CALL TO WORSHIP
Today is the last week of our three-week series called “Jacob’s Story/Our Story.” Two weeks ago, we saw Jacob’s Ladder, the original Stairway to Heaven at Bethel. Last week, we viewed a strange wrestling match at Peniel. Today, we go back to Bethel. Please have your Bibles open to Genesis 35 as we study and worship together. Unlike the events we have examined over the last two weeks, which are famous and the subject of song and story, today’s scripture is not nearly so popular. I have never taught a Sunday School lesson on it. It is not included in the three-year lectionary cycle, so there are many churches across the world that have never heard a sermon on it. I nonetheless find it at least as important as the first two passages to understand the full Jacob narrative. As I have said each week, these three stories are key to the rest of the Old Testament, and in many ways, to the history of the world.
I want you to think about the Bethels of your life – places where and times when God has spoken to you. You remember some of them fondly, for you fellowshipped with God there. Some of them, maybe, you do not remember with affection, for perhaps you turned your back, did not listen to God, did not let Him in. Memories of God are not always tender when we have heard but have not heeded, when we have not taken advantage of what God offers.
God is the God of Second Chances. Even when we miss it the first time, God invites us back to Bethel.
Jacob’s story, Israel’s story, is our story. Pay attention.
Glorify the Lord with me. Let us exalt His name together!
(Audio begins here.)
This is the Word of the Lord for the people of Christ. Thanks be to God!
Back to Bethel, now called El Bethel. Living where we live, with the restaurants around us and the language of many our neighbors, it is tempting to think of El Bethel like we would “El Chico” or “El Fenix.” Don’t do that. This is not Spanish. Remember, Beth means “house” and El means “God.” So, in our scripture for today, when Jacob renames Bethel El Bethel, he is now naming it after “the God of the House of God.”
Jacob – Israel – is still going through hard times as this Chapter opens. We have not read what happens immediately before in Chapter 34 together. Feel free to do that on your own, but prepare yourself. It is rated R. It is hard reading, and it has very little redeeming value. What we discover there is that Jacob lives in a primitive, dangerous land where his daughter is abused; and we learn that the apples do not fall far from the tree, for Jacob’s sons are dishonest and manipulative, not to mention vile and violent. The upshot of it all is that Jacob and his family have to move, that they have become, in Jacob’s words, “obnoxious” to those around them, and he is afraid of attack because of the trouble his sons have created. [Genesis 34:30]
So that brings us to Chapter 35, but before we focus on our text, let’s look forward. Right after this trip back to Bethel, Jacob loses his nursemaid Deborah and his mother Rebecca to death, and his wife Rachel dies in childbirth of his twelfth son, Benjamin. Jacob’s oldest son Reuben sleeps with his father’s concubine Bilhah, the handmaid of Rachel and the mother of two of Reuben’s own brothers. We don’t know why, but it may be that Reuben, the son of Leah, is showing disdain for Leah’s rival Rachel. The psychology of all of this is really too messed up for me to try to sort through, but the scripture says that Israel finds out about it.
Then, Isaac dies. Finally, in chapter 36, to top it all off, we learn that Esau has become incredibly rich and has a vast and successful family line.
So, to review, Jacob has swindled and been swindled, lied and been lied to, become so disliked in his home that he has to move his whole family, loses his wife and his parents, has sexual abuse and victimization in his household, and sees his rival older brother win the prize.
Amidst all of that, Jacob has these three encounters with God. He first hears God speak to him at Bethel, but He does not choose to follow. Remember? He builds a pillar, not an altar. He does not worship God but instead delivers God an ultimatum, a list of demands. He is fascinated with the place, naming it Bethel, “the House of God,” but then goes on for twenty years without giving God another thought.
Then, on the way back to face Esau, he meets God again in the wrestling match, and this time he knows it is God. He receives a blessing, but God has to fight him even to get him to accept that. God renames him, and Jacob begins a slow process of transformation, but he does not use his new name very often, and he walks with a limp because of his resistance to God.
