Many years ago when I was working for a land development company in Albuquerque, the company had its own airplane. Although we had a full-time pilot, the company president was also a pilot so many of the times that I flew on the plane with him, he would pilot the plane. He was actually a very good pilot, but the problem is that he didn’t always give his full attention to flying the plane and he often put the plane on autopilot and then proceeded to discuss company business with other people on the plane.
One day, I was on the plane with him on a flight from Albuquerque to Phoenix. As usual, he had put the plane on autopilot and was talking business with one of our business partners, who was seated in the front seat beside him. After we had been in the plane for about an hour, I looked out the window and it was apparent that we were not near as close to Phoenix as we should have been after so long in the air, so I asked our company president what was going on. Did we have an unusually strong headwind? He confirmed that indeed the flight was taking a lot longer than normal, but he checked the winds and found them to be normal. After checking many other possibilities, he finally discovered that we had been flying the entire time with the landing gear down and that was creating a lot of extra drag on the plane.
If you’ve been a disciple of Jesus for any amount of time, It’s pretty likely that you’ve done something similar to that in your walk with Jesus. At some time in your life, you just put your relationship with Jesus on autopilot and as a result there was a lot of extra drag that kept you from developing that relationship to its greatest potential.
Well, you’re in good company and this morning we’re going to look at the life of someone who did exactly that, but who eventually decided it was time to “come home” to God and get his life back on track again. I’m excited about what we’re going to learn together this morning from the life of Jacob because I think all of us can apply the principles that we’ll glean from his life in our own lives.
This morning we’re going to really pick up the pace of our journey through the Old Testament, which we obviously need to do if we’re going to make it all the way through the Old Testament this year. Considering it/s now the middle of March and even after today we’ll only we ¾ of the way through Genesis, we definitely need to move a little faster.
Last week we left off with God’s covenant with Abram. Following that event, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, and he and his wife, after a couple of wrong turns along the way, eventually have the son of promise – Isaac.
When he is 40 years old, Isaac marries Rebekah. And after Isaac prays for his barren wife, she becomes pregnant with twins – Esau and Jacob. Esau is born first, but the second son comes out of the womb grasping his brother’s heel and is named Jacob, which literally means “he takes by the heel” or which can also be translated “cheater”, which becomes pretty good description of his life.
Aided by his mother, Rebekah, Jacob manages to cheat his older brother out of his birthright and his blessing. And obviously Esau wasn’t too happy about that so in Genesis 27, we read that “Esau hated Jacob” and planned to kill him as soon as his father Isaac died. But once again Rebekah steps in and convinces Isaac to send Jacob to Paddan-aram to the home of Laban, her brother, to find a wife.
On his trip, Jacob stops in Luz, where he falls asleep and has a dream in which God repeats the promise He had made to Abraham and Isaac to bless all the families of the earth through Jacob’s offspring. When Jacob wakes up, he is afraid and makes a vow to God:
So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
(Genesis 28:18-22 ESV)
On the surface, it looks like Jacob makes a sincere vow to God, but as we’re going to see, Jacob is actually doing the same thing many of us do when we find ourselves in a tight spot – he plays “Let’s Make a Deal” with God. He knows that his brother Esau has promised to kill him as soon as Isaac dies, so he makes a deal with God – “God if you’ll protect me, then this place will be your house and I will give you a tenth of everything I have”. But for the next 30 years of his life, even though God keeps his part of the bargain, Jacob basically puts his life on autopilot and pretty much forgets his promise.
When Jacob, the cheater, gets to Laban’s home, he gets a little of his own medicine. He falls in love with Rachel, the younger daughter, but after working for Laban for seven years, Laban substitutes his older daughter, Leah, for Rachel on the wedding night. So Jacob ends up working another 7 years for Laban in order to take Rachel as his wife, too.
Jacob ends up serving Laban for another 6 years after he marries Rachel. During his time with Laban, 11 sons and a daughter are born to Jacob – six sons and a daughter by Leah, 2 sons by Leah’s servant Zilpah, 2 sons by Rachel’s servant, Bilhah, and one son by Rachel.
At the beginning of chapter 31, God comes to Jacob and tells him to return to the land of his fathers and promises to be with him. So Jacob takes his family and livestock and leaves Paddan-aran. On the way, he finds out that his brother Esau is coming to meet him and he develops an elaborate plan to try and preserve his family since he assumes Esau is coming to kill him.
