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.

Psalm 86:1-10 – Call and Response

storm clouds and person

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God. (NRSV)

What is your view of God?  For some, God is up there, somewhere, like some white-bearded old guy who is aloof to what is going on down here – there is neither anything personal nor personable about him, at all.  For others, God is a force which binds all things together; he is there, but you’re never quite sure how to get in touch with him – it’s like a crap shoot trying to connect with him. For yet others, God is perpetually perturbed about something; he’s got a bee in his bonnet and it’s our job to figure out what he’s sullen and upset about all the time so that we might appease him in some way.

The psalmist, David, sees God in wholly other ways than all the aforementioned. For David, God is personal, knowable, and very reachable. Reading this psalm tells us a great deal of how David thought about God. Notice what we learn about God from the way David describes him: good and forgiving; abounding in steadfast love; listens and answers; and, does great and wondrous things.

Now this is a God you can sink your teeth into. He is attentive, engaged, and is anything but upset all the time.  This is the reason why David has no problem asking God to listen and answer his prayer. David put his trust in God to save him and make his heart glad. With this kind of God, David can willingly affirm his devotion.

If your view of God cannot support and bear the weight of your life’s hardest circumstances, then you need a different view of God! I invite you to see the God of David. This God has the ability within himself to satisfy your life’s greatest needs. We call out in our misery. God responds in his love and mercy. With God, we can move from trouble to confidence.

Great God of David, you are above all things and beside all things and with all things. You are uniquely positioned and powerful to walk with me through all the situations of my life. Thank you for sending the Son of David to make real your promises to me.  Amen.

Exodus 19:16-25 – An Awesome God

Mount Sinai

On the morning of the third day, thunder roared, and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled. Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply. The Lord came down on the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So, Moses climbed the mountain.

Then the Lord told Moses, “Go back down and warn the people not to break through the boundaries to see the Lord, or they will die. Even the priests who regularly come near to the Lord must purify themselves so that the Lord does not break out and destroy them.”

“But Lord,” Moses protested, “the people cannot come up to Mount Sinai. You already warned us. You told me, ‘Mark off a boundary all around the mountain to set it apart as holy.’”

But the Lord said, “Go down and bring Aaron back up with you. In the meantime, do not let the priests or the people break through to approach the Lord, or he will break out and destroy them.”

So, Moses went down to the people and told them what the Lord had said. (NLT)

As Christians await the Day of Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit, the Revised Common Lectionary reminds us of another great anticipation from the Old Testament. The ancient Israelites were amazingly delivered from Egyptian slavery, miraculously walked through the Red Sea, and traveled with wondrous anticipation to Mount Sinai. Now, in today’s reading, they are about to meet with God!

The scene of this meeting is not exactly the romantic highland encounter of the Man from Snowy River (my wife’s all-time favorite movie). The landscape is much more akin to the dark and volcanic Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings. The picture appears more foreboding than loving. The thing about mountain top experiences is that they are not all monolithic one-size-fits-all encounters with bright rainbows and happy skipping unicorns.

Holy Scripture is replete with mountain experiences. Mountains serve as symbols for significant encounters with a mighty God. Whether it is Christ’s transfiguration on a mountain; or, the giving of the law on a mountain; the awesome mountain serves as a tangible symbol of divine majesty, strength, and sovereignty. And, I might add, conversely, valleys in Scripture are symbolic of difficulty and suffering.  Our God is a God of both mountain and valley. That is, the God of the Bible is both transcendent and immanent; he rules with power and might high above us on his holy mountain; yet, he also comes near to us in the valley of the shadow of death.

Leading up to the giving of the Ten Words (Commandments) in Exodus 20, Exodus 19 portrays an awesome scene of God in his transcendent holiness and power. In fact, the experience was so otherworldly that the people were afraid to even come near the mountain. The Israelites needed limits placed on themselves because of God’s holy presence. Just like coming too near the immense power of the sun will destroy us, so getting near God can ruin us if we do not respect his holiness.

Respecting God’s power and transcendence brings the reality of his immanence into greater appreciation. God has gone to extreme lengths to reveal himself to his people. For the Christian, it all culminates through the incarnation of Christ, the sending of the Son. In Jesus, the transcendence and immanence of God meet perfectly to bridge the chasm between humanity and the divine.  Because of Jesus, the awesome sounds of thunder and trumpet do not lead to fear; they announce grace to those who approach God by faith.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant….

