Genesis 31:1-21 – On the Move

Jacob and Laban by Jean Restout
Jacob and Laban by French artist Jean Restout (1692-1768)

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.” And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.

Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”

So, Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. You know that I have worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So, God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.

“In breeding season, I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’”

Then Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.”

Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan Aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.

When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods. Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. So, he fled with all he had, crossed the Euphrates River, and headed for the hill country of Gilead. (NIV)

Moving and changing are inevitable. Change and movement are built into all creation, from the seasons of the year to our physical bodies. Some changes and moves we deem as good, and others, not so much. Yet, whether good or bad, any switch or shift in life can be difficult to cope with.

Whatever the circumstance, God stands behind everything, working out his purposes. There are times and seasons in our lives in which we can get lost in our own stories. Ultimately, however, our transitions from one place to another are much more about our individual stories fitting into the larger story of God. Whenever we are unable to see how our own story and the story of God fit together, it is an opportunity to exercise our faith and trust God. Listening to God and responding to his call to move and change will at times be difficult due to the uncertainty of our future.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob has served his father-in-law Laban for twenty years. Now, he hears the call of God to move. The principal actor and center of the story is not Jacob, but God.  The primary point of the narrative is a revelation of who God is, with Jacob as the supporting actor in the story. God was watching over and protecting Jacob. The Lord was following through on his promise given to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, to go to the land he would show him – to make Abraham into a great nation so that all people-groups on earth would be blessed through him.  So, this story of Jacob is one piece in the unfolding drama of God’s redemption which would ultimately find its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

Jacob had in-law issues. His relationship with his father-in-law was morphing into trouble. Laban’s attitude had changed toward his son-in-law, probably due to Jacob’s increasing wealth, and Laban’s decreasing assets. So, God showed up and told Jacob to return to the land of his fathers. Along with the call to make a change came a promise of God’s continued presence with Jacob. The grace given to Abraham when calling him out of Ur was renewed with more grace when calling Jacob back to the land of his father and grandfather.  It is in God’s nature to be gracious and to heap grace upon grace.

Jacob Fleeing Laban by Filippo Lauri
Jacob Fleeing Laban by Italian painter Filippo Lauri (1623-1694)

Jacob heeded call of the Lord and began laying plans to move back to Canaan. But how to tell his family about this? What are his wives going to say? After all, he is talking about moving away with kids and teenagers still in the tent. So, with some anxiety, Jacob called his wives, Rachel and Leah, out to the fields to talk.  Jacob laid out the story of himself and Laban, which he framed more as a contrasting story between God and Laban:

Laban’s attitude changed – God’s attitude does not change. God is not fickle.

Laban was unreliable, reneging on promises – God is reliable and trustworthy, keeping his promises.

Laban kept changing his mind – God stays the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

Laban saw only self-interest – God sees everyone and shows solidarity with the oppressed.

This same God is concerned for us and will not renege on his promises. God is providentially working out his agenda and concern for this earth, and we can bank on it.

The response from Jacob and Rachel to Laban was some tricky thievery. Jacob stealthily took his family and ran away from the situation. Rachel straight up stole Laban’s household gods. (Note: Old Testament narratives do not usually tell us whether something is bad or good but instead lets the story unfold and speak for itself so that we can see the ethics working itself out).  Jacob and Rachel had a less than stellar response to God’s grace. We do not know exactly what the household gods are, or why Rachel stole them. What we do know is that there was a bit of pagan practice mixed in with worship of the one, true God.

God wants to be our everything – the faithful, gracious, and present God – because God is good all the time. Our circumstances will forever be changing, and God may ask us to move and go do something somewhere else. Yet, no matter the situation and how different our surroundings may become, God does not change, and he is here with us; and, at the same time, is continually moving to accomplish his purposes.

Loving God, you have made the whole of human life in your image; each one of us shaped in love. Your goodness is ever-present within us all. Yet, there is so much evil and pain in our world; it comes at us from every direction. Teach us how to rediscover your love within us and to use that love as a force for good. Help us to turn our hearts toward the world in hope, praying for each other and regarding each other as a treasure. Join us all together in prayer so that we might be the light which darkness can never overcome, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Matthew 12:38-42 – The Sign

Jonah in the belly

One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority.”

