Jacob Believes God Is With Him and For Him
Passage: Genesis 30:25–31:55
What do we need to remember when life is hard?
When I was a little kid, I remember imagining what life would be like in my 20s. I imagined the apartment I would live in and having fun with my friends and all the great experiences I would have. Perhaps you did the same thing. I’m sure when you imagined your future, you didn’t imagine life being hard. When we mentally plan our futures, we plan all the good things. I’m sure you didn’t imagine yourself depressed or anxious or divorced or grieving a miscarriage or mourning infertility or dealing with wounds given to you by people who were supposed to love you and protect you. I’m sure you didn’t imagine people making fun of you or friends betraying you. I’m sure you didn’t imagine yourself struggling with money or addictions. I’m sure you didn’t imagine yourself unemployed or single desiring to be married or childless or talking with your kid for the hundredth time about their behavior.
When we imagine our futures, we don’t imagine life being hard. But when the bus finally drops us off in our future, often life is not as we imagined it would be. In those moments of pain, hardship, disappointment, and suffering, the deepest desires of our heart often come out in the form of questions. And often, the questions are addressed to God. When we are going through hard times, what questions do we ask God? Two big ones are: where are you and why is this happening?
This evening we are continuing our series called Beginning the Journey Home in the book of Genesis. In this part of the book of Genesis, the focus is on the grandson of Abraham, a man named Jacob.
Right now, life is hard for Jacob. Things have not turned out as he planned. He has just lived through what were probably the most difficult fourteen years of his life. Jacob used to live with his family but he had a bad rivalry with his brother whom he took advantage of and cheated. He also lied to and tricked his blind father in order to steal his brother’s blessing from dad. Because of this, his brother Esau wanted to kill him so Jacob was sent to live with his uncle until Esau cooled down.
But things weren’t easy in with his uncle either because now he is on the receiving end of these things, getting a taste of his own medicine. His uncle Laban has taken advantage of him, deceived him, and tricked him. His home is filled with jealousy and rivalry between his two wives.
Life has taken Jacob down a path he did not plan. But the backdrop for all of this is God’s promise to Jacob. God told him: “I am going to bless you and bless others through you. I am going to be with you, keep you wherever you go, and bring you back here safely.” But I think if we were in Jacob’s shoes, we might be asking some of those questions that we wrote on the board: “Where are you God? Why is this happening to me?”
The big question this passage answers is: What do we need to remember when life is hard? What do we need to remember when life is hard?
Let’s recap what we read in chapter 30 then we will answer that question in chapter 31.
Jacob Tries to Leave But Agrees to Stay (Genesis 30:25-43)
After fourteen years in Haran with Laban and after seven years of marriage to his wife Rachel, she has her first child named Joseph. At this point, Jacob decides it is time to return home. Laban protests this idea. Jacob has been working as a shepherd for Laban and he is the best Laban’s got. Jacob is very good at what he does plus Laban sees that God is blessing him through Jacob. Laban doesn’t want to lose his best employee so he asks Jacob what it would take to keep him on the team. “Name your wages,” Laban says.
In that time, shepherds would often receive 20% of the flock as their wages. Jacob proposes a deal that Laban can’t refuse. Most of the sheep are all white and most of the goats are either all black or all brown. A small number are spotted, speckled, or striped. So Jacob says to Laban, “I will take out all the sheep and goats that are currently speckled, striped, and spotted. Then I will shepherd what remains and whatever is born speckled, striped, and spotted from this time forward will belong to me.” This sounds great to Laban because Jacob is starting with zero and will probably not get much after that with the speckled, striped, and spotted removed. Even if he does get some, it will be way less than 20%. Laban takes no chances, he removes the spotted, speckled, and striped himself and moves them far away from Jacob.
Jacob sets to work and puts two strategies into action. First, he applies a folk tradition of his day that said what animals can see when they are breeding affects what they give birth to. Jacob wants the sheep and goats to have speckled and spotted babies so he puts speckled and spotted sticks in front of them while they breed. Second, he only puts the speckled and spotted sticks in front of the strong ones so that he gets the best of the gene pool.
Let’s move to chapter 31.
God Is With Jacob (Genesis 31:1-16)
Jacob does this for six years and he is very successful. He is so successful that Laban’s sons talking amongst themselves and to their dad saying, “Jacob is taking over the whole flock!” At this point, God says to Jacob in verse 3: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” (Genesis 31:3).
Jacob calls his two wives, Rachel and Leah, to have a little family meeting out in the field. He has to convince them that it is time to leave. We hear his opening lines in verses 5 to 7.
“I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me. 6 You know that I have served your father with all my strength, 7 yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me. (Genesis 31:5-7)
His speech to them focuses on two themes: your father has been against me, but God has been with me. Jacob explains how they agreed on his wages, but Laban kept changing it depending on what the flocks were producing. If Laban would agree to give him all the spotted animals, God would make the flock produce spotted. Laban would then change his mind and say, “Nevermind, you can have all the striped.” Then God would make all the flock produce striped. Laban kept trying to change the agreement but God kept thwarting him.
