The Road to Bethlehem (Part 1)
It's the second Sunday of Advent, a word that derives from Latin "advenire" – "to arrive or come", a traditional time of repentance and preparation for the celebration of the coming of Jesus to Bethlehem, and His anticipated second coming. It is the time of our annual pilgrimage to Bethlehem. We all have different ways of arriving there. Today, we're going to look at Jacob, one the forefathers of Jesus, and the road that he took to Bethlehem and what happened on the way.
His trip occurred in two parts. The first part was a sentimental journey back to Bethel. Genesis 28:10-22 describes how God appeared to him in a dream of a ladder extending to heaven. God promised him, "I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. 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 spoken to you."
This was his first meeting with the God of his fathers, in a time of distress, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, whom he had just cheated out of the birthright of the firstborn. Much water had flowed under the bridge in twenty years. Now he was going back to see the old place and refresh his memories.
Our journey towards Christmas begins each year in the same way, as a sentimental journey. We have much desire to recapture that childhood aura and the excitement of Christmas through the eyes of our children and grandchildren. But the true Christmas is an experience of God. Sooner or later, we discover, as Jacob did, that God is not one to be recaptured, but rather experienced fresh and new. God wants to touch our lives this Christmas with a new and fresh experience of His love in sending Christ Jesus to earth.
Preparation for this fresh experience is important. The dominant theme of Advent is repentance, selfexamination, and returning to God. The symbol colour of repentance is purple.
For Jacob, this sentimental journey turns into an intense spiritual experience, focussed on worship:
Genesis 35:1 - "Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother."
To receive the greatest blessing, we need to hear and heed the call of God -- His divine direction: return to God, examine ourselves, turn in a new direction. This is a definite call for obedience requiring a deliberate decision on our part. Jacob knows that before he and his family can worship God, they have to come with clean hands and pure hearts. He tells them, "Purify yourselves, and change your garments."
Psalm 24:3-5 - Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Be clean in soul and body: repentance, confession - to commune with God and see Him, we must be pure in heart - cleansed, like the Saturday night bath of bygone days, in preparation for Sunday worship.
"Change your garments" - clean clothes - symbolic of inward renewal.
Isaiah 64:6a - But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.
Isaiah 61:10a - I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.
The garment of righteousness is Jesus Christ - "His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me." But this is an inward change, not just outward.
Jacob also instructs his family, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you." In Genesis 31:19-35, we discover that Jacob had married into a family of idol worshippers. Rachel stole her father Laban's household idols and sat on them to hide them from him.
Jacob had drifted far from his experience at Bethel - bit by bit. He knew that these idols were around, but he overlooked it. He couldn't go back to Bethel unless his household were cleansed.
We can't worship the Lord God if we are also worshipping other gods. "Thou shall have no other gods before me." Whatever takes the rightful first place of the Lord God in our heart is a strange god and an idol.
Colossians 3:5 - "Covetousness, which is idolatry." A desire for the things of this world that take first place instead of God. We can see clearly what is in our priority scale, in terms of time, effort, and money that we spend. What has first place in our lives? It may be time for cleaning strange gods out of our households.
God knows that times of prosperity are too often times of spiritual decline. The world and its distractions are often too much with us, and we lose sight of important realities. For example, Christmas is centred around traditions: family, food, and gifts. Those are important, but the preparations can distract us from the fact that it is Christ's birthday. Commercialization focusses our attention on material items, not the spiritual aspect of Christmas. As children of God, we are in the world, but not of the world, and that can lead to a struggle.
The children of God, those with Christ Jesus in their hearts, are dead to sin, and sin is of the world. So when Jacob was going to Bethel, he couldn't go knowing the corrupt practices of his family.
"Put away the strange gods that are among you" - a time for repentance and return to God as we start out on our road to Bethlehem. Cleanse the temple of the Holy Spirit which is your body.
Idols must be surrendered before victory or peace can be secured. In our Christian experience, failure and defeat can indicate a hidden idol - usually hidden by our Rachel -- the most beloved part of our life and the hardest to give up. If we can't give them up, we'll be plagued by those very sins. Our spiritual life will run hot and cold, a spiritual roller coaster of ups and downs. So ransack your camp and get rid of the idols of selfish pride and worldliness -- anything that we put before God.
For Jacob there was nothing but blessings on the road after he cleansed his camp. God gave him protection from his enemies.
Genesis 35:5 - "The terror of God was upon the cities that were all around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob."
When we walk right with the Lord, we never know how much personal trouble and family difficulties will vanish.
When Jacob arrived at Bethel, he fulfilled a vow of 20 years:
Genesis 28:20-22 - "If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You."
He had come a long way. Back then, he had a selfish faith, to engage in a barter or trade-off with God.
Now he is filled with gratitude because God has done it. Now God shall be his God. He acknowledges God's goodness, for He has given more than He promised. God is no man's debtor. Jacob has two wives, huge flocks and herds, eleven sons and another on the way, plus daughters.
Now he embarks on the second part of his journey to Bethlehem, with another big step of faith: learning to serve God not in happiness but in trial and affliction. At such times, because God is God, we must say in faith, "Your will be done."
The first blow was the death of Deborah, his mother's nurse - his earliest childhood memory. She was buried in Allon Bachuth "oak of weeping". The second blow was the death of his beloved Rachel in childbirth on the way to Bethlehem. She had been childless so long that she cried out, "Give me children or else I die." (Genesis 30:1) Now she has children, but she dies in childbirth.
Jeremiah's prophecy is much later fulfilled in Bethlehem with Herod's slaughter of the innocents; "Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew 2:18)
It's important to realize that the process of God's shaping us into the image of Christ includes chastening. We can expect to suffer when we are obeying God, for we are not exempted from suffering. The road to Bethlehem is not comfortable because it involves change and growth. That is hard and painful, but worth it, because we come out better, looking more like Christ.
We have watched as Jacob's faith has grown. Our faith should also always be growing, progressing, moving. It's okay to look back periodically to see how far we've come. Picture Jacob standing among the rocks at Bethel, remembering his dream and God's goodness. Too often, time dims the memories of God's mercies.
Psalm 103:2 - Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.
We do forget what God has done. Let's remember, but don't stop there. Don't try to recapture old experiences, for example our idealized memories of Christmases past, but forge on to new blessings and new promises claimed and victories won. God promises a blessing to Jacob:
Genesis 35:11 - I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body.
This is a Messianic prophecy. Later, Jesus revealed that He is the ladder in Jacob's dream:
John 1:51 - Hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
He includes the promise of a Saviour - "In your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Yours is one of "all the families". Claim that blessing as we, too, go on our way to Bethlehem together, remembering Christ's birth and celebrating His coming anew.