us.”
Do I actually know that’s why there are ladders in a bunch of paintings of the crucifixion? No. I don’t. But preachers have never let things like that get in the way of good theology. Regardless of their intent, I’ll never see these artists’ ladders in the same way ever again.
The gospel revealed here is good news for barren broken climbers: this God is not waiting for you at the top of some ladder. This God, the god who really is God, is not commanding you to climb to him. This God is here, with you, at the bottom.
This is not one more ladder-climbing religion. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the descending God, who climbed down from heaven, then up onto the cross, who descended into hell, and then rose up from the grave, with this promise on his eternally speaking lips: I have come down to you, I am with you, I will remain with you, and, I promise, I will bring you home. Thanks be to God.
Find previous “Picturing God” entries here:
Art: “Resurrection Icon” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Available online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Resurrection_(24).jpg Written by Brian Johnson, Pastor of Haymarket…
Art: “Crucifixion of Jesus” drawn by Gustave Doré, engraved by J. Gauchard Brunier. Scanned by Michael Gäbler with Epson Perfection 4490 Photo., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Available…
Art: “Madonna and Child with St. Anne” by Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Available online…
Art: “The Flight Into Egypt” by Ki-chang Kim Written by Hung-Su Lim, Associate Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Richmond, VA “The Flight Into Egypt” by Ki-chang Kim “When the magi…
Art: “The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Available online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Taking_of_Christ-Caravaggio_(c.1602).jpg …