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time, his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:18-29, NIV)

Our God is an awesome God. As Christians anticipate Pentecost, we connect the consuming fire of Mount Sinai with the fire of the Spirit. The divine drama of both experiences has provided God’s people with spiritual power. Both the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery by God and the deliverance secured on Mount Zion from spiritual slavery by Jesus are meant to free us to do the will of God. With God’s Word and God’s Spirit given to us, we are emancipated from an empty way of life to experience the fullness of Christ.

May the Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation breathe life into your spirit.

May the Spirit whose presence on the mountain was a consuming fire grant you a revived spirit.

May the Spirit who overshadowed the virgin Mary at the conception of our Lord overwhelm your spirit with joy.

May the Spirit who set the Church afire on Pentecost aflame every spirit on earth with the love of Christ.

And, may the Spirit who exhorts, encourages, helps, and comforts be your blessing and your life today and always. Amen.

Psalm 33:12-22 – God Is Watching

sunshine of love

Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, 
    the people whom he has chosen as his heritage. 

The Lord looks down from heaven; 
    he sees all humankind. 
From where he sits enthroned he watches 
    all the inhabitants of the earth— 
he who fashions the hearts of them all, 
    and observes all their deeds. 
A king is not saved by his great army; 
    a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. 
The war horse is a vain hope for victory, 
    and by its great might it cannot save. 

Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, 
    on those who hope in his steadfast love, 
to deliver their soul from death, 
    and to keep them alive in famine. 

Our soul waits for the Lord; 
    he is our help and shield. 
Our heart is glad in him, 
    because we trust in his holy name. 
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, 
    even as we hope in you. (NRSV) 

God is in control of the world, and I am not. Although the myth of self-sufficiency and self-reliance thoroughly permeates individualist societies, this in no way lessens the transcendence of a big God. In today’s psalm, the scene of God looking down from heaven portrays him as above all, firmly in control, yet, attentive to all that is happening on the earth. Individual human creatures subscribing to a narrative of personal independence will inevitably run into the Creator God. 

Our success may give us the illusion that our own strength, intelligence, and/or ingenuity has brought us the good things we possess – not God. “I worked hard for my money and I will do whatever I want with it,” and the even more crass, “It wasn’t God who put food on my table,” are just a few of the power delusions I have heard from others, as if personal accomplishments are unconnected to any other force in the universe. 

In addition, our lack of success may also cause us to pause and wonder if God is really observing all our deeds, or not. Perhaps he is reclining in his La-z-God chair and watching old baseball game replays of the Angels. More likely, we have become so expectant of satisfactory service and immediate results as consumers in a capitalist culture that we fail to discern the virtue of patience – that God is not slow in keeping his promises as some would understand it. 

The bald fact of the matter is that we need God. What’s more, God feels no compulsion from us to be hurried along in his purposes for humanity. Since God is the divine gravity in this world, the only way of realizing the good life is to conform ourselves to him, and not the other way around.  

When we learn to exercise the inherent gifts of hope and patience which a gracious God has fashioned in our hearts, then we begin to discover persevering trust, enduring happiness, a settled sense of gladness, and steadfast love. We awaken to the true passion of God for us. Rather than a capricious or indifferent deity, the Lord God looks upon us with endearing faithfulness. In short, God’s heart is forever drawn to us. Therefore, we need not attempt to take all matters into our own hands, as if we are alone in the world. If we can see a vision of God high and lifted-up, observing us with a gaze of delight, then our spirits open to mercy and we find grace to help us in our time of need. The prophet Zephaniah allows us a glimpse into God’s feelings for us:  

The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17, CEB)

God labors on our behalf. God has our backs. God establishes a safe environment for us. And, we must never forget: God delights in you so much that – this very minute – he is singing songs of joy over you. For trust and hope cannot be coerced by another or willed into being by the mind; it can only be generated through the deep conviction of God’s broad love for you and me. 

The best self-help program I know of is not self-help at all – it is the self-care of opening to a loving God and allowing God’s joy and delight to fill us. God is watching us, and it is the gaze of adoration, not condemnation. 

Dear God, the One who watches all, love comes from you. Anyone who loves is your child and knows you. And anyone who does not love does not know you, for God is love. Thank you for showing me love by sending your one and only Son into the world so that I might have eternal life through him. Dear God, since you loved me that much, I surely ought to love others. May you live in me and may the love of Jesus be brought to full expression in me through the power of the Spirit. Amen.