This sermon is part of the sermon series "A Messy, Blessed Life". See series.
The first thing I noticed about our story today was the stories on either side of it. When we last saw Jacob, he finally had been reconciled with his brother, Esau, and he was settling down in the land God had promised him. What happens next, as described in Genesis 34, is almost too grim and grimy to be read in church!
Jacob has one daughter, Dinah, and she is raped by one of the local boys, Shechem. Her older brothers, Simeon and Levi, go berserk. They end up massacring every man in town, and their brothers join them in the looting. Verses 30-31 tell how the story ends:
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed." But they replied, "Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?"
What would an event like this do to a person—let alone a parent and a man of God? Frederick Buechner, in his novel about Jacob's life,Son of Laughter, has Jacob say, "The bitterness and terror that was in the blood of the slain men of Shechem seeped through their skin and into the blood of their slayers and into all of us. It became our bitterness and terror and taint. We were an abomination in the sight of the Fear [God]. We were an abomination in our own sight. We avoided each other's eyes and touch like the eyes and touch of lepers. We were like rats gibbering and scuttling through the wreckage we had made of ourselves."
On the other side of our story for today, we have Genesis 35:16ff. The love of Jacob's life, Rachel, dies after giving birth to his son. She lives long enough to give him a name that means, "Son of My Sorrow." Jacob mercifully changes the name to "Benjamin," which means, "Son of My Right Hand" (or "My Favorite Son"). To make matters worse, Jacob's eldest son, Reuben, sleeps with one of Jacob's concubines, Bilhah, in a blatant grab for power in the family. Soon thereafter, Isaac, the father of Jacob and Esau, dies.
It is in the middle of all this sin and sorrow, that we have today's text.
I recently visited a good friend. Over the course of talking about our families, he told me how his three children, who had been strong in their faith through high school, had all walked away from the Lord, leaving a trail of broken marriages, affairs, children born out of wedlock, bankruptcy, and even occultism. As you might imagine, it is the great burden of his life. A day later I talked with two other friends—one whose wife has just been diagnosed with cancer and faces surgery, and the other, someone whose spouse has just died. Situations like these are disorienting. A person doesn't know where to turn, what to do.
I wonder: where do you turn when you face devastating sin on one side and heartbreaking sorrow on the other? I believe our text for today will tell us where to turn.
When trouble overwhelms us, God reminds us to return to him.
The night after the Shechem massacre must have been a very long one for Jacob. Perhaps it was that very night that God spoke to him as recorded in Genesis 35:1: "Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau."
Do you remember what happened at Bethel? The story is in Genesis 28:10-22. Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau, and he stopped to sleep in a desolate place. He had a dream in which he saw angels going up and down heavenly stairs while God stood at the top and spoke:
I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
Jacob called the place Bethel—"House of God"—and built an altar there. He also made a vow:
If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.
Now, after the horrors of Shechem, God calls Jacob back to Bethel.
You know, God is like that. Joyce Baldwin writes, "Bethel stood for everything that really mattered." There is a place like that for us, too. I think of what C. S. Lewis once wrote in The Problem of Pain: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." Lewis was writing about how God uses pain to try to get the attention of bad men. But I believe pain also gets the attention of forgetful Christians.
I think forgetfulness was Jacob's problem. Scholars think that Jacob and his clan lived in Shechem for a long time—maybe ten years. Decades before, he had made a vow to God at Bethel, and he had never returned to fulfill his vow. When I read between the lines, I see a spiritual carelessness and casualness in Jacob's family. His children grew up without a sense of God's presence. They knew about their covenant with God, but idols were being worshiped in the community, and no one gave it a second thought. The murderous revenge carried out by Jacob's sons also shows just how out-of-whack these grown children had become. It was pain, then, that finally got Jacob's attention again.
