Sermon: Tarrying in the House of Laban

Father, may your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Genesis 29. Genesis 29 verses 1-30. Genesis is the first book in the Bible. Genesis 29. If you are new to Bethel, we have been studying together the life of Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. We started with his father Isaac and the troubles between Jacob and his brother Esau, which have led Jacob to be sent away from his family to avoid his brother’s furious anger and to find a wife from his mother’s family. We finished last week when God appeared to Jacob in a dream promised to be with him and keep him wherever he went. It is here that we pick up the story. Listen closely for this the word of God for people of God:

Then Jacob went on his journey and came to the land of the people of the east. As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flocks of sheep lying there beside it; for out of that well the flocks were watered. The stone on the well’s mouth was large, and when all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place on the mouth of the well.

Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where do you come from?” They said, “We are from Haran.” He said to them, “Do you know Laban son of Nahor?” They said, “We do.” He said to them, “Is it well with him?” “Yes,” they replied,” and here is his daughter Rachel, coming with the sheep.” He said, “Look, it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.” But they said, ‘We cannot until tall the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we will water the sheep.”

While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she kept them. Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman and that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father.

When Laban heard the news about his sister’s son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh.” And he stayed with him a month.

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him by a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time in completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country – giving the younger before the firstborn. Couple the week of this one and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so and completed her week, then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.) So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban for another seven years.

The story picks up at the end of Jacob’s long journey to Haran in search of the house of Laban. Remember that Jacob is going both to flee his brother’s anger, but also to find a wife from one of the daughters of Laban. He reaches a well and sees three flocks of sheep lying beside it with their shepherds. In order to protect the well while the shepherds are out leading the flocks, a large stone is placed over the top of the well. It is large enough that only when all the shepherds and flocks are together is there enough people and strength to move so the sheep can drink and then move it back to protect the well.

Though he has never met them, Jacob greets the shepherds as brothers and asks about them. Not only does he learn that he has come to the right place – Haran – but the shepherds know his mother’s brother Laban and Rachel is coming right now with the sheep. At Bethel, God promised to be with Jacob and keep him wherever he went. After traveling hundreds of miles, Jacob comes to the right well with the right people at just the right time to meet a daughter of Laban. We can hear how God guided him to the right people at the right time through the way the story is told. While Jacob was still speaking with them, Rachel came. Just the right time. Three times it is ‘his mother’s brother Laban.’ These are the right people. God’s hand at work.

But there is a problem. Rachel is coming with the sheep, but the stone is still on the mouth of the well. The shepherds complain they cannot move it until they are all there. With Rachel right in front of him, Jacob refused to wait. He gets up, rolls the stone away by himself – a feat of incredible strength – and waters the whole flock. He reveals his identity and relationship to Rachel, who runs back to tell her father, Laban.

When Laban hears, he runs out to meet Jacob, embraces him and invites him into his home. Laban recognizes not only a near kinship in Jacob, but something of himself in him, saying, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh,” an echo of the first words ever spoken by Adam about Eve.

After a month of receiving Laban’s hospitality, Laban proposes a change in their relationship. Instead of host and guest, they are now to be employer and employee. In the month he had been there, Jacob had probably been helping out the family with the animals. All we know for sure is that Laban wants Jacob to serve him and he lets Jacob set the wages. The thing is, and we will see this again and again with Laban, the words of Laban sound kind and generous, but they are just another way to make Jacob serve him longer.

Jacob left home with his father’s blessing in order to marry one of Laban’s daughters. Either he never told this to Laban or Laban is taking advantage of Jacob’s weak position to squeeze a bit more out of him. Jacob has his eye on the younger of Laban’s two daughters, Rachel, the same one he met that first day at the well.

Jacob offers to serve Laban for seven years to marry Rachel. Laban agrees, saying basically that he could not see his daughter marrying a better man. The years seem to fly by and when the seven years are up, Jacob asks for his wife.

Laban gathers the people, throws a party and under the cover of night, brings his older daughter Leah to Jacob’s tent instead of Rachel. For reasons we are not told, Jacob does not realize it. They consummate the marriage. He wakes up in the morning to find he has married Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob confronts Laban and says, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” We should not underestimate how painful this whole event must have been for Leah and Rachel, who have become pawns in their father’s game of swindling Jacob. However, there is also a certain irony to this story happening to Jacob. Remember, Jacob deceived his own father, Isaac, when Isaac was unable to see. Jacob, in his own way, used darkness to pretend a younger sibling was an older one. Now Laban uses a similar deception, using the cover of darkness to exchange the younger sister for the older. Jacob does not see the irony and cries out, “Why then have you deceived me?”

