William D. Watley, Pastor

St. James A.M.E. Church

Newark, New Jersey

Summary: It’s easy to become so comfortable at Shechem that we forget about the promises we made at Bethel. Maybe, like Jacob, we were wandering around lost in life, but the grace of God found us and comforted us in the day of our distress. This sermon stresses, we need to find our way back to Bethel.

The journey from home. It must have been one of the loneliest nights of his life. Jacob had run away from home. As he faced the reality of his failing eyesight, Isaac found himself thinking more and more about the inevitability of his death. He needed to pass on the mantle of family leadership and make disposition of his estate between his two sons.

Isaac prepared to bless Esau as head of the family. However, Isaac’s wife Rebekah favored their son Jacob over Esau and successfully conspired with him to steal his brother’s blessing. When Esau discovered that his brother had cheated him, he swore that Jacob would not live to enjoy the rewards of his trickery. No matter what we’re after, the way we get it is just as important as getting it.

Esau recognized that although there was nothing he could do about his lost birthright and stolen blessing, he could do something to prevent Jacob from enjoying what rightfully belonged to him. He resolved that when his father died, he would kill Jacob. Rebekah learned of Esau’s designs and told Jacob to run fast and far to the distant home of her brother Laban.

Jacob was alone in the middle of the night, fleeing the murderous wrath of his brother. There he was, miles from his home, perhaps on the first long journey of his life. The journey from home is always a long and difficult journey to make. There he was, the grandson of Abraham, father of the faith; there he was, the son of Isaac, whose own life had been spared because of his father’s faith—separated from all he knew and loved. There he was, on the bleak summit of the Bethel plateau, with his head propped upon a stone for a pillow. There he lay—heart burdened and spirit depressed.

Alone, but not deserted. Out there by himself, Jacob discovered he was not alone. While feeling dejected, he discovered that he was not deserted. Out there, away from the reach of Esau, Jacob discovered that he was not out of the reach of God. As he dreamed, he saw the vision of a ladder or stairway that stretched from heaven to earth, upon which angels were ascending and descending. The Lord who stood above it told Jacob that one day his descendants would dwell in the land and in the place where he slept. Jacob received the further assurance that God would be with him and would one day bring him back to this place.

Jacob awoke and said: ?Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven? (Gn 28: 16-17, NRSV). The next day Jacob took the stone that had been his pillow, set it up as a monument, and consecrated it by pouring oil on it. He called the place Bethel, which means ?house of God.? Jacob made a vow, saying, ?If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, the Lord shall be my God, and this stone shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you? (Gn 28: 20-22, NRSV). Let us note a couple of things about Jacob’s pledge to tithe. First, Jacob’s pledge was made when he was a wandering fugitive. His pledge was made when he was at his weakest financially. His pledge was based on his faith that God would provide him the means to keep it.

We ought never to assume that persons who tithe are necessarily more prosperous and free of debt than others. We ought never to assume that those who pledge to tithe know that they will be able to keep their pledge or that they know how they will pay their tithe. We ought never to assume that persons who tithe have their financial situation all worked out. ?If they had my bills, they wouldn’t be tithing,? some might say. How do you know they don’t have as many bills as you?

Like Jacob, many people who pledge to tithe are financially shaky at best. Jacob’s pledge was a result of his belief in God’s promise of protection and care for him. Most people I know pledge on the same basis. We pledge in faith that God will help us and provide the means for us to keep our pledge. The apostle Paul reminds us, ?Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience? (Rm 8:24-25, NRSV).

Secondly, Jacob’s pledge to tithe was a voluntary act. Jacob did not tithe because tithing was part of God’s law at that time. The first Old Testament tither was Abraham. In Genesis 14:20 Abraham tithed to Melchizedek a tenth of everything he had as an act of thanksgiving to God for victory in battle. In Genesis 28 Jacob pledged to tithe to God a tenth of all he had. Both of these incidents occurred many generations before the law was given to Moses.

We tithe because the Scriptures identify tithing as an appropriate standard, one way of expressing thanksgiving and faith. Other standards of giving lifted up by the Scriptures include that of the widow, who gave the two mites; Barnabas, who sold his field and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and Jesus, who gave His life. Each gave not a tenth, but all. Their gifts of all, like Abraham’s and Jacob’s gifts of the tenth, were given voluntarily, as acts of thanksgiving and expressions of faith. For ?God loves a cheerful giver? (2Cor 9:7, NRSV).

At the close of Genesis 28, we see Jacob, the homeless young man, making a faith pledge to give God a tenth. By the opening of chapter 35, over thirty years have passed. We observe two things. First, God has kept the promise made at Bethel; second, Jacob has not. Since the time that Jacob rested his head on the stone in the middle of the night, he had become a very wealthy and powerful person. He had settled at Shechem with his large family. He owned herds of livestock and his land holdings were vast. God had kept every promise made to him. Jacob, however, had become so comfortable at Shechem that he had forgotten his promise to return to the spot of his heavenly visitation and build an altar there. He had forgotten that he had promised to give a tenth of all he had to God.

The heart’s altar. It’s easy to become so comfortable at Shechem that we forget about the promises we made at Bethel. That’s why I believe that every now and then we ought to rededicate ourselves anew to God. I believe in renewing our stewardship and reviewing our discipleship commitments. It’s easy to forget the promises we made when we were scared and desperate or when we first felt the presence of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

But though our memories are short, God’s memory is long. God came to Jacob and said, ?Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make there an altar to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau? (Gn 35:1). Jacob then went to his household and said: ?Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purity yourselves. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, that I may make there an altar to the God who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone? (Gn 35: 2-3).

Not only had Jacob forgotten his vow, but he had allowed strange gods to infiltrate his household. When we forget our word to God and God’s word to us, it’s easy to become infiltrated by strange gods, strange doctrines, and strange ideas. When we fail to remember the God of Bethel it’s easy to start making allowances and permit things that we know we shouldn’t. Incorrect and forgotten stewardship commitments lead to shady discipleship. When we fail to keep God first in our giving, God also ceases to be first in our living.

Maybe that’s why the spiritual life of the church is sometimes so poor, and our stewardship has become so shaky. When the early church had needs, people sacrificed and gave as God had prospered them. Somewhere we started believing that we needed to get something back for what we gave other than the blessings that God has given and continues to give. We started pushing tickets, pushing tapes, and pushing shows. More sins and strange practices have entered the life of the church through some of our fund-raising. Let’s go back to the Bethel of sound biblical giving and stewardship where we pledge: ?I’ll erect an altar in my heart and give at least a tenth of all you give to me.?

We need not only to return to our Bethels of biblical stewardship and tithing; we need to return to other Bethels of broken promises and forgotten vows. We need to go back to that Bethel and do as we promised. We were taught to give in the church and to the church with thanksgiving and faith. We were taught to respect God’s church, God’s preacher, and God’s people.

Maybe, like Jacob, we were wandering around lost in life, confused and lonely, but the grace of God found us and comforted us in the day of our distress. We need to find our way back to Bethel.

When Jacob went back to Bethel, God met him there and called him again by his new name, Israel. When we return to Bethel, God will meet us there. We’ll hear God speak afresh and receive a new vision and a new name.

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This abridged sermon is taken from Dr. Watley’s book, Bring the Full Tithe: Sermons on the Grace of Giving, copyright 1995 by Judson Press. Used by permission of Judson Press, 800-4-JUDSON, www.judsonpress.com.

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July–September, 2002

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