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Back to Bethel

Reading from Genesis 35:1-5.

1Then 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.” 2So 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. 3Then 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.” 4So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem. 5Then they set out, and the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.


I’ve really been enjoying reading through Genesis again since the beginning of the year, and I think it’s important to give you some context to this passage:

Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, was promised by God to have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and sand by the sea. Abraham had one son, Isaac, who had twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Although Esau was the firstborn, Jacob and his mom, Rebekah tricked Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. As a result, Esau planned to kill Jacob and Jacob was forced to run away to his Uncle Laban’s home.

On the way to his Uncle Laban, at a certain place, the Lord appeared to Jacob in a dream, “in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD, and he said: ‘I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’”

The house of God – beit (house) El (God).

Jacob continued to his Uncle Laban’s home and fell immediately in love with Laban’s youngest daughter, Rachel, and worked seven years to marry her. Unfortunately Laban deceived him into marrying his other daughter, Leah, first and Jacob had to work seven more years to marry his first love. Between Jacob’s two wives and their maidservants, he had twelve sons and at least one daughter.

Eventually Jacob’s prosperity earned the ire of his in-laws and it became unsafe for him there. Then the LORD said to Jacob, ‘Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.’ God calls Jacob back to Bethel, the house of God.

But Jacob doesn’t go back to Bethel. He goes and meets Esau, and then turns aside to a place called Succoth and then moves to Shechem where he sets up an altar and calls it El Elohe Israel – God, the God of Israel. And it appears that even though the place God called him to, Bethel, was just 48km away, Jacob remains at Shechem for about ten years.

In the beginning things appear to go well for Jacob and his household. They make friends with the people of the region and together they grow stronger and wealthier.

But then something terrible happens. The prince of the area takes Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and violates her. I can’t imagine the heart-sore that this caused in Jacob and his household, but we do know that the tragedy continues. Jacob’s sons trick the people of Shechem into circumcising themselves in order to start a greater partnership between the Shechemites and the family of Jacob; then the sons of Jacob go through the city and slaughter every male and loot the city.

All of a sudden Jacob and his family, while still suffering the pain of what happened to Dinah, are also like an impala that’s stumbled onto a riverbank full of hungry lions. All the people of the region who were friends and allies of the Shechemites would be eager to avenge the slaughter. Their lives and God’s promises to bless the world through Abraham’s family are about to be snuffed out.

It’s in this place which the LORD speaks to Jacob and what do you think He says to Jacob? He calls him to complete the return to Bethel.

It doesn’t really make sense, does it? God doesn’t instruct Jacob to continue the attacks and destroy what’s left of the people around him. God doesn’t send a legion of angels to surround Jacob and prove His stamp of protection. God doesn’t say, ‘Don’t worry, Jacob – I’m here for you. I love you. I have your back.’

No, God speaks gently to Jacob and says: “Come back to Me. Come and settle yourself with Me.”

I don’t know where you are at tonight, if you take a careful look at your life and your heart. Maybe at first it seems everything’s all good. Your home and business is secure. Your family is happy. You’re building powerful partnerships. People are attracted to what you have to offer. But then trouble times come. Maybe you face a time of great tragedy. Maybe it’s a time of real uncertainty.

At times like that, it’s amazing to realise that God doesn’t always remove the trouble, or soften the tragedy, or end the uncertainty; no, if you listen to His voice He’s calling you to return to Him: “Come back to Bethel, come back and settle yourself with Me.”

Maybe you’ve lost track lately; works been requiring more and more of your time; there’s pressure from your friends to spend more time with them; there’s a hobby that you’ve allowed to take over your focus; and if you look back you start to realise that while there was a time when you were growing closer to Bethel, somewhere along the road you took an offramp and you’ve been living at Shechem for a long time.

And it’s not just your outward life that appears to be going great. Maybe you might be faking closeness with God really well – and even have yourself fooled. Remember that Jacob had built an altar here at Shechem and was within a few days journey of Bethel – he was physically close to God’s call on his life. But his heart was far from God. Maybe you’re physically close – you’re a nice guy or a nice lady; you don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or go with those who do. You’re regularly in Church and you carry a big Bible, but your heart is so far from God’s presence you don’t even remember what His voice sounds like.

I want to say this to those of you who are not dwelling in the presence of God and experiencing the joy and peace He has for you in His presence: God is waiting for you at Bethel – will you go?

This message reminds me of Jesus’ message to the Ephesians in Revelation 2: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”

The LORD wants you back – back to Bethel – back to the house of God – back to intimacy with Him. Will you go?

But the journey requires something. Let’s look again at Jacob’s story.

