The youngest child has it the best. That is a complaint that is often voiced by older siblings. Undeniably, there is an element of truth to this. Parents tend to be very careful and far more strict with the first child. As a parent, by the time you have had a several children you have learned that you don’t need to be quite so uptight about everything. And then there is the fact that even if you wanted to, you couldn’t because there are other children who also require attention.
It’s also true that youngest child tends to get to experience things earlier. When older siblings are already playing video games or watching movies, it becomes hard to exclude the youngest child. They are just naturally in the mix of everything that goes on in the house, and so they often end up getting do and see things at an earlier time than their older siblings.
If this is how things work in our modern world, the ancient world of the Near East was very different. There the first born son – the oldest brother – had things best. There was no doubt about who was number one and who would be treated best.
At least, that is how things were supposed to work. Tonight as we consider the patriarch Jacob we see that nothing turned out as they were “supposed to.” The story of Jacob is that of a dysfunctional family over the course of two generations. Yet when things didn’t turn out as they were supposed to, it was God who was still in charge as he worked out his saving purposes.
Abraham’s son Isaac had married Rebekah. Like Sarah, Rebekah also had fertility problems until finally God answered Isaac’s prayer on behalf of his wife. And in this case, God richly blessed them because Rebekah conceived twins!
While this was a source of joy, Rebekah soon became concerned. She noticed something unnatural about the way the children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” She inquired of the Yahweh about this and he told her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”
God said that things were not going to work as they were “supposed to.” In this case, the older brother would serve the younger. Things were going to work in God’s way, even if was not expected. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, God’s choice of the younger – of Jacob – is used by the apostle as an illustration of God’ grace and election. He writes that God did htis, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad--in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.”
Esau and Jacob were born. Immediately there was favoritism. Esau was an outdoors kind of guy. Jacob, was a quiet man dwelling in the tents. And so Isaac loved Esau, and Rebekah loved Jacob. This dysfunction extended as first Jacob took advantage of Esau by having him sell his birthright for a meal when he was famished. And then Rebekah instructed Jacob about how to deceive his nearly blind father so that he received the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. Esau sought vengeance, and formed that plan that once Isaac died, he would kill Jacob.
Now this is one messed up family! Yet remember, this is the same family through which God promised he was working to bring the Savior of all nations into the world. You may not have children planning on murdering each other, but your family is messed up by sin too. There is favoritism. There is the perception of favoritism. There are personalities and age differences that clash and produce anger, and deep seated resentment. There are children who have been taught what is true, and yet make choices that take them away from the Church and life that pleases God.
Rebekah learned of Esau’s intent, and so she convinced Isaac to send Jacob to her brother Laban in the area of Harran from whence Abraham had come, on the pretense that she did not want their son to marry one of the Hittite women in the area.
This is the setting for our text tonight. Jacob was being sent away from his family because his brother Esau wanted to kill him – something he had brought upon himself by his own sinful actions. Surely he was frightened. His world has been turned upside down.
We learn that as he travelled to Haran, he stopped for the night, sleeping out in the open with a stone for a pillow. As he slept Yahweh revealed himself in a dream. Jacob 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. Yahweh stood above it and 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. 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.”
At a moment when everything seemed to be going wrong, Yahweh revealed himself to Jacob and reaffirmed that the patriarchal promise made to Abraham and Isaac was true for him as well. Yahweh promised to give the land to Jacob’s offspring. He promised to make Jacob into a great nation of many descendants. And he promised that in Jacob and his offspring all families of the earth would be blessed. He promised that the Savior would descend from Jacob.
At that particular moment, those promises probably sounded like a pipe dream. But then Yahweh 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.” God promised to be with Jacob and to do what he had said.
When Jacob awoke from his sleep he said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” 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.”
God was with Jacob. He blessed him with thirteen children – twelve sons and a daughter. He changed his name to Israel and brought Jacob to his family in Canaan. There, Esau forgave him. And Yahweh said to Jacob, “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. 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.”
It would be great if I could stop there and say, “everyone lived happily ever after.” But this is the story of sinners, just like you. Jacob showed favoritism toward is son Joseph. It caused so much resentment among his brothers that they wanted to kill him. Finally, instead they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Then the brothers faked evidence and told Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. Jacob was crushed by grief.
He lived thinking his beloved son was dead, while God was using Joseph to make preparation that would save Jacob’s family from a famine. When finally Jacob’s family learned that Joseph was alive and in a position of great power in Egypt, Joseph wanted to bring the family to Egypt where he could care for them. God spoke to Jacob in a vision and said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes.”
In Jacob we see sin manifested in a dysfunctional family. Yet God worked through Jacob to create what would become the twelve tribes of Israel. He worked during his lifetime to bring Israel to Egypt, where they would become the nation Yahweh would rescue in the exodus.
In our text God promises Jacob that in his offspring all families of the earth would be blessed. During Advent we prepare to celebrate how God fulfilled this promise. Through Jacob, God created the nation of Israel. As God had promised, kings came forth from his offspring.
In our text when Jacob wakes from his dream he says, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” The mystery of God’s presence would be revealed in a new and profound way when the Son of God entered into the world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. She would give birth to the One who is true God and true man. The baby in the manger would be the Lord present in that place, even if it didn’t look like it. The same can be said of the man Jesus nailed to a cross on Good Friday.
In our text, Yahweh promises Jacob, “For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” God is the God who is faithful. He keeps his word. He does what he says he is going to do. Jesus died on the cross to win forgiveness. But because sin brings death, God raised up our Lord from the dead on the third day. He won the victory over Satan, sin and death that God had promised in the Old Testament. Luke tells us that on Easter the risen Lord opened the disciples’ minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” We see in Jacob how God worked through a sinful family to win forgiveness and life for all who are repentant sinners.