This sermon is part of the sermon series "A Messy, Blessed Life". See series.
What would you say if you knew you were going to die and had a chance to sum up everything that was most important to you? That's how the best-selling book The Last Lecture got its start. It had been a custom at Carnegie-Melon University to invite a professor to answer that question, but when they extended an invitation to Randy Pausch, professor of computer sciences, the question wasn't hypothetical. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had only a few months to live (even though he was still able to do one-handed push-ups on stage that day).
Pausch's friends decided to put his final lecture on YouTube. The video soon went viral and now millions of people have seen it. ABC devoted a whole hour to telling his story. The book born out of his speech, The Last Lecture, was a #1 bestseller for several weeks.
There were 400 people in the lecture hall originally, but Dr. Pausch said he really did what he did for three people: his three little children, whom he feared would not remember him. The speech was his legacy. He talked about his childhood dreams—"being in zero gravity, playing in the National Football League, authoring an article in the "World Book Encyclopedia"—and how many had come to pass. He wanted his children to believe in their dreams. Randy Pausch died July 25, 2008, at age 47.
What would you say if you knew you were going to die and had a chance to sum up everything that was most important to you? For several weeks we've been studying the life of Jacob. Now his life comes to an end. Like Pausch, he wants to leave a legacy for his children—a legacy inspired by his dreams. God had appeared to Jacob in a dream at a point when it seemed all that Jacob had ever wanted was lost. God had promised Jacob the land on which he slept that night. God had promised that
Jacob's descendants would be like the dust of the earth and all the peoples on earth would be blessed through Jacob, this lonely exile. God had also offered this stunning promise: "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go." It was that collection of sacred promises that Jacob wanted to pass on to his sons in his own last lecture.
At this point in the story, Jacob has returned to Bethel where he first encountered God in a dream. In that dream, God had renewed his promises to Jacob. Soon after, Jacob's youngest son, Joseph, takes center stage, while Jacob and his other children play supporting roles.
You probably know Joseph's story quite well. He was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. They told Jacob that Joseph was dead—which nearly killed the man, because Joseph was his favorite son. But God worked through Joseph to save Egypt and all the people around them from starvation. Joseph was then elevated by Pharaoh to the second highest position in the land. When the famine came upon the land of Canaan—where Jacob and his family lived—the family eventually had to move to Egypt, and Jacob was soon reunited with his beloved son, Joseph.
In our text for today, Jacob is near death. He calls for Joseph to come with his two young sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When they arrive, Jacob insists on giving the blessing of his right hand to the younger son of Joseph, Ephraim. Thus, for four generations, God's special blessing has rested on the youngest son, rather than the eldest—Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Ephraim. In the midst of this final time of blessing from Jacob, there are three lessons for us to learn.
If you want to leave a lasting legacy, never make this world your home.
Jacob knew what it was like to be an alien. For fear of his angry brother, he hid in exile for 20 years. Later in his life, because of the famine, he had to leave his God-given land and move to Egypt. All the while God kept promising, "I have a land for you."
Hebrews 11:13 points out that even when Jacob was in the land God promised him, he knew deep down that there was an even better land waiting for him. He knew he was an alien looking for a better country—a heavenly country, where God had prepared a city for him. His faith in that was his legacy.
Have you been a visitor in a land not your own or lived in a community that was never really home to you? How did you know you were an alien there? It was not just the language or that you didn't know your way around. It was something deeper. You think to yourself, These are not my people. I cannot think as they do. What is beautiful or tasty or valuable to them is not so to me. I do not share their heritage or their future. If I lived here the rest of my days, I would not belong—not in my heart.
Again and again the Bible tells those who live by faith in God's promises for the future that we are aliens and strangers in this world. Be careful about the bonds your heart makes or the roots you put down. We are not Democrats or Republicans, but Christians. Whatever flag stirs our patriotism, it is the banner of Christ that has our absolute loyalty. No matter what nationality you claim, whose food you love, what accent is most beautiful to your ear, we are first and foremost the people of God, children of the King. Our food is the manna of life and wine of Christ's blood. Our words are accented by Scripture's truth and the breath of God's Spirit. When your child goes out with friends, you say, "Do not forget who you are." So it is for us! We must not forget who we are. We must never make this world our home.
If you want to leave a lasting legacy, remember God's constant faithfulness to you.
Hebrews 11:21 also says that Jacob "blessed each of Joseph's sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff." But when we read the account in Genesis 48, it doesn't seem like Jacob is offering worship. Look again. That is exactly what he is doing in verse 15 as he begins his blessing: "May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm—may he bless these boys." That's worship! Those three phrases that identify Jacob's God were full of stories and prayers.
