This sermon is part of the sermon series "A Messy, Blessed Life". See series.
"Isn't there somewhere else you're supposed to be?" Has God ever said that to you? God seems to be saying that a lot around here lately. He has said it to at least four people I can think of who have been forced to look for other jobs. He has said it to a fellow I know whose health problems necessitated his retirement before he expected. He said it to someone I know who has been forced to take on heavy responsibilities she never expected. "Isn't there somewhere else you're supposed to be?"—sooner or later God says that to everyone who follows him. He says it about their circumstances or relationships or even just the geography of the heart.
Going where you're supposed to be—the place of God's blessing
When we last left Jacob, that's what God had said to him. Jacob had spent 20 years far from his home, hiding from the anger of his brother, Esau. All those years he had worked for his shifty uncle, Laban. Jacob had loved only one woman, Rachel, but had been tricked into marrying both Rachel and her sister, Leah (along with their two maidservants). They had borne him 11 sons and a daughter—part of God's promised blessing. Then God had blessed Jacob with prosperity—in spite of Laban's efforts to outfox and swindle Jacob. But now God said to Jacob, "Isn't there somewhere else you're supposed to be?"
It is time for Jacob to leave Padam Aram and return to Canaan, the land of his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham—the land God had promised to him. In that life-changing dream Jacob had of the stairway to heaven, God had promised that he would bring Jacob back to that land, and in today's text, it is time. There is somewhere else Jacob was supposed to be.
God will make it clear when it is time for you to be somewhere else. For Jacob there were three signals, which are still among those God uses today. First of all, you will no longer feel settled or safe where you are. In Genesis 31:1-2, it was clear Jacob wasn't welcome in Laban's region anymore. For you it may be an inner agitation—a growing pressure against your desire to stay put. You may get laid off or you may simply sense that God is closing a chapter in your life.
Also, it might be that God will clearly tell you to go. That's what happened to Jacob. He called Rachel and Leah and explained what had been happening. God has lots of ways to speak to people: Scripture, dreams, godly counsel, or a growing sense of direction as you pray.
Finally, others might confirm your direction. Jacob's two wives—who weren't all that great at teamwork—agreed that they were ready to leave. In unison they say, "So do whatever God has told you." God almost always uses others to confirm the direction he wants us to go.
My examples imply that God's movement is always a matter of changing geography or location. But there are also times where the movement God wants you to make is all within the confines of your own heart—moving from resentment to forgiveness, from fear to boldness, from strong demands to generous grace. These journeys are every bit as difficult as any move from Chicago to Africa. When God tells you it is time for a change, rest assured he is moving you to a place of greater blessing—not an easier life, necessarily, but greater blessing. In Jacob's case it was a deeply significant move—back to the land of promises, the homeland of the God-blessed life. God never moves his people but that they are brought closer to him.
The journey to the place of God's blessing almost always comes with risks.
Back to the question God asks: "Isn't there somewhere else you're supposed to be?" In our story for today, Jacob prepares to leave in verses 17-21. We soon learn a strange thing about the journeys God sends us on to his blessings: they are almost always hair-raising adventures. We learn that the journey to the place of God's blessing almost always comes with risks.
There are always enemies between us and the God-blessed life. In this story, Laban is the enemy. Even though the terms of Jacob's employment were all in Laban's favor, God had prospered Jacob immensely, and now Laban was ticked off. Verses 22-31 tells us that it steamed him even more when he heard Jacob had made a run for it!
Laban's relatives were more like Don Coreleone's family than yours. They were "muscle." Did you catch the restrained menace in Laban's words—"I have the power to harm you"? It scares Jacob, because he is concerned Laban will take back Rachel and Leah by force. Here God is calling him to a new journey, and that journey is already incredibly dangerous!
For us, danger can come from three places: the world, the flesh, or the Devil. First of all, the world. The mindset and values of the world around us are constantly trying to press us into that mold. Serving the Lord as your life's work, for example, makes little sense to the world. Wrestling with the demands of forgiveness won't be encouraged by people who are worldly. Giving away significant amounts of your income to serve Jesus will always seem ludicrous to the world.
The flesh is the enemy within—that old self-serving, proud part of us that resists washing feet, being "least," going where no one may notice.
The Devil is always lurking about, seeking to deceive or destroy us. The Enemy of our souls will stop at nothing to keep us from drawing nearer to God. Try anything great for the Lord, and you will see there are obstacles thrown in your path—illness or injury, confusion or controversy, emotional turmoil or relationships that go awry.
Here's another risk we face: falling prey to faithlessness and false gods. Here, Rachel is our mirror. Verse 19 tells us that "Rachel stole her father's household gods." These were the small idols that could fit on a mantel. She probably stole them for a little extra protection on this trip. But Laban wanted them back. The problem is, Jacob doesn't know anything about those gods; this was Rachel's little secret. So he boldly offers this word in verse 32: "If you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it." Jacob has just unwittingly pronounced a death sentence on the only woman he has ever loved. He has given Laban a search warrant, and there aren't that many places in a tent where you can hide small, stone gods!
The tension builds as Laban moves from one tent to another in verses 33-34. Finally, there is only one place left to look, and Rachel is sitting on it. She refuses to get up, offering the excuse that she is on her period—a wily move that would make her father proud. A close call for Jacob and his family!
There is a lesson in this part of our story: as long as we bring the world's gods along for a little extra security, we're vulnerable. Laban's one legitimate claim against Jacob, whether Jacob knew it or not, was that he had Laban's gods. That is how the Devil lays hold on us, too. The money we're depending on, the fallback plan, the résumé declaring what we're really worth. What you have is an idol in the saddlebag, which brings us to our next point in the passage.
God will take you where he has called you.
