So when we last saw Jacob, he was in trouble. His sons had just violated a very important covenant with one of the local nations, completely destroying Jacob’s honour and reputation.
And this is a big problem, for a couple of reasons:
First, Jacob has inherited a job from his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham: he is supposed to cleanse the land of Canaan of false worship, and begin the process of leading the surrounding nations into true worship. To put it another way: the land of Canaan is actually God’s garden, God’s temple, and Jacob is God’s latest High Priest, who is supposed to build the temple and prepare its people for worship.
And we can easily see how having a good reputation might be important for God’s High Priest! After all, who is going to join in the worship this God if his own worship leader is so corrupt and untrustworthy?
Second, the local nations might not be content with just staying away from Jacob’s household and Jacob’s God: they might even decide that a man this corrupt is a dangerous thing to have around! It is a distinct possibility that the surrounding nations will join forces and try to wipe out Jacob’s people!
Jacob is in trouble. And Jacob is afraid.
And so  then God said to Jacob, “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.”
And this is God’s way of reminding Jacob that this is not the first time someone has wanted to kill him. God took care of him the first time — surely God can do the same this time?
But this is also God’s way of reminding Jacob that, during those first terrible days of fear, God had met him at some “random” place and promised to bring him safely home. And Jacob had responded with his own promise: to someday return to that “random” place and build a house of worship for God.
And so now God is telling Jacob, “It’s time to go and fulfill your vow.” And he uses especially religious language: he says, “Go up to Bethel…” In the bible, when someone says, “let us go up,” they are almost always talking about going on pilgrimage to worship.
So this is not just God’s command for Jacob to go and fulfil his vow: this is a command for him to go on pigrimage to fulfil his vow.
And this is significant. Because travel is always more dangerous than staying in one place — but pilgrimage is the most dangerous kind of travel of all! Because, during a pilgrimage, people are not supposed to carry weapons or fight.
And ordinarily we could say, “Oh. Well, that’s easy!”
— unless the surrounding nations are joining forces to wipe you out! Then this condition becomes a little more difficult to keep.
So God is essentially asking Jacob to travel without defending himself from attack, if attack should come. And, of course, God chooses this exact moment to make this request: just when it will require maximum faith for Jacob to fulfill it!
God is testing Jacob to find out if Jacob really fears him, just like he once tested Abraham. Abraham passed the test: he laid his son Isaac on the altar; he gave his son completely into God’s hands, and God responded by confirming his eternal covenant with him.
Now God is asking Jacob to lay all his sons — his whole family! — upon the altar of God’s hands.
Is Jacob going to to do it?
 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “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.”
So it appears that Jacob is going to do it. And we know this because Jacob has told everyone to purify themselves. And he does this because he knows that approaching the House of God in a defiled state is extremely dangerous!
And we know from the events of last week that Jacob’s household has definitely been defiled. It needs to be cleansed — especially of the blood Jacob’s sons have shed.
In the Old Testament, even a legitimate war actually defiled the warriors; made them unclean, unfit for society and unfit for worship. So men who went to war were not allowed to just come back home and rejoin God’s people as if nothing had happened: they had to go through a seven-day-long ritual of purification, in order to “wash off the blood” in a spiritual sense.
The purpose was to protect the community from being polluted by death and violence.
And that seven-day-long ritual involved a proper shower, then a change of clothes, then getting ritually sprinkled with water — baptized — followed by the ritual purification of all the plunder that had been captured.
What Moses is showing us here is that Jacob is treating his sons as if they were in an illegitimate war. They are guilty of bloodshed and guilty of stealing. So now they must be purified of their violence, and they need to give up the precious items they have stolen: including these “foreign gods”, which were probably idols covered in silver and gold.
 So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem.
And we don’t know exactly why Jacob buried these things instead of melting them down, like God’s law required later on.
But Moses definitely highlights the fact that Jacob buried these gods instead of purifying them with fire or water: he uses an unusual word for “buried” that also carries the idea of hiding something unclean, like a used menstrual cloth.
