Well good evening everyone. Good to see you. Please keep your Bible’s open at Genesis chapters 30-31.
If English isn’t your first language, we’ve got the text of the sermon available online so that if you can read along as I speak if that would be helpful for you. The link for that is on the screen behind me.
Let me pray for us, and then we’ll jump right in.
Over the past few years our family have become experts when it comes to moving. Han was filling in a background check for church recently, and we calculated that over the past 10 years we’ve lived in 11 different homes, on both sides of the Atlantic. We’ve also moved church 5 times within that same period.
Now I don’t know what you think about that pattern of life. I’m guessing for most of you, you’re thinking it probably sounds a bit too chaotic – I would agree with you! And not only is constantly moving unsettling, but there is the emotional cost of leaving behind things that you love. Friends and family, people who have become important to you. Or cultural things – Grant Middleton and I stayed up until 4am the other week watching the Super Bowl together and I miss watching that during the day!
But then, there’s always benefits to moving too. Sometimes, leaving things behind is a really good thing. You can leave past mistakes, or dysfunctional relationships, or negative perceptions people have of you that prevent you from moving forward. Or perhaps it’s just moving away from stuff you don’t like: the first house we lived in was a rental property that must have been decorated in the 70s and hadn’t been done since. I was delighted to leave the gold coloured carpet behind. That was a bad look, although I should say that if any of you have gold coloured carpet in your homes, I’m sure it’s very tasteful.
Now you might not have moved as many times as we have, or come from one side of the world to another. But I’m sure you can relate in some sense to our experience. Maybe you’ve moved out of your family home, perhaps to come to uni or to get a new job. Or you’ve broken up with someone you loved, or you’ve stepped back from your career to stay at home to look after your kids.
Leaving people, jobs, familiarity behind can be hard. But often it’s also good for us, as we step into a new season, and a new opportunity. Change does that. It’s often hard, but it always grows us.
And that’s not just a principle that’s true generally. It’s also the pattern of the Christian life. Over and over again, the Bible describes relationship with Christ as a journey, leaving behind who we once were as we discover that we’re loved, we’re cherished by the God who created us. We experience in deeper and deeper measure the healing of the brokenness and the woundedness of our lives. We leave behind guilt, and shame, as we walk in the power of His forgiveness. We embrace our new identity, as we bask in the truth that we have been adopted into God’s family, assured that we are His sons and daughters by the Holy Spirit of God who lives within us.
That’s a direct result of what Jesus did on the cross, and through His resurrection. When God brings us into relationship with Himself, He takes us on a journey. He invites us to step forward with Him. And that, gloriously, and necessarily involves leaving things behind. Yes, things that we don’t want to see any more. But also things that we find hard to let go of.
So that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight, here’s our big idea:
To go forward with God, we need to leave the past behind
To go forward with God, we need to leave the past behind. And it’s the central idea of our text here in Genesis 30-31.
You see, at the most basic level, this is the account of how Jacob left his uncle Laban behind. And that is a very good thing. Our story begins with Jacob enslaved by his uncle, and ends with them parting ways forever.
So we read Jacob saying in verse 25 of chapter 30;
Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland. Give me my wives and children, for whom I have served you , and I will be on my way. You know how much work I’ve done for you.
Jacob has worked 7 years to marry Laban’s youngest daughter Rachel, only for Laban to trick him into marrying Leah, her older sister. So Jacob then works another 7 years for Rachel, and we meet him at the beginning of our text after 14 years with no money, 2 wives, 10 kids, and a lot of problems. He can’t just leave, because he doesn’t have the financial resources to undertake what would have been a seriously difficult journey. So he wants to go home, but he needs his uncle’s help to do so, and Laban will not release him.
And Jacob’s situation is made all the more pressing by the promise that he has received from God. Back in chapter 28, when Jacob was running from his family home, God had promised him descendants and prosperity in the land of Canaan where his father Isaac lived. But now he is hundreds of miles away, unable to go forward with God into the blessing he has been promised.
But notice, by the end of chapter 31: he’s free. Jacob and Laban make a covenant together and build a pile of rocks which stands as a boundary marker between them that they both promise never to cross again. And then, verse 55:
Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he left and returned home.