Now, on the heels of the rape of Jacob’s daughter and yet another family crisis, God tells him to go back to Bethel.
What a fascinating command. God does not come to Jacob where he is; this time, he tells Jacob to hit the road. God does not direct Jacob to Peniel, the place where he had struggled with God face to face and actually grasped the blessing of God. No, God sends him to the place of his failure, to the location of his great missed opportunity, to Bethel.
Why? I think because Bethel was the place where Jacob had first heard God, even if he had chosen not to follow. Bethel was the place of the ladder, the stairway. The dream at Bethel was the first time Jacob had noted the presence of the Lord, even if it meant little to him. God was giving Jacob a second chance to understand the importance of that meeting, some thirty years later.
My favorite experience at the theatre is the musical “Les Misérables,” derived from Victor Hugo’s fabulous novel. I have lost count of how many times I have seen it, but I will see it again and again. If you have not seen it, you must. If you have not seen it, I am going to spoil one plot point for you, but this will not ruin the experience. Just go see it.
Anyway, the protagonist, Jean Valjean, is very much a Jacob figure. Early in the story, he steals a sack full of silver from a bishop, but the bishop forgives the transgression and allows Valjean to go free, giving him not only the silver in the bag but also two precious candlesticks – loot that Valjean had not stolen initially – to take with him as a sign the bishop has “bought [his] soul for God.” Many who have read the novel or seen the musical many times think back on this almost-sacramental act by the bishop as the turning point in Valjean’s life, but in truth, it is not. He course has not yet shifted. He has not been converted. He accepts the gift of the candlesticks in relief, because it means that the arresting officers of the gendarme let him go. Valjean has no understanding at that moment of the significance of the forgiveness offered by the bishop. Like Jacob at Bethel the first time, Valjean knows something worth remembering has happened, but he does not connect it to his eternal destiny, and he marches on to the life he intended anyway, breaking parole and hiding from the authorities. It is not until many years later that Valjean starts to put it all together. In the meantime, he misses the opportunity to save the innocent Fantine, finding her only when it is too late. His watershed actually comes when he has the chance for security and an end to his running, but taking it would require allowing an innocent man, who happens to resemble Valjean enough to fool the police, to go to jail in his place. Valjean must face what he will become, and he sings the remarkable “Who Am I?”
He thinks that man is me, he knew him at a glance. The stranger he has found, this man could be my chance. Why should I save his hide? Why should I right this wrong, when I have come so far, and struggled for so long? If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned. Who am I? Can I condemn this man to slavery, pretend I do not see his agony? This innocent who bears my face, who goes to judgment in my place … Must I lie? How can I ever face my fellow men? How can I ever face myself again? My soul belongs to God I know, I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on. Who am I? [Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, “Who Am I” from Les Misérables, 1985]
And so, Valjean comes clean, like Jacob declares his name and understands what it means, allows the innocent to go free, and finally arrives at the place where the bishop had hoped and prayed he would be all those years before. He recognizes what God has done, and he begins to act the part.
In the stage production, whenever you see Valjean at home from that point forward, you can always find the silver candlesticks somewhere on the set. The better the director, the more prominent they are. No matter how much Valjean has to move, to run from police inspector Javert, to settle and then resettle, the bishop’s candlesticks are always at the forefront for Valjean, and the audience, to see. They are the reminder of the sacrifice made and the time when Valjean first was presented with the idea that the presence of God is never far away, that grace is freely available.
The candlesticks are Valjean’s Bethel.
We all have our Bethels. We Christians have at least one marker in our walk, a place and time in our journey that has signified the very presence of God to us. When we are in trouble, we need to find that marker, to look at our candlesticks. We often need to go back to Bethel.
I do not remember the first time God spoke to me. Knowing my parents, you understand that. The presence of Jesus and the grace of God have always surrounded me. Mom says I asked her to explain the Trinity to me when I was three. So, I do not remember the first time I heard God speak. But I have some Bethels, some places etched in my memory where I know very clearly God spoke to me. One is at the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont, Tennessee, where I went on a school trip in the fifth grade. One is a rustic campground called Wolverine Wilderness outside Skidway Lake, Michigan. Another is a Holiday Inn on Pensacola Beach.