And by doing this Moses is continuing the joke he started back in Chapter 31 when Rachel sat on her father’s gods and pretended to be having her period: they may be covered in gold and silver and precious stones, but the truth is these gods are absolutely powerless. If you want to, you can steal them, hide them in unclean places, sit on them, stain them with menstrual blood, and then bury them and walk away without fear.
And that is exactly what Jacob’s household does: they walk away. And instead of them being afraid of the nations’ false gods, the terror of God fell on the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.
So Jacob’s fears were justified: the surrounding nations really were thinking about joining forces to wipe them out — but God kept his people safe.
And so, as they travel southward,  Jacob and all the people with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan.  There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel — which means “The God of the House of God” — because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.
The first time Jacob was at Bethel, he promised that — if God brought him back — then he would call God his God.
Now he has returned, and fulfilled that part of his vow.
And almost at once, a terrible personal tragedy strikes him:  Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried under the oak outside Bethel. So it was named Allon Bakuth — which means the Oak of Weeping.
We have actually met Deborah before: back in Chapter 24, when Rebekah agreed to marry Isaac, her family sent her on her way along with her nurse. This nurse would have been like a nanny to Rebekah when she was growing up, and apparently she was like a nanny to Jacob also when he was growing up, perhaps even closer to him than his own — rather tigerish — mom.
And apparently, at some point in the last two chapters, Deborah must have heard that Jacob was back. And the fact that she felt free to leave Isaac’s household and join Jacob’s means that her own mistress Rebekah has already died. Near the end of Genesis we will find out that Rebekah is buried in the same tomb with Abraham and Sarah, but this is where we find out that Jacob never got to see his mom again. She sent him away “for just a few days”, but a few days turned into 20 years and Rebekah did not survive.
Only her nurse lived on for a while as a reminder — but now even she is gone, and Jacob grieves bitterly, and buries her beneath the sacred tree at Bethel.
And then, in the midst of this tragedy, God appears to Jacob again and blesses him:  God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.” So he named him Israel.
God is reminding Jacob that he has a new name, a new nature: he is Israel, the one for whom God has struggled, for whom God has promised to struggle.
Jacob has buried the foreign gods that were polluting his household; he has just buried the foreign nurse who was his last connection to his mother; but God is reminding Jacob that Jacob himself has a foreign nature that God is burying. Jacob truly is a new man with a new nature in God’s sight, and God wants Jacob to see himself that way also.
 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants.  The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.”
And what this means is that, just like his grandfather Abraham, Jacob has passed the test.
And so now God is confirming the eternal covenant that he once made with Abraham. He is confirming that Jacob really is God’s High Priest, chosen to continue Abraham’s work — actually: chosen to continue Adam’s work of protecting and expanding the garden of Eden until it has filled the earth with the true worship of the true God.
And Jacob needs this reminder at this point in his life. His own name, his own reputation, has been completely destroyed in the eyes of the nations he is supposed to lead into worship. But none of that matters. God has named him Israel, and that is the only reputation that really counts.
 Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him.  Jacob set up a stone pillar at the place where God had talked with him, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it.  Jacob called the place where God had talked with him Bethel.
Once before, Jacob set up a stone pillar in this place as a marker, as a foundation stone for the gateway of God’s house. Now he has set up a second stone, and an altar, to mark this land where God has chosen to build his connecting point between heaven and earth.
And now, having fulfilled his vow, Jacob moves on from Bethel, travelling even further southward.
And almost at once, a second terrible personal tragedy strikes: While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty.  And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, “Don’t despair, for you have another son.”  As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni — which means Son of my Sorrow. But his father named him Benjamin — which means Son of my Strength.
And we have to remember that this is the same Rachel who once, in her grief and frustration, shouted at her husband, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”…the same Rachel who named her first-born son ”Joseph” as a prayer that God would “add” to her another son.
