Sunday, June 28, 2009

God's Love Toward the Sinful Believer

This morning at Binbrook Baptist Church I preached a sermon on Genesis 35. I was blessed as I soaked in the content of the passage this week, and I post the sermon manuscript below. In retrospect, I would have done well to turn this into two shorter sermons with even more focus on application (as my amazing wife told me at lunch), but I do trust that God used it anyway!

Most people today know Charles Wesley as a great hymn writer. We love to sing ‘O for a Thousand Tongues’; ‘And Can it Be’; ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. Most people of Charles Wesley’s day also knew him as a preacher and outdoor evangelist. But those who knew him best knew Charles Wesley as a loving husband and father. He married Sarah Gwynn, who was 18 years younger than he was. He called her ‘my Sally’ or ‘my dearest friend’. Sarah Gwynn was physically beautiful. She was spiritually mature. She complimented Charles Wesley, sharpened him spiritually, was a friend to him. In his journals, you’ll find entries like this one: “April 10, 1749 - At four my brother took leave of us. I passed the day in prayer, chiefly with my dearest friend”. After five years of marriage Charles Wesley’s dearest friend Sally was diagnosed with smallpox. The disease was often a killer, but she survived. But her appearance was totally altered. Her face was disfigured. People could no longer tell she was 18 years younger than him. After her recovery a friend came to visit and privately he exclaimed, ‘Charles, your wife!’ Charles interrupted and replied, ‘isn’t she beautiful!’ To the outside observer Sally looked hideous. To her husband who loved her, Sarah Wesley was beautiful - she was still ‘my Sally. . . ‘my dearest friend’.
As we have been walking through the life of Jacob on these Sunday mornings we’ve probably been tempted to look at Jacob the sinner and exclaim, ‘how hideous’. We are disgusted with Jacob, just like we are often disgusted with ourselves when sin shows up in our lives
But in Genesis 35 we are shocked as God looks at Jacob the hideous sinner and exclaims: you are my beloved!
This morning, we are going to be shocked together as we notice three displays of the love of God to Jacob the sinner.
As we walk through this chapter we will remember that this is how God treats those who trust Christ as their Saviour this morning!
We’ll also look at the Bible’s big picture and see how the life of Jacob in Genesis 35 leads us to Jesus Christ.
What are the three expressions of God’s love to Jacob the sinner?

