The Surprising Grace of God
So just a couple weeks ago on August 25, as you guys know, Senator John McCain passed away at the age of 81. And since that time before his body was laid to rest there have been several memorial services paying tribute to his life, and just last Saturday I had the chance to watch some of the eulogies that have been given for him — [and I just want to say, if you’ve not had a chance to see those yet, I want to encourage you to go check those out. I think they represent something very important.]
And so as I was watching and listening to these eulogies, two different speakers talked about Senator McCain’s favorite book called For Whom the Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemingway. Now I’ve never read this book — I’ve never even heard of this book — but one of the speakers recited a quote from the book that I want to read to you. The quote goes like this:
Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.
Our Watershed Moments
Now that sounds a little bit like a really good fortune cookie. It is a great, simple quote — and that’s because it’s getting at the profound truth of causality in this world.
Everything that is happening right now in the present is connected to some cause that has happened the past. And when we take that truth and we focus it in on our individual lives it can make for great conversation. Melissa and I love to remember how we met when she was a freshman in high school. I went to a different high school than she did, but I was at her high school’s basketball game. And sometimes we wonder together: What if I didn’t go to that basketball game? What if our paths didn’t cross during halftime? What if we never talked that night?
And we all could do this sort of thing about all kinds of different things in our lives — and when we do, when we think about all the different possibilities out there, sometimes it can be a little unsettling how fragile the past can feel. All the “what ifs” can begin to stress us out — and, in fact, I just want to say that if you are here right now, that’s a miracle.
Look, my standing here right now is a miracle.
So all kinds of details in our past bring us together right now, but then some of those details carry more weight than others. Some moments in our past are watershed moments. Watershed moments are those big moments that really change things. And if you think about your life, you can probably pinpoint a handful of them.
Whether it’s a choice we make, or a way we respond, or a blessing that just falls on our heads, we all have had and will have watershed moments in our story that especially shape our future. And that’s exactly what’s going on for Jacob in Genesis 28.
Learning from Jacob
Last week Pastor Joe kicked off Part 3 of Genesis, and he did a run-through of where we’ve been the last two years, and I just want to take a minute and give you an idea of where we’re going this year.
Since Chapter 12 we’ve been looking at the life of Abraham, and his son Isaac, and now we’ve moved over to Isaac’s son Jacob. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the “Big Three” patriarchs in the Bible — and a lot of airtime is given to Abraham, a little bit is given to Isaac, and then the most is given to Jacob. Jacob is basically the rest of Genesis. From Chapter 27 all the way through Chapter 50 — aside from the Joseph intermission — the rest of this book is all about Jacob and his house — and everything we read about Jacob and his house in the rest of this book comes back to Genesis 28.
Genesis 28 is the chapter that every other day in Jacob’s life depends upon, and I just want to give you three reasons why that’s the case. So this is the sermon outline. These are three things we learn about Jacob in Genesis 28:
Jacob is given an old blessing
Jacob has a clear adversary
Jacob is led by a gracious God
Old blessing, clear adversary, gracious God — we learn these three things about Jacob, and there are some lessons here for us. So let’s pray, and then we’ll get started.
Father, this morning we confess that we need your help in life. We have burdens heavier than we can bear, and a lot of times we just don’t know what to do. And so in this moment as we come to your word, we really need to hear from you. So we ask, Father, teach us your ways, and lead us in your truth. In Jesus’s name, amen.
Jacob is given an old blessing (28:1–5)
If you have your Bible, look there at Genesis Chapter 28, verse 1: “Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him…”
Now as Pastor Joe mentioned last week, by this point here in Chapter 28, Isaac has come around, and he finally understands what Rebekah had already understood: it’s that Jacob was to receive the blessing, not Esau (see Gen. 25:23). And so Chapter 28 opens here with Isaac blessing Jacob, but there’s a little extra weight to it because the language here is identical to the beginning of Chapter 27.
In Chapter 27, verse 1 we read that Isaac “called” Esau with the intention of blessing him. And then here in Chapter 28 it’s starts the same way, except this time Isaac gets it right. This time Isaac “called” Jacob to bless him. Which means, we are now on the right track.