But for me, my most important Bethels are apt not to be physical locations. I tend not to go back to places as much as I reread books, or re-sing songs, or look at photos, or remember specific times with particular people. I have more candlesticks than I do places.
I do not think that God calls Jacob back to Bethel – the house of God – because there is anything magical about the place. Rather, there was something that happened there that Jacob needs to re-experience, so he can get it right this time. Remember, here is where he had said, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” but ironically, it turns out he delivers that poetic line with very little understanding. God knows that Jacob needs a second chance to recognize what he missed the first time.
And guess what? Jacob gets it right. This time, he renames the place El Bethel – God of the House of God. Look at verse 7. Now Jacob’s fascination is not with the location but instead is with the reality of God. He calls it El Bethel because he realizes that it was here that God first revealed Himself, way back when Jacob was fleeing his brother. Israel finally gets it; he comprehends the importance of focus on the person rather than the place, on the relationship rather than the ritual, on the God of the House rather than the House of God.
Going back to Bethel brings out some critical things in Jacob. First, he tells the family to get rid of their idols. He does not have the Ten Commandments yet, but Jacob senses something is wrong here. They are heading to the house of God, and they don’t need these substitutes. He knows where the real God is.
Second, He tells them that he is going to build an altar. Remember, last time he had just set up a pillar, a historical monument. Genesis is clear when people are building altars, and Jacob did not do that at Bethel before. This time, his intent is clear – he is going to Bethel to worship the God of that place.
Third, Jacob remembers. Look at verse 3. He calls God the one “who answered me in my day of distress.” [Genesis 35:3] This is remarkable, coming from a man who has shown no hint of being fazed by either Bethel or Peniel until now. We all remember. You may have hidden your past understanding of God far away. You may be so ashamed of your rejection of Him, of your running away or just ignoring Him, of the way you have lived your life since… that you have tried hard to put that memory in a deep, dark box far in the back attic of your sensibility; but it is there. You may not consciously even be able to call it to mind, but when you finally recognize God again, the familiar melody of the song of the Father will come back to you.
But there is something else; fourth, Jacob is obedient. God calls him to Bethel, and he complies. He goes where God tells him to go. The changes that began embryonically … ever so painfully … slowly … years earlier … before he moved to Shechem … have finally started bearing fruit, and Jacob feels the need to obey the Lord. If for no other reason, he recognizes that his other choices are not working out so well. He might as well give obedience a try. He hears the command, he embraces his second chance, and he goes back to Bethel.
While it is cliché, let me pause for a moment to note that we serve the God of second chances.
· Peter denies Christ, and the next time he sees Jesus, there is no judgment. Soon comes the command to “feed my sheep.” [John 21:15-17] Peter goes on to preach the Pentecost sermon and become the first leader of the church.
· Paul, when he was Saul, persecuted the church with such furor that some call him a first-century religious terrorist. He meets Jesus on the Damascus Road and goes on to found multiple churches and write thirteen books of the New Testament, bearing more influence on the world than anyone short of Jesus Himself.
· Moses kills an Egyptian and hides across the desert, and God brings him back to lead the Exodus.
· Cain is a murderer, and God sends him to the land of Nod with a mark of protection.
· David is not finished after the Bathsheba affair.
· In the parable of the two sons that Kelly read for us, Jesus commends the one who obeys his father at the end in spite of having earlier said, “no,” who gets it right the second time. [Matthew 21:28-32]
· The people of Israel are not abandoned after they build a golden calf and the tablets of the Ten Commandments are smashed.