1. God Expresses His Love and Grace to Jacob Through a Call to Repentance
In the context of Genesis 35 Jacob has been living in persistent half-way obedience over a period of ten years. God has mercifully delivered Jacob from death at the hands of Laban, and death at the hands of Esau. God called him to return to Bethel and give honour to the God who saved him. . .and Jacob simply did not go. For ten years he lived in Shechem.
In Shechem he failed to lead his family in righteousness - first letting Dinah venture out and next remaining silent while his sons planned to execute vengeance against Shechem. In the end Jacob is left fearing for his life - the allies of Shechem will surely wipe us out!
But in Genesis 35:1 God comes to Jacob the sinner, and speaks these words, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau”.
Jacob had ignored the call of the merciful God of the universe, and his family is in shambles as a result.
But instead of stomping him out, God speaks to Jacob and God commands him: do what I’ve been telling you to do for ten years! Come and worship me at Bethel in the way I have prescribed for you!
If you are a Christian who has been fooling around in half-way, half-hearted obedience, or even persistent disobedience, what does God say to you? If you persistently fool around on the internet in garbage, or you persistently find yourself offering tidbits of gossip, or you avoid even seeking God throughout the week, what does God say to you? The undeserved call is this: put off your sin, put off the things that are keeping you from me, and come to me and worship. I will be gracious to you! God graciously calls Jacob and you to repnt
What does repentance look like? Jacob’s response is a telling model. Probably for the first time in his life he takes some leadership in his family. Imagine how hard this would have been for timid Jacob. He addresses them as they live in Shechem and he commands them: 1) get rid of your foreign gods, 2) purify yourselves, 3) let us go to Bethel and worship!
They gave over all their foreign gods, even their earrings that would have had symbols on them of foreign gods, and Jacob buried them.
The symbolically purified themselves of this sin by changing their clothes. And they set out to go to Bethel to humble themselves and worship the only true God.
Stepping back for a minute, this should boggle our minds: all these ten years, Jacob’s family has been living with foreign gods in their midst. We know that some were smuggled in by his wife, Rachel, as they ran from Laban. We can imagine that some were taken from Shechem as they looted the city. All this while, Jacob’s family gave lip-service to the true God, and they kept foreign gods too.
Over and over in Scripture when God calls his people to renew their commitment with him, they are ruthless with getting rid of all foreign gods, or idols. At Mount Sinai the golden calf was destroyed. In Joshua 24 at Shechem Joshua challenged God’s people: choose one or the other: God or idols. You can’t have both! In Acts 19 after the Ephesians became Christians they burned books that they had used for magic arts.
What is a foreign god? A foreign god is anything that takes the primary place that the true God demands. A foreign god demands devotion and attention. A foreign god promises provision and security and significance.
In Canada in 2009 most of us don’t bow down to a physical idol. But in Canada in 2009 the worship of foreign gods is alive and well. We take things, often good things, and give them the place of prominence in our lives that only God deserves. They inhibit our worship as we devote ourselves to them instead of God.
So what is a concrete example of Canadian idolatry? In Colossians 3 the Apostle Paul is listing sins that his Christian readers need to get rid of in their lives. In verse 5 he cites ‘covetousness which is idolatry’. Coveting, loving things more than God is idolatry. In a similar way in Matthew 5 Jesus states bluntly: you can’t serve both God and money.
All of a sudden this call to put away all foreign gods or idols hits home a little more. If we love things more than God we are essentially idolaters. If we confess we love Christ and want to commit ourselves entirely to the one who saved us, but make more time for extra work for extra savings for extra spending, than for God, we are idolaters.
This forces us to do some deep thinking. Ask yourself: is there anything in my life that I give an inordinate amount of time and attention to? Time and attention that only God deserves?
Like being a home owner Like getting a better career? Like buying a better car?
Is there anything that keeps me from serving at church as I ought?
Is there anything in my life, that if I lost it, I’d be beyond hurt, but I’d be devastated?
These are the kinds of brainstorm questions to ask yourself as you seek to locate and repent of idols - foreign gods - in your life.
God demands primary place in your life. If you are in Christ, you must not love husband or wife or children or job or house or career or authority or serving at church, more than you love God!
And, as we see modeled here, as we repent of our idols, God is gracious to forgive us of our idolatry!
We see with Jacob that when God comes and graciously gives a command to worship him, there is a heart impulse: I need to eradicate everything that keeps me from my great God!
So in v. 7 Jacob renames the place ‘El-Bethel’ which means ‘the God of Bethel’. The place is not primarily sacred. What is sacred is the God who met with him there.
Would you pray with me that God would so show himself as beautiful and satisfying that we’d impulsively give up our own cultural idols, in order to worship him alone?
This call for us to repent of idols is an expression of God’s love and grace to Jacob and to us!

2. God Expresses His Love and Grace to Jacob Through a Covenant Re-Affirmation
The next words of God to Jacob are words that reaffirm the covenant he’d already made with him in Genesis 28 and 32.
In Genesis 35 God begins: “your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel”.
Jacob means deceiver. Israel means ‘prevails’ because Jacob had come to God in weakness and struggled and by God’s grace, prevailed. Jacob has brutal connotations. Israel has connotations of a weak person that God exalts.
Jacob had been given this new name 10 years previously. But he had not been known by it because he was still acting like ‘deceiver’.
But here, God comes and renames him again.
Then God reaffirms his covenant: “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you”.
These are words that had been spoken to Abraham, then to Isaac. Now they are reaffirmed to Jacob as well.
We’ve said that Jacob is like us but he is more than ‘like us’. He is the head of God’s people. In this chapter, the baton is being passed, from Isaac to Jacob. God has taken a man who was identified at the core of his being as ‘deceiver’ and turned him into ‘prevailer’.
In this chapter God has overcome Jacob’s passivity. & in v. 5, made the surrounding people afraid of him because God would protect him. He has eradicated idols & made a worshipper out of him.
As we step back and look at the big picture we know that God was doing this with the salvation of peoples around the globe in view.
Making Jacob the head of a people, and giving Jacob 12 sons was the beginning of God making a people for himself.
As the Old Testament wears on, this people for God is given a succession of leaders - like Moses and Joshua. Like the Judges. Like King David and Solomon.
And this people for God grows enormously through the Old Testament.
All of this snowballs until Jesus is born. With the birth of Jesus God’s people are given a new and a permanent head. No more succession. And in Jesus God’s people are given a perfect head: no more need to refine a sinner to make him worthy. Jesus is God the Son who has never sinned.
We come freely to worship God together because Jesus is the head of a new people. We look forward to the day when a multitude that no one can count from every tribe and tongue and people and language will worship at the throne of Jesus, the lamb who was slain.
Genesis 35 is one piece in God’s overall working around the world.
Genesis 35 is an expression of God’s love and grace to Jacob, and ultimately, to you and I, as Jacob continued God’s plan and purpose that would lead to the coming of Jesus Christ.