And with this blessing there is also a directive. Isaac tells Jacob to move to this place called Paddan-aram … because he needs to find a wife. And we’ve seen this place mentioned once before in reference to Rebekah (see Gen. 25:20), but just in case we’re not sure, we’re told twice here where this place is.
In verse 2 Isaac explains that this is where Jacob will find the house of Bethuel, which is Rebekah’s father (so this is Jacob’s grandaddy on his momma’s side) — and Laban also lives there, who is Rebekah’s brother.
This is all said in verse 2, but then we’re told it all over again in verse 5, which means that this location is really important. It matters where Jacob is going. And of course, the main issue here is that Laban has daughters, and so Jacob needs to go there and meet them. Jacob is like the bachelor of ancient Mesopotamia.
Retracing the Steps of Abraham
And so Jacob is sent away, and this trip is a really big deal. This area called Paddan-aram is also called Haran, and it’s a long ways away from where Jacob is in Chapter 28. Verse 10 tells us that Jacob is in Beersheba, which is southeast in the land of Canaan, and Paddan-aram, or Haran, is way northeast out of the land of Canaan in present-day Syria. Which means this is a long walk.
In fact, Haran is the place where Abraham is from. So back in Genesis Chapter 12, verse 4 Haran is the exact same place that God told Abraham to leave.
So in Genesis 12 Abraham is blessed and told to leave Haran for the land of Canaan, and here in Genesis 28 Jacob is blessed and told to leave the land of Canaan for Haran. So Jacob is retracing the steps of his grandfather Abraham.
And this is how Isaac blesses him. Listen to this in verse 3:
God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples.  May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!
So now what we’ve already seen over the last two chapters is made crystal clear: Jacob is given the blessing of Abraham. That’s what we’ve been anticipating this whole time, and now we know it without a doubt.
This was never just about any-ole birthright; it was never just about some run-of-the-mill blessing; this has been all about the blessing of Abraham, and it even goes back deeper than that.
If you notice there in verse 3, Isaac says “God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you…”
And now when it comes to important phrases in the Book of Genesis, “fruitful and multiply” is near the top of the list — [and does anyone remember where that phrase shows up earlier in this book?]
God spoke those exact words to Adam and Eve in Genesis Chapter 1, verse 28.
So back before there was even sin in this world. Back when everything was perfect, when God said everything was good, God told Adam to be fruitful and multiply.
And then later in Genesis 12 God blessed Abraham.
And here in Genesis 28 we see this mashup between what God has said to Adam and what God has said to Abraham. God’s commission for all mankind and God’s blessing to Abraham are now combined, and they are both handed to Jacob.
So this is an old blessing. The blessing of Abraham that now belongs to Jacob includes God’s original commission to Adam. Which means this literally goes back to the beginning of creation. This blessing is as old as dirt.
And I think this shows us something beautiful about the ways of God.
It shows us that God knows what he is doing. God doesn’t make mistakes.
Now of course it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. I’m guessing that for Jacob, or even for us as the readers of this story, it seems like things are moving backwards here. Jacob going to Haran seems counterproductive. I mean, why can’t he just send someone to go in this place and find him a wife and bring her back, because that worked for Isaac?
But then we remember that won’t work for Jacob because he’s not just looking for a wife, but he’s also running from his brother Esau who wants to kill him.
So this whole thing really is a mess; it seems chaotic and fragile — but then here in verse 3 we get this little sneak peak into God’s plan. We see that there’s a single thread of continuity that reaches back to the very beginning. In the middle of all this confusion, simultaneous to the conflict and inconvenience, God is actually working to fulfill his purpose for humanity through Jacob.
God Can Handle It
And so here’s the question we have to ask ourselves: if God is doing this work through Jacob’s circumstances, what does that say about the stuff we’ve got going on in our lives?
It says God can handle it. God can handle whatever it is you’re dealing with. Here’s a little prayer we can learn pray. It goes like this:
Jacob is given an old blessing, and God has it under control.
Now to the second thing we learn . . .
2. Jacob has a clear adversary (28:6–9)
Now we’ve already seen the conflict between Jacob and Esau going back to Chapter 25, but this little passage here in verses 6–9 is meant to tell us that the divide between these two brothers has only deepened.
It has to do with Esau’s marriage decision.