There are no tears shed as Jacob and his family leave Laban behind. Maybe that’s something you can relate to. Maybe there’s someone in your life, or in your past, who you needed to leave behind. Maybe they were abusive, or enslaving to you in some way, and you had to move on. And listen, if you’re in such a situation right now, we would love to help you work through what moving on looks like. God doesn’t want you to remain in a place on slavery and abuse.
But if we simply limit our application of this passage to moving on from a person who is bad for us then we’ll miss the point. Ultimately, what happens here is a picture of the gospel.
As I mentioned a moment ago, there’s a pattern in the bible of God bringing people out of slavery and into freedom, but that New Testament shows us that all of these events point us to the deeper work of God in freeing us from the power of sin and Satan in our lives. So the apostle Paul writes in Colossians 1:
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Here’s what we need to see – there is a spiritual power at work in our world, a dominion of darkness, that enslaves our souls by keeping us at war with God. That is the greatest slavery that God deals with, it’s a hidden slavery whose effects we see and deal with every day in the brokenness of our lives. But if the deeper slavery is not dealt with, all relief from addictions and people trafficking and abuse, whilst great things in themselves, will be ultimately futile. The deeper slavery, slavery to sin, which separates you from God, will eventually destroy you.
Do not think of Laban only as a person. He is also representative of a power that keeps us from going forward with God. Jacob can’t experience all that God has for him because he can’t be free from Laban.
But the good news today is that God has set you free from that power, if you have put your faith in Jesus Christ. He has rescued us, past tense, redeemed you, He paid for you by the blood of His son, He forgave your sins, placing them on Jesus who died to take them away. Christian, you are no longer enslaved to the power of sin. You belong to a different kingdom.
And God calls us to step forward, to leave slavery behind. But let’s be more specific than that. Because everyone thinks that leaving slavery behind is a good thing. But there’s a couple of things in this text which God is calling us to leave behind today that are a bit harder. Here’s the first one:
Leave behind self-reliance
I recently watched the show Brexit: The Uncivil War, a dramatized version of the 2016 referendum campaign with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the main character. He’s bald in it. It’s very weird. But one of the things that struck me was the message that resonated with so many people and helped the Leave campaign to win. Take Back Control. We feel, don’t way, the lack of control in so many ways. But what Leave were doing was offering a chance to take that back, at least in some sense.
That’s certainly something that would resonate with Jacob. Because he feels the need to be free of Laban, but, and here’s the key, Jacob thinks that the best person to deliver that freedom for himself is himself.
So first, he comes up with a plan. He needs resources in order to make the long trip home, so he cuts a deal with Laban to take all of the sheep and goats from the flock that are spotted, striped, or dark coloured as his wages. Laban agrees, but then in verse 35:
That same day he removed all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the speckled or spotted female goats (all that had white on them) and all the dark-colored lambs, and he placed them in the care of his sons. Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to tend the rest of Laban’s flocks.
Quick biology lesson: Stripy sheep produce stripy lambs. Spotty goats produce spotty kids. But white sheep and goats… they produce white lambs and kids. Laban has just locked Jacob into working for him for a wage that will not materialise. Sure, you can have all the spotted and stripy lambs… there just won’t be any!
But not to worry. Jacob has a plan. Remember, he doesn’t have to rely upon anyone. So in verses 37-42 he strips bark off trees, making them stripy or spotted, and then makes the sheep look at them whilst they mate. That’s genius. I mean you got to hand it to the guy. That is the stupidest idea ever. But here’s the amazing thing – it works!
You can imagine at lambing season, Jacob… “Rachel! Leah! I’m a genius! My sticks are making the lambs stripy!” He’s convinced it’s working, so much so that he starts finessing his technique, only putting the sticks in front of the strong sheep and goats so that he gets the stronger lambs. You can just imagine him talking to his kids… “Lads, lads, make sure you strip the bark like this” But even more amazing… it works again!
And so, the chapter concludes, in verse 43:
In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.
He now had the means to escape from Laban. Jacob had solved his problem by himself.
Except he didn’t.
In verse 3 of chapter 31, God speaks, and says, ““Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” And that moment changes Jacob’s perspective. When God speaks, we see what we were previously unable to recognise. That’s why we do this every week, because we believe that there are things God has to say that we need to hear.
So, in response, Jacob calls his wives to him, and tells them it’s time to go. But look how he relays his story to them.
