The 1968 Olympic games are remembered for being first. These were the first games to be held in Latin America and the first games to be held in a Spanish-speaking country. This was the first gold medal for George Foreman of the George Foreman grill. But not for grilling. It was for boxing. This was the first time East and West Germany would compete as separate teams. And then there was Joseph Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania. He was a long distance runner.
It was the Olympic marathon. There were seventy-five runners to start the race. But there would be just fifty-seven runners to finish the race. It was the halfway mark. Several runners were fighting for position when Joseph Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania fell. His leg was badly injured, bloodied, with a dislocated joint. About an hour after the gold medalist and the silver medalist and the bronze medalist finished the race, the crowd began to thin out. The sun was setting. And then word began to spread about Joseph Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania and his leg. He was not finished; he was still running! The crowd gathered and paused and waited and looked. Joseph was entering the stadium. The cheers grew louder and louder and louder as he hobbled across the finish line. Joseph Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, a long distance runner had finished the race.
And then came the question. Why did he finish the race? Perhaps a bit puzzled, Joseph responded, “I do not think you understand. My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 7,000 miles to finish the race.”
Why Did He Finish the Race?
Why did he finish the race? His leg was injured; it was dislocated at a joint. He was battered and tattered and tired. And he was old; seventy years old and he finished the race. And this is not Joseph Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, a long distance runner. This is Jacob of Genesis 28 and Genesis 29 and Genesis 30 and Genesis 31 and Genesis 32 and Genesis 33 and yes, even Genesis 34. The big idea of Genesis 35 is that this Jacob finished the race. And this affects me.
This affects me for a most unsuspecting reason. When Jacob started this race, this journey, he was forty years old. I am holding on to being thirty-seven years old tighter and tighter as the year presses on, but I inch ever so closer to being forty. Do you know how many days there are in forty years? There are fourteen thousand, six hundred, ten days in forty years (for me, at least). And so, this has me thinking, a little bit, about these almost forty years or fourteen thousand, six hundred, ten days. I am thinking about what I have done (and what I have not done) with all of those days.
But then I stop thinking about what I have done and what I have not done with all of those days. I stop because of Jacob. It is because the big idea of Genesis 35 is that Jacob finished the journey and he was seventy years old. Let that sink in for a moment. Jacob was seventy years old, maybe even a little older than that, when he finished the journey. I am not yet even close to being seventy. But Jacob at seventy years old finishing the journey, makes me think a whole lot more about finishing. And I am thinking, a little bit more, about these days that are paving the way to the finish. I have questions.
Why did Jacob finish the journey? Listen to the end of Genesis 35. “And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac sojourned” (v. 27). This is what Jacob had longed for going back to Genesis 28. “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, then the LORD shall be my God” (v. 21). Jacob said that when he was forty! And here he is at seventy, coming again to his father’s house in peace. It is obvious that the journey took a long time. But why did he finish? Even in considering Genesis 34, the darkest moment in the story of Jacob, why did he finish the journey?
Listen closely to Genesis 35:1. “God said to Jacob.” Pause there. This is too significant. When did God speak this to Jacob? I think I might know. Listen to Genesis 34:30. “Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi.” Mark this verse, notice it and then read Genesis 34:31. “But they said.” And now read Genesis 35:1 again. “God said to Jacob.” See the progression? There are three speakers, one right after another. First it is Jacob, then his two sons, and finally, it is God. I think “God said to Jacob” immediately follows the events of Genesis 34. In other words, Genesis 34 does not end with this exchange between Jacob and his two sons. Genesis 34 actually ends with God speaking Jacob.
So, why did Jacob finish the journey? I love this so much and it is because in the previous chapter Jacob looks like a complete failure, as a dad, or as a man, or maybe simply as a believer. And with that in view, he finishes the journey because God told him to. Now, is that not something to hold on to?
Arise, Go Up to Bethel
Listen closely to Genesis 35:1. “God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel.’” This almost sounds too inviting or too formal. It is actually quite forceful and to the point. “Get up and go.” God speaks and when he does, it immediately follows the interchange of Genesis 34:30-31. And when God speaks immediately following the interchange of the previous verses, he says to Jacob, “Get up.” Why is that important? It means Jacob has been sitting. Jacob has been sitting, resting, for way too long. How long has he been sitting, relaxing, resting, comfortable? For about ten years, ever since he stopped and pitched his tent in a wide open and green space just beyond the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18-20). I heard this best described as slothful ease. This will be important in a moment.
