In our text this morning we see that Jacob was in quite a mess. And the sad truth was he had brought it upon himself. Of course he didn’t get all the credit for it. Mom had a hand in it too.
Jacob was the son of Isaac, and the grandson of Abraham. Isaac’s wife Rebekah had given birth to twins: to Jacob and his brother Esau. Esau had been born first. Twins, of course, share the same day of birth. They are the same age. But that doesn’t change the fact that one is born first and the other is born second. Matthew likes to remind his sister that he is older than she is … by about ten seconds.
Esau was born first. And in the ancient world this meant more than just bragging rights about which twin was older. It had very important implications for the future. The first born son received preferential treatment in the inheritance. They may have shared the womb for nine months, but because he came out first, Esau was going to inherit the most as his birthright.
Esau was a manly man. He was a skillful hunter – an outdoors kind of guy. Jacob was a homebody who liked to stay inside the tent, and even did some cooking. One day, Esau had been out hunting and returned exhausted and famished. Jacob was cooking stew, and Esau demanded some. Jacob said he could have some … in exchange for Esau’s birthright. Clearly Jacob was breaking the Ninth Commandment – he coveted his brother’s inheritance and was scheming to get it. Esau was impulsive. He thoughtlessly despised his birthright and sold it to Jacob for some stew.
Isaac loved his manly son Esau. Rebekah loved her mama’s boy Jacob. When Isaac was very old, he asked Esau to go out hunting and to prepare a meal for him, so that as father he could impart his blessing on Esau his first born son. However, Rebekah overhead this and looking out for her favorite she prepared a meal. She had Jacob dress in Esau’s clothes and cover himself with the skins of goats so that he would pass for his hairy brother before Isaac who could not see. And Jacob pulled it off. He fooled Isaac into speaking the blessing over him instead of his brother.
When Esau learned what had happened he was incensed. He plotted to kill Jacob after his father had died. He spoke to others about his intention and the word got back to Rebekah. So she told Jacob that he had to leave. She sent him to live with her brother Laban in Haran, northeast of Palestine. Rebekah instructed Jacob that he was not to take a wife from the local Canaanites, but instead to marry one of Laban’s daughters.
In our text we see Jacob on the run. He has nothing. His brother wants to kill him. Just like so many of the problems in your life, it is sin that has caused it. He coveted. He lied. Rebekah showed partiality. She schemed to deceive her husband and take from her older son. And of course all of this sinning occurred in the setting of family. If this sounds very familiar, that’s because you are no different. Your sins in the setting of your family cause problems and heartache. They mess things up.
Jacob stopped for the night and had to sleep out in the open – with nothing more than a stone for a pillow. That night he had a dream in which he saw a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. The angels of God were ascending and descending on it, and above the latter stood Yahweh.
Then, God spoke to Jacob and made four promises. First he said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.” Next he said, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Finally he added, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Now for the reader of Genesis the first three promises are no surprise. They are the same thing that God had promised to Abraham and Isaac. Yahweh promised to give them the land. He promised to give them many descendants. And he promised that in their offspring all nations would be blessed.
At that moment, these promises must have been hard for Jacob to fathom. After all he had nothing. He was running away from his own family so that his brother didn’t kill him. Land? Descendants like the dust of the earth? All families being blessed in him and his offspring? At that moment, Jacob’s goals probably weren’t much bigger than getting through the next day.
And so Yahweh added a fourth promise: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob needed encouragement. And so God declared that he was with Jacob. The dream – the vision – of the ladder, and angels and Yahweh drove home that point. God was with Jacob. He was going to keep Jacob and God would not leave Jacob until he delivered on his promise.
When he awoke, Jacob knew for sure that God was with him.
He said, “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I did not know it.” Then he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Jacob was in the midst of the mess that sin had caused. But God knew where he was. He knew what was going on. And he spoke his promises to Jacob. He spoke promises that were fulfilled in Israel as God created a nation form the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and gave them the land of Palestine. He spoke the promise about the One who would descend from the patriarchs and be a blessing to all families. And he spoke the promise that he would be with Jacob and keep him in God’s care. Yahweh made his presence known to Jacob in a way that left no doubt.
Yahweh kept his promises. In fact he did it in a manner that has gone beyond anything Jacob could have imagined. Not only did he create Israel and give them Palestine. But in Jesus Christ, the offspring of Jacob, the patriarch’s descendants have indeed spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south.
You are among those descendants. Paul told the Galatians that because they were baptized, they were in Christ. They had been united with Christ who is THE descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and so now they too were descendants of Abraham. He wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”
It is in Jesus Christ that blessing has come to your family through the line of Jacob. His experience at the place he would name Bethel left quite an impression. And it did so for a reason. When Jacob woke up, he was afraid. and said, “How awesome is this place!” We could also translate this as, “How fearful is this place!” Jacob had come into the presence of the holy God, and his reaction was the same as everyone else in Scripture who had this experience: he was afraid. That’s the way it always is when sinners find themselves before the holy God.
But Yahweh had not come to cause fear. Instead, he had come to comfort and encourage. You find comfort in Jesus Christ the descendant of Jacob because through his death and resurrection God has provided atonement for your sins. Your sin is no longer a barrier that keeps you from God. It no longer causes fear in God’s presence. As Paul told the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” You have been covered with Christ’s righteousness and so when God looks at you he does not see your sin. He sees the holy righteousness of his Son.
And in Jesus Christ, you find encouragement. Jacob needed encouragement. He had a long way to go – and I am not just talking about his journey to Haran and his uncle Laban. He had a long way to go in life with many twists and turns. He would experience the deception of his uncle as he sought a bride. He would return to Palestine and face the fear of the impending reunion with Esau. He would experience the devastating loss of his son Joseph whom he believed was killed by a wild animal. He would experience the elation of learning that Joseph was in fact alive, and was even second in charge of Egypt.
The experience that we hear about in our text was meant to tell Jacob that Yahweh was with him. God has acted in Jesus Christ to tell you the same thing. In fact Jesus Christ is God with us – Emmanuel. God has acted in the flesh of Jesus Christ to reveal his love for you – in flesh nailed to a cross. But then on the third day he raised that flesh, and transformed so that it can never die again. The living hope of the resurrection of Jesus gives us the encouragement that we need.
This is not encouragement to do the spectacular. It is encouragement to walk step by step through the course of life. It is encouragement to live in your vocations, doing the things that God has given you to do – the things God uses you to do for others. It is encouragement to trust that God is with you when there is depression or cancer … or a brain tumor.
This is encouragement that we need. And that is why you come here each week. Good Shepherd is not the biggest church you are ever going to see. If you are looking for that you need to go to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Good Shepherd is not the most ornate church you are ever going to see. If you are looking for that, there are a lot of options, but I recommend St. Mark’s in Venice, Italy.
But because Christ’s Means of Grace are present here, Jacob’s words are true of Good Shepherd: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jesus is here to encourage you – to build you up through his Spirit. As the crucified and risen Lord, he is here to speak to you through his Word and to give you his true body and blood, given and shed for you. He is hear through Word and Sacrament to say, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
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