The Big Read, Week 13 – “Coming Back to Bethel”


Genesis_ The BiG Read

A sermon preached on Genesis 35:1-15, September 22, 2019 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on the occasion of Holy Baptism. Week thirteen of “Genesis: The Big Read,” a continuing sermon series through the book of Genesis, Ordinary Time 2019.

I. Introduction: Coming Back to Bethel – What a Coincidence!

Sometimes you’re reminded that the Word of God is living and active in surprising ways. When I planned out our week-to-week readings, I had no idea that Genesis 35 was going to land on a baptism Sunday. Now here I am with a passage where Jacob’s family is called to turn from serving household gods, told to change their garments and where Jacob is told to return to a place where God’s promises are going to be re-spoken to him again. Whatever will I do!

As we come near the joy of baptism for Lucy, Liam and Leah, I want to just offer a few connecting thoughts from this account of Jacob’s “coming back to Bethel.”

And just as we’ve been doing, we do want to re-orient ourselves in Genesis as we do. This is really the last major story about Jacob in Genesis. After this, the focus of the book is going to quickly move to Joseph. But at this point, Jacob has come almost full circle – almost. At this point, Jacob has now returned to the Promised Land (the land of Canaan) a changed man. But after utter failure in Shechem (chapter 34), the Lord brings him back to the spot where it all begin – Bethel – so that Jacob may renew his worship of the true and living God.

II. From Household Gods to the Living God (vs.1-4) 

Are we surprised to know that the household gods are still in the midst of Jacob’s people at this point? That they had been hedging their bets on these other gods, so to speak? It’s more easily done than you think. Friend, apart from the grace of God, our default mode is idolatry. We are, in John Calvin’s phrase, “idol factories.” And the gods of our culture are just as alluring with their false promises as were the gods Jacob’s household kept stashed away for a rainy day.

You know, we might bemoan our cultural moment, but at least it has one clear advantage – the household gods of our day are becoming increasingly clear to those who have eyes to see. And on the other hand, repentance, true and lively faith in Christ Jesus are as well.

The language here is so baptismal – they are called to purify themselves and change their garments. Friends that is exactly what’s happening here today for these families. It’s also what you, if you are a baptized believer in Jesus, are being called to remember.

In Christ, in baptism, a break with any lesser god has been made and a new call to live by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, has emerged. Just as the idols were buried, so the old life of sin is buried and done and the new life has begun. Bruce Waltke writes of verse 4, “The gods that had been sat upon are denigrated to their final burial.” (Genesis, pg. 473) In a moment, you’re going to hear the ancient renunciations affirmed, and the question we have to each ask is – do we stand with them in that renunciation?

III. Christ & Your Baptism: El-Bethel, Altar & Pillar (vs. 7, 9-15)

So Jacob goes up Bethel to dwell there (this is what he should have done in the first place!). And here we see him doing three things: he now calls the place El-bethel, he builds an altar, and sets up a pillar. And do you know what all three of these are about? Christ Jesus and your baptism.

We’ll look at two of the three. First the pillar.

At the start of the start of the service, we sang “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; Hither by Thy help I’m come.” What in the world is an Ebenezer? It’s this pillar we see here! It’s stone, a concrete witness to God’s promise and help.

Here, in verse 14, Jacob even anoints the stone. We’re told in 1 Peter 2:1-8 that Jesus, the anointed one, is, “The stone that the builders rejected [that] has become the cornerstone.” This pillar, this stone of help, points us to Jesus, and so does our baptism.

Too often as Christians, we are pointed back to ourselves for assurance in our Christian walk. Did I say the right words? Did I confess enough sins? Did I put enough emotion into it?

When I came to faith as a teenager, if you were to ask me what made me a Christian, my response would have been, because I accepted Jesus. But I have grown to see that I am Christian because Jesus has accepted me and because he remained true to the promises signed and delivered to me long ago at a font very much like that one in the back. God has been faithful.

As Jacob returned to Bethel, he saw God’s faithfulness, too. Joyce Baldwin writes, “The ritual of Jacob’s first visit to this place was repeated, but whereas in his youth he could give little content to his use of the name God, now in the light of God’s dealing with him over the years he knew his faith was secure in the living God, who had chastened him, provided and guided, and would continue to do so, not only in his life but in the generations to come.” (The Message of Genesis 12-50, pg. 150)

Parents, just as Jacob returned to the pillar at Bethel, you must continually point your children back to the promises visibly given to them by God in their baptism – they will need it as they grow.

Secondly, Jacob renames the place “El-bethel.” What’s going on there? Well, V.P. Hamilton says here, “Jacob’s memories of two experiences at Bethel will recall for a long time to come the God Jacob encountered there, rather than recall Bethel as a divine reside, a holy site. ‘The God of the House of God’ rather than simply ‘The House of God.’” (The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. NICOT, pg. 380)

As Jacob comes to know the true and living God better, he sees how utterly faithful and true he is to every word he speaks. As the Lord says here, “I am God Almighty (El Shaddai).” You know, we rejoice in baptism today, not because it’s magical or automatic, but because of the God of our baptism and because of the promises he has faithfully given us in Jesus. That’s what baptism is all about – not our commitment, but God’s commitment to us.

You know, artist Makoto Fujimura, who designed the Gospel Book we use in our services, said that our culture has a language for being wayward and lost, but not a language for coming home and being found. Today, in this passage and in baptism, we celebrate coming home to God and being received because of his faithfulness.

IV. Exhortation

And now, as we prepare for baptism, that I want to encourage these parents in their ministry to their children. I have heard with joy how you are discipling these kids – keep at it. Humanly speaking, your influence upon them will outstrip and overshadow every other influence in their lives. We do well to all be reminded that, regardless when we as parents see fit for our children to be baptized, we must catechize our children from the start or the world will do it for us. Teach them to be worshippers of the living God. To know him in prayer, to know him in his Word, to know him in his sacraments, to know him in the friendships and examples he will place in their lives. Teach them to live life under the faithfulness of the God of Jacob. Amen.

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