In Genesis 35:1, when God spoke to Jacob, there were a rush of commands that came forth. Arise or get up is a command. Go is a command. Dwell there is a command. Pause at this command. This is quite incredible. In the previous chapter, this word is used seven times (34:10; 10; 16; 21; 22; 23; 30). Where had Jacob been dwelling? Jacob had stopped on his journey, bought some land and pitched his tent right outside the city of Shechem (cf. 33:18-20). He stayed there for a good ten years. Then the people of the city and its leaders, desired that Jacob dwell with them and among them in the city. But God says to Jacob, and it is a command, “Dwell there.” Where is there?
There is one more command in Genesis 35:1. “Make an altar there.” What happens at an altar? Worship. But where is there? It is Bethel. Bethel is important for one reason. Bethel is mentioned three times in Jacob’s journey. The first time is Genesis 28. It is where Jacob first heard God’s voice. Listen to it. “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 promised you” (28:15). What did God say? Simply, God made promises. Twenty years later, Jacob hears God’s voice a second time. It is summarized in Genesis 31:13. “I am the God of Bethel.” Just simply notice that God says, “I am the God of Bethel.” It continues. “…where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.” Here God does not make promises. Instead, he reminds. He reminds Jacob of a vow Jacob made. When did Jacob make this vow? Back at Bethel, in Genesis 28 when God first spoke and made promises. What is God up to? Mentioning Bethel and reminding of Jacob’s vow is meant to remind Jacob of God’s promises. Jacob only made the vow because of God’s promises.
In Genesis 31, God sought to remind Jacob of Bethel and in Genesis 35, God sought to remind Jacob of Bethel. Why? It is because over time as Jacob was making this journey, God’s Word, God’s promises grew strangely dim. And I think it is why Jacob stopped at Shechem and stayed for a while and grew comfortable. God’s promises had grown strangely dim to him. One of those promises God made at Bethel was, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (28:15). Remember that promise.
Genesis 35:1 is when God speaks and it is all about reminding Jacob about Bethel. Concerning Bethel, God simply reminds Jacob that he is the “God who appeared to you” there. So, Bethel is significant and when God appeared to him there, he spoke to him there. Now here is what is so great; Genesis 35:2-4 is Jacob’s response to verse one. There are just two things I want to point out about Jacob’s response. First, look at verse two. “So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments.” As far as we know, there was only person who had taken foreign gods with them on this journey. It was Jacob’s wife Rachel and he was ignorant of it (31:19, 32).
But now, apparently, Rachel is not the only person of Jacob’s household who has foreign gods with them and this time Jacob is not ignorant of it. Where did these foreign gods come from? May I suggest that these foreign gods were from Shechem and it is because Jacob stopped near Shechem all those years ago (33:18-20). May I suggest further, that Jacob had a foreign god? Now, what could be a foreign god? Money, power, prestige. I do not think any of those things were a god, an idol to Jacob. I think his foreign god was comfort. Remember, God’s first command to Jacob was, “Get up!”
Now listen to verse three. Listen to what Jacob says about God. “[God] has been with me wherever I have gone.” Do you see what just happened?! Jacob is remembering Bethel! In remembering Bethel, he is remembering one of God’s promises! “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” This promise had grown strangely dim as Jacob sat at the idol of comfort.
The God Who Answers Me
But this is the part I could not wait to get to. And it is the part that has affected me the most. The reason we came back to Genesis 35 this week is because I have been asking questions. And the question on my mind all week was, how do I finish? And I am not talking about this sermon. I am talking about the journey. And even then, I do not think I am asking the right question. Part of me hopes that I am far off from the finish line. Some of you are a lot closer to the finish line than me. I am only 37. But when should you be asking, how do I finish? The better question, though, is, how am I finishing? This is regardless of age, too.
Listen to verse three. Listen to what Jacob says about God. This is his response to what God said. It is so great. “The God who answers me in the day of my distress.” What does Jacob say about God? He is the God who answers me. And it is really not, as some have translated it, “the God who answered me.” God is the God who answers! Who does he answer? Me. Who is me? (cf. John 1:12 and Matthew 6:9). Now, you will love this; the word answer, can mean, to sing a response.
But the point is that God answers me. Meaning, he is answering a request or a call. Therefore, who is doing the calling? Me! So, this tells me two things about how I am to be finishing the journey. Or what I really need more than anything else in finishing the journey. I need God’s Word. I need his promises. And I need to pray. And I need both of those things simultaneously always as a I finish.
I have one more thing to show you. Notice that Jacob says that God answers him in the day of distress. This word for distress appears in Psalm 34:6. “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.” And do you know what Psalm 34:8 says? “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” Would you like to be tasting and seeing that the Lord is good? As you are finishing the journey?