Now Rachel’s prayer has been answered: another son has been added to her — but at a great cost to herself. And in a painful reverse irony, her husband has given her children — and she actually died because of it.
 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).  Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb.
And this is now the third time in just a few months that Jacob has been forced to dig in the ground and bury something precious to his family. This is now the third time in his life he has set up a pillar as a marker.
What does all this mean?
Is God angry with Jacob or something? Is Rachel being punished for stealing her father’s gods? Was Deborah somehow not pure enough to continue the pilgrimage, and that’s why God struck her down just when he did?
No. There is no sign here that God is despleased at all with any of these people. If there are people in Jacob’s household who deserve death, it should be Levi and Simeon, not Deborah and Rachel.
What we are seeing is God helping Jacob do his job of building God’s house and bringing true worship into the land: because — even in our age — a funeral is a special kind of worship. And a burial — a tomb — is a special kind of building: a very permanent kind of house.
So every altar Jacob builds, every pillar Jacob sets up, is another a claim upon God’s country, a way of saying: “This land belongs to my God now!”
And every grave — every tomb — that Jacob digs, is another declaration of faith, a way of saying, “This person now belongs to the God who now owns this land.”
Jacob is building God’s house. Stone by stone, person by person, slowly, painfully, Jacob is laying the foundation for the blessings to come — for the Messiah to come. God has just told Jacob, “kings will be among your descendants,“ and even by this point in history Jacob understands that one of those kings will be the Messiah, the Son of Eve that God promised at the beginning of Genesis: the man who will crush the head of the serpent and destroy the power of death forever.
So Jacob is digging in the earth, and sowing with tears. He is doing the work of a gardener, he is doing the work of Adam, the work of mankind. But he does this expecting that, one day, because of his work, his descendants will reap with songs of joy.
This tomb and this pillar for Rachel are Jacob’s testimony to the nations that one day this body that he buries will live again — will worship again — in perfection and holiness, for all eternity.
 Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder — a name that means ”Tower of the Flock”.
And we do not know exactly where this “Tower of the Flock” is, except that it is further south of Rachel’s tomb.
And  while Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.
Now this definitely seems random!
Why would Reuben do this? Why does Israel/Jacob only hear about it but…not do anything? And why does Moses write this down so…casually? This seems like it should be a pretty big deal! — and if we were writing Genesis, we would definitely say more about it!
Well: yes. This is a big deal. What Reuben did is a terrible sin: it is actually a kind of incest.
And that is why Moses actually does not say much about it. Generally, the biblical writers tried to describe sins with the smallest amount of detail possible — and the worse the sin, the shorter their description of it.
So the fact that Moses drops this in here so casually is actually a sign that this was a very big deal!
But if that is the case: why are we told that Jacob “heard of it” but apparently did not do anything?
Well, Jacob did do something. It’s just that the something he did was so obvious to Moses’ people that Moses felt no need to spell it out.
So: what did Jacob do, that was so obvious?
He cursed Reuben, and took away his birthright as the oldest son.
Now, how do we know this?
Well, to answer that question we have to answer the question of why would Reuben do this?
Why would Reuben do this?
In the bible, when a man sleeps with another man’s wife or concubine, that was always recognized as a symbolic power play, a way of telling the community, “I am taking this man’s position of authority.” If the husband was dead, then…this was permitted. But if the husband was still alive…then this was a deadly insult, a deadly dishonour.
And if a son did this to his father…! — then, under the law of Moses, that son is to be condemned to death. That son forfeits his inheritance, his family name, and even his existence as a consequence for destabilizing the proper authority structures within God’s nation.
In short: Reuben has done to his father Jacob what Ham did to his father Noah: he has symbolically announced to the whole community that he thinks he should be the head of the household now…even though his father is still alive.
If Reuben had only waited patiently, then — as firstborn son — he would have become the head of the household when his father was gone. But because he has reached out and taken what does not yet belong to him…now Reuben has lost what was going to be his.