These memories of God's faithfulness make it sound like Jacob had enjoyed a good life, but some years earlier, when Joseph had introduced his father to the Pharaoh of Egypt, Jacob summed up his life to Pharaoh with these words: "My years have been few and difficult" (Genesis 47:9). Indeed they had been. Jacob's life had been marked by conflict, struggle, heartache, and sin. Yet the thing he sees in his old age, even when his eyes are failing him, is God's faithfulness. With that in mind, he worships God for the ways God has been faithful to him. Here is our second lesson from Jacob: If you want to leave a lasting legacy, remember God's constant faithfulness to you.
We must find ways to remember the faithfulness of God. To help, we should take time to consider how God has led those who have come before us. We should study the life of people like Jacob. We should retrace the stories from church history and even churches we have known in life. Hebrews 13:7-8 tells us to remember those who have led us: "Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."
Like Jacob, we must remember how God has been our Shepherd. Jacob was a shepherd, so he knew that shepherds have three jobs—to lead, to feed, and to guard their sheep. God had taken Jacob from one end of the known world to the other, but the real shepherding had been in the way God had guided Jacob's stubborn heart, fed his empty soul, and guarded him from his toughest enemy—himself. That is what God has done for us, too.
Like Jacob, we must remember how God has been our guardian angel. Jacob could look back on his life and see how God protected him from Laban. God had also reconciled Jacob to his brother Esau, who had once wanted to kill him. Later, when Jacob feared attack by his neighbors, the Bible says that "the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them." In the fiercest fight of his life, it was God's angel presence with whom Jacob wrestled, till Jacob finally surrendered his will and God gladly surrendered his blessing.
Like Jacob, God has also delivered us from all harm. He has come to us not in the form of an angel, but in the form of his only Son, Jesus Christ, who delivered us by dying for us. Jesus has gone ahead of us and behind us, protecting us. He has promised that no one can pluck us out of his hand, and we know that death has lost its sting and the grave its victory. Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades. Remember that, so that you don't grow too fond of this Enemy-held territory where we live.
The greatest blessing we can leave our children is our certain hope in God's promises.
In all the stories of Jacob we have studied, my very favorite line is here in verse 16: "The Angel who has delivered me from all harm—may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth."
Picture old Jacob. He is nearly blind, feeble, and sick. Verse 10 says Joseph brought the two young boys close to his father, and Jacob "kissed them and embraced them." I nearly weep as I picture it! Then the man who pursued the blessing of God for decades—the man who stole to have it, begged for it, wrestled for it, and finally heard it from God's own voice—this man puts his hands on the head of these grandsons and says, "May he bless these boys."
Here we have our third lesson from Jacob: the greatest blessing we can leave our children is our certain hope in God's promises. Jacob spoke to his grandsons and the rest of his sons in a prophetic way we cannot duplicate with our children. This word is even clearer in the statements he makes to each of us sons in the next chapter. I have heard passages like this used to teach that we parents should bless our children as Jacob did. I think it is a wonderful privilege for Christian parents to speak God's blessing upon their children. But the kind of blessing Jacob gave here was a sort of God-given inheritance—a passing on of God's promises to the next generation, eventually fulfilled in Christ.
The blessing Jacob passed on to these boys was not "money in the bank," so to speak, but promises from God that they, too, would have to believe. This is our legacy, too—the promises of God given to our children. Promises that they, too, will have to believe in order to possess. No treasure you could leave in your will—no amount of money or land, no heirloom or tradition or family reputation—is of such inestimable worth as passing on to them faith in God's promises, secured for us by Jesus Christ.
We bless our children—whether they realize it or not—when we love Jesus more than anything else in the world, when we speak longingly of heaven, when we show them how much we do not want to be tainted by the mold, filth, and rust of the world. We bless them when we love our Christian brothers and sisters, when they see us treasure God's word, when we submit our desires to the Lord Jesus.
I am speaking not only to the parents but to everyone, for the children and young adults belong to all of us in God's family. My understanding of God's blessing—my desire to have God's blessing—was shaped profoundly by the Christians in the country church where I grew up. I was shaped by Pastor Johanson, who came to us as a single man right out of seminary. I was shaped by Don, Melva, Esther, Pearl, and Edna—all Sunday School teachers who loved me. I was blessed by Clarence and Josie—a quiet brother and sister who sent us money when we were in seminary. These people made God real to me. They blessed me as surely as if they had put their hands on my head and spoken holy words. The same with my grandfather, who would puff out soft hymns on his harmonica, and my grandmother, who taught me to sing hymns when I was five years old.
We bless our children by setting before them our certain hope that God has prepared a city for us. But our children must lay hold of that hope themselves.
I wonder: you who are the children of the hope-certain and faith-sighted, have you made hope in Jesus your own? We who are your parents and spiritual mothers and fathers have prayed as Jacob prayed, "May the God before whom our fathers walked, the God who has been our shepherd, the God who has delivered us from all harm—may he bless these boys, these girls." We have prayed for you, and we want the legacy of God's blessing to rest upon you. But you must receive it. You must take the baton of faith that we pass to you and make it your own faith, your own hope. You must make that unseen city of God your life's destination. There is nothing—nothing—we want more for you than that!
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.