The following is the transcript of a sermon I preached for the Thursday morning outreach service at the Cathedral Church of the Advent on August 9, 2018.
Genesis 35:1-15 (ESV)
God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. 3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.”4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.
5 And as they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. 6 And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, 7 and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. 8 And Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth.
9 God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. 11 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. 12 The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” 13 Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it. 15 So Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.
We we have a lot going on here, and in order to get a proper handle on our passage, we need to do a quick recap. You might remember that a few weeks ago Rebecca (our Rebecca right here, not Isaac’s wife) spoke to us about the birth of Jacob and Esau and how, even at birth, Jacob was striving to get ahead. He was born literally hanging on to the heel of his twin brother. In fact his name means something along the lines of “he grasps the heel.” Additionally, it can figuratively mean, “he deceives.”
And we see this kind of character played out all through Jacob’s narrative right? We see it in the way that he swindled Esau out of his birthright, and how he lied to his father Isaac by pretending to be Esau in order to receive Esau’s blessing.
Jacob’s named described him well. He was a liar who had built a bad reputation for himself.
And yet, despite all of this, God reaches out and speaks to Jacob in midst of one of his darkest moments. When he is deep in his sin and treachery to his family, when he is on the run from Esau, God appears to him at Bethel--remember that place! Bethel is important later--and he promises to give him many descendants and that he and his posterity will be a blessing to all people.
However, even with these undeserved promises, Jacob does not change. Instead, he journeys on and continues to prove that he’s just as deceitful as ever. Jacob goes and works for his eventual father-in-law, Laban. Unfortunately, Laban is also a dishonest person and does not pay Jacob fair wages for his work. However, Jacob refuses to be the better man and to turn the other cheek, and he manipulates a business deal that the two of them make so that he comes out ahead of Laban.
Around this time, the Lord speaks to Jacob again and tells him to go back to his father’s land. So Jacob packs up and runs away from his angry father-in-law who only lets him go because God specifically tells him not to mess with Jacob.
As Jacob gets close to home, he realizes that he’s about to encounter his estranged brother, Esau, and he has no idea what sort of greeting he will receive. Expecting the worst, Jacob staggers his caravan and sends gifts ahead to meet Esau’s caravan in the hopes that he can pacify his brother’s wrath. Perhaps then Esau won’t just kill everyone. Talk about stressful family reunions.
But before they meet up, we have this strange passage about Jacob wrestling with God. Last week, Dean Pearson’s passage detailed this event for us, and we learned how God reached out to Jacob yet again, this time in the form of a man, and Jacob wrestled with God all night long. Even in this, God condescended to Jacob, met him where he was. He even allowed Jacob to win the match.
And it is this event that finally marks a significant turning point in Jacob’s life. It is finally in this event that a change is effected in Jacob. And what happens? We see that God changed Jacob’s name.
There’s a line in Romeo and Juliet that sort of reminds me of this encounter. Do you remember the basic premise of the story? You have two feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues who absolutely hate each other for reasons that we never find out. Then all of a sudden Romeo, a Montague, meets Juliet, a Capulet, and well, mix in hormones and teen angst, and you have yourself a tragedy.
Anyway, in the famous balcony scene, Juliet reflects on their predicament. Romeo is actually a really good guy and there is no reason for them not to be together except for the fact that his last name is Montague. So she utters that famous line, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
Why do names matter she wonders? If only Romeo had a different last name, everything would work out perfectly. And yet names say something about us don’t they? While not nearly as important in our society today as they have been in the past or in other cultures, they still give us a peek into who we are and where we have come from. Our decisions can become permanently linked to our names. For instance if we develop bad credit or commit a serious crime, the consequences of those actions can haunt us for years to come.
Well, as we have seen, our friend Jacob is actually much worse off than Romeo. The fact is, Jacob is not a good guy. He’s a liar and swindler. Romeo just needed a new last name, but Jacob? He needs a full on identity change. And the astounding and scandalous thing is that that’s exactly what the Lord provides for Jacob.
