Father, dig out our ears to hear your Word, open our hearts to receive it in faith, and give us feet to walk in it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Turn with me to Genesis 35. We have spent the last couple months in the center of the book of Genesis, listening to how the LORD worked in, through, and in spite of the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While we do have one more week in Genesis, this morning is the end of the narrative. This is the last story where Jacob takes as primary role. Jacob has been chosen by God to carry on the promise first given to Abraham, that through him God would bring blessing to all the nations of the earth. Jacob struggled and swindled his way through life, facing his father, his brother, and his father-in-law at various times. Jacob did not always start these confrontations, but he also did not always walk faithfully through them. In short, Jacob’s life is a mess, but God continues to be faithful, every step of the way. Even after our story last week, where Jacob remained silent after his daughter was raped and two of his sons slaughtered an entire city in revenge. It is here that we pick up the story of Jacob and his family.
So listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes, then come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak that is near Shechem.
As they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities all around them, so that no one pursued them. Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because it was there that God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called Allon-bacuth.
God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram and he blessed him. God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he was called Israel. God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply, a nation and a company of nations shall come from you and kings shall spring from you. 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.” Then God went up from him at the place where he had spoken with him. Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone, and poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it. So Jacob called the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.
Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth and she had hard labor. When she was in her hard labor, the midwife said to her, “Do not be afraid, for now you will have another son.” As her soul departed (for she died), she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Ben-jamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem) and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb which is there to this day. Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.
While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine and Israel heard of it.
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Isaachar, and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. These are the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.
Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had resided as aliens. Now the days of Isaac were one hundred eighty years. And Isaac breathed his last; he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days, and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Trouble in the World: Everyone Dies
Always. Always. ALWAYS be ready to pray, preach, or die at any given moment, because you never know when you will be asked to do any of the three.
People usually look startled whenever I say that. It is a phrase I received from a friend that is perhaps some of the best advice I ever received, but everyone always looks a bit startled. “Always be ready to pray, preach, or die at any given moment, because you never know when you will be asked to do any of the three.”
It is always at the third one that people’s eyes start to widen. Always be ready to pray? Sure, we are called to “pray without ceasing,” so being ready to pray, that makes sense. Always be ready to preach? Okay, 1 Peter 3:15, “always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within you.” Be ready to preach? I can get that.
But when I say ‘be ready to die,’ people act like this is shocking news. Some have claimed in history that Christianity is some sort of numbing agent that keeps people from touching reality, but the opposite is true. Christianity is a full strength dose of reality. We need to get real this morning.
Everyone dies. The author C.S. Lewis once quipped that the mortality rate continues to hover at 100%. Everyone dies.
We live in a culture that is becoming increasingly concerned with ‘wellness.’ We want to be well. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that now sells you on the right diet plan, the right exercise routine, or the organizing of your life that will make you ‘well.’ There is something good in this impulse to want to live well. When we want to honor God by what we do with our bodies and glorify him caring for the gifts he has given us, including our bodies, then this is good. But often hidden behind the concern for wellness is a fear of, or perhaps a passion to avoid, decay and death.
Everyone dies. I try to get my steps in each day to take care of my body, but no matter how many crunches I do or how my abs look, everyone dies. Now matter how much kale I eat or carbs I avoid, everyone dies. As good as it can be to care for our bodies, no matter how we eat or live, we cannot avoid this simple fact that everyone dies.
I know a church historian who often gets asked about what point in human history he would most like to live in. He always says, ‘right now.’ People say, ‘wouldn’t you rather live back at the time of the Reformation or the Church Fathers or even the Puritans?’ No, I happen to like modern medicine. I like modern sanitation.
I agree. We are blessed to live in an age where what could barely be imagined in medicine a hundred years ago is now common place in this country. We can cure or treat so much more today than 15 years ago, let alone 50 or 500. But the simple fact remains: no matter how many pills you take, surgeries you undergo, or procedures you endure, everyone dies.
Trouble in the Text: Everyone Dies
This is also what we see in Genesis 35. This is the last narrative where Jacob is truly an active character. He is alive up until the very end of the book of Genesis, but once we get to Genesis 37, it is his sons to who step up into the primary roles. But here in the last of the ‘Jacob stories,’ there is one death after another.
First, Deborah dies. Her death is obscure. We never hear of her before or after this one verse. She must have been beloved by Jacob to have been buried and the place named, but we know almost nothing about her. I am of the opinion that her death is named because Jacob is not there for his mother Rebekah’s death. Later, we learn that Rebekah was buried in the family tomb with Isaac, Abraham, Sarah, and Leah, but there is no record of her death. Jacob is not there. Deborah dies and her death is obscure. It is remembered, but as barely a footnote. A whole life and she dies virtually unknown.