3. God Expresses His Love and Grace to Jacob By Bringing Tragedy
Have you ever been surprised by tragedy as a Christian? Have you ever been shocked with the timing of it? Sometimes the very time we are being drawn nearest to God, tragedy comes and it hurts!
You might reason that if you are actively repenting, God ought to deal well with you. But right here, in Genesis 35, the same thing happens. Jacob repents, he’s on a spiritual high, he’s being refined spiritually, he’s leading his household in worship, he’s the head of God’s people. And at the end of the chapter he weeps.
At the end of Genesis 35 Jacob attends three funerals and lives through a family tragedy.
You might reply that the text never explicitly says that God controlled those events. But let me remind you that in 35:5 God changed the hearts of an angry people so that they inexplicably feared Jacob and his family and did not avenge the deaths of their allies in Shechem.
And Genesis 35:11 identifies God as ‘God Almighty’.
God is sovereign over these three deaths and a family tragedy.
So, first, Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse dies. A person who was very close to Jacob’s mother, who he loved dearly.
Then, Jacob’s beloved wife goes into labour and things begin to go horribly wrong. As she was dying she called her son ‘Ben-Oni’ which means son of my sorrow. But Jacob renames him ‘Ben-jamin’ which means son of my right hand - a title of honour and optimism. Rachel is buried on the way to modern day Bethlehem.
Israel/Jacob was living in the land, and his oldest son Reuben had sex with his father’s concubine, Bilhah. This is not simply sexual sin. Reuben had motives. He wanted Rachel’s nurse, Bilhah, to not be the new favourite wife. He wanted his mom, Leah to have that honour. This was also a cultural ploy to secure the inheritance rights for himself. This was also a power play on his father - to take one of his dad’s wives for himself. In Genesis 48 this move would ultimately cost Reuben the right of firstborn. That would fall to Judah who would be in the lineage of Jesus Christ. But for now, Jacob waits in pain.
A bright spot is introduced as the 12 sons of Jacob are named. God is doing the work he promised to do, building his people up.
But then another funeral comes. Esau and Jacob, reunited, bury their father Isaac. The old man died under the blessing of God.
The baton was now really officially passed on to Jacob.
So we are left with a question. In the midst of so much repentance and difficult obedience and authentic worship, why did so much tragedy come to Jacob at once?
Why do you experience pain as a faithful, growing Christian?
Why do deaths occur, family tragedies hurt us? Charles Wesley was a godly man who lived all of his life with what we would call cyclothymia - clinical depression.
What was God doing, and what is God doing?
There is an aching and a yearning in Jacob and in every Christian, for something more than this life can offer us. God, by his grace, lavishes every believer with tokens of his favour, good things in life to enjoy. And, at times, God, by his grace, removes some of those good things to keep us looking forward, to keep us from trusting this life, to keep us from making idols of the good things in life.
Isn’t the message of the latter half of Genesis 35 simply this: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. . . These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Heb 11:13, 39-40).
Just like Jacob had euphoric nearness to God in his life, and in the same breath, experienced horrible tragedies, so we today, love the God who draws near to us in Christ, and pant after the fullness that will only come in heaven.
If you trust Christ as Saviour, God’s steady, unfailing love and favour rests on you. He will always do you good. He will command you to get out of sin - he’ll use people and preachers to reveal your sin to you and his grace as well. He will reaffirm his love for you by showing you Christ, the head of the new covenant, the reason you are accepted before God. And God will lovingly detach you from this world through various means including pain and loss.
This will all be used to prepare you for an eternal weight of glory that is far beyond comparison!

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