· Jonah is the poster child for the second chance. As Chapter 1 of his book opens, God tells him to go preach in Nineveh. [Jonah 1:2] Jonah refuses, and we have the story of the great fish. Then, Chapter 3 comes along, and what do we find there? “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’” [Jonah 3:1-2]
So, back to our story … what is the God of Second Chances up to while Jacob is finally obeying, answering this call to Bethel? Remember, Chapter 34 ends with Jacob fleeing from his own version of the gendarme, his own big fish, running for his life, justifiably afraid that his neighbors are getting ready to attack. Why is he able to make it back to Bethel safely? Look at verse 5 in our text. Jehovah has literally put the fear of God in those who would come after Jacob. There is a bubble of protection around Israel and his family as he answers God’s call. The text says that “the terror of God” fell “so that no one pursued them.” How remarkable. When God calls, He does not only ask us to obey, but He also lays the groundwork so that our obedience, our Second Chance, is possible. I am reminded of the great east wind that will hold back the walls of the Red Sea so that God’s people can pass through on their way to the promised land.
So, we find our way to verse 7, where Jacob builds his altar and recognizes the God of Bethel.
Why does this matter? As I have said, Jacob’s problems do not end. He is about to lose his wife, have his son sleep with his concubine, bury his father, and see Esau grow rich and powerful. This second chance does not end all of Jacob’s problems by a long shot.
The next time we see Israel, he is showing favoritism to his son Joseph, giving him the coat of many colors. Of course, Jacob comes by parental partiality naturally, having been preferred by his mother over Esau, who was favored by their father.
If we fast forward to chapter 46, we find God calling Jacob once again, telling him to go to Egypt to see Joseph. The verses read this way:
And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!” “Here I am,” he replied. “I am God, the God of your father,” He said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you…. [Genesis 46:4-6]
Israel, having survived his youthful errors, has become comfortable. But life throws him a curveball, and Israel has to leave home, Canaan, the territory God has given to his grandfather Abraham. There is famine in the land, and the only food is in Egypt. Israel is by now old, and he knows that once he leaves, he likely will not see home again. But as at Bethel, and as at Peniel, and as at Bethel again, God has a promise for Jacob, for Israel. Yes, he is to go to Egypt, but the promise is that God will go with him.
We know, because we know our history and what follows in the Old Testament, that Israel’s stay will turn into over 400 years of slavery for his family and descendants. This famine will have consequences that last for generations.
Curveballs can have unpleasant, unexpected results. We find ourselves alone, strangers in a strange land.
God does not solve all of those problems. He does not prevent the famine, and He does not immediately end the slavery.
He does not prevent every disease or bankruptcy or drunk driver that comes our way either. Yet again, Israel’s story is our story.
What God does promise is His presence. The Psalmist calls God an “ever-present help in trouble.” [Psalm 46:1] When the apostles are caught in the wind and waves and are paralyzed with fear, Jesus appears to them, but He does not immediately calm the storm. What He does is assure them of His presence: “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.” [Matthew 14:27] And we learn – although I believe we knew it already in our gut – that His presence is enough.
While we read great stories in Genesis – Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Eve and the serpent, the flood, the covenant, Melchizadek, and so on – there are really only three true heroes in Genesis. They are Noah, Abraham, and, especially, Joseph. Joseph shines most brightly, refusing the seduction of Potiphar’s wife, showing a preternatural sensitivity to God as he interprets dreams, surviving prison and rising to second in command of the entire nation, and then saving not only Egypt but the surrounding peoples from the famine. And, of course, included in those saved by Joseph are his own family members, who come to Egypt and find food.
Somehow in all of his troubles, Jacob parents Joseph. And he does this largely by himself, since Joseph’s mother Rachel has died in the childbirth of his younger brother. Whatever happens to Jacob, we see the blessing of God upon him in the fruit of his son Joseph. That is significant. The bloodline of Abraham, passing through Isaac and Jacob to Joseph, is the line of the patriarchs. Israel is the father of the hero, and that is no small thing. So much of God’s work with Jacob pays off in Joseph.
Still, God’s chosen are not called the people of Joseph. Nor are they the people of Abraham or the people of Noah. They are known – still to this day – as the people of Israel. Why is that?