But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.

“The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent. The queen of Sheba will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for she came from a distant land to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Now someone greater than Solomon is here—but you refuse to listen. (NLT)

We often must unlearn before we learn. We need to let go so that we can take on. Repentance is the key to transformation. To repent is to change; and, change involves the humility to admit when we are lost, ask for help, and go in a different direction. The greatest miracle, the best evidence of God’s work in the world, is a changed life – both personal and corporate transformation. Genuine change is not a minor tweak of habits; it is a wholesale reorientation of the heart. New life is not re-branding oneself but is akin to being born again.

For many folks, when it comes to change and transformation, the focus is on others changing – other people need to bend their lives and organizations to how I believe things need to be. As you can tell, this sounds an awful lot like pride and hubris. And, it is.

Repentance and new life is for everyone, not just a select few or others for whom we believe need to change.

Jesus made waves with lots of people by hobnobbing with the least, the lost, and the lowly. Christ actively sought such people out, and healed many of them from sickness, disease, and sin so that they would be united with God and no longer remain on the fringes of society.

Some within the religious establishment of the day did not take the healing ministry of Jesus into consideration because they themselves were not in the transformation business. So, healing miracles which created new life meant nothing for them. For them, Jesus was not flexing any real Messiah muscle and improving their designs to see Gentiles kicked out of Palestine. They even went so far as to ascribe the healing ministry as the work of the devil. They wanted a sign from heaven that would authenticate proper Messiah credentials.

Jonah sign

Jesus said there is already an existing sign: Jonah. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so Jesus would be in the earth for three days and nights. The death and resurrection of Jesus is needed, and when faced with this information, the only appropriate response is repentance, a complete U-turn, to a changed life.

Jesus mentioned the Queen of the South to make the same point. When the ancient Ninevites, who were a sinful people, encountered the person of Jonah, they repented; when the Queen encountered the person of Solomon, she changed.  Therefore, how much more ought we to change when encountering the person of Christ?

Jesus himself is the sign. Jonah was in the belly of a whale. He was all but dead. But God caused the whale to belch up Jonah, and he went out as a changed man. The experience of having stomach fluids work on a person for three days and nights would have changed a person both spiritually and physically – bleached completely white and an incredible sight to see!

The whole point of bringing up Jonah was to communicate the great need for repentance when faced with Jesus, his life, his teaching, his ministry. The appropriate response to Jesus is a changed life. Jesus was looking for status quo malcontents, and a desire for transformation and new life. The process of change is hardwired into all creation – from seasons of the year to the seasons of people’s lives – all are designed for a sustained process of time to renew and revolutionize us.

Jesus modeled this for us. He switched his address of heaven and moved into our neighborhood to bring us new life. As the Master of conversion, Jesus extends the invitation to change. All he asks is to let God do the work of change within us, be patient with the construction of the soul he is doing and persist with daily routines of faith individually and with one another.

It pleases Jesus and it is the heart of God to realize new life. Change for change’s sake is not the point. Change that reflects the values of God is. So, we must hear the Scriptures, and we must pray to seek the mind and heart of God.

God Almighty, we desire to be transformed by you and allow the life of Jesus to be expressed through us. We desire to walk in the light of your spirit. Reveal to us those things in our life that need to be made anew. Allow us to discern between flesh and spirit so that we can choose a healthy holy path. Continue to give us spiritual awareness. Transform us into something new altogether. May our old life and way disappear, and our new life emerge for the blessing of the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 12:38-42 – A Changed Life

Ichthys
The ichthys (pronounced ick-thoos) is an early Christian symbol of new life in Jesus Christ.

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here. (NIV)

I say at the outset:

The greatest miracle, the best evidence of God’s work in the world, is a changed life.

Yes, both personal and corporate transformation – not a rearranging or a tweeking of habits – but a wholesale change of heart. New life is new life, and not a reconstituted life.

