This last Thursday would have been my dad’s 106th birthday. I remember when my dad died in 1989 and we moved my mom to be nearer to us in Texas. It became my job to go back and pack up and clean out the house they had lived in for 25 years. It was the house where I grew up. In the back yard there were still holes where my brothers and I had dug tunnels just like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, there were the horseshoe pits where my dad had taught me how to throw a ringer, the kitchen where we had eaten countless meals and heard my mom shout, “Oh no, the rolls are burning!” nearly every Sunday for a quarter century.
But for all the memories, it wasn’t home anymore. It was smaller than I remembered, the neighborhood had new kids running around in it. The bunk beds were gone and the furniture just wasn’t all that comfortable. I felt like a stranger in someone else’s home.
Last week, we left Jacob alive by the grace and forgiveness of his brother Esau, who invited him to come home to Beersheba where they had grown up. But Beersheba wasn’t home anymore for Jacob. He had lived in the land of Haran for twenty years, he now had two wives and eleven sons and hadn’t slept under his father’s roof for two decades. It just wasn’t home anymore. So he lived for a time in Shechem in the land of Canaan.
One day God showed up at Jacob’s front door. “I want you to go to Bethel and make a home for yourself there.”
In our haste to get Jacob out of the way of Esau’s wrath at having had his birthright stolen from him, I rushed him on to Haran last week, but he made an important stop in the middle of the desert in a little town called Luz. It wasn’t much of a town – not even a Motel 6 – and Jacob had to sleep out under the stars with a stone as his pillow.
That night he had a dream and saw a stairway reaching up to heaven with angels going up and down on it. And there at the top of the ladder he saw the Lord, and God spoke to him: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen. 28:13-15)
I hope those words sound familiar to you – they are the words God first spoke to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, and then to Jacob’s father, Isaac, and now to him. They are the words of the covenant, that Jacob, like Abraham and Isaac before him, will be God’s man and that God will do great things through him, and make him a great nation, and all the world will be blessed through his descendants. It is even more remarkable, because God is speaking them to Jacob, the deceiver, the scoundrel, the second-born.
This blessing should have been going to Esau, but God knew something about Jacob that he didn’t know himself. Jacob is fleeing in fear and shame. But God has a bigger picture. It will be twenty years later when God and Jacob have their wrestling match at the Jabbok, and God will give Jacob his new name – Israel. But even now God is planting the seed. This is where Jacob first meets God. And he is so amazed he says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel…”
After Bethel, Jacob became a much more introspective man – much more aware of God’s presence: Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God.” (Gen. 28:17-21)
Now, twenty years have passed, and God says, “Go to Bethel, the house of God – that will be your home.” But first, there are some preparations that need to be made: Jacob tells his family and household, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. 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.” (Gen 35:2-3)
There are some things you just can’t take with you when you’re going back to God,
1) Get rid of all of the idols in your life – things that you have let push God into the background, things that you have allowed to be more important. Remember God’s first rule: You shall have no other gods before me. When you’re going back to God, you have to decide you’re ready to let him have first place in your life.
2) Second, Jacob says, “purify yourselves.” I think Jacob realizes that your old life is characterized by the things you’ve accumulated – the old habits, the baggage, the sins – you can’t take that with you – it’s not appropriate – you need to get rid of them. Purify yourself – start fresh.
3) Finally Jacob says, “change your clothes.” I don’t think one set of clothes is better than another – dress slacks over blue jeans, Armani over J.C.Penny’s - going back to God means a fresh start – and that’s represented here by putting on a new set of clothes. When the prodigal son returned home, what did the father say?: “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” When you come home to God, it’s a special occasion. You put on new clothes!
In other words, it’s a look upward, a look inward, and a look outward. You begin the journey by looking up to God in faithfulness, then you look inward as you take inventory and begin to purify your life of the things that are incompatible with a new life with God; and then it is a look outward, as you change the way you live, the way you act, the way you treat people, the way you spend your self.
I find it fascinating in Jacob’s life how many times those special occasions are marked with memorials – reminders of the important moments.
