Sermon by Tony Hobbs – 25th February 2018
DEALING WITH CHANGE
CLOSING OF ONE PHASE, AND STARTING OF ANOTHER
The book of Genesis
When we think of the book of Genesis, it can be easy to concentrate on the accounts of creation and the flood.
But these take only the first 9 chapters.
The remaining 41 chapters are all about relationship: God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
To make the point in another way:
Timescale of God’s activity
According to Genesis, God created the Heavens, the earth and all living things in six days.
By contrast, developing a relationship with the Patriarchs takes God several centuries.
In very broad terms, it takes God six days to create the universe but six hundred years to create a covenant people.
A bit of background
Many years earlier, Jacob had fled from his brother Esau after deceiving him and their father Isaac by seizing the birthright of the firstborn.
Jacob had subsequently had a large family of his own, and had partly restored the relationship with his estranged brother.
During this period he’s also had an enigmatic encounter with “a man” (32:24 ff).
Exactly who the man really is, is open to interpretation but Jacob appears to consider it some sort of divine encounter, with “the man” having authority over him in some way.
Whatever the exact identity of “the man”, the incident carries major theological symbolism: that Jacob is one who strives. (To put it politely!)
As Western readers we can be confused by people or places having their names changed for the first time more than once!
“The man” has already changed Jacob’s name to Israel. And Luz has had its name changed to Bethel several times!
While we can do some mental gymnastics to try and make sense of this according to our reading conventions, the easiest explanation is to recognise this is a convention of Hebrew narrative to make theological points. Here:
Jacob’s family is the basis of a nation.
Bethel is the place where Abraham and his descendants encounter God in a special way.
Summary overview of passage
In returning home, Jacob and his household are involved in major change.
The journey begins with cleansing.
As Jacob follows God’s leading into a new situation, he encounters not smooth, peaceful confirmation but pain and upset.
Death is part of the change process: Deborah, his father Isaac …
…and his beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth.
The founders of each of the twelve tribes are now born – the structure of the future nation is in place and in the right place – but at great personal cost to Jacob.
But there are hints of future difficulties.
God’s help in the past … trusting Him in the future
Then God said to Jacob, ‘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.’
As we start on new situations, good to remember how God has helped us in the past – especially in times of difficulties and change.
Cleansing before we start
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.’
As we start on any new journey – actual or spiritual – that involves change, it is good to see if any unhelpful or unholy things have crept into our lives.
These may be explicitly wrong things that the world says are okay but go against God’s standards,
Or they may be things that are okay but have got in the way of our walk with the Lord.
‘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.’
The most important thing in any new situation concerns our relationship with the Lord. As He has helped us in the past, so we learn to look for His help and support in the future.
He is not content that we stagnate but grow deeper and deeper in our relationship with Him.
We note that the first target upon arrival is worship.
God working ‘behind the scenes’
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. Then they set out, and the terror of God fell on the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.
The putting away what is unholy is not merely a temporary laying aside but a permanent abandonment.
We note here that at the same time God is working in ways Jacob’s group wouldn’t have necessarily been aware of at the time.
It is important that in any new situation we remember that God is likely to be doing things of which we are unaware at the time. But when we do become aware of them – perhaps much later – it is good to praise Him for what He has done.
Hints of future problems
Jacob had been a deceptive son to Isaac.
His own first born now deceives him, by committing virtual incest.
We are given no details, but the narrative hints at the irony: just as by deception Jacob gained the eldest son’s birthright from Esau, so Jacob’s eldest son will loose his birthright status to a much younger sibling.
As Jacob’s household return to Bethel, problems within the family have already started – problems that will result in the family’s migration to Egypt. The change of this chapter is no one-off, but ongoing.
And it is in that future, 500 year situation, that God will teach them even more about Himself: they will learn that the Lord is not just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but also the Redeemer of all who will follow Him.