For many folks, when it comes to any discussion of change and transformation, it is a focus on others changing. Other people need to see things rightly; others who must bend their lives and organizations to how I believe things need to be. As you can tell, putting it in writing and laying it bear sounds an awful lot like pride and hubris. And, it is.

The need for repentance is for everyone, not just a select few or others for whom we believe need to change.

Jesus made waves with many people by hob-nobbing with the least, the lost, and the lowly. Christ actively sought such people out, and healed many of them from sickness, disease, and sin so that they would be united with God and no longer remain on the fringes of society.

Some within the religious establishment of the day did not take the healing ministry of Jesus into consideration because they were not in the transformation business. So, healing miracles which created new life did nothing for them. Jesus was not flexing any real Messiah muscle for them and improving their designs to see Gentiles get beat up and kicked out of Palestine. They even went so far as to ascribe Jesus’ healings as the work of the devil. They wanted a sign from heaven that would authenticate proper Messiah credentials.

Jesus responded by essentially saying there is already a sign that exists, the sign of Jonah. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so Jesus would be in the earth for three days and nights. The death and resurrection of Jesus is needed, and when faced with this information, the only appropriate response is repentance, a complete U-turn, to a changed life. Jesus brought up the Queen of the South to make the same point: When the ancient Ninevites, who were a sinful people, encountered the person of Jonah, they repented; when the Queen encountered the person of Solomon, she changed.

Therefore, how much more should we change when encountering the person of Christ?

Jesus himself is the sign. Jonah was in the belly of a whale. He was all but dead. But God caused the whale to belch up Jonah, and he went out as a changed man. The experience of having stomach fluids work on a person for three days and nights, some scholars point out that Jonah would have been both spiritually and physically different – bleached completely white and an incredible sight to see!

The whole point of bringing up this sign of Jonah was to communicate the great need for repentance when faced with Jesus, his life, his teaching, his ministry. The appropriate response to Jesus is a changed life.

Jesus was looking for status quo malcontents, and a desire for transformation and new life.

The process of change is hardwired into all creation – from seasons of the year to the seasons of people’s lives – all are designed for a sustained process of time to revolutionize us.

Jesus modeled this for us. He switched his address of heaven and moved into our neighborhood in order to bring us new life. As the Master of conversion, Jesus always extends the invitation to change. All he asks is to let God do the work of change within us, be patient with the construction of the soul he is doing and persist with daily routines of faith individually and with one another.

It pleases Jesus and it is the heart of God to realize new life. Change for change’s sake is not the point. Change that reflects the values of God is the point. And in order to know that, we must hear the Scriptures, and we must pray to seek the mind and heart of God.

God Almighty, we desire to be transformed by you and allow the life of Jesus to be expressed through us. We desire to walk in the light of your spirit. Reveal to us those things in our life that need to be made anew. Allow us to discern between flesh and spirit so that we can choose a healthy holy path. Continue to give us spiritual awareness. Transform us into something new altogether. May our old life and way disappear, and our new life emerge for the blessing of the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Click I Will Rise by Chris Tomlin as we continue in this season of Eastertide with its focus on new life.

Perspective Changes Everything

perspective is everything

Today is one of my bad back days.  It’s days like today that remind me: perspective is everything.  You see, thirteen years-ago this coming May me and my family were in a car accident.  I was traveling on a highway in Iowa where we were living at the time, and a small car on a gravel road blew right through the stop sign without even slowing down.  There was nothing I could do.  I plowed into the rear quarter panel of the oncoming car, and it literally spun like a top off the highway and came to a stop.  Both the driver and his girlfriend passenger were not injured.

Two of my daughters were in the very back seat of our mini-van (which I had just bought only a month before), with my wife and dog as front seat passengers.  The car was totaled.  My girls were not harmed.  But my wife tore her shoulder’s rotator cuff protecting the dog and had to have an agonizing surgery to repair it.  My lower back was injured, but not in a way which surgery could repair.  To this day I live with chronic pain.  Some days it’s not bad, maybe a one or two on the pain scale.  But on my bad days I can barely walk across the room, and I need cane to get around.  Today is one of those days.