There are some things we must remember when God sends us on a journey. I know we'd rather slip out of Rachel's tent with the blushing Laban, but we're meant to notice something here. Why is this little incident even mentioned? Later in the Bible, God will tell Jacob's descendants, "You shall have no other gods before me." Rachel believed the gods would give her and her household an edge on this dangerous journey. But this story is actually "dissing" those false, empty gods. After all, did they actually protect Rachel? No! When she was in danger they were, well, indisposed. They were hidden, and a woman who was ceremonially unclean was sitting on them. In contrast to the Lord, whose warning to Laban stopped him dead in his tracks, they were impotent. God is the only mighty God.
The lesson is clear: trust that the Lord is the only God you need. God will protect and bless you. He will forgive and restore you. He will delight in you and provide all you need. He will be your sun and North Star, your shade by day and pillar of fire by night. His faithfulness will never leave you.
You must trust that God is working for you in ways you cannot see. Earlier in verse 24, we were given a glimpse into what God was orchestrating behind the scenes. God came to Laban in a dream, warning him to steer clear of harm toward Jacob, and that dream changed the whole outcome of this story. Jacob wouldn't have known about it if Laban hadn't told him in verse 29.
When we're facing a threat, we feel so vulnerable, so ill-equipped. It is hard to grasp that God is moving behind the scenes. He frustrates the plans of the wicked. He confuses the thinking of the shrewd. I know it seems there is no way you'll be considered for the job, but God may be working. I know that there seems to be no way you can raise the funds for school, but God works in ways we cannot see. I know there is no way you can defend yourself against that awful accusation, but God has his secret ways.
Pastor David Jeremiah tells the story of Burleigh Law, a missionary pilot in Congo who was once trapped in a deadly sky by a storm that seemed to come from nowhere. Burleigh lost his bearings as thunderclouds surrounded him on every side. Here and there openings appeared in the clouds, and he kept turning his plane toward those openings, following little patches of blue like a needle through fabric. Finally he saw a little landing strip beneath him, and he landed with a sigh of relief.
Suddenly a vehicle came racing up to his plane. A nurse ran to him, saying, "I don't know where you came from, but I know you are an answer to our prayers."
A missionary couple had been isolated on this remote mission station. The roads were impassible and the bridges were out. The wife had become seriously ill with a high fever. Earlier that morning the Christians in the village had gathered in earnest prayer for help. God responded by arranging the storm clouds in the sky to direct Burleigh Law's little plane to that very spot of earth.
Trust that the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The key verse in this whole story is verse 42: "If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would have surely sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you." He knew how God had worked in the lives of his father and grandfather. He knew God had made promises he would surely keep. He knew God was mighty enough to defend his people and to destroy whole cities, as he had Sodom and Gomorrah. He knew about angels and how God can keep seemingly impossible promises.
Did you notice the unusual name Jacob gives God—the Fear of Isaac? He uses that name again in verse 53. This is the only place in the Bible where that name is used. You might remember that Isaac had an experience with God no one else ever had—except for Jesus. God had demanded his life as a sacrifice and things progressed to the point of Isaac being tied up over a pile of firewood with his father, knife drawn, ready to strike. As we know, God stopped the proceedings and pointed to a ram substitute in the thicket. No wonder God was the Fear of Isaac! One thing Isaac learned—and I assume passed on to his son, Jacob: our lives are totally in God's hands.
Jesus has reinforced this truth to us. He has given us countless stories of God's protection and blessing. Hebrews 13:6-8 says, "So we say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?' Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."
Back to our story. Look at Laban's last grasp at control in verses 43-50. His claim that the daughters, children, and flocks were his was simply bogus. Jacob had earned all he had. What's interesting is how Laban makes the claim, but then immediately gives up on it. Instead he makes a covenant with Jacob which cedes all rights to Jacob. God is at work in this covenant, and it is in a foreshadowing of what he does for us.
Sometimes when we head into a great faith journey, our sin nags at us. Satan whispers that we can run but we cannot hide; that he owns us. But he's as full of hot air as Laban was. Trust that God can cancel any claim against you. In Colossians 2:13-14, Paul writes, "When you were dead in your sins and in [your uncircumcised], sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross."
Let's finish the story. In verses 51-55, Laban and Jacob agree never to do harm to each other—even that they would never see each other again. This was doubly good for Jacob, for God made it clear he would never again have to cross into that land of empty promises—that his old nemesis would never come after him again.
When you and I came to Christ, God put a boundary around us. Never again must we cross into that foreign land of empty promises, and never again can the world lay claim on us. God is taking us on faith journeys that always have points of no return along the way. Perhaps an old lying temptation will be left behind forever—or a long bondage, a time of great silence, or a debilitating fear or memory.
God will take you where he's called you. The journey seems to always come with real risks—pursuers, accusers, and conmen, determined to stop us or hurt us or take back what God has given us. But trust that the God who called you will take you all the way to the blessings he has promised.
I once read about what the Celtic Christians called the Caim, the Encircling. It is said that when the Celtic saints were troubled by evil or attacked by enemies, they drew the Caim around them. Sometimes they actually made a circle around themselves with a stick or their index finger. This was not magic, but an expression of the reality of the Presence of God. The circle was said to accompany the person on his journey and keep him from dangers. They did this to make vivid the very thing this passage teaches. Here is what they would recite as they rested within the circle—something we could recite ourselves in light of the work of God through Christ:
Circle me, O God
Keep hope within; despair without.
Circle me, O God
Keep peace within; keep turmoil out.
Circle me, O God
Keep calm within; keep storms without.
Circle me, O God
Keep strength within; keep weakness out.
The Mighty Three, My protection be, encircling me.
You are around My life, my home,
Encircling me, O Sacred Three
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.