Just as Ham was cursed by Noah, so now Reuben has been cursed by Jacob: the kings that God has promised will be among Jacob’s descendants…will not come from Reuben’s family line.
And this raises another question for us: if Reuben has lost his rights as the firstborn son of Jacob, who has now inherited those rights?
Well, Moses’ original readers would have been asking that question as well. So Moses, as a good writer, answers that question next: he lines up all of Jacob’s sons, in order of family status, so that we can figure it out for ourselves:
Jacob had twelve sons:
 The sons of Leah: Reuben the firstborn of Jacob, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.
 The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin.
 The sons of Rachel’s servant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali.
 The sons of Leah’s servant Zilpah: Gad and Asher.
These were the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan Aram.
Now, we have just found out that Reuben has disqualified himself.
So: who is next in line for the birthright? Simeon.
Except that Simeon is a murderer. Last week he disqualified himself.
Who’s next? Levi!
— except that Levi also disqualified himself last week.
So that means Judah is the next “firstborn son” in line of inheritance.
— except that there is another ”firstborn son” in the family, isn’t there? Joseph, the firstborn son of Rachel.
Moses is showing his readers that there are actually two candidates, two sons who could inherit the rights of the firstborn. Both Judah and Joseph have a legitimate claim to become Head of Household after Jacob is gone. Which one is it going to be?
And that is actually the question on these brothers’ minds also!
Judah — and the brothers most closely related to him — definitely thinks that he should be the one.
Joseph — and the brothers most closely related him — definitely thinks that he should be the one —
And so, what we are finding here is that Moses is setting us up for the next cycle of redemptive history. Every story cycle in Genesis until this point has been defined by a conflict between brothers: Cain against Seth, Ham against Shem, Ishmael against Isaac, Esau against Jacob. In every cycle one brother is condemned, while the other brother becomes the leader of God’s people.
Moses is giving us a preview of what is coming: the next cycle of Genesis is going to be defined by the conflict between Judah and Joseph. Just like the brothers in every previous cycle, they are competing with each other for their Father’s love and approval — for God’s love and approval. They are competing with each other for the right to inherit the covenant God made with Abraham.
And from now on they are also competing with each other to find out who is going to become the father of the kings of Israel — the father of the Messiah.
So: that is a brilliant cliffhanger, Moses!
Thank you for that.
But in the meantime,  Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, near Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had stayed.
 Isaac lived a hundred and eighty years.  Then he breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
And so we see that Moses ends his Book 9 of Genesis in the same way he ended Book 7. At the end of Book 7, Abraham died — and both of his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, buried him. Here, at the end of Book 9, Isaac dies — and both of his sons bury him.
And this ending reminds us that Book 9 has actually been the story of Isaac and his sons. Even though so much of the book is structured around the redemption of Jacob…here at the end Moses wants us to know that, no matter how things appear, this has actually been the story of Isaac’s redemption.
In essence, what Moses is showing his readers is that the father’s reputation has been redeemed through his sons’ obedience. The redemption of Jacob and Esau is the redemption of Isaac.
And this is where we say: huh? Are you sure?
Let me show you why:
Just a little past the half-way point of Jacob’s story, we realized that Moses has very carefully structured Book 9 so that every episode after the half-way point was God’s answer to a problem that happened before the half-way point.
So: Jacob coming to faith was God’s answer to his wives coming to faith in the episode before; Jacob escaping from his uncle was God’s answer to Jacob being enslaved by his uncle; Jacob re-entering the land was God’s answer to Jacob leaving the land; Jacob reconciling with his brother was God’s answer to Jacob robbing his brother; Jacob making a covenant with the Hivites last week was God’s answer to Isaac making a covenant with the Philistines way back at the beginning —
Which means that this last episode — Episode 12 — must be God’s answer to Episode 1.
So we look back at Episode 1, and we see that it starts in Chapter 25, verse 19, with: This is the account of Isaac and his sons.
Abraham is dead and buried, and Isaac has inherited all the promises of God’s covenant.
