************ Sermon on Genesis 31:19-55 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on November 24, 2013
"The God We Serve"
"What's the difference between profession of faith and confession of faith?" Someone asked me this a couple of months ago. I love questions like this. In practical terms, there is no difference; whether it is profession or confession, someone declares faith in Christ. However, this does not mean profession and confession are the same thing. Profession has the prefix "pro" meaning "before" while confession has the prefix "con" meaning "with." In this church, profession of faith means to declare faith in Christ before God, the church, and the world. And, confession of faith means to declare faith in Christ with God's people.
So, what did we do this morning? Did we do profession of faith or confession of faith? We did both. Eleven people stood before God, the church, and the world and professed their faith in Christ. Eleven people also stood with the church of all ages and confessed their faith in Christ. It is a question of what we want to emphasize – standing before or standing with.
[Disclaimer: I am not dealing with the Greek words for confession and profession.]
I want to compare profession of faith to a trip, a journey, a pilgrimage. On this trip you pack the right luggage, God is your guide, and you have a clear destination in mind.
I Travel Light
A The first thing we see in our Scripture reading is that those who serve and profess the Lord travel light.
Earlier in Genesis 31, Rachel and Leah complained to each other that their inheritance was gone, that their father treated them like foreigners, and that he used them to get fourteen years of labor out of Jacob (Gen 31:15). Rachel knew she was leaving home. But, in spite of her father, she was determined not to leave home empty-handed. So, while Laban was away shearing the sheep, Rachel did a little fleecing of her own. "Rachel stole her father's household gods" (Gen 31:19). Telling us what? Telling us Laban was a heathen idolater.
Rachel is not the first one to leave home and family. Earlier, Rebekah did the same thing. And, later, we see Ruth doing the same thing. Now, do you remember what Ruth said to Naomi?
(Ruth 1:16-17) "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. (17) Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried."Yes, Rachel was leaving her father and mother, she was leaving her country and people. But Rachel was not willing to leave her gods. We can only conclude that Rachel was an idolater, just like her father. Rachel probably saw these household gods as good-luck charms, very similar to how images of saints are used in Roman Catholic homes today.
Compare Rachel to Rebekah. Rebekah went off to the Promised Land with nothing. By faith, she abandoned her share in Laban's family for the sake of an unknown future. Rachel was going to that same Promised Land with Jacob. But she wanted to take along with her a plan B, a life insurance policy, in case things didn't work out.
Remember what we were first told about Rachel? We were told that Rachel was lovely in form and beautiful (Gen 29:17). We see today that beauty is only skin deep. Because beneath the surface was someone and something ugly.
One of the messages we see here is that election is God's undeserved favor. It turns out that the chosen ones are no better than any others. They are just as sinful and fallen as everyone else in the human race. Because here one of the matriarchs of Israel, one of the mothers of Israel, resorted to idolatry.
B In our passage Moses, in a rather humorous way, points out the impotence of idol gods. Try as he might, Laban cannot find his gods because they are hidden under a saddle (Gen 31:34). What kind of god can be hidden under a seat? Only a small, powerless one. Furthermore, we are told that a menstruating or another possible translation of the Hebrew is to say a pregnant Rachel was laying on top of these idols. Telling us what? The Old Testament laws dealing with impurity and cleanliness tell us the idols were rendered impure.
Moses also points out the dangerous consequence of idolatry. Jacob was willing to call down the threat of death upon anyone who stole the gods: "If you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live" (Gen 31:32). Therefore, Rachel's theft endangered the entire family. It was only the Lord's hand that graciously shielded them from harm.
Looking ahead in Scripture, we see that Jacob's curse was strangely prophetic. Within a few months Rachel would die while giving birth to Benjamin (Gen 35:16-18). Rachel's idols brought her nothing but trouble.
C Now, don't forget the audience listening to Moses as he tells them the story of Genesis. Moses is speaking to the children of Israel, newly freed from slavery in Egypt. Though things were bad in Egypt, the long and difficult journey to Canaan made the people question the wisdom of following God. In Egypt the people had homes and a variety of food and drink. In the wilderness they lived in tents and lived on manna. It appeared to them that the gods of Egypt did a better job of providing for their needs than the God of Moses.
The strongest temptation facing the children of Israel was the temptation to return to the idolatry of Egypt. Whenever they faced difficulties, they were tempted to worship foreign gods. Thus it was important for Moses to emphasize the reality and uselessness of idolatry in one of the mothers of Israel.
By the way, do you know what happened to the household gods, the idols? They ended up with all the other idols of the household and were buried like garbage by the oak tree at Shechem (Gen 35:2-4).
D Rachel traveled with her father's household gods. What happened to Rachel can too easily happen to anyone of us. As we go through life we can allow our lives to be cluttered and weighed down by our own idols. So, even in the New Testament, we are told to keep ourselves from idols (1 Jn 5:21). I've told you before what John Calvin says on this subject; he says our hearts are idol factories. Just like a factory produces cars or yogurt or cloth so our hearts produce idols. And, our hearts are more than capable of producing an idol out of anything.
Problems, trials, duress, and illness can make false gods enticing. Those in financial difficulty may look to the lottery or government handouts to save them. Men or women under pressure at work or at home may seek refuge in drugs, alcohol, or pornography. The terminally ill may follow those who promise healing while teaching a false gospel. The bored turn TV or video games or the internet or Facebook or Twitter into idols. Those seeking excitement turn to sports or sex. Our hearts are so treacherous we can even turn the Bible, the church, and other spiritual things into idols.
