Bible Passage: Genesis 49:10
Pastor: Pastor Schlicht
Sermon Date: November 29, 2017
“Gather round,” he said, “that I may tell you what will happen in the days to come.” Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, the one who wrestled with God, the father of the twelve tribes, Israel himself, was dying. And his twelve sons circled around his bedside to receive his parting words. But what came out of their father’s mouth was far from expected. Jacob first severely rebuked the firstborn, Reuben, and proceeded to curse the elder brothers Simeon and Levi on account of their violence. And then he turned his failing eyes to Judah. Inasmuch as he heard the condemnations heaped on his older brothers, Judah wanted to step back from his father’s bedside, but Jacob’s words called him back. He had a different message for his fourth son. “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until the one to whom it belongs comes.” The fading patriarch utters a prophecy about a future ruler that would come from Judah’s line. This is a prophecy of the Christ, the Messiah, spoken almost 2,000 years before Mary would birth. It is a lesser known prophecy, but still holds as much meaning for you and I today as it did for Judah so long ago. The key to understanding it, however, lies in the importance of the “scepter” or “ruler’s staff” which Jacob prophesied the coming king would carry.
In other words, “What’s the big deal about a staff?” Well, in ancient times, tribal chieftains would carry a distinctive staff as a sign of authority over their tribe or village. These staffs would be passed down to subsequent rulers and were used in ceremonies and held between the feet of a ruler at tribal council. In fact, Bedouin sheikhs and tribal chieftains in Zambia still carry such staffs today.
This authoritative type of staff was also used in ancient Israel. Think of the staff of Moses used to perform wonders in Egypt, to separate the Red Sea, or to bring forth water from a rock. Or like Aaron’s staff that God caused to bud, when his authority as High Priest was challenged (Num. 17). And, although it isn’t a story you learn in Sunday School, we know that Judah himself carried such a staff. In Genesis 38, Judah’s distinctive staff along with his seal and cord were the deposits he left with Tamar, the prostitute, until he could return with full payment. In that story, he promised to pay for her services with a young goat and the only stick that could serve as a deposit for such a valuable commodity would be the staff that symbolized Judah’s authority as tribal ruler.
If this then is the “ruler’s staff” or “scepter” referred to by Jacob, why is it mentioned in Judah’s prophecy? Well, let me paraphrase Jacob’s message as follows: “Remember, Judah, when you gave away your staff? When you used the sign of your authority to pay for sin? Your God does. Yet despite that past sin, the Lord’s promises remain sure. You will keep the ruler’s staff, not because of your personal worthiness but because one is coming who is worthy to rule. One from your descendants, to whom that staff really belongs, is the rightful king of Judah.” This isn’t really about a wooden staff, it’s about authority; it’s about forgiveness; it’s about hope and a future.
It may be odd to think that this prophecy speaks to you as much as it did to Judah, but you also carry a staff. Not one like Rey in Star Wars, but the authoritative insignia of a staff still exists today. The traditional wooden staff was adapted throughout history. In the royal court of the middle ages the chieftain’s staff became the king’s scepter, it then came to signify the military power of might that a king wielded. We see that in the modern era when in Germany generals had a “staff” (Generalstab) of military officers. They were his living staves of authority that enforced his orders. It has since been adopted as the general term for a group of coworkers under a common authority. What I’m saying is, whether it’s the staff that Gandalf carries in the Lord of the Rings, the scepter that glitters in the Crown Jewels, or a group of employees gathered around their boss, there’s still an authority that comes with wielding a staff today.
What kind of staff do you carry? We all have authority in different areas of our life. Many of us here in this room hold the staff of authority as parents in the home. teachers in the school, leaders in this church, or a position of management at work. And everyone of us, regardless of who you are, holds, to a certain extent, the staff of authority over our your body, your thoughts, words, and actions.
Which leads to the question: How have you handled your staff? Have you ever, like Judah, let your authority purchase sin? Have you ever wielded the power that comes with authority while forgetting the sacrifice and servant-like nature God requires of those in authority? Do you not mind throwing your weight around the office to get others to do less desirable jobs? Have you ever let your authority over you own children become a burden to them? Or how about those times when we have avoided our God-given authority? When we set down our staff to sin. When we have let others down who depend on us? When we are in charge of a group of people and do not give them the love and leadership they need to succeed.
Friends, to be in authority in any sphere means that someday you must give an account to God, who entrusted that position to you. And we won’t be able to blame those under our authority for our own lack of godly leadership. If a sailor runs a boat into the rocks while the captain is napping, the navy will discipline the sailor. But they will also call the captain on the carpet for not running his ship properly. The same principle applies to God and his people. If a church refuses to follow God’s Word, each member will answer to God. But he will hold the elders and the pastors especially accountable. Why didn’t they confront the errors and lead the church into obedience? If a family drifts away from the Lord, each member firstly will answer to God. But, the father especially will be called to account if he didn’t teach and set a godly example of Christian faith. We all will be held accountable for how we have wielded our staff.
But the good news is Jacob’s prophecy for Judah apply to our hearts today as well as Judah’s. Jacob says of all those who hope in Christ, “Remember, when you gave away your staff? When you set aside your authority to sin? Your God does. Yet despite that past sin, the Lord’s promises remain sure. You will keep that ruler’s staff, not because of your personal worthiness but because one came who is worthy and he rules in your place. He is the rightful king of Judah and your rightful king as well.”
You see Jesus didn’t set his authority aside to sin, he set his authority aside to be born in a stable. He who had all authority in heaven and earth came down to be a helpless babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. The prince of peace set down his scepter to come be one of us. And though he might not look like much of a king in Bethlehem’s stable, there he proves, as at nowhere else that he is our rightful king. He used his authority to serve us, to know our troubles and our weakness, to share in the ordinary messy experiences of being a human. And one day out of love for us he set down his staff to pick up a cross. He’s the rightful king because he is the only king who loved us enough to do what was necessary to save us. And his authority over even death itself will bring us to heaven someday.
This advent, when you may feel there are way too many things underneath the umbrella of your authority. Stop and ask your king for help. In his Word you will find wisdom to wield your own staff with grace and strength. And remember that know matter what happens here on earth, Jesus has won for you an eternal scepter in heaven. God grant you a blessed Advent as we await Judah’s rightful king.