************ Sermon on Genesis 49:1-4 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on January 11, 2015
"Reuben Gets What He Deserves"
Notice the emphasis on listening. It is so important that Jacob says it twice: "Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel." "Listen." TJ & Laura, as all new parents eventually find out, you will be saying this often to Cole. "Listen." "Listen to your daddy. Listen to your mommy. Listen."
Most often the word "listen" in the Bible is an imperative. In other words, it is not a request, it is not a plea, it is not a petition; rather, it is a command. And, the word goes way beyond hearing to doing. Meaning what? Meaning that when Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mk 4:9,23; Rev 2 & 3) He was not merely commanding that the people hear His words but that they also obey His words promptly and sincerely. Meaning that when parents say "listen" to their children, they are looking for obedience. I know someone who can't listen to any advice ever. No matter what is said, you can bet he will do the opposite. This also is not what Jesus has in mind. "Listen."
Jacob is now at the end of his life. He has learned a lesson or two during his 147 years. He has gained wisdom. So he calls his sons to listen. He has something to say about each of his sons and their future. We know, of course, that this is not just human wisdom that Jacob has because what he is about to say is inspired by the Spirit of God. Therefore, we are told he gave each son "the blessing appropriate to him" (Gen 49:28).
Jacob's first words are to his oldest son, Reuben. On this Lord's Supper Sunday we notice that God is sovereign and that sin is punished.
I God is Sovereign
A The children of Israel listening to Moses believe the oldest boy in each Israelite family occupies a special place before the Lord. They believe this because that is what God revealed to Moses:
(Ex 13:1-2) The LORD said to Moses, (2) "Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal."
But what if a man plays favorites? What if, like Jacob, he has a favorite wife and a favorite son? Even then, according to Deuteronomy (Deut 21:15-17), the right of the firstborn must be acknowledged.
With this in mind, Reuben had every expectation of receiving a double portion of his father's blessing. He expected preeminence in power and dignity especially when Jacob, as expected, begins with the oldest son.
(Gen 49:3) "Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power."How Reuben's heart must have swelled with pride and expectation when he heard these words. "Yes, that's me. I am the firstborn. Mine are the rights and privileges. Mine is honor and power."
Today we would say Reuben was counting his chickens before they hatched. Because Reuben's bubble is burst when his father revokes the privileges of the firstborn: "Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel" (Gen 49:4). How these words must have hurt him and shocked him.
B God has sovereignly ordained this moment as a test of Jacob. Don't forget, all his life Jacob has worked dishonestly. He has taken advantage of situations. He has relied on self rather than on God. Will Jacob willingly bless according to the Lord's intention or will he, like Isaac, be forced to do the right thing (Gen 27:1-29)? Isaac, if you remember, wanted to bless Esau even though God had announced before birth that the older would serve the younger (Gen 25:23; 27:4). Would Jacob repeat the mistake and sin of his own father, Isaac?
There comes a time when every believer finds themselves in the same place as Jacob (and Isaac). There comes a time when there is a clash between our will and God's will. What do we do at that time? What kind of example do we leave for our children and grandchildren? Do we submit to God or do we sinfully follow our own way?
C So what happened? What did Jacob do? Joseph, and his sons, were given the physical blessings belonging to the firstborn. And Judah was given the spiritual blessings belonging to the firstborn. As for Reuben, "Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel" (Gen 49:4). What is this image of "turbulent waters"? Don't think of a burbling brook or gentle stream. Think of a flash flood. Think of a dam about to break and wreak havoc on the homes and cities downstream.
Reuben has shown himself to be unstable as water, slippery in character, unsteady, even foolish. Do you remember the extremely foolish offer Reuben made to father Jacob? Joseph, in disguise, had told his brothers to come back to Egypt with Benjamin. Jacob refused this request. Then Reuben said to his father, "You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you" (Gen 42:37). Do you remember this? What an awful thing to say. What a foolish thing to say. What a dumb thing to say. What kind of father would offer to put his own sons to death?! "Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel" (Gen 49:4).