I think it is because God speaks to Jacob in a dream, showing him a stairway that connects heaven to earth. I think it is because God comes to Jacob and changes his name to Israel, wrestling with him as long as it takes for Jacob to figure out He is God, until Jacob will take hold and demand a blessing, until Jacob’s walk is changed. I think it is because Jacob comes back to Bethel, returns to the place where it all began, finally accepts God’s offer to obey, to get rid of his substitute gods, to build an altar and worship, to remember who God is and what He has promised.
I think it is because Jacob’s story is our story. The people are the people of Israel because they are us. Don’t get too caught up in the modern Middle Eastern democracy called “Israel” – that is a political entity that has only existed since 1948. Paul explains it this way:
For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel…. [I]t is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. [Romans 9:6-8]
When the Bible speaks of the people of Israel, it means the people of God’s promise, that line that goes back to this swindling, wandering, lying, faulty man who meets God, then meets Him again and struggles, then finally hears Him and obeys. The Bible is speaking of this one who is us. You are tired of hearing me say it, but it is true: Jacob’s story is our story.
So what difference does it make? Why have we spent three weeks on this man? Why is his story our story?
Because God seeks us. God comes to us in the middle of our desert, when we are running, whether we think we are fleeing those we have done us wrong or we perceive we are on our way to new adventure. Either way, God comes to us. And we often ignore Him, no matter what He does to get our attention.
So, the God of Second Chances comes again. He grabs us, wrestles with us and touches us and changes us forever. Sometimes, that is enough for us. We understand that we have a new name, and we, like Abraham, exercise faith that is credited to us as righteousness. But sometimes it is not enough. We limp away, destined for still more years of turmoil and heartache. So the God of Second Chances strikes again. By now, of course, we ought to be calling Him the God of Eleventh Chances or Sixteenth Chances. He is the God of Another Chance so long as we have breath. Even the thief on the cross was given further opportunity. This idea of second chances is another way of saying that church word – forgiveness. God forgives. God’s forgiveness is such that our continued failures are continually forgiven. God separates us from our sin as far as the east is from the west. And in Israel, we see the example of one who finally hears the call and listens, who heeds the call, who gets rid of the junk and hightails it, finally, to the house of God.
The second chance is not left just to us, of course. When we say that God is the God of Second Chances, we do not mean that God forgives our sin and then leaves us alone, crosses His holy fingers, and hopes we do better next time. He is the God of “go your way and sin no more,” but He is more than that. His righteousness is imputed to us. The Holy Spirit, the Helper, comes to us. We have the power of God at our disposal. The second chance is not just the chance to mess up again; it is the opportunity for those of us who bear His new name to call on the Lord.
Getting it right the second time is not what saves us. Jacob already has his new name. I am glad that Jacob gets it right, finally, and I believe he does so because God never lets him go, because ever since the wrestling match, his new walk, limping though it may be, inevitably leads him back to Bethel.
From Israel, we learn not to settle for setting up a pillar but in fact to build an altar. From Israel we learn to remember, to hearken back to that time when God first called our name. From Israel we learn to honor not the place but the person, not the House of God but the God of the House.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
If these three weeks have been nothing more than an interesting study of a fascinating Old Testament character, then we have not gotten everything from these lessons that we should have. Jacob’s story is our story. The reason we have spent this time is not just to study Jacob; it has been to understand how God deals with us.
At the end of Hugo’s novel, Jean Valjean is dying. He says, “I bequeath to [Cosette] the two candlesticks which stand on the chimney-place. They are of silver, but to me they are gold, they are diamonds.”
Is God calling you back to Bethel?
God seeks us when we are unworthy. God seeks us when we ignore Him. God seeks us again and again. God tries to get our attention. God struggles with us until we finally realize who He is, and then He touches us, and we are changed forever.
And then God calls us again. We have the opportunity to obey, to worship, and to remember our candlesticks, our experience, our God.
God of the House is dealing with each of us, right now. Respond at the altar or where you are.