That night Jacob wrestles with God, and God changes his name from Jacob – cheater – to Israel – which means “He strives with God”. But what is interesting is that throughout the next several chapters of Genesis, up to the passage that we’ll read in just a moment, he is still called Jacob, and not Israel. As we’ll see, that seems to be because Jacob still isn’t ready to live his life intentionally for God.
The next morning, Esau comes with 400 men, but instead of attacking Jacob, he embraces him. But instead of going home to the land of his people as God had commanded, Jacob stops in the city of Shechem and buys a piece of land there and pitches his tent.
That turns out to be a very poor decision because there in Shechem, Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is violated by the son of Hamor, the prince of the land. And in his usual “hands off” approach to life, Jacob hears about this atrocity, but really doesn’t do anything to address it. But his sons devise a plan to seek revenge and Simeon and Levi kill all the males in the city. Jacob actually rebukes them because now he is afraid that the Canaanites and Perizzites are going to come and attack him.
That brings us to this morning’s passage in Genesis 35.
[Read Genesis 35:1-15]
Thirty years have no passed since Jacob first made his vow to God there at Bethel – twenty years serving Laban and another 10 years in the ungodly city of Shechem. But after 30 years Jacob finally decides to come home to God.
Perhaps that is the story of your life, too. Maybe many years ago, you made a vow to God, but then you put your life on autopilot and to this day you’ve never fulfilled that vow and you’ve never come home to God. If that’s the case, then this account is good news for you because it shows that a promise-keeping, patient God, makes it possible for you to fulfill that vow and come home to Him, no matter how long you’ve been away. But we also learn here that we have to do our part.
When I want to “come home”
God will show me the way
but I have to take the wheel
I want to spend most of our remaining time talking about what we need to do in order to take the wheel. But before I do that, it’s important for us to pause a moment and reflect on what Jacob’s life, and this passage in particular, reveals about the nature of God.
What this passage reveals about God
There are so many things we could learn about God here, but let me just mention three of the most important, and the most encouraging.
1. He keeps His promises
We’ve previously seen the promises that God had made to Adam and to Abraham to produce a seed from their lineage who would be a blessing to the entire world. Today, we understand what those men couldn’t totally understand back then – that the promised seed is the Messiah, Jesus.
Fortunately for us, as we have seen, these promises that God made were unilateral and they were unconditional because, as we have seen this morning, many in that line, like Jacob, spent much of their life rebelling against God. But the account of Jacob reminds us that in spite of man’s failures, God still keeps His promises.
2. He pursues even the most unlikely people
Jacob is certainly not the kind of person we would expect God to pursue. I mean, after all the guy is named cheater and then spends most of His life living up to his name. And yet, God never gives up on Jacob. He keeps pursuing him, intervening at crucial points in his life and calling Jacob to return to him, even when there is nothing in Jacob’s life that would merit God’s intervention.
That is really good news for all of us, isn’t it? While, as far I know, none of us here this morning were named “cheater” by our parents, the fact is that we have all strayed from God just like Jacob and there is nothing in our lives that makes us worthy of God pursuing us. And yet he has continually done that in each of our lives.
3. He delights in blessing His people in spite of their shortcomings
In spite of the devious methods he used to get Isaac’s blessing, God does ensure that Jacob receives all of that blessing, and so much more. He ends up with a large family, which is enlarged even more when Rachel gives birth to Joseph right after the account we just looked at this morning. And while he is working for Laban, God blesses Jacob, so that when he leaves after 20 years, he departs with a huge flock that belongs to him and his family.
Likewise, every single one of us in this room this morning has received far greater blessings in our lives that we deserve. In spite of the many times that we have ignored God, or failed to keep our promises to Him, or even openly rebelled against Him, God still delights in blessing us greatly.
However, we also see that, in spite of God’s blessings, we are not guaranteed a life free from pain and trouble. The blessing of the birth of Joseph comes at the expense of Rachel’s life as she dies during childbirth. That is one of three deaths recorded in Genesis 35, along with the death of Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, and Jacob’s father, Isaac.