But right away he has a problem: his wife Rebekah is barren. If Isaac has no sons, God’s covenant will die — proving God a liar, and leaving the whole earth to eternal condemnation.
So Isaac prays for life! — and Rebekah experiences such a great struggle in her pregnancy that she actually prays for death. But God preserves her, and she produces two sons.
So Isaac’s sons grow up…only to experience a great conflict over the birthright: who is going to inherit God’s covenant promises from Isaac? And they both prove to be corrupt: they both prove they are unworthy to inherit the blessings of God’s covenant.
Well, when we look at today’s closing episode we see that it really is both a reflection and a resolution of the opening episode:
Jacob’s wife Rachel was also barren. By God’s grace she she also produced two sons. And she experienced such a great struggle in her second pregnancy that she actually did die.
Meanwhile, Jacob’s other sons have all grown up…and they are about to experience a great conflict over the birthright: who is going to inherit God’s covenant promises from Jacob? So Jacob also has — essentially — the same problem Isaac had: his sons are all proving, one by one, to be just as corrupt as both of Isaac’s two sons were in the beginning. They are all proving that they are unworthy to inherit the blessings of God’s covenant. And if Jacob runs out of qualified sons, God’s covenant will die! — proving God a liar, and leaving the whole earth to eternal condemnation.
And then Book 9 ends exactly as it began, just one generation later: Isaac is now dead and buried, and Jacob has inherited all the promises of God’s covenant.
That is interesting, or course. Especially if you are a literature nerd, as I am.
But how does this show us that Isaac’s reputation was redeemed through his sons’ obedience?
This is how:
See, when we look back at Episode 1 we find Isaac’s sin at the center of it. Sandwiched between the brothers’ wrestling in their mother’s womb, and the grown-up brothers’ wrestling over their birthright, Moses slipped in the fact that Isaac loved one of his sons more than the other. Isaac practiced favouritism, which is a sin.
And this sin of favouritism actually destroyed Isaac’s household. Instead of teaching his sons that God’s love — a father’s love — is given freely and equally to all his children, Isaac taught his sons that love must be earned, paid for. Isaac could have helped his sons resolve their conflict. Instead, he made it worse — and as a consequence he lost his entire family.
First, he lost the respect of his own wife. Then he lost Jacob. Then he lost Esau as well. And we know this because — did you notice? — when Jacob returned from his 20 years in the east, Esau was no longing living with his father at the well of Beersheba in the south. He had moved eastward into the land of Seir.
And so Isaac lost everything that matters because of his sin. For years he lived as a blind old man: surrounded by wealth! surrounded by servants! and yet completely alone.
And those years must have years of bitter grief and regret for Isaac. Years of sitting alone in the darkness with the consquences of his sins…years of depair. Because how can a blind, helpless old man ever hope to undo the damage he has done to his family?
But Isaac’s sins have now been redeemed by his sons’ obedience. Jacob was obedient when he repented and asked his brother for forgiveness; Esau was obedient when he forgave. And underneath it all was God’s quiet, stubborn wrestling with these men, dragging them step by step back into reconciliation and true brotherhood.
And in the end, when Isaac knew that his death was near, when he made his final pilgrimage from Beersheba in the south back up to Hebron in the central mountains — back to the place where his father and mother and wife were already buried — well: both Jacob and Esau joined him on that final pilgrimage, and they laid him to rest in peace.
Episode 1 was a time of beginnings: it featured two births, which is great! — but it also featured the beginning of a conflict that tore Isaac’s household apart.
Episode 12 is the mirror image of that: it is a time of endings. It does contain one birth…but it actually features three deaths, and four burials. Which — ordinarily speaking! — looks bad.
However, these burials also emphasize the end of the conflict that destroyed Isaac’s household. It features the redemption of all Isaac’s sins: the reconciliation of the family he destroyed.
In short: Book 9 has been the story of how God redeemed the damage that Isaac caused by his sins.
And what is Moses trying to teach God’s people through all this?
