Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Life of Jacob, Part Two

Life Sure Gets Complicated
(Genesis 28-31)
Part Two of the Series Struggling With God—
Lessons from the Life of Jacob

October 1, 2006

“Life sure gets complicated once you get past 18.” I remember a song on the radio with that line when I was a kid. Man, I wanted to get past 18 and on my own so bad, I didn’t believe it. Once I was out on my own, things would get a lot easier—so I thought. I would do what I wanted when I wanted and it would be easy. I would get an education and a job and make a lot of money. It would be simple.

Wrong! Life does get complicated. Jacob’s story unfolds as one thing leads to another. He moves, he marries, he has a family, he realizes that his father-in-law is cheating him, his brothers-in-law want to kill him, so he ends up on the run again, coming back to the land where his brother, Esau also wants to kill him. Sounds like fun. Sounds the like the plot of a telenovella.

Last week we began to look at the life of Jacob because Jacob’s story tells us things that can give us great insight into how God works in us to enable us to grow up spiritually. Last week we saw that while God had His hand on Jacob, Jacob was a schemer. He scammed Esau out of both his birthright and his blessing, so he sets off for the distant region of Paddan Aram, the ancestral homeland of his people, both to flee from Esau’s rage—his brother was mumbling about killing him—as well as to find an acceptable wife from his clan, just as his own father had done before him.

According to Romans 8:29, God’s desire is that we to be “conformed to the likeness of his Son.” That is, that we would love God and love His will and love people the same way that Jesus did when He was among us. God wants to work in us to become a fully formed follower of Jesus. Jesus Himself taught what that fully formed state looks like: it’s when we love God fully and love people truly. So far, Jacob has shown very little interest in God and has shown that he really only loves himself. But God is at work in Jacob’s life.

In the story of Jacob, we see God at work, to change him and woo him and draw him into a deep and real relationship with himself. He does that, so often, in and through the complications of life. Sometimes we think and act as if the Lord is neutral about things like work and love and marriage and family strife—that God only shows up at church. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is at work all the time, and loves to use the complications of life to form us and to shape us into the kind of person who shows His glory and grace and who turns to Him and gives Him the praise for the things He has done.

So God is at work in Jacob’s life. In this section, these four chapters, we’ll see God at work in Jacob’s life in two distinct ways. First, we’ll see how God makes certain promises to Jacob. God has a plan, and he revealed just enough of Jacob’s part in the plan to get his attention and to start him thinking about God’s place in his life. Now, it was only a start, and Jacob had a long way to go, but it was a beginning.

The second way that God went to work in Jacob’s life was through his relationship with his new father-in-law, Laban. I wish I could say it was because Laban was a great mentor to him, but that’s not the case. Instead, Laban is just as much a con man as Jacob. As a matter of fact, he may even be a better con man. Laban tricked, used and abused Jacob until Jacob couldn’t take it anymore.

What happened with Jacob is a perfect illustration of one of the iron laws of life: the law of sowing and reaping. The apostle Paul puts it this way in Galatians 6:7-8:

7Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

Jacob had sowed deception, so he would be deceived; Jacob had sowed trickery for gain, so he would be ripped off. In Laban, God gave Jacob a taste of his own medicine.

First, let’s see how God meets and makes some key promises to Jacob. That’s in chapter 28. First, before he takes off for Paddan Aram, his father Isaac gives him a blessing (vs. 3-4):

3May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. 4May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.

Abraham was Jacob’s grandfather, and the memory of God’s promises to Abraham was becoming more of a family tradition than a living reality for Jacob. Still, these were the words were ringing in Jacob’s ear when he left.

He left from Beersheba, in the far south of the land on his journey to Paddan Aram, about 300 miles away. 30 miles was considered about the most you could go in one day. I want you to imagine Jacob leading a donkey laden with supplies. He pushes hard that first day, probably leaving before dawn and going into the night, until he’s so tired he has to stop. Instead of 30 miles, he’s walked almost 40 miles that day—a long, long way for a guy who had been a homebody. That’s when God speaks to him a second time—this time, not through his father’s blessing, but in a dream.

Look at Genesis 28:10-18:

10Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12He had 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. 13There 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. 14Your 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. 15I 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."

16When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." 17He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."

18Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

This has been called the vision of “Jacob’s Ladder”, though the NIV is right to translate what Jacob saw as a “stairway.” (More about the “stairway” later.) Above this stairway, he sees the Lord who makes the same promises to him that He’d made in years past to Abraham and his father Isaac—just like the blessing Isaac had given him.

Now there’s an upside and a downside to this vision. The upside is that the reality of God and His promises have been stamped on Jacob’s heart to a greater extent than ever before. The downside is that Jacob reacts in a way that shows that he still has a primitive, almost pagan, idea of God Himself.

Look at what he says. First, he think that’s he’s kind of stumbled on a heavenly gateway. (Kind of like the TV show “Stargate SG-1”.) So he ends up giving the village a new name, Bethel, which means The House of God.

Second, he makes a vow to God that has all the marks of a pagan vow. Look at vs. 20-22:

20Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God 22and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth."

God, IF you go with me, watch over me, give me food and clothes, enable to come back THEN you’ll be my God and I will be a tither! Isn’t that nice of Jacob!

What Jacob experienced here isn’t all that different from what a middle school student may experience at camp. It’s a spiritual high. It has a huge impact. But that high isn’t matched by a deep knowledge of God and His ways. So we play “Let’s Make a Deal” with God. If you give me this, then I’ll do that for you.