All of these traits of God remind us that God is like the father in the parable of the prodigal son who wants to welcome us home with open arms and a great celebration. But like we concluded earlier…
When I want to “come home”
God will show me the way
but I have to take the wheel
That’s exactly what Jacob finally did. After living the first 90 years or so of his life on autopilot, just kind of going wherever life took him and allowing others to largely direct his life, he finally decides to turn off the autopilot and take the wheel and to begin living his life intentionally for God. And even if we haven’t taken our hands off the wheel quite to the degree that Jacob did, there is so much we can learn from Jacob’s response here.
How to “take the wheel”
For maybe the first time in his life, Jacob finally had regard for God’s word and took it seriously. Although God had instructed him to return to Bethel 10 years earlier, Jacob had been disobedient and stopped short of that destination in Shechem. Even though Shechem was only about a day’s journey from where God had instructed him to go, Jacob’s decision to stop there not surprisingly led to one of the most sordid events in the entire Bible.
It was not until Jacob finally listened to and obeyed the word of God that he was able to be where God wanted him to be.
The practical implications for us are pretty clear here. We have to know what is in God’s Word and we have to obey what we find there.
Before Jacob starts out for Bethel, he finally gathers his family together and exercises the kind of spiritual leadership that has been lacking his entire life. Up to this point, Jacob has, at the very least, permitted his family to accumulate idols. Although it appears that Jacob did not know that Rachel had earlier stolen Laban’s idols, there is little doubt that his “hands off approach” to his relationship with God emboldened her to do so. And it is also likely that when Jacob took the women and children of Shechem along with their material possessions that would have brought even more idols into his family and community.
But Jacob finally seems to understand that he can’t take his family back to Bethel – the house of God – with all those idols in their midst. So he commands everyone in the family to do three things:
1) Put away the foreign gods. Jacob recognized how important it was for his family to identify and get rid of anything that would hinder their drawing near to God. I doubt that anyone here this morning has any carved figures in your house that you worship, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t also have idols in our lives that keep us from drawing near to God. For most of us, I am convinced that our biggest and most destructive idol is the idol of self. And until we identify that idol and take the next two steps to make sure we remove it from our lives, we won’t be able to take the wheel and draw near to God either.
2) Purify yourselves. In 1 John 1, we are reminded that the way that we allow God to cleanse us is to confess our sins to Him, which means that we agree with God that they are indeed sin and then ask Him to forgive those sins.
3) Change your garments. Paul uses similar language several times in the New Testament when he writes about taking off the old man and putting on the new. For Jacob and for Paul, the implication is that there needs to be a change in behavior that goes along with the change in heart. And we see that this occurs here when everyone gives up their idols and Jacob hides them under a tree before they leave for Bethel.
What we see here confirms the New Testament concept of repentance, which can be defined as a change of heart that results in a change in behavior.
Before we leave this point, let me take a moment to address the men who are here today. We see here what happens when men do not step up and take on the role of spiritual leadership in your family that God has entrusted to you. Perhaps this morning, God is speaking to you about that through this passage of Scripture. And if He is bringing conviction to you today that you haven’t been the spiritual leader that you need to be in your family, please heed His voice. If that is the case, this account of Jacob is actually very encouraging because it shows that it’s never too late to be that spiritual leader. As I mentioned earlier, Jacob is probably around 90 years old by now and it’s not too late for him. And since none of you here are 90 yet, then it’s not too late for you.
After they repent, Jacob leads his family back to Bethel, the place where he had fist made his promise to God 30 years before. No doubt Jacob had some mixed feelings as he headed back there. On one hand he would have been encouraged to think back on the encounter he had with God there. But on the other hand, it also had to bring a sense of guilt as he was also reminded how he had not kept his vow to God.
But it seems that whatever guilt might have come from that is covered by God’ grace here. As we saw earlier, Jacob had made some rash, spur of the moment promises back then to not only make God his God, but to build a house for God there in Bethel and to give God a tithe of everything. There is no evidence in the text that Jacob ever fulfills those last two promises, but God seems to grant grace by not holding him to those promises or condemning Jacob for his failure to keep them.
There is an important principle for us here. Sometimes when our relationship with God seems a bit stale, the antidote is to return to an earlier time in our life when that relationship was vibrant and alive. In some cases, that might mean returning to some physical place. Mary and I often do that to keep our marriage relationship fresh. We go back to physical places that hold special memories of some of the high points in our marriage and it helps enrich our current relationship.