God is only at the center of our lives if we keep him there. Sadly, it's easy to shuttle him off to the side. You know how it is: Life is busy. There's this and that that needs to be done. It's always one thing after another. Plus, going back to a holy place to have a personal revival? Well, it's far harder than starting a diet! But when sin or sorrow has shut down all of life's delights, closing all the doors of escape, God beckons us back to himself, whispering, "I'm waiting for you." Maybe you know the feeling.
When we must go back to God, we're forced to search our souls.
Before Jacob sets out, he puts his spiritual house in order. Look at what Jacob did the morning after he heard from the Lord:
So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone." So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem.
How does something like this translate into our own experiences? Some people have security guards, but everyone has security gods. Before we return to the Lord, we must get rid of our security gods. Jacob had been living with these idols and other religious paraphernalia for years. You'll remember that Rachel had stolen her father's household gods, thinking it wouldn't hurt to have a little extra security. They didn't choose these idols instead of God—at least not in their own minds. These gods just added a little security to whatever God would give.
It used to be easier to identify idols. People used to give them bodies and hands. But now idols usually wear an invisibility cloak. They're there—on our mantles or by our beds—but we can't see them.
The regional marketing manager position could be a god, for example, or the prestige of an advanced degree. For some, the pursuit of health has become a religion. For others, it is "finding the power of their true self." When I asked God to help me see my invisible god, I saw an ugly, little wart of a god that I've bowed to ever since I was a kid. What's yours? Before we can go back to a holy place with God, we have to root out the other gods that have wormed their ways into our lives, and bury them under the old oak tree.
Next, we have to come clean. Jacob said to all his people, "Purify yourselves and change your clothes." This was an Old Testament version of baptism for the Christian. For Jacob's household, the ceremonial washing and putting on of clean clothes was an outward sign of the need for an inward change.
Some of you have a favorite T-shirt that is old and ratty. You wear it on your day off or when your work is going to get you dirty. Your spouse wants you to get rid of it, but you like it. It's comfortable. You don't mind the stains. Our souls get like that. Our inner lives have spots and smudges and stains, picked up from who-knows-where. Something I watched left a stain. A snide remark left another. Some sly game I played to get ahead is behind a certain grease spot. And this is what I like to wear! I'm comfortable dressed like this!
James 4:8-10 tells us to do what Jacob told his family to do: "Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up."
Cleaning up for God can be painful! We can't wash our sins and stains away, of course. Only God can do that. But deep repentance is not easy, and it isn't easy to throw away a shirt we love to wear. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:22-24: "You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." Paul then tells us to put off things like lying and anger, stealing and loafing, unwholesome talk and bitterness—all so that we might "put on" things like kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.
Returning to Jacob, see what he says in verse 3: "Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone." Jacob looked back over all the ups and downs in his life and realized that God had been his one constant. When we look back over our lives, we'll see the same thing. We cannot help but think, God answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone. When we search our souls, we will realize our debt to the Lord. He has saved us, and he has been utterly faithful to us.
Verses 5-7 show the final step in our soul searching:
Then they set out, and the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.
Jacob and all the people with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.
The final step is to bow before our altar to God. Our altar is the Cross of Christ. This is no ordinary time of prayer. Here we bow low before God with the sacrifice of Jesus our only hope for his welcome. And God does welcome us for Jesus' sake. We humble ourselves. We tell God of our love and our desire to renew our devotion to him. We push everything else out of the room. We put time aside. All the while, we wait in the presence of God. We soon find that it is good to be back with the Lord! No matter what other turmoil or trouble there is around us, there is a "place of quiet rest" near to the heart of God.
An odd verse in our text underlines the importance of such seeking, too. Consider verse 8: "Now Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died and was buried under the oak below Bethel. So it was named Allon Bacuth [Oak of Weeping]." What in the world is that verse doing here? Let me explain.