· That first time God spoke to Jacob, he set up a pillar of stones and poured oil over it and called it Bethel (house of God). (28:19)
· When Laban and Jacob made a covenant of trust between them, they made a heap of stones and called it Mizpah (watchtower). (31:49)
· On the morning before he faced Esau, the angels came to Jacob and he called the place Mahanaim (camp of God) (32:1)
· When Jacob wrestled with God, he set up a memorial and called it Peniel (face of God). (32:30)
· After Esau had forgiven Jacob and Jacob (whose name was now Israel) received his life back, he went to Shechem and set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel (Mighty is the God of Israel). (33:20)
I think we should take a cue from Jacob and set up some reminders in our lives of those special occasions – to remind ourselves that God is still working and active in our lives. We take them for granted; we sprint through them so fast we don’t take the time to be struck by their awe; we sleep walk through life without really paying attention to those significant moments.
It made me think of an account by James Boswell, a lawyer and author who lived in the 18th century. He often referred to a special day in his childhood when his father took him fishing. The day was fixed in his mind, and he often reflected upon the many things his father had taught him in the course of their fishing experience together. It occurred to someone much later to check the journal that Boswell’s father kept to see what was said about that day from his father’s perspective. Turning to that date, the reader found only once sentence entered: “Gone fishing today with my son; a day wasted.”
I wonder how many significant days in our lives, from God’s perspective, we have labeled, “a wasted day.”
Let me tell you about some of those important moments in life:
August 4, 1974 – The first time I went to church and heard the gospel – I mean really heard the gospel.
September 8, 1974 – The day I was baptized into Christ.
A spring evening, 1975 – The day I decided I was going to be a minister.
June 20, 1976 – The first time I studied with and baptized another person into Christ.
October 22, 1977 – My first date with Diana.
July 3, 1978 – The day I asked Diana to marry me.
May 19, 1979 – Our wedding day.
August 27, April 8, May 16 – The days each of our children were born.
The list could go on and be filled with days that we moved and began ministries with different churches, graduations, deaths of parents, special occasions with our children, the birth of our grandson, the beginnings of some of our lifelong friendships, the deaths of some of those special friends.
Think through your life. What would your list include? Do you have any of those Bethel moments when you saw God as you never saw him before? Do you have any Peniel moments when you wrestled with God and everything changed? Do you have any Mizpah moments when a friendship suddenly became a covenant relationship? Any Mahanaim moments when a place suddenly became very special to you because of something you experienced with God that made that place holy?
We all have those kinds of moments and experiences and relationships in our lives when we suddenly see things in a different light, when our lives are profoundly changed and we realize that God is at work in a way we had never expected.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antonio tells Sebastian, “What’s past is prologue.” And I’ve thought about that a lot in terms of the things that happen in our lives that God uses to prepare us for something yet to come. Our experiences are not random, nor wasted. They are preparatory. God is equipping us, if we will, to be more of what he created us to be – more godly men and women, greater servants in his kingdom, prepared to be his instruments to change the world. He takes all of those experiences, both good and bad, great and small and uses them to prepare us to be of greater use in his kingdom. That’s what God was doing with Jacob, and what he does with each of us.
The point is that we need to pay attention and when those moments come – take note and fully experience them. Let God be at work in you and change you through them. Our lives are not a race from point a to point b, they are a journey with starts and stops and detours and spectacular highs and devastating lows. There are moments when we are walking in the dark, and other moments when we get a glimpse of our destination. There are companions on the journey and also enemies who would derail us. But there is also one constant – God is with us. We might never be able to go home, but there is God’s promise of a home that awaits us.
When our kids grew up and moved out, things changed. When Tim went off to college, Alicia took over his room before his car got to the end of the street. When Alicia moved out, we turned her room into a guest bedroom and sewing room. It took a while before we quit setting a place at the table for supper, but eventually we would remember, they’re not here anymore. And so we were down from 5 to 4 to 3 to 2, back to 3, back to 4, down to 3. Now we just say, get your own plate.
It may be true that you can’t go home, but you can always go back to where you first met God. It might not be the easiest journey. Sometimes we’ve neglected the path so long that it’s grown over with weeds and debris. We’ve gotten so caught up in life that we’ve forgotten to pay attention to the one who gives true life.
But let me assure you, that the journey back to where you first met God is a worthwhile one. God has never quit setting a place at the table for you, hoping that one day you’d be back.