Verse 5 – God has been with me
Verse 7 – God has protected me
Verses 9-12 – God, not the sticks, brought forth the right coloured flocks
Verse 13 – God has told us that it’s time to leave
What has Jacob learned? He is not autonomous. God’s presence is a guarantee of His provision and protection, and it is God, not Jacob, who has masterminded the plan for his deliverance. Jacob’s confidence is no longer based on his hard work, but on God’s promise.
Now look – we laugh at the sticks. We think its stupid. But how often are we guilty of doing the same thing? We want to be free from Laban, but we think we need to do it ourselves. Whether that is earning our own acceptance before God by being good enough, or mitigating pain in our lives by insulating ourselves from relationships, or overworking to provide what we think we need for ourselves and our families. We are not autonomous. God calls us to step forward with him by leaving behind our trust in our own brilliance.
Honestly, one of the biggest signs that this is a problem for our church is that so many of us struggle to pray. We think we have it covered. That we don’t really need God. That we’re autonomous. But leaving that behind, although hard, draws us deeper into relationship with Him.
So that’s what Jacob teaches us, but lets also think about Rachel. Because Rachel teaches us that to go forward with God, we need to leave behind our dependence on our idols.
Leave behind Dependence
Verse 17 records for us the decisive moment of action:
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.
And then we have this unusual line:
When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods.
You know, we see here that it is possible to look like you’re stepping forward with God, trusting on Him for protection and provision and so forth, but secretly remain dependent upon the things you used to trust in.
Some commentators try to excuse this action of Rachel. Some of them say things like, “Oh, she’s staking a claim to her inheritance that her father denied her”, or that she was preventing Laban from being able to consult his gods to find out where they were going.
Personally, I don’t buy any of that. It seems clear to me that this is an act of deception. Jacob has no idea that she’s done it. But if it’s a good thing, why would she keep it hidden from him? And when Laban catches up to them, Rachel sits on them and refuses to start up, using the classic “year 10 girl in PE” excuse – “I can’t do it sir, I’m on my period”
Note, she still has them. If all she is doing is preventing Laban from recovering them, why does she not just throw them away as she’s journeying through the desert?
Here’s what I think: Rachel loves those idols. She believes that they will offer her protection, provide her with security, perhaps even give her the deepest longing of her heart – more children.
And note the absurdity of the situation, because instead of protecting her, these objects, whatever they were, end up needing her protection rather than the other way around.
Stepping forward with God requires us to leave behind our dependence on the things that we love more than God. Sometimes, we love those things so much that we’ll start out on the journey and keep them hidden.
But listen to me, and this is hard, but we need to hear it, eventually, if you do not let them go, they will destroy you.
Jacob, not knowing Rachel has the idols, declares in verse 32;
if you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live.
Laban doesn’t find the idols, so Rachel survives. But she doesn’t make it all the way to the land of promise. Because when Jacob finally arrives home to Isaac in chapter 35, he only has one wife. Rachel dies before they get there.
You see, if you aren’t able to leave things behind that you trust more than God, eventually, you are the one that gets left behind.
Now what am I saying there? That, as a Christian, you can do things that cause you to lose your salvation? No.
But here’s the truth. Jesus did not die simply to forgive us. He died to change us. He lives in us by the mighty power of His Spirit to accomplish this in us. And if you are not changing, if you find yourself unwilling to leave behind things that have held your heart for such a long time, maybe it’s evidence that actually you don’t really know Him after all.
To go forward with God, we need to leave things behind. And that’s great news, but it’s also often hard. Hard to say goodbye to the things that we love, even though they enslave us and will lead to our destruction.
One final thought to close.
It’s worth it.
It is tempting, in a message like this to just focus on the stuff we have to let go of. But if you do that, all you end up with is feeling sad about what you’re leaving behind.
Jacob runs from Laban, and Laban comes after him, clearly to harm him and to take them back into slavery. Verse 23 says,
23 Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. 24 Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”
God protects Jacob. He prevents Laban from either enticing him, or threatening him, in order to make him return. Laban is powerless. He confronts Jacob, and says,
I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’
Christ will not let you down. Once you have gone forward with Him, He will prove to you again and again that it is worth it. There will be times when the past confronts you, but as you continue forward with Him you will find that its power over you is diminished, your past loves altered, and your confidence in God’s goodness increased.
God loves you. Jesus Christ died so that you might experience the blessing of life with Him, set free from the power of sin, and . The question is, what do you need to leave behind in order to go forward with Him?