Verse 6 tells us that Esau has been looking on as Jacob is blessed and sent away. He knows that Isaac and Rebekah only want Jacob to take a wife from Rebekah’s family in Haran; and that he’s not supposed to marry into the Canaanites — which is something Esau has already done (see Gen. 26:36). And then verse 8 says that when Esau realizes this, he goes out and marries into the family of Ishmael.
Bad Call Esau
And there’s a question here about Esau’s motive. Some commentators say that Esau was bitter and he spitefully married into Ishmael’s family. Other commentators say that Esau marries into Ishmael’s family as a way to please his parents, because at least Ishmael’s family are not Canaanites.
But the Bible doesn’t really say, so we’re not exactly sure, but either way, whatever his motive is, Esau makes a bad call here. This is: Bad call Esau.
That’s because when Esau marries into Ishmael’s family he is just fortifying himself on the wrong side of God’s blessing. Remember that a lot of Genesis has been the story of two brothers, and repeatedly God chooses one brother and not the other. It was not Cain, but Abel. It was not Ishmael, but Isaac. It was not Esau, but Jacob.
And so when Esau marries into Ishmael’s family he cements himself as part of the discarded line, and he joins the ranks of Israel’s most notorious enemies. This marriage decision is the beginning of the Edomites and the Ishmaelites who up to this present day stand in opposition to Israel.
The Divide Deepens
Now, in just a few chapters, Chapter 33, Jacob and Esau are going to meet again, and I’m excited about that. Pastor Joe is going to cover that chapter in a few weeks, and it’s loaded with meaning. I can’t wait to hear Pastor Joe show us what’s going on there.
But the main point of this passage here is to show that the divide deepens between the two brothers. Jacob has received the blessing and promise, not Esau. Esau is not Jacob’s worst adversary, but he is a clear adversary, and we see this throughout the rest of the Bible and history (see Psalm 83:6).
Now here’s the third we learn:
3. Jacob is led by a gracious God (28:10–22)
Verse 10 shows us when Jacob embarks on his journey to Haran. He has obeyed his parents and so he sets out on his travels, and when he comes to a certain place, because it’s night, he decides to camp out. And as he is sleeping, in verse 12, he has a dream.
In the dream he sees a ladder stretched between heaven and earth, and on the ladder there are angels going up and down, and then God speaks to him in this dream.
And right away this reminds us of Genesis 15 when God spoke to Abraham in a vision. The same sort of thing is happening here to Jacob. Here’s the parallel:
After God first promised to bless Abraham in Genesis 12, God came to Abraham a second time and confirmed the promise by speaking directly to Abraham in a vision while he was sleeping (15:1).
And here, after the promise of Abraham has been given to Jacob, God comes to Jacob and confirms the promise by speaking directly to him in a dream while he was sleeping.
And what God is confirming to Jacob is the same three-fold promise he gave to Abraham.
I will give you this land of Canaan (v. 13)
I give you great posterity, your offspring will be as many as the dust of the earth (v. 14)
I will make you a blessing to all the families of the earth (v. 14)
Similar but Not the Same
This is the exact same thing God told Abraham, and so the similarities now between Jacob and Abraham begin to stack up.
In Abraham’s vision God told him that his future descendants will be sojourners in a land not their own — he was talking about Egypt — but, God says to Abraham, I will bring you back to this Promised Land (15:13–16).
In Jacob’s dream God tells him that although he is sojourning right now, although right now he’s being exiled to Haran, God says: I will bring you back to this Promised Land (28:15).
And in the same way that Abraham gave a tenth of everything to the king-priest Melchizedek,
Jacob here vows to give a tenth of everything to God.
So Jacob again and again is like Abraham — but, this is not just simply repeat.
Jacob is not just trying to do everything that Abraham did so that God will bless him. Here in Genesis 28 Jacob himself encounters God.
See, it’s one thing to have Isaac extend Abraham’s blessing to you, and it’s quite another thing to have God speak that blessing to you straight to your face. And when it comes to the road that’s set before Jacob, God knows what he needs.
And so it’s important that we see what God is doing here. This whole story is really less about Jacob, and more about God. We learn here the kind of God that God is.
While He Was Sleeping
This is the God who is faithful. This is the God knows what Jacob needs even if Jacob doesn’t. Because Jacob doesn’t get this at first. This whole thing catches Jacob by surprise. Look at verse 16:
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And 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.”
