GENESIS 31:1-21

OCTOBER 26, 2008

Play Audio  Mike

March 29, 1984 was a tough night for the city of Baltimore.  On that night, under the cover of darkness, Robert Irsay the owner of the Baltimore Colts football team moved the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis.  Irsay literally snuck the Colts out of town much to the horror of diehard Colts fans.  Moving vans came around 10:00 P.M., packed everything up and the Colts were gone.

Today we turn our attention to another quick and startling departure.  It didn’t happen at night though.  Rather it took place in broad daylight, and it didn’t involve a sports team, but rather our pal Jacob and his family, and let’s take a look at why he left town so quickly.

Life in Haran had become rather awkward and uncomfortable for Jacob.  No way was Jacob going to be voted as “In-Law of the Year.”   No, the “in-law” was quickly becoming an “outlaw” in the eyes of Rachel’s family, and life was pretty tense for Jacob, and the pressure and animosity were coming from two places.

First of all, his brothers-in-law were not fond of him at all. Note verse 1,


Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban (those would be his brothers-in-law) were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s; he has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.”


Now that is an exaggeration – he did not bankrupt their father Laban –  however, it was true that Jacob’s financial situation had improved significantly since he first arrived at his Uncle Laban’s home.  When Jacob had arrived 20 years ago all he had were a few things his mother had supplied for him.  He did not have time to gather many material goods for he had to get out of town before his brother Esau punched his lights out.  Now things were different.  Now he had two wives, a family, and a lot of money.  Economically speaking, Jacob had become quite well to do at the expense of his uncle/father-in-law Laban, and because Jacob was eating into Laban’s estate, Laban’s sons were getting a little nervous and very upset.  In fact, they made their displeasure known to the point that whenever Jacob went into the local 7-Eleven, heads would turn, fingers would point, and people would whisper.

But the brothers-in-law were not the only perturbed ones.  It appears Laban was bothered as well. Verse 2,


And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him as favorably as he did before.


It’s funny, but just six years before this Laban had talked Jacob out of moving back home.  You might recall from last Sunday that Jacob had pledged 14 years of labor in order to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel.  Remember how he had worked for 7 years to get Rachel and then on their wedding night Laban slipped his older daughter between the sheets, thereby causing Jacob to work another 7 years to get his beloved Rachel?  Anyway, after those 14 years, Jacob told Laban he was leaving, but Laban talked him into staying, which Jacob did, for an additional 6 years, but it is at this point, as the chapter begins, that we get the distinct impression that Laban wished he had never talked Jacob into staying.

It had seemed like a great idea at the time, to keep Jacob around, but it eventually turned sour for Laban, and it had to do with finances.  In the previous chapter, Jacob agrees to stay but with a condition.  The condition was that Jacob could keep as his wages every speckled, spotted or dark-colored lamb that was born from that day forward, and Laban jumped at the deal for two reasons: One, Jacob was an excellent worker and two, because the requested compensation would be below minimum wage because the number of odd-colored lambs normally born in a flock would be minuscule.  In other words, Laban saw this as another opportunity to take advantage of his son-in-law, but what Laban did not know was that God was behind the arrangement.  God intervened in the conception process and all kinds of spotted, speckled and dark-colored lambs were born to Jacob, thus increasing his flock and decreasing Laban’s.  Laban was fit to be tied, and was trying to figure out how to get back at his son-in-law and recover his losses.

Now, it was at this point, when relationships were stretched to the breaking point, that God told Jacob to head for home.  God says to him,


Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you.


Shortly thereafter, Jacob hits the road and the rest of the chapter tells about his great getaway.  It tells how Jacob snuck out of town with his family and possessions in tow.  He snuck away while Laban was out sheering sheep, and if you are wondering how Laban could have missed Jacob’s caravan heading out of town, it’s because Laban’s flock was a three-day journey from Jacob’s flock.  Laban had set up that distance to keep Jacob from stealing any of his sheep.

The chapter also tells how Rachel stole her father’s household gods on the way out of town, which by the way, had less a religious significance and more a financial significance, in that possession of a parent’s household gods entitled that child to more of the inheritance – something akin to possession being 9/10ths of the law.

And finally, this chapter tells us about Laban’s reaction to the news that Jacob, his daughters, and his household gods were gone.  It tells about Laban taking off in hot pursuit, ready to do who knows what to Jacob, but God intervenes along the way, tells Laban to go easy on Jacob, which Laban does after making a fuss over the household gods.  Then when everyone had calmed down, the two of them, Jacob and Laban, make a covenant with one another.  Look at it, verse 49.  It is often called the Mizpah Benediction, it is much loved and much used, and it reads,

The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent from one another.


Now, that sounds nice and friendly and positive, but it wasn’t meant to be.  In this context those words really mean, “May the Lord keep and eye on you and me while we are apart so that you do not steal me blind.”  They wanted God to keep an eye on each other because they did not trust one another.

Well, after hugs and kisses for the grandchildren, Jacob and Laban part on this note, and a very significant chapter of Jacob’s life comes to an end.  What we might call the “Laban Chronicles” draws to a conclusion, and it has been a long chapter in Jacob’s life – roughly 20 years – and this morning I want to reflect upon a strategy of God that is highlighted in the 20 year chapter of Jacob’s life.  It’s a strategy that God uses with us and it is “God disciplines God’s children.”