The sins and deficiencies of parents are often found in their children. The history of the tribe of Reuben is proof of this. No prophet, judge, or king came from Reuben. Instability characterized this family and tribe. Remember when Sisera oppressed the Israelites for twenty years? At that time God raised up Deborah and Barak to lead the Israelites in battle. The men of Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali risked their lives going against Sisera and his 900 iron chariots (Judges 4 & 5). Guess what the men of Reuben did when they heard the call to battle? They searched their hearts. They stayed among the campfires. They listened to the whistling for the flocks (Judges 5:15-16). In other words, they were too scared to do anything. They played it safe and did nothing. They did not help their brothers and sisters in the faith.
D Reuben was the firstborn. Yet, inspired by the Spirit, Jacob did not give him the blessing of the firstborn. We learn, again, that God is not bound by culture or custom or the commonly accepted way of doing things. God is sovereign. So God is free to accomplish His good will apart from what we say or do or think.
When we study Genesis we see that for four consecutive generations God has upset the pattern of blessing the firstborn. He blessed Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben, and Ephraim over Manasseh. God is free to have mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and to harden whom He wants to harden (Rom 9:18). By the providence of God, Reuben is an example of how the first will be last (Mt 19:30).
It is too easy to think, at least subconsciously, that God chooses us and blesses us because we deserve it. But let us remember that sinners deserve nothing and earn nothing. We don't deserve the grace spoken of by both baptism and the Lord's Supper this morning. Rather, grace is like God Himself: it is sovereign. So, we celebrate God's undeserving grace this morning in both baptism and the Lord's Supper.
II Sin is Punished
A My sermon title this morning is "Reuben Gets What He Deserves". You may wonder why Reuben deserves to be treated this way. After all, he is still the firstborn. On the face of it, this seems so unfair.
Jacob himself tells us what happened: "for you went up onto your father's bed, onto my couch and defiled it" (Gen 49:4).
Do you remember what Reuben did? "Reuben went in and slept with his father's concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it" (Gen 35:22). Do you remember what Jacob did and said? Jacob did nothing. Jacob said nothing. Jacob reminded silent in the face of sin. Here is a reminder we cannot be silent bystanders when it comes to sin. That is why we need to speak out – as individuals and as a church – against the sin of abortion and homosexual marriage and racial violence and so on. According to the Catechism, those who are silent bystanders share in such horrible sins (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 99).
Most people wrongly identify Reuben's sin as adultery. Yes, Reuben committed adultery but the sin went far, far deeper than adultery. By sleeping with his father's concubine, do you know what Reuben was saying and doing? Reuben was proclaiming himself as head of the family in Jacob's place. Reuben was laying claim to Jacob's position. Reuben was acting as if Jacob was dead and he, as the firstborn son, was now in charge. Do you know what the secular world calls this? This is called mutiny. This is called revolution. This is called rebellion. Reuben was a usurper who was unwilling to wait upon the Lord.
B Do you know what Reuben teaches us? Reuben teaches us that no sin remains unpunished. It looked like Reuben got away with adultery and rebellion. It looked like there were no consequences. It looked like there was no justice. But from his deathbed Jacob teaches us this is not the case:
(Gen 49:4) Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father's bed, onto my couch and defiled it.When Jacob says this at least 30 years have passed. Yet, in all that time it is obvious Reuben has not confessed and not repented of his sin.
Don't forget, an inspired Jacob is speaking in our Bible reading. That means these aren't his words. These are God's words. So it is God Who is punishing the sin of Reuben.
What is true for Reuben is also true for you and me. We are being warned that unconfessed sin, unrepentant sin, bears rotten fruit. We are being warned that unconfessed and unrepentant sin is punished.
C The message of both baptism and the Lord's Supper is that the punishment is taken by Christ. Christ Himself bears the punishment for our sin. The result? He washes us clean with His shed blood and poured-out Spirit. His body was offered and broken for us and His blood poured out for us so ours is forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Do you believe this? Do you believe Christ has taken your place?
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