Jacob may have thought that the flocks were producing to his advantage because of his stick strategy. But he tells his wives that God came to him in a dream and made it clear that God is the one making this happen. God also gave him a reminder in this dream. In verse 13, he said:
13 I am the God of Bethel, 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.’” (Genesis 31:13)
Before Jacob left Canaan for Haran, God appeared to him. Jacob named that place “Bethel” which means “house of God.” Jacob was amazed that he was in the very presence of God! The most common belief in Jacob’s time was that gods had specific places they were in charge of. When you move from place to place, you are moving into the territory of a different god. Perhaps Jacob thought that when he crossed the border leaving Canaan that he was leaving the land of his God. But here over in Haran, 550 miles away, God comes to him again and says, “I am the God that spoke to you at Bethel and now I am speaking to you again here. I have been with you here too.” In other words, God is impressing upon Jacob that he is not limited to one place and is with him.
The big question this passage answers is: What do we need to remember when life is hard? The first answer is: We need to remember that God is with us. We need to remember that God is with us.
Jacob has traveled to a foreign land where life has been hard. God reminded him, “I am the God of where you came from and I am the God of where you are now. I have been with you, I am with you, and I will be with you.”
It’s easy for us to believe that “suffering” is a land where God is not God. That we have gone outside of his territory. We’ve journeyed into a foreign land where he is not with us and we are beyond his will and plan. Maybe he was with us back there when things were going well but now we are on our own.
In times of hardship and suffering, we often ask, “God, where are you?” We long to know he is with us. We long to know we are not alone, that we are not outside of his care, that we have not gone to a place where he cannot reach us. God’s answer to that question is, “I am right here. I am with you.”
After this speech to his wives, they agree that it is time to leave. They see that God has transferred their father’s wealth over to Jacob. For the rest of the chapter, Jacob is on his way back home. I wish we could read every verse here, but we need to summarize because the story is quite long.
God Is For Jacob (Genesis 31:17-55)
With everyone in agreement, Jacob packs up all his stuff without telling Laban. It’s sheep shearing season which means it’s the busiest time of the year for shepherds like Laban. So while he is off shearing sheep, Jacob leaves. But Rachel takes something she shouldn’t: she steals her father’s household gods. These were little statues that were used for family worship.
Three days after they leave, Laban finds out and musters a group to pursue them, seemingly with the intent to take Jacob by force. But God appears to Laban in a dream and tells him, “Don’t harm him.” When Laban catches up to Jacob, he vents his anger. Take a look at his speech starting in verse 26:
26 And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done, that you have tricked me and driven away my daughters like captives of the sword? 27 Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre? 28 And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? Now you have done foolishly. 29 It is in my power to do you harm. But the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ 30 And now you have gone away because you longed greatly for your father's house, but why did you steal my gods?” 31 Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. 32 Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsmen point out what I have that is yours, and take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them. (Genesis 31:26-32)
Laban doesn’t like that Jacob ran off secretly with his daughters like they were prisoners of war without letting him even say goodbye. He also doesn’t like that Jacob stole his household gods. So Jacob says, “I didn’t take them. Search the tents.”
Laban goes from tent to tent and finally arrives at Rachel’s who has hidden them in a camel’s saddle and is sitting on them. She asks forgiveness for not getting up to greet her father but it’s that time of month so she must sit. So Laban did not find the gods. Phew, Rachel’s life is spared.
Now Jacob lanches into his own angry speech, berating Laban for pursuing him now and for mistreating him the 20 years he has worked for him. Even though Laban’s flocks prospered under Jacob, Laban has been harsh. Usually shepherds weren’t required to pay for the loss of sheep or goats that get eaten by wild animals but Laban required Jacob to pay for them. Usually shepherds weren’t required to pay for sheep or goats stolen by thieves in the night when they were sleeping but Laban required Jacob to pay for animals stolen day or night. Let’s pick up Jacob’s speech in verse 41:
41 These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. 42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night.” (Genesis 31:41-42)
The big question this passage answers is: What do we need to remember when life is hard? The second answer is: We need to remember that God is for us. We need to remember that God is for us.
Jacob says to Laban, “If God had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed.” In other words, God is for Jacob. Even though Laban’s plan was to do Jacob harm, God has worked for Jacob’s good.
In the midst of suffering and hardship, we often ask, “God, why is this happening? Why is this happening to me? Why am I going through this? Why, God?” We want to know if there is a purpose to all this. We want to know if there is a point to it all. It seems pointless - like unnecessary pain. We need to remember in whatever we are going through that God is on our side. God is for us. God is not against us. Jesus has removed all that separated us from God so that now nothing can separate us from his love. The words of Romans 8 say that God works out all things for the good of those who love him. We are never beyond God’s presence with us and we are never beyond God’s purposes for us.
Jacob and Laban agree to live at peace with each other but they don’t fully trust one other so they make a covenant - a binding agreement - and set up stones as reminders of their agreement. In the end, they eat a meal together as an expression of peace, Laban kisses his grandchildren and his daughters, blesses them, and returns him.