Because of the troubles of late, Jacob is a different individual altogether. You see, you’ll remember that he gained his brother’s birth-right on his own terms; he’d gained his brother’s blessing on his own terms; he’d left Bethel on his own terms, telling God ‘If you will do such and such for me then I’ll do such and such for you,’ and I can imagine Jesus turning to the Holy Spirit saying, ‘Can you believe this guy – He thinks he can buy what we just promised to give him for free!’; then he’d left his father-in-law on his own terms; turned aside from Bethel to Shechem on his own terms…but the past few incidents had humbled him.

It’s with an air of surrender that Jacob says to his household: “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.”

Jacob recognises that the LORD has called him back to Bethel, back to intimacy with Him. And Jacob gives a three-fold instruction to his household which I want to give to you: Get rid of the idols, purify yourselves, and change your clothes. If we want to get back to Bethel, there’s three things we need to do: Get rid of our idols, purify ourselves, and change our clothes.

Now before you get the wrong idea, these are not three things we need to do to have relationship with God – that comes through faith in Jesus alone. But they are three things we can do to enter again into an intimacy with God that we may have lost a long time ago.

We get three questions from this instruction:

What idols must I get rid of? What sin must be confessed? What environments need changing?

1. What idols must I get rid of?

While there may be one or two of you here with a shrine in the corner of your lounge, I don’t think those are the sort of idols we’re dealing with in our lives.

Consider what an idol is. It’s not simply a little figurine that you light incense to. It’s anything which takes the place of God in your lives. It was the golden calf that Aaron made for the Israelites at Mount Sinai when they couldn’t reach God; but it was also the silver and clothing which Gehazi took from Naaman when he should have trusted God’s provision.

Idols are anything which take the place of God in our lives; anything which becomes our saviour, our delight, our protection more than the LORD Himself. Also anything in which we find our worth instead of God.

Idols can be our paychecks, our pets, our playstation games, our sports tournaments, or even our friends and family.

I’ve recently been quite convicted by the role that social media plays in my life and the lives of my young people I am connected to. Think about this, for those of you who have this as a struggle: You feel like your night out wasn’t complete unless pictures were posted on your Whatsapp status; you feel like the sunset is more beautiful on Instagram #nofilter than it is in the sky and must be captured there; you feel like your worth is linked to the views you get on Youtube; and if it can’t get on Strava it’s not even worth running. And because of this you wouldn’t take a day off of social media.

Social media has become a god that you must feed daily – hourly – in order to survive socially or be valuable.

So I have to ask myself regularly – what idols are in my life which must be got rid of? Sometimes for me it’s a game I download onto my phone, sometimes it’s TV series, sometimes it’s appreciation from others…

Just ask yourself, ‘What is it in my life, if I were to lose it, would cause me most pain?’ Whatever your answer is, if it’s not your relationship with God, that thing might be an idol. It might stand as an obstacle between you and Bethel – intimacy with God. And the question is, are you willing to chop it out to get to Bethel? Or will you remain in Shechem with your idol which you feed and doesn’t feed you back?

2. What sin must be confessed?

The next question is what sin must be confessed. Jacob says to his household: purify yourselves. 1 John 1 says, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

It’s a beautiful thing to be fully known and fully loved. Secrets in all cases drive a wedge between people. When I was a child maybe I’d find out that two of my friends had a secret that they wouldn’t share with me and immediately it was like a wedge was hammered between us, and the longer they wouldn’t share the secret the further and further I felt from them.

It is true of adult relationships too. Sometimes there are things that I’m thinking about or feeling that I try and keep from my wife, and every time we’re together it’s like a big, screaming wedge between us until I break down and share what’s going on and all of a sudden: Intimacy is restored.

It’s a beautiful thing to be fully known and fully loved. And it works the same way with the LORD! Somewhere along the line, maybe many places along the line, you’ve done something that’s offended His heart and you know it. And that secret has become a wedge between your heart and His.

Now you can teach yourself to ignore the wedge. You can teach yourself to be content with its presence between you and the one you love.

But the thing about a wedge is that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, and it takes all wiggle room, and it gets more entrenched with each knock, driving you further and further apart. Until you break down and share what’s going on and all of a sudden: Intimacy is restored – you’re back at Bethel.

That’s what confession is, by the way. Confession isn’t trying to make yourself feel bad, or trying to convince yourself to feel a certain way. Confession is a statement acknowledging some personal fact that the person would prefer to keep hidden.

If you’re carrying the weight of something that’s unconfessed, you will continue to carry it and it’ll get heavier and heavier until you decide which is more important: relationship, or keeping the secret. Bethel, or Shechem.

If you decide relationship, intimacy is more important, here’s what I want you to do: grab one of the Church leaders or someone you see as a godly man or woman after the service tonight and just ask to have a coffee with you in the week. They’ll know it has something to do with this, and they’ll keep it confidential. And together you can step into God’s presence and lay bare the secrets you’ve been holding against him for so long. And all of a sudden: Intimacy is restored. Isn’t that what you want?