Laban claims that their people never have the younger daughter marry before the older. Even if this was true, you think Laban would have mentioned it at some point during the seven years that Jacob was serving him under the explicit promise that he would marry Rachel. Now, in order to marry Rachel, Jacob is forced to work for Laban another seven years. Jacob agrees and, after the appropriate length of time just with Leah – a week –  marries the younger sister, Rachel, as well. The end is somewhat ominous: He served Laban for another seven years.

Like much of the Jacob story, God brings Jacob where he needs to go, providing him with Rachel and Leah who, together with their maids Zilpah and Bilhah, will become the matriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. However, like much of the Jacob story, the path there is messy and murky. God guides Jacob to just the right well to meet just the right people at just the right time. God, who promised to be with Jacob, was with him. God, who promised to multiply Jacob and his descendants, has brought him Leah and Rachel.

If you have been with us through this series, today’s story might seem very familiar. God in his providence, causes the same types of events to happen multiple times in history. This helps us to see patterns in the way God works in the world and wrestle with the different ways people have responded. So what if I told you that, in the Bible – in the same book of Genesis, there is another story where a man is sent from the promised land all the way to Haran to find a wife. There is another story where a man is led to just the right well at just the right time to meet just the right woman from just the right family who will be the wife of the child of promise. There is another story with an incredible feat of strength so that all the animals are watered. There is another story where the girl goes back to her family and Laban runs out to meet the stranger and welcomes him into his home. There is another story where a man negotiates with Laban for the hand of the woman at the well.

It’s Genesis 24. Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, sent his servant to Haran to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant finds Rebekah, who comes back and becomes the mother of Jacob and Esau. Now Jacob is sent to Haran to find a wife and almost the same story plays out at the well. However, there are some key differences that, I believe, show us something significant about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The first difference is this: Abraham’s servant is always waiting and always praying. Jacob is always seeking and always acting. There is wisdom here for us: Sometimes trust in God looks like waiting and praying. Sometimes it looks like seeking and acting.

When Abraham’s servant came to the well in Haran, he spoke to no one. Instead, he prayed to the LORD to provide a sign. He named specifically what the sign would be: a young woman would come and when he asked for water, she would offer to water his camels too. Rebekah comes and does just that. The servant sits, watches, and waits. We are even told he look at her silently while she watered the camels to see if she was the one. Once he learns her identity, he praises God. When Laban and Bethuel agree to the marriage, the servant prays and praises God. Prayer and waiting are the hallmarks of the servant of Abraham.

Jacob, on the other hand, arrives at the well and immediately starts to talking to the shepherds. He asks questions, searching for Laban. When Jacob sees Rachel, he does not wait and see if she is the one, but goes and rolls a stone away from the well and waters the sheep. Jacob is active and seeking.

Some readers of these two stories have tried to claim on way was better than the other. Abraham’s servant prayed and Jacob didn’t. That’s what got him into this mess. Or, Jacob knows that he is supposed to find a daughter of Laban, so he goes, searches, and finds one. This is a sign of maturity.

However, sometimes trust in God looks like waiting and praying. Sometimes it looks like seeking and acting. Sometimes it looks like Abraham’s servant, fervently praying and watching for God to act. Sometimes it looks like Jacob, knowing what direction God has called you and simply going and doing it.

Eight years ago, I was interning at a church in Orange City, IA and was asked to help some local college students think through the relationship of faith and science. At the prodding of my mentor, I began with a thought experiment. If you were sick, would you pray or go to the doctor?

The students looked at me puzzled before one simply said, “Yes.” It was not an either/or, but a both/and.

Sometimes trust in God looks like waiting and praying. Prayer is an essential part of the Christian life. It is not optional for disciples to pray. We are called to pray, to seek God’s will, to confess our sins, to turn to the LORD for aid, direction, and guidance. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations in our life as disciples where that is exactly what we need to be doing. We have a vital prayer ministry here at Bethel on Thursday nights filled with Ephaphrases, who are “always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” Sometimes we need to be more like Abraham’s servant, willing to wait and pray for God to guide us.