But this is not God’s way. It may be the way of the pagan gods, but not the one true God. Again: he tells Jacob that He has a plan, and that Jacob has a role to play in that plan. This was not an offer; it was God’s sovereign plan. Jacob didn’t get that yet, and it would be a long while before he would.

Onward, to the north, Jacob journeys. In chapter 29, he reaches Paddan Aram. He meets a woman from his clan named Rachel, and he falls in love at first sight.

Rachel’s father is Laban, who is also Rebekah’s brother. This Laban is a cunning character. Look in Genesis 28:14-15:

14Then Laban said to him, "You are my own flesh and blood."

After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month, 15Laban said to him, "Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be."

OK, a month’s enough; you can’t stay here for free, boy. He was a son in Isaac’s house, but in Laban’s house, he becomes a servant.

Jacob says, OK, that’s reasonable. Wages? What I really want is that cute daughter of yours, the young one, Rachel (not Leah, the older one, one the one with the bad eyes). So I’ll work for you for seven years, then I get her. Deal?

Laban agrees. Seven years pass. They have a big wedding feast. They have a big wedding night. And then in the morning, who does Jacob wake up in bed with? With bad-eyes Leah! Spitting mad, Jacob goes to Laban who calmly says, “It’s not our custom to marry off the younger before the older, so it’s a package deal. In another week, you can have Rachel as your wife as well. Oh, and by the way, that means you owe me seven more years of work.”

Now if I’d been Jacob, I think I would have said, “I’ve been here for SEVEN YEARS. Don’t you think you should have mentioned this little custom before now?”

But this is Jacob reaping what he’d sown. He tricked his own father, pretending to be the older son, Esau; now Laban tricked Jacob by having Leah pretend to be the younger daughter, Rachel. And he ends up being Laban’s virtual slave for 14 long years.

Laban wasn’t doing this for Jacob’s spiritual development, but God was. Laban was unloading an undesirable daughter and getting Jacob’s labor in return. But God was behind the scenes. God was using Laban’s greed and lack of character to build Jacob’s character. Hardship has the potential to make us better people. Jacob was learning that actions have consequences. He was learning patience. He was learning responsibility. He was learning self-control. Think about that when you think of the Labans in your life.

Now in chapter 29 and 30, we’re told of the births of many of Jacob’s children. And even as his family increases, his flocks increase. The 14 years are up, but Laban manages to keep Jacob around for about six more years. His flocks grow to be more numerous and healthier than Laban’s.

So it’s no surprise to read in chapter 31 than Laban’s own sons are resenting Jacob. Look in Genesis 31:1:

Jacob heard that Laban's sons were saying, "Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father."

He must have had a flashback to his brother, Esau. These guys are seeing their own inheritance winding up in Jacob’s sheep pens. So he brings Leah and Rachel together and they form a bold plan: to flee with the children, the servants and the flocks to Canaan, back to the land Jacob had come from. And so they do.

When Laban found out, he pursued them. He wanted to keep Jacob as his slave and good luck charm. He knew that God had prospered Jacob, and that through Jacob, Laban had prospered as well. But just before they caught up with Jacob and the whole caravan God warned Laban in a dream not to mess with Jacob—not harm him or even to say anything about him. When he saw Jacob, Laban said he was just there to say good-bye to his daughters and grandkids, and he and Jacob made a covenant not to harm one another.

Laban was also looking for some missing idols, little household “gods” as they are called in 30, that Rachel had taken without Jacob’s knowledge. She was still pretty pagan in her beliefs and she probably took them because she believed they would guarantee her fertility (she’d had only one child, Joseph, as compared to Leah’s five sons and one daughter). She cleverly managed to keep them idols hidden until Laban gave up looking for them.

So Jacob and family are safely away from Laban and his sons. They are rich by ancient standards. But they are now on the outskirts of Canaan, and that meant Esau was nearby. The central event in the life of Jacob was yet to come. He will wrestle with God and his life will be revolutionized. But that’s next week. You don’t want to miss that!

Is God at work in your life? There is no question that He is. The only question is what you’re doing with His work—how you’re responding to His work.

Over the years, maybe you sensed God’s hand on you. You have a sense that God’s been there at some crucial points in your life. You’ve had your own “Bethel” times, times when you’ve sensed him near.

But at the same time, you’ve also run into your Labans—people and circumstances that have made you wonder if God even cares at all for you. Like Jacob, you didn’t realize that God sent the Labans as well. God uses the hard times, and hard people, to draw us near to Him.

But God’s been there the whole time. Jesus Himself has been there the whole time. Interesting—Jesus once mentioned the story of Jacob’s dream and He said something amazing about it. In John 1 He tells Nathaniel that before they’d even met, He’d seen him, like in a vision, reading under the fig tree. He was so amazed that he said to Jesus, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!”

Then Jesus says, in John 1:50-51:

50Jesus said, "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that." 51He then added, "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

Did you catch that? Jesus is saying that He is the stairway between heaven and earth, the stairway that Jacob saw in his dream, the One with the angels going up and down. He is the way, the one mediator between God and mankind.

And Jesus is the connection, the stairway, the mediator for you today. God wants you to know His best. He gave His best when He sent His Son. He is watching over every aspect of your life. He wants you to know Him as loving Lord and as Heavenly Father. God has a plan just for you. Don’t miss it!

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