In its simplest form, here is the lesson of Isaac’s life: the God of Abraham does nothing by accident. He sees everything. He keeps track of every action — whether good or bad — and he leaves nothing unresolved.
From beginning to end, every character in this book has been helpless in the grip of their sins, and every single person has suffered the consequences of their sins on some level. Many times during the course of events we have wondered what is going on: if perhaps God has somehow lost control, or lost his patience.
But here, at the end, we discover that every single problem has been resolved; every single sin has been atoned for; every grief has been turned to joy or the promise of joy. Every single main character — except one — has been redeemed in a way that is appropriate for each.
And that one man who was not redeemed — Jacob’s uncle Laban — did not miss out on redemption because his sins were worse than everyone else’s: he missed out because he refused to repent. He refused to take responsibility. He refused to acknowledge his own helplessness and ask God for deliverance.
And so it is very fitting that blind, foolish, lonely old Isaac should actually turn out to be the central character of this book. His helplessness from beginning to end is the model for God’s people of what a childlike faith looks like. God did not redeem Isaac because Isaac was rich or wise; he did not redeem Isaac because Isaac had great faith and lived a sinless life; he redeemed Isaac because Isaac was his son, his child.
And this would have been very important for the nation of Israel to understand and apply to their own situation. Moses wants his people to know that — no matter what happens after they cross the Jordan river — they are God’s children, and that the sins of every generation of fathers will be redeemed by the continued forgiveness of the sons that follow, until the day God finally provides a Messiah from among the sons of Israel: a Son of Adam who will redeem Adam our father from the consequences of his sins, so that the scattered family of mankind might be reconciled to God and to one another.
And this is really an incredible promise, isn’t it?
After all, Isaac’s family was seriously messed up! Even at the end, after more than 20 years of growing in the faith, we found out that Jacob’s household had foreign gods in it! Rachel stole her father’s gods and kept them; Jacob’s sons stole the Hivites’ gods and kept them! The members of Jacob’s family were not being completely faithful to God at all! — and still God showed mercy to them, and led them safely all the way up to Hebron among the high mountains of the Lord.
Moses wants his people to know that they have access to the same mercy from God. The people of Israel have been called to faithfulness so that they can redeem the land and prepare it for true worship — but Moses knows that, just like Jacob’s family, they are not going to be perfectly faithful.
But God is going to be perfectly faithful to them.
And what is truly interesting is what happened after Moses was gone, after Joshua took over.
We have already seen how Jacob’s activities in the land were almost exactly duplicated in the Book of Joshua. From their baptism in the river, to the building of the altar at Shechem — even to the deceptive covenant with the local Hivite people! — step by step God has proven that he is with his people just as he was with Jacob.
Well, there is more: at the end of the Book of Joshua, after the wars are all over, Joshua calls his people back together at Shechem and commands them to cleanse themselves from all the bloodshed and get themselves ready for God to confirm his covenant with them.
And that is where we find out that the people of Israel have been carrying foreign gods with them ever since their parents’ time in Egypt! They have not been perfectly faithful to God at all.
But God was so faithful to them: he cleansed the land for them! not because they were good, or because they had a good reputation with the surrounding nations…but simply because they were his children.
And so, as the people of Israel finally reach the end of their centuries-long pilgrimage, Joshua tells them to throw away their foreign gods. And they do — but we are not told that Joshua melted them down or destroyed them. Instead, we are simply told that Joshua took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord.
So Joshua sets up a stone pillar right under the oak at Shechem, in the same spot where Jacob once buried his family’s foreign gods. Which leads us to wonder: did Joshua also bury his people’s gods there?
It certainly seems like it. Because the very next thing Joshua says is, “See! This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.”
In other words: this stone is God’s witness. Whether Joshua destroyed the idols or buried them, he is telling the people, “Do not return to the false worship of these false gods! — because God will see, and there will be an accounting!”