20180226_154906_resized

I have played the scene of the accident in my mind hundreds of times.  I have thought time and again about what I could have done to prevent the accident.  But there was no way to avoid it.  I thought about the fact that if we just would have left a minute earlier or a minute later from my parents’ house from where we were visiting, all would be fine.  Yet, I know that kind of thinking is a fool’s errand.  I have pondered every possible scenario in my head and have gotten nowhere.

It also took me awhile to forgive the young man who was driving the other car.  He changed my life, and not in a good way.  Although his insurance took care of everything and he was very repentant about the whole thing, I was understandably mad for a long time.  I did, over time, come to the point of forgiving him.

Through the years I have learned to live with my limitations.  I have now accepted the pain as part of my life.  But, on occasion, I sometimes I can’t help but think of how my life would be today if I hadn’t been in that stupid accident.

About three years ago I was praying alone in the church for which I was a pastor.  And God brought the accident to my mind.  I said to God, “Lord, we’ve been through this accident hundreds of times together.  I don’t want to think about it anymore.  Why are you bringing this up now?”

I’m not sure I really wanted an answer, but God brought it up because he knew I was finally ready to get his perspective on the accident.  Out of the hundreds of times I went over that accident in my mind, the one perspective I never took was that of the young man – the other driver.  God invited me to take a different view, from the other driver.  So, I did.  I know that intersection like the back of my hand, so it wasn’t a hard exercise.

I put myself in the driver’s seat of his car.  I’m driving down the gravel road not paying attention to the fact that a stop sign is coming up.  I blow through the sign onto the highway and right in front of a minivan who slams on the brakes just enough to crush the rear quarter panel.  I spin out like a top and come to rest only a few feet from a huge Iowa grain elevator.

For the first time in my life I finally understood.  God had a divine appointment for me that day.  You see, if I had not come along just when I did, that young man and his girlfriend would have blown through the stop sign and struck that grain elevator.  It would have killed them both instantly.

perspective changes everything

Suddenly, my perspective changed 180 degrees.  Previously, I had always thought about myself and my family.  I always considered my hardship and my change of life.  But now I saw that God sent his servant to save two lives that day.  Had I not struck his car, causing him to spin and come to a rest unharmed, two people would have died.

Now, every time my back acts up, like today, and it effects how my life is lived, I’m reminded that it is a very small price to pay for the lives of two human beings.  Perspective is everything.

The biblical meaning of “repentance” is literally to have a change of mind – to see a different perspective.

The Bible invites us to view our lives with new lenses.  Our hurts and our pains, our sorrows and our sufferings, our changes and our limitations, are all part of something much bigger that God is doing in the world.  We are not always privy to his plans and purposes.  But his Word challenges us to take a perspective of the world, of humanity, and of ourselves that is counter to how we often think only about ourselves.

The thread of God’s moral perspective, his view of human ethics, runs through the entirety of the Bible.  The psalmist reminds us that this Word is good, sweet, and more precious than gold (Psalm 19).  The Apostle Paul reminds us that this Word is our wisdom to live by (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).  And Jesus, as the Word made flesh among us, lived that loving and gracious Word with perfect moral and ethical goodness.  The temple, as the place where God’s Word was read and observed, was not to be adulterated with the view of making a profit – which was why Jesus drove out the money-changers (John 2:13-22).  Later, after Jesus died and rose from death, his disciples gained a new perspective.  They remembered their master’s words and affirmed them as being the Word of God.  They believed.  Their repentance and faith changed the world.

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God is inviting us to take up his Word and see our lives, the lives of others, and every event and situation through that lens.  We are to see Jesus, not only as a great teacher, a moral and good person, and a loving healer – but also as Lord and Savior.  In a very small way I suffered so that someone else could live.  But Jesus suffered sin, death, and hell in our place so that you and I could live – so that we might have the eternal life of enjoyment with God forever.

Allow the Word of God to shape your lives and form your thinking today and every day.  You might not always know what God is doing, but you can be assured that everything he does is just, right, and good.

May you know Christ better in this season as you reflect upon our Lord’s great sacrifice on our behalf.  May you know the love of God the Father, the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.