But in some cases, it just means returning to some of the things we did when our relationship with God was more vibrant and alive. Perhaps we don’t read the Bible or pray like we used to. We don’t share our faith with others with the same enthusiasm we did when we first became Christians. Maybe we’ve gotten so busy that we no longer serve in the church the way we once did.
By the time John wrote the book of Revelation, that is exactly what had occurred in the church in Ephesus, which had been flourishing only a few decades earlier. So Jesus says this to the people there:
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first…
(Revelation 2:4-5 ESV)
You’ll notice Jesus also addresses the repentance element here, but his main point is that once they do that, they need to remember the things they did that first led them to fall in love with Jesus and to do those things again.
Recently I went through one of those dry times in my life, and as many of you know from reading my blog posts, I came to realize that one of the reasons for that was that my prayer life was lacking. So, with the help of Paul Miller’s book, A Praying Life, I’ve been working on returning to a time when my prayer life was more consistent and meaningful.
Even before he got to Bethel, Jacob began to think about and remember how God had been with him wherever he had gone, even during those times when he had ignored or rebelled against God. And then when Jacob gets to Bethel, he builds another altar to God and worships.
And God appears to Jacob again. And God blesses Jacob and reminds him that he is no longer Jacob, the cheater, but rather Israel, the one who strives with God. Interestingly, it seems that from this time forward, the Bible begins to frequently refer to Jacob as Israel rather than Jacob, especially during those times when Jacob is faithful to God.
God also reminds Jacob of the promise that he had made earlier to his grandfather and father. God would make his offspring into a great nation that would one day have a king who would bless all the nations of the earth. And God would also give that people the land that He had earlier promised to Abraham and Isaac.
When God seems far away, it is often helpful for us to think back over our lives and remember how God has been with us, even during those times when we have distanced ourselves from Him. It’s also helpful to do what we did last week and to be reminded of the promises that God has given to us in His Word.
After his encounter with God there at Bethel, Jacob renewed his commitment to God and memorialized that by repeating the action he had taken 30 years earlier when he set up a pillar and poured wine and oil on it and confirmed the name of that place as Bethel -the house of God.
Sometimes when we have let go of the wheel and drifted away from God it is helpful to renew our commitment to God and to memorialize that decision in some way. Many of you live in a community where there is a homeowner’s association and they probably won’t permit you to put up a pillar and pour wine and oil on it, but there might be other appropriate ways to take some action that leaves a lasting memory of your commitment.
Certainly baptism serves that purpose for disciples of Jesus. During those times when we might doubt our relationship with God, we can look back to that act and be reminded of our commitment to Jesus.
Some people find that keeping a spiritual journal is an effective way of leaving some spiritual markers that they can go back to later.
And there are probably some other ways to memorialize our commitment to Jesus that I haven’t even thought of. The point is to find something that works for you.
When I want to “come home”
God will show me the way
but I have to take the wheel
All of us go through some times in our life where we go into autopilot mode in our spiritual lives and drift away from God. But the good news is that the life of Jacob reminds us that any time we want to return to God, He is waiting for us with open arms if we’ll just take the very practical steps we’ve identified this morning to take the wheel once again.
Will you join me in taking the first step this morning? Today we’ve identified five different steps that each of us might need to take in order to take the wheel and return to God. In just a minute I’m going to give us all an opportunity to pray and to ask God to reveal just one of those five steps that you need to take this week. And then I’m going to ask you to circle that step on your sermon outline and write down at least one concrete step you’re going to take this week to carry that out.
Discussion questions for Bible Roundtable
1. When Rebekah was pregnant with Esau and Jacob, God reveled to her that the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). Does this justify the deception of Rebekah and Jacob in stealing Esau’s blessing? What implications does your answer have for us today?
2. During his first encounter with God at Bethel, Jacob made a vow to build God a house there and to give a tenth of all he had to God, vows that he apparently never fulfilled. What does this teach us about making vows to God and about God’s nature? What does Jesus have to say about making vows to God?
3. What do the actions Jacob took before he returned to Bethel teach us about how we are to prepare to worship?
4. We frequently see Jacob (and other Old Testament figures) building altars and setting up pillars. What is their purpose and what implications does that have for our worship today?