Then Joshua dismissed the people, each to their own inheritance. And after that, he died, and was buried. And Joseph’s body, which had been carefully preserved and brought with them from Egypt, was buried right there at Shechem, in the plot of ground that Jacob bought from the Hivites for 100 pieces of silver.
So what we are seeing is that this closing episode of Isaac’s pilgrimage is a preview of the closing episode of Israel’s pilgrimage.
And Joshua’s closing instructions to his people are as clear as Jacob’s closing instructions to his family:
See! Now that God has brought us safely home, be faithful! Because our God sees everything. He keeps track of every action — whether good or bad — and he leaves nothing unresolved.
So, how does this apply to us, now?
Well, if last week’s episode was an example of what it looks like for Christ’s Church to live among the nations while we wait for our Father to lead us home…then this closing episode is an example of what our lives will look like during the days of our final pilgrimage.
We are going to find that, as we draw nearer our goal, God’s refining process is going to accelerate. The things we used to think were so essential for life and happiness — and good reputation — will be stripped away from us more and more. And as we grow lighter and more streamlined we will begin to go up to the House of God faster and faster. We will begin to bury more than we give birth — but the higher we rise the more we will begin to understand just how it can be that those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.
And the New Testament tells us that these things are not just true of each one of us personally — they are also true of Christ’s Church as a whole. Jesus himself, in the last days before he was arrested, told his disciples this: “When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines — and pandemics!…these things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” Because: “before all this, they will seize you and persecute you, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.”
Friends…I know we are all full of fears and concerns. Quite naturally there is a lot of talk right now about the End of the World by both religious people and non-religious people. We are all wondering if these weeks of pandemic perhaps mark the final pilgrimage of our global economy, our global society. We are all wondering if we might physically survive this pandemic but lose everything else that is precious to us…
We just don’t know! Even as Christians, we do not know.
But we do know more than the rest of the world on this matter:
Because, as Jesus has just told us, before wars and pandemics and civil unrest bring everything to an end there will be a great persecution of God’s people. As economies begin to slow down, as things begin to fall apart, the world is going to look for someone to blame — and the bible says they are going to blame us. This is exactly what happened in the Roman empire during the generation right after Jesus, and the Book of Revelation confirms that, before the end, it will happen again on a global scale.
Which means that we Christians know the Covid-19 pandemic is not a sign of the End Times — at least, not yet. Only if this pandemic leads to glocal persectution of Christ’s Church will we be able to lift our head and say to one another, “this is the beginning of the end! The kingdom of God is near!”
So is this the end?
We just don’t know yet. It is too early to tell.
But we do know this: our God is faithful to his children. Covid-19 has already stripped away some things that we thought were essential, and there is no doubt that many things about our world are going to be different after this.
But all this simply confirms what we already know: we are on our final pilgrimage as Jesus’ people on this earth. We have been cleansed by the waters of Jesus’ baptism. Our Father is stripping away our idols one by one as we go, making us ready for the day of our final testing. We are not yet perfectly faithful to him, but he will be perfectly faithful to us.
And so in this way, friends, Covid-19 is a work of God’s grace upon us. It is a sign that our Father is still refining us: as individuals, as families, as a church community. One way or another, he is going to complete his work of cleansing this earth.
And then, in the words of Daniel the prophet: the end will come like a flood. One day this old earth will be shaken to pieces, dead and buried, and something new will be born out of the ruins. One day the obedience of Jesus Christ — the perfect Son of Man — will redeem the sins of our father Adam. Nothing that has been stolen will go unreturned. Nothing that has happened on this earth will go unresolved.
And on that day we will all turn and look at one another and say — just like Jacob did, just like Joshua did — “Come! Let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord and worship! Now that our Father has brought us safely home, let us be faithful!”
And you know what? That time we finally actually will be! — forever and ever.
Because we are on lockdown, for our practical application I am not going to tell you to go out and do anything. Instead, stay home and do this: rest. Think about these great promises. Talk about them with one another. In the words of our Lord, “Be always on the watch, and pray…that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” on that day. And “when these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”