When life is hard, we need to remember these two truths: God is with us and God is for us. God is with us and God is for us. At the end of his 20 years in Haran, Jacob has come to realize and believe those two truths. With all these he has been through, it would be easy to believe the opposite. But now he is seeing life through a different set of glasses. God has taught him a new perspective.
Take a moment and make a list on your bulletin. Write down situations where you are asking, “God, where are you?” or “God, why is this happening?”
The problem is that we often believe a lie that leads us away from God. The serpent in Genesis 3 got Adam and Eve to reject God by feeding them a lie and he is still luring us with lies today. The serpent wants us to believe that God has left us and is against us. He is not with us or for us. He has abandoned you and doesn’t want good things for you. His will is not in your best interests. You should ditch him and do it your own way. This is how sin entered the world and how sin entered our lives. When we sin, we are living for ourselves instead of for God.
When life is hard, the serpent says, “If God was really with you, would life be so hard? God has left you. He isn’t with you. He doesn’t care. He isn’t paying attention. Your pain is proof of that. You are on your own.” Or he tells us, “If God was really for you, would you be going through this? Wouldn’t he take this way? Your pain is proof that God is against you.”
I’m sure many of you have heard of something called “the problem of evil.” People will bring it up as the reason they don’t believe in God. The question goes like this: “How could a good and loving God allow such evil and suffering in the world?” Either he is good but isn’t powerful enough to stop it or he is powerful but isn’t good so he lets it go on. In either case, he is not a God worthy of worship. Doesn’t that sound like the lie of the serpent?
This line of thinking shows a fundamental misunderstanding of God. It views God as the captain of our luxury cruise through life. We expect him to provide for a comfort filled, stress-free life of relaxation. We summon his room service into our life to keep us comfortable and happy. Then when God’s service isn’t up to our standards we give God a one star review. If he can’t deliver a suffering free luxury cruise through life, well then he must either be an uncaring or a weak captain but he certainly isn’t both or he would give it to us.
This is a God created in the image we want him. But God has created and is re-creating us in his image so that we are who he wants us to be, not the other way around. An accurate view of God sees him as a Father who is parenting his children to help them grow up into maturity. Parents have to make lots of decisions that their kids don’t understand at the time or enjoy at the time. Like human parents, God loves us enough to do what is best for us even if it means he will be temporarily disliked by us.
How many of you have been fishing? There are different ways to go about fishing. One way is to do “catch and release” fishing. Your desire here is to catch fish but not keep them. You want to release them back into the water. The problem is that fish hooks are built with a little barb on them. That’s so when you hook a fish, the hook won’t come out easily. So if your desire is to release the fish back into the water unharmed, some people will file the barb off so that the hook easily comes out.
The serpent aka Satan never uses a barbless hook. He doesn’t intend to catch and release you. He wants to tempt you, get you to bite, and never let you go. Is this lure food? No. What is it? Bait. Fake food. A deception. A lie. What is it designed to do? Lure in fish who want food and trap them. A good lure has to be convincing. It has to look good. It has to look like real food. The serpent has no real food. He only has a barbed hook so he needs to dress it up. We would never swallow the hook of sin on its own. The serpent dresses it up with lies so that it looks good. We have to be convinced it is real food. But it is a lie. He uses lies to get us to swallow sin as something that will actually satisfy us.
If a fish has swallowed a barbed hook deep into its stomach, it takes gentleness and patience to remove it without ripping it up on the inside. But even with that gentleness and patience, it’s going to be painful.
When God comes into our lives, he finds us like fish who have swallowed the barbed hook of sin deep into our lives. God cuts us loose from the serpent’s line so we are not longer controlled by him, but takes gentleness and patience to remove the barbed hook of sin from our lives life. And even with gentleness and patience, it is still going to be painful. The purpose of that pain is not to do us harm, but to remove something that isn’t supposed to be there: sin and lies. The pain doesn’t mean that the fisherman is far away from the fish. When the fish feels the most pain is when the fishermen is closest and working the hardest for their good.
All throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ first followers tell us to rejoice when we are going through suffering. Why? Because in those moments of pain is when God is the closest and working the hardest for our good. And the purpose of the pain is to remove the sin and lies about God that are not supposed to be there. Is God good? Yes. God is good so he desires what is best for us. Is God powerful? Yes. God is great so he is powerful enough to work out all things for our good, even suffering.
God has already proven his love for us in that he was willing to suffer and die for our sakes. Jesus went to the cross to take the penalty for our sin and selfishness. God the Son knows what it is like to suffer. On the cross, God abandoned Jesus and was against him so that God can be with us and for us.
Go back to that list you wrote down. Write over the top of it “God is with me in this and God is for me in this.” Maybe those are hard words to write and even harder to believe.
When babies are real little, they lack something called “object permanence”, which is the understanding the objects continue to exist even when the cannot be perceived. That’s why peek-a-boo is so fun. You put a blanket over your face or theirs and they think you are gone then you suddenly reappear. You step behind a wall and they think you are gone but then you reappear.
Often we lack object permanence with God. Suffering is like putting a blanket over a face so that we cannot perceive God so we think he is no longer around. But we need to grow and mature in our faith beyond babies to believe that God is not only with us and for us when things are going well but that he is always with us and for us.