When things get tough, we often hear people ask, “Why is this happening to me?” and in responding to that question we need to be careful because there are numerous possibilities as to why something rough or tough is happening in that person’s life.  When the road gets bumpy, when the seas get choppy, there are various reasons for it. 

One reason could very well be Old Redlegs, the Beast, the Evil One, the Deceiver, the Prince of Darkness and often people give God too much credit for things Old Redlegs accomplishes.  People ask, “God, why did you do this to me?” and God didn’t have anything at all to do with it.  Now, I’m not saying we need to be like the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, who sees Satan behind everything, yet we need to be aware that we live in enemy occupied territory, and that Old Redlegs is alive and well.

A second possible reason for choppy seas is the fulfillment of a promise.  We often think of the positive promises in the Scriptures, but Jesus also promised his followers something – he promised us tough times.  In the New Testament Jesus told us we would be persecuted and suffer for his name’s sake, so another reason choppy seas is that we are standing firmly and clearly for Christ.

A third possibility for why the road might get bumpy at a particular time in our faith journey is the sinfulness of other people who cause us all sorts of grief due to their selfish and insensitive behaviors.  A wise mother said to her daughter, “I will not allow the lack of planning on your part to make an emergency for me.”  Of course, we need to realize we probably do the same to other people, but still it’s another possibility.

A fourth possibility for rocky roads and choppy seas is the logical consequences of our actions.  Simply put, God set up the universe and if we do not follow God’s blueprint, God’s outline, then we pay the price for it, like the child who is told, “Do not touch,” for it is hot, but she touches nonetheless and burns her finger.  God has made it clear what is helpful and harmful and if we ignore it we get burned and the road gets rough.

A fifth possible reason has to do with trials to which God exposes us.  In this regard, I read an interesting story about fish the other day.  Do you know how they transport codfish from the northeast?  It’s a big business, a lot of people love northeastern cod, but they had the toughest time trying to figure out how to ship the cod.  At first they froze the cod, then shipped them elsewhere, but the freezing took away much of the flavor.  So next, they experimented with shipping them alive in tanks of seawater, but upon arrival they became soft and mushy.

Do you know how they finally solved the problem?  Well, some creative soul put a catfish – the natural enemy of cod – in the tank with the cod and from the time the cod left the east coast until they arrived at their ultimate destination, those ornery catfish chased those cod all over the tank and the cod arrived as fresh and tasty as the day they were caught!

It seems some tension in the tank, some trials, strengthens us, and keeps us alive and strong and tasty in our Christian witness, so God places some of these trials, a catfish or two in our tank to keep us moving and growing.

But there is a sixth reason as well for rough roads and choppy seas and it has to do with the discipline of the Lord.  You see, God is as equally concerned about our holiness as our happiness, and as a result God sometimes disciplines us.  Now God’s discipline of us is different from a trial.  A trial is sort of a God-imposed workout, but discipline is a God-imposed hardship due to our errant behavior.

Now in a “feel good” culture that is hard to hear, but the truth is God does not sit around all day and say, ‘How can I make this person happy today?”  Instead God asks, “How can I make this person more into the image of my Son today?”  That’s a big difference, and sometimes God has to discipline us, God has to chasten us, in order to mold us into that image.

That’s the lesson to be extracted from the “Laban Years.”   The thread that weaves its way through Jacob’s years with his uncle was the discipline of God.  God used this time to show Jacob what it was like to be on the receiving end of a swindle – God put Jacob face to face with a man a lot like him – conniving, dishonest, deceptive, and had Jacob stay with him for 20 years until Jacob got the message.  Now did God do that out of meanness?  No, God did it because God loved Jacob and it took Jacob twenty years to get the message.

I want you to turn with me to Hebrews 12.  It’s on page 211 of your pew Bible.  I want us to begin reading in the middle of verse 5 where the author of Hebrews is quoting from Proverbs.  Got that in front of you?  Hebrews 12, verse 5?  Ok, follow along as I read.


My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.


            As a parent, I remember how necessary and how hard it was to discipline our children.  It’s even tougher with my grandson, and I’m not sure who felt worse, me or the kids, but it was necessary.  I think of a comment a friend made.  We had been praying for a friend of his whose teenage daughter was giving him fits, and my friend said, “I could see this coming, ever since that gal was a little girl because her parents did not discipline her.  They let her do just about whatever she wanted, and now as a teenager, that girl is still doing whatever she wants, but now the stakes are higher.”

In this regard, Harvard University sociologists Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck developed a test to determine whether five and six year olds would become delinquent – and by the way the test proved to be 90% accurate.  They discovered four primary factors necessary to prevent delinquency.  They are: the father’s firm, fair, and consistent discipline; the mother’s supervision and companionship; the parent’s demonstrated affection for each other; and the family’s spending time together in activities where all participated.  Again, the test was 90% accurate in determining whether a five or six year old became a delinquent later in life.

We discipline our children because we love our children.  Let me continue reading.  Verse  9,


We had human parents to discipline us and we respected them.  Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father or spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.


Those words remind me of something Tom Landry the former coach of the Dallas Cowboys said.  He said about the job of coaching,


I have a job to do as a coach that is not very complicated, but it is often difficult: to get a group of men to do what they don’t want to do so they can achieve the one thing they have wanted all their lives.


That’s exactly what God does with us, and so, the next time the road gets rough or the road gets choppy, we might want to check to see if we are the cause of the problem.  And if God is disciplining us, hopefully we won’t take as long as Jacob to learn our lesson.