Rebekah was the mother of Jacob and Esau. Her nurse, Deborah, would have been well over 100-years-old. She is only mentioned here in the Bible. Joyce Baldwin had the most intriguing explanation I read. She said that the really strange thing is not that Deborah's death is mentioned, but that Rebekah's isn't. When Rebekah conspired with Jacob to deceive Isaac, her husband, she said she would take on herself any curse that came from it. Maybe that's what happened. But we never hear of Rebekah again. We only hear of her nurse. The subtle message to all of us is that Rebekah never made it to Bethel—to the house of God—because she was faithless. Her nurse made it to Bethel, but she didn't, and she's forgotten. Remember: not everyone who makes their home among God's people makes it to God's presence.
Even in the midst of life's worst disasters and sorrows, God will bless us.
In our story, Jacob has done all he can do to return to God and keep his vow. He is our model. Verses 9-13 tells us what God does in light of Jacob's actions:
After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. God said to him, "Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel. " So he named him Israel.
And God said to him, "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you." Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him.
"God appeared to him again and blessed him." Think of that for a moment. With all this blood and sorrow surrounding him, God blessed him—again! We can look at these verses from two angles.
First of all, through Jesus we experience what God promised to Jacob. Here God reiterates the change of Jacob's name to Israel. This is our heritage. By our faith in Israel's Messiah, this is our nation. Verse 11 is the language of a new creation. God says to Jacob what he first said to Adam and Eve: "Be fruitful and increase in number." Here is a fresh start! God saw us in his mind's eye when he said this to Jacob.
Verse 11 also says, "Kings will come from your body." It would be some eight hundred years before Israel would have kings, but they were Jacob's descendents. What's more important is that from that royal line of Jacob's son, Judah, would come Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It was wonderful for Jacob to be the father of God's anointed kings, but it is far more wonderful to be the subject of that great King, Jesus!
Verse 12 goes on to once again promise the land of Canaan to Jacob—a land first promised to his grandfather and father. This is the land that Jesus would walk upon and the land to which Jesus will return. This is our land, too. It may not be the center of our universe now, but it will be. Jerusalem is our home, too. Through Jesus, God gives us what he promised to Jacob.
The second angle of the blessing is this: we come to God to refocus on his faithfulness to us, and he meets us with his fresh promises. We're the ones who need to do business here. We only hope that God will listen. But when you get alone with God, surrounded by trouble and sorrow, he will refresh his promises to you. You will open your Bible and somewhere in your reading, God will speak to you directly. All of Scripture is ours. All of it is God speaking infallibly and lovingly to us. But God will somehow run a divine highlighter over certain promises for the hour you are facing. He may take his time. He may even be silent for a while. But if you have a Bible, God will speak through it.
When you go to meet with God—with the old security gods buried under an oak somewhere and your heart washed and clean—build your altar and worship him there. Remember how he "answered you in the day of your distress and has been with you wherever you have gone." Refresh your vows of love and loyalty to him. But do not leave till you've heard him speak to you—until he has blessed you. The thing that will make this a landmark in your life is not that you went to meet with God there, but that he met with you.
I once led the monthly church service at a nearby retirement community. I preached from Psalm 149 about our songs of praise to God. After the sermon I invited people to choose hymns that were particularly important expressions of praise for them. The first person to speak was "Babe" Johnson. Babe and his wife, Flo, are wonderful Christian people. Babe is so outgoing, so encouraging, and so thoughtful. He also lives with a lot of pain. His hand went up immediately when I asked for hymn suggestions, so I pointed to him.
"Number 213," he said, "'Because He Lives.'"
"Is there a particular reason you'd like us to sing that?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said. "Our son died when he was 40. It was very traumatic. Struck me very, very hard. We stood at his graveside service and God brought this song to my mind. It gave me hope and lifted me up."
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future.
And life is worth the living just because He lives.
That was a Bethel moment for Babe. Right in the midst of life's worst suffering, God spoke his promises. No matter what sin-saturated disaster you're facing or what devastating sorrow may lie ahead, God will be waiting to meet you with his blessing.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.