So, let me ask, what is the right luggage to pack as you travel through life? What do you take with you as you make your pilgrimage as professing Christians? Unlike Rachel, you don't want to take idols. Rather, you want to take treasure which is stored up in heaven (Mt 6:19-21). You want to take faith, hope, and love. You want to take good works. You want to take obedience. You want to take service. You want to take love for God and Christ.
And, you need to do this sooner rather than later. Because none of us know when death will overtake us. Thank God that Rachel buried her idols before she went to meet the Lord. Thank God that she was given an opportunity to get rid of her idols and travel lightly.
II God is Your Guide
A One of my favorite tools when I travel is a Magellan Navigation System. This GPS system tells me when to exit the freeway, what streets to take, when to turn, and the estimated time of arrival. It tells me points of interest and service locations along the way.
We see that Jacob and Laban have dramatically different guides as they go through life. Let's start with Laban. Contrary to what we expect, Laban makes a treaty, a covenant, with Jacob. Don't forget, he chased Jacob and intended to hurt and punish him. Instead, he made a treaty with Jacob. To make this treaty official, Laban swears an oath.
Laban swore his oath by "the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father" (Gen 31:53). The plural form of the Hebrew informs us that Laban thought of these as distinct and different gods. In other words, Laban doesn't believe there is only one god; he continues to believe in a multitude of gods; he continues in his idolatry.
Laban swore his oath by "the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father" (Gen 31:53). We can say he swore by the gods of Grandpa and Grandma. They weren't his gods. He did not live for them. He did not serve them. He did not love them.
One of the biggest dangers of growing up in a Christian home is that the faith of our fathers is exactly that – the faith of our fathers. Our culture is filled with people who have only a vague belief in the god of Grandma and Grandpa. Like Laban, they call on this god only in times of crises or solemn occasions. So let me ask about you and your faith. Do you worship the one only true God Who has broken into history in the person of Jesus Christ? Do you follow the God Who confronts you with your sin and the need to repent and believe? Do you serve the God Who commands you to give up your idols? Do you serve and obey this God?
This is why we delight in what happened this morning. When Christian young people profess their faith and when young couples baptize their children, they are saying that the faith of their fathers is also their faith. They are saying – as Ruth put it to Naomi – that your God will be my God (Ruth 1:16-17).
Everyone of our children and youth need to reach this point in life. God is not just the god of grandma and grandpa and dad and mom. He also needs to be your God, your Savior, your Lord. It must be your heart's desire to know Him and love Him and serve Him.
B Now, notice Jacob's oath. Jacob, we are told, "took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac" (Gen 31:53; cf vs 42). This name for God found twice in our passage is found nowhere else in the Bible. God, the "Fear of Isaac." Isn't this a strange name for God?
"Fear of Isaac." What does this name mean? To get at the meaning of this name let me ask a couple of questions about Isaac. What is the predominant and determinative incident in the life of Isaac? Which incident proved more decisive and influential than any other? Of the many things faced by Isaac, what made more of an impact on his life than any other? The answer is Isaac at Mt. Moriah. Bound on the altar. His own father about to stab down with a knife. All at the command of God! Do you think Isaac grew up fearing God? Of course he did! And, do you think Jacob knew this story? Of course he did! That's why Jacob swore an oath "on the Fear of his father Isaac." And, do you think Jacob feared God? After the vision of Bethel with its stairway of angels ascending and descending, Jacob was afraid (Gen 28:12-17). Rightly so, because he had seen God.
"Fear of Isaac." As far as Isaac and Jacob were concerned, God was someone to fear. Someone to bow before. Someone to tremble before. Someone to worship.
Abraham was called a friend of God (2 Chron 20:7; Isa 41:8; James 2:23). Abraham and God talked with each other, much like Adam and God in the Garden of Eden. But Isaac did not think of God as a friend. God was holy, awesome, terrifying. He was the Fear of Isaac.
We need to keep this duality in mind as we think of God. We need to fear Him for His awesome magnificence. But we also need to love Him for His equally awesome grace. He is a God to be loved as well as a God to be feared. We love this God, for we have come to know Him as our God and Father because of our Lord Jesus Christ. We fear this God because of His purity and righteousness and power and glory.
Yes, Israel, you confess God is your Friend. But you also confess God is your Creator, Savior, and Ruler. Let this God be your guide, congregation, as you travel through life.
III Progress on the Journey
A So far, in Genesis, what sticks out about Jacob is how fallen, how crooked, how perverse, how sneaky and conniving he is. We watched him grab his brother's heel at birth. We watched him take the birthright. We watched him steal the covenant blessing. We watched him lust after Rachel and ignore Leah. We watched him manipulate sheep and goats to make himself rich at Laban's expense. This father of the faith is everything we don't want to be as Christians.
B Genesis 31 marks the first time we can proudly claim Jacob as our spiritual forefather. The Jacob who deceived and stole reveals himself to Laban as someone who is scrupulously honest. In the Ancient World shepherds were not obligated to cover the loss of sheep and goats killed by wild animals (cf Ex 22:10-13). But Jacob willingly paid the cost and gave his own animals to replace Laban's livestock (Gen 31:39). Standing before Laban is a true believer. Standing before Laban is a Jacob who finally walks the talk and goes the extra mile even for his enemy (Mt 5:41).
C Those who profess their faith in the Lord need to be like Jacob. There needs to be progress in your walk with God. As time flies by you need to become more and more like Jesus. What you did today is not an ending point. If anything, it is a starting point as you walk and talk with God and live in holiness.
As I said earlier, profession of faith is like a trip, a journey, a pilgrimage. On this trip you travel lightly without idols, the triune God Who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ is your guide, and you make progress in living the Christian life as one of God's servants.
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