At other times, we need to be more like Jacob. Jacob knew what he was to do. He was told to go to Laban’s house and marry one of his daughters. When Jacob arrives at the well, he doesn’t wait for a sign. He goes, he seeks, he works. Once he knew God’s will, there was no need to delay.

The difference between Abraham’s servant at the well and Jacob at the well tells us that “sometimes trust in God looks like waiting and praying. Sometimes it looks like seeking and acting.” If we are honest, sometimes it looks like both.

The first difference gives us wisdom – that we should be people of prayer and people of action in our following Jesus. The second difference between these stories provides a warning. Beware of tarrying in the house of Laban. Laban’s house is where Jacob marries Leah and Rachel. It is where 11 of his twelve sons will be born. It is where God will bless him and multiply him. There is much good that God does for Jacob in the house of Laban. However, at the same time, Laban’s house is not the place you want to be.

When Abraham’s servant came to Laban’s house, there was no delay. He would not eat before he told his errand. They had a marriage agreed upon that very night. The next morning, he wanted to be off. Laban wants to delay, to get him to spend at least ten days, but the servant won’t have it. He leaves the same day.

Jacob enters the house of Laban and stays a month. This might be understandable, since Jacob is fleeing for his life, but Laban’s hospitality is deceptive. Jacob begins as his guest, then quickly becomes his servant, and before Jacob realizes what happened, he is trapped, trapped for years in the house of Laban. One month of hospitality will turn into twenty years trapped in the house of Laban. Multiple times, Jacob will ask to leave, but Laban will keep bringing up the same promise – ‘work for me and I will give you whatever wages you ask for.’ Eventually Jacob runs away without telling Laban and Laban will chase him down before they finally make a covenant and Jacob is able to go.

Beware of tarrying in the house of Laban. With Laban, at first it is welcome, then it is service, and finally it becomes virtual slavery. Life with Laban is kind of Egypt. We will see this same pattern at the end of the book of Genesis and in the beginning of the book of Exodus. First, they go down to Egypt as welcomed guests, but that hospitality transforms into service and then slavery. A few years living in Egypt because of famine turns into four hundred years in slavery.

This is not just how Laban works with Jacob, nor Israel in Egypt, but this is how sin operates in our lives. The invitation to sin is never bad on the surface. It starts as an invitation to relief, to enjoyment, to satisfaction. Like Laban, it begins with just a brief stay as a guest. The first rush you got when viewing pornography. The freedom and confidence from that first sip of alcohol. The joy of being an insider as you shared that juicy piece of gossip. The sweet release of anger that feels so righteous. Beware of tarrying in the house of Laban. For like with Laban, sins begin to make promises it will never keep. If you keep coming back, if you serve me, I will give you whatever you want, name your wages. It’s tempting and yet sin will never deliver what it promises. The only wages it will ever deliver is death. Before we know it, hospitality has transformed into service and has become slavery. A quick stay in the house of Laban has turned into twenty years and we cannot seem to get out.

Beware of tarrying in the house of Laban. It’s the same progression we see in psalm 1 – Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, nor take the path that sinners tread, nor sit in the seat of scoffers. It begins with dabbling, then walking down the path, before finally sitting down, settling in, and living there.

Maybe this week you have been dabbling in something you know you shouldn’t. A forbidden feeling, a callousness of the heart, a self-indulgence. It seems harmless and may even feel a little good. Beware of tarrying in the house of Laban. Like Jacob, the longer you live there, the harder it will be to leave.

Maybe this morning you recognize that you have been living in Laban’s house for decades. You have been living with this sin, this struggle, this slavery for so long you are not sure you will ever get to leave. Beware of tarrying in the house of Laban.

Whether you are dabbling or dwelling in the house of Laban this morning, the invitation is the same, repent and come to Christ. Just as it was the hand of God that led Jacob finally out of the house of Laban and it was the hand of God that finally led the people of Israel out of Egypt, it is only the hand of God – through the person and work of Jesus Christ – that can lead us out of our bondage to sin. So come to Christ if you are weary and burdened. Come to Christ if you are weighed down and trapped. Come to Christ and find freedom and rest.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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