Then, Rachel dies. Rachel’s death, like much of her life is tragic. We had such high hopes for Jacob and Rachel when they first met at the well. But everything went so wrong. Rachel toiled and struggled with her sister and toiled and struggled to get pregnant. It is Rachel that smuggles the foreign gods out of Laban’s house that are evidently still here among Jacob’s family years later. And Rachel here struggles in labor and dies giving birth to her son. It is a measure of her agony that with her last breath she names him Ben-oni ‘son of my sorrow.’ Jacob renames him Ben-jamin ‘son of my right hand.’ Rachel’s death is tragic. She dies giving life, but she dies on the road. She is buried on the way to Ephrath. Rachel is not buried with the rest of the family. It is a tragic end to very tragic story in the life of Rachel.
Lastly, Isaac dies. Isaac dies after living a full life. One hundred eighty years. He dies at home with family, a good old age and with honor, his two sons by his side. Isaac has had a good life, but he still dies.
Three deaths coming one after the other mark the closing of the Jacob stories. One obscure, one tragic, and one old and full of years, but the end is still the same – everyone dies. Always be ready to pray preach or die at any given moment, because you never know when you will be asked to any of the three.
Everyone dies. Whatever the arc of your story has been so far, every one of us has a life story that moves toward death. I have a friend with cancer that likes to say, ‘All of us are dying, some of us more visibly than others.’
Grace in the Text: Resurrection Hope in Christ
If this was the end of the story, this would be the point where I tell you that the healthiest thing is to accept the inevitability of death. If this was the end of the story, then I would tell you how facing your mortality can foster humility and all sorts of other things. If this was the end of the story…but it is not. This may look like the end of Jacob’s story, but it is not the end.
Everyone dies, but Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus Christ, God himself come in the flesh, also went to the grave. It was a death that on the surface looked obscure like Deborah’s. He died outside the city at the hands of the Romans, like so many unknown people before him. It was a death that on the surface seemed tragic like Rachel’s. Dying outside the city, innocent but abandoned, buried in a borrowed tomb. It was death that, on the surface, was nothing like the honored death of Isaac. Yet, Jesus Christ, God himself come in the flesh, went to the grave and three days later rose from the dead. He was dead and is alive again forevermore.
The resurrection of Christ changes everything. That story that runs so common to us all, that trajectory of life that simply ends at the grave, it is not the end of the story. Jesus Christ is risen! He conquered death, not so that we would never taste it, but so that it would no longer keep its hold on us.
Listen to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
If our hope is only for this life, if this is all there is and all there ever will be, then the story of Jacob, just like your story and my story will only end in tragedy. Jacob hopes and hopes and trust and trusts and everyone dies. He never sees his children inherit the promised land, he never fully tastes what God has promised, but the book of Hebrews tells us that they hoped for a better country, a heavenly one. Jacob could bury Deborah, Rachel, and Isaac and mourn with hope because he trusted in the coming promise of Christ.
Paul continues, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”
Jesus Christ rose from the dead. In a world where everyone dies, there is resurrection hope in Jesus Christ. As he was raised, so all who trust in him will be raised. Just as he went to the grave, but rose again to victorious life, those who die trusting in Christ can know that they too will rise to eternal life.
Grace in the World: Be Ready to Die
Always be ready to pray, preach, or die at any given moment, because you never know when you will be asked to do any of the three.
Christians should die differently. We should die ready, even if it is unexpected. And our readiness and lack of fear of death, should bear a powerful witness in a both incredibly afraid and callously casual about death. I think of those times I have been blessed to sit at the bedside of saint as they died. I think of Gertrude Leendertse. Even when she could no longer speak, I could see in her eyes that she was not afraid. She knew who her savior was and though death remained an enemy, she knew it as a conquered enemy, because her Savior Jesus Christ had risen from the grave.
Genesis 35 gives us a healthy dose of reality and calls us to be ready. Everyone dies, but the hope of the gospel is found in Jesus Christ, who died, yes, but who also rose again from the dead. Being ready to die is not primarily about resignation, but hope. What prepares you for death is not accepting the inevitable, but firm hope in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead and promised resurrection to eternal life for all who belong to him.
So are you ready? I don’t know what your death or my own will be like. It may be obscure like Deborah’s, tragic like Rachel’s, or old and full of years like Isaac. But the question is not so much how you will die, but are you ready?
Which is to ask, do you know Christ? Is your hope and trust in him? This is just as important at 15 as at 85, especially since the younger we are the less often we consider our own death. I cannot force you, I cannot trust in Christ for you, but I can urge you: Do not delay. Always be ready, because you never know when you will be asked.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.