So we need to ask ourselves: What idols must I get rid of; and what sin must be confessed?

3. What environments need changing?

Many times, changing clothing is an outward sign of an inward change and sometimes there are outward things we need to change in order to show or help an inward change.

So let me ask you this: Are there outward environments that need to change in order to show or help an inward change? What can you see is keeping you from moving to Bethel – moving to a deeper and abiding intimacy with the Father?

I spoke to a teenager on Friday who shared with me that the job she was working part time was requiring more and more of her time. She started to realise she didn’t have time for youth anymore, or Church, or even Bible study. So she quit her job.

Now I know that young people tend to be extreme, they latch onto a cause like a ferret and never let go. It’s one of their most beautiful and frustrating qualities.

We can’t, and we shouldn’t all just quit our jobs and sit in a cave somewhere with our Bibles and bread made without yeast. But that also shows the kind of radical decision God desires from those who love Him. If you love Jesus, a strip club can’t be your workplace.

How can it be possible to have a deep and growing love for Jesus and yet spend your working life constantly surrounded by and submerged in an environment that is at war with Him? Your environment needs to change.

What about your environment do you need to change so that you can move to Bethel? Maybe there are friends you’ve had since high school who are always calling you to drinking parties that you need to let go of; maybe there’s a group of colleagues who always meet to gossip and slander others that you need to keep away from; maybe there’s wallpapers on your PC that draw your mind away from God that you need to delete; maybe there’s billboards on one route to work that you know cause you to think things you shouldn’t be thinking and you need to change your route to work.

What about your environment can you look at and say: If I want to know God more and enjoy Him more – that needs to change?

And if that’s a struggle for you, let me ask: Is that environment so important to you that you would happily remain far from God in order to keep things the way they are?

So Jacob gives a three-fold instruction to his family as they prepare to encounter the LORD: Get rid of your idols, purify yourselves, and change your clothes; and as you prepare to go Back to Bethel, I encourage you to ask yourself 1) What idols do I need to get rid of; 2) What sin must be confessed; and 3) What environments need changing?

Verse 4: “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.”

Then they set out. And I love how God puts His stamp of approval on this move: By protecting Jacob and his household.

Think about this: Jacob’s family had made themselves a real stench in the noses of the inhabitants of that region; all of Shechem’s friends and allies around would have quickly mobilised to attack and wipe Jacob from the earth. Jacob’s family didn’t stand a chance! But God put a supernatural terror into the hearts of the people around them so that no one pursued them.

When you choose to put God first, when you do these three things: get rid of idols in your life, confess your sins, change your environments that keep you from Him – when you do all that you show that you fear God more than you fear people and God promises to supernaturally protect you. Here’s some wonderfully encouraging promises in Psalm 34:4-10 I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him. Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.

Not only did God put His stamp of approval on Jacob’s back-to-Bethel trip, God blessed Jacob when he arrived in Bethel. God protected Jacob to Bethel, and He blessed Jacob at Bethel. Look with me from verse 9: “After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed 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. 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 come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.”

Maybe you’ve gotten quite comfortable in Shechem. You’re comfortable there. You’ve got your ‘Christian face on’, you’re doing well, your family’s happy, the land is good, the job is good, the paycheck is good. But if you’re at Shechem, let me guarantee it won’t be good for long. Things will fall apart until God gets your attention. God doesn’t want you at Shechem, God wants you at Bethel, He’s ready to bless you at Bethel. Those comforts you’re experiencing now are the world’s comforts which end, but the Bible tells us that the blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it (Proverbs 10:22).

So, my friends, where are you? Are you dwelling in Shechem? Are you enjoying many of the pleasures of the Godless world around you? Have you fought hard to make it seem like everything’s alright but you’re far from God?

God is calling you to come Back to Bethel. Come back to the house of God, back to a place where He reigns and rules over your life. Your blessing is waiting at Bethel. It’s not at Shechem. It’s at Bethel. Will you go?

While the physical Bethel was within walking distance of Shechem, the spiritual Bethel is unreachable from spiritual Shechem. Between the sin we were born into and intimacy with God lies an uncrossable divide. The Bible tells us that Shechem is going to be destroyed but Bethel was unreachable. And then Jesus came and built the bridge over so that we can move from Shechem to Bethel. There is no other bridge, there’s no other way to intimacy with God except to trust Jesus to take us safely across. And that’s what He does, because He is the Saviour. We can’t pay Him for the work that He does, but there is a proper response: Paul says that Jesus died for all that those who live would no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again. So we can live for Him by asking ourselves honestly, ‘What idols do I need to lay down before Him? What sin must I confess to him? What environments to I need to change so I can be near Him?’

Let’s take a minute and consider that, and respond to it. If there are idols in your life, commit right now to going and destroying them. If there is sin in your life, confess them to Him right now. Let’s take a minute and do that.

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