So this moment here in Genesis 28 is Jacob’s watershed moment, and he didn’t even see it coming. And I think that is really important.
Because in chapter 32 Jacob’s name is going to be changed to Israel — and the name Israel literally means “He strives with God.” Jacob is a wrestler — he’s a striver and a deal-maker, but here in this moment, in Jacob’s watershed moment, he doesn’t strive with God, but God surprises him.
And this kind of reminds of Moses later in Exodus 33. Over in the book of Exodus, when God has brought the people of Israel out of Egypt (just like he told Jacob he would do), they are on their way to the Promised Land, and Moses is leading them, and Moses says to God, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (Exod. 33:15). That’s Exodus 33:15. This is sort of like Moses trying to make a deal with God — Moses says: I will not go unless you go with me.
And that is actually what God promises Jacob in Genesis 28:15. In verse 15 here, God says to Jacob:
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.
So Moses in Exodus 33 is striving for the same promise that God gave Jacob while he was sleeping. Which I think is meant to highlight for us that Jacob — Israel, the one who strives with God — received the greatest promise from God when he was not striving at all.
Jacob is fast asleep here. The poor guy is so exhausted he’s using a rock as a pillow. And God comes to this striver who is sleeping, he stretches out a ladder, and he unleashes grace on Jacob that he didn’t even know to ask for.
That’s what it means to be led by a gracious God. It means he gives us what we need the most even when we understand it the least. It means that the greatest blessing in our lives is because of who God is, not who we are. And I want you to know that’s true for you right now.
Jesus Is the Better Ladder
Some of the earliest interpretations of this passage by Christians understood the ladder here in Genesis 28 to be a foreshadowing of Jesus. That’s mainly because of what Jesus says in the Gospel of John Chapter 1, verse 51. Jesus is talking to the disciple Nathaniel, and he alludes to Genesis 28 when he says:
“Truly, truly, I say you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
So in Genesis 28 there’s a ladder stretched from heaven to earth and angels are ascending and descending on it. In John 1 there’s a person sent from heaven to earth and the same angels are ascending and descending. Jesus is making a clear allusion to Genesis 28, and so I think the early Christian interpret interpretation is right. Jesus is the better ladder.
If we all think about our lives, we know that none of us were striving for Jesus when we met him. Now we might have been striving for something. We might have been striving for salvation; or maybe we were striving for God’s favor or for God’s acceptance or maybe we just wanted a clear conscience, but whatever it was we were striving for, none of us were striving for Jesus. And yet wherever it was we were headed, and whatever it was we were looking for, God stretched out to us a ladder, he sent to us his Son, and he opened our eyes.
Jesus is the grace of God unleashed in your life. Jesus is the blessings of God breaking upon your heads. Jesus is the presence of God — the house of God — at work in you right now by his Spirit. In Jesus all the promises of God to you find their fulfillment.
And Jesus is just given to you. You cannot earn him. You cannot strive for him. Jesus is only given to you — so do you receive him?
Here in Genesis 28 this moment is so significant for Jacob that when he wakes up in the morning, he takes the rock he used for a pillow and he sets it up as a monument and he calls this place Beth-el — that’s because he wants to remember this. And he does remember this. And he comes back to this place in Chapter 35. And then he refers back to this place in Chapter 48. This was Jacob’s watershed moment that he never wants to forget.
And that’s how this Table works with us.
The bread and cup of this Table symbolize the body and blood of Jesus that have been given for us. If you have received Jesus by faith, this Table is here for you to remember him. We come to this Table to remember what Jesus has done for us, and to remember that we have received him.
And it’s important how we do this. We’re not striving for this bread and we’re not striving for this cup, it’s literally handed to us. [Like this.] And we take it. Grace we didn’t know we needed. Grace that changes everything. Church, have him.
This morning receive the Lord Jesus, his body broken for you; his blood shed for you — Jesus who is given to you. Let’s pray.
Jesus, thank you. Thank you for your grace to us. Thank you for your grace in our past and for your grace to come in our future. Thank you for your grace right now. This morning we worship you, and Jesus, we receive you. Jesus, we receive you. Amen.