As a result of this wrestling match, God renames Jacob. No longer will he be known because of his deception, no longer will he carry the burden of his past. But more than that, Jacob himself changes. His encounter with God transforms who he actually is, and we see the beginnings of that change play out in chapter 33 in the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau.
And that finally brings us to today’s passage.
In verse 1 of chapter 35, God instructs Jacob to go build an altar back at Bethel. Remember Bethel? It’s that place where God first spoke to Jacob when he was on the run from Esau. It’s like God is reminding Jacob, “I’ve changed your name, but don’t get cocky. Remember who you were? Remember how I appeared to you and promised to make you into a great nation even when you were deep in your sin and deception? Go back and worship me there.”
And then if we pick up in verses 2 and 3 we read,
“So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. 3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.”
This is important because here we see Jacob in an act of repentance. The deceiver is no longer trying to hide his sin. Rather, he is finally submitting himself to the God who has been pursuing him from the beginning.
After purging themselves of their idols, Jacob and his family make their way back to Bethel.
In verses 9 and 10 we see that God appears to Jacob yet again,
“God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel.”
Here God is reaffirming the change that he has brought about in Jacob. He is not simply giving Jacob a clean slate, and then saying, “Ok, Jacob, you get one more chance. Don’t mess up this time!” No, he has actually made Jacob into a new person, and he is confirming that work in him.
God continues his conversation with Jacob in verse 11 and 12,
“And God said to him, ‘I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. 12 The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.’”
God again affirms that he will keep the covenant he has made with Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob. Israel, this new man, will become Israel, the the royal nation, that will be a blessing to all people. From Jacob’s lineage will come kings.
And ultimately what happens? The King, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, comes through the lineage of Israel. And he takes our sinful identities upon himself, and he transforms us. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him [that’s Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him that we might become the righteousness of God.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel very righteous. I see myself in my sin and become discouraged, and I often give into despair. Or perhaps even worse yet: I stop caring, and I grow stagnant in my walk with God and fall into the same sins with which I have struggled for years. And it feels like there is no hope of changing.
Perhaps you feel similarly. Perhaps there is a particular sin with which you struggle. Perhaps there is an addiction that you just can’t seem to shake. Maybe it’s not any one particular sin, but you just feel the weight of the world on your shoulders and an inability to rest or to feel at peace.
The truth is, we are just like Jacob. We were in need of an identity change. We were born into sin and death. Apart from Christ we are broken, sick, and without hope.
But thanks be to God we are not left to fix ourselves! In every interaction that Jacob had with the Lord, it was God who reached out first. God did call Jacob to repentance, but he did not wait for Jacob to clean up his life before he pursued him.
In the same way, God pursues us in our sin, in our despair, in our addictions, in our spiritual dry spots, and in our everyday sadnesses, it is God who pursues us.
Paul reminds us in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” And in verse 10 he explains, “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” Even when we had made ourselves his enemies, God was working to get us back.
In Ephesians 2 we are told, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
And in 2 Corinthians 5 Paul reminds us that if anyone is in Christ they are new creatures! That means that, like Jacob, we also have been given new identities. We are no longer called sinners, but saints!
Even though we may still struggle with sin, doubt, addiction, or simply a lack of joy, those experiences do not define us. We are marked as the bride of Christ. The same God who spoke the world into existence in Genesis 1 now speaks life over us.
So, this morning I invite you, if you haven’t already, repent and be baptized! Experience the new life and freedom that comes with union with Christ. Just like in the case of Jacob, he will give you a new identity free from the stains of your past.
And if you are in Christ already, remember who you are and what the Lord has done for you. Daily confess and repent of your sin, but also take comfort in the promises of God know that you have been transformed. Take courage, for you are a saint who has been washed in the blood of Christ, and your past cannot define you. He who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion. Amen.