Sermon: What story are you telling?

Father, you always speak the truth. Help us to hear the truth of your Word this morning and to live well in light of it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Genesis. Genesis, chapter 31. Genesis is the first book in the Bible. As always, you are welcome to leave your Bibles open as we read and study God’s word together.

This summer we are working our way through the life of Jacob. It has been a story filled with folly and sin. Jacob has deceived and been deceived. He has made a mess of things and been blessed in spite of it. However, throughout the life of Jacob, the grace and patience of God has been evident. The family of God’s people, the covenant household, has been more often a source of sin than of sanctity. Yet, God in his grace has chosen these people and been faithful to them and in spite of them. Jacob has spent the last twenty years tarrying in the house of his father-in-law, Laban, and at the call of God, is finally about to leave. It’s Genesis 31. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

1 Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s; he has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.” 2 And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him as favorably as he did before. 3 Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” 4 So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was, 5 and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me as favorably as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me. 6 You know that I have served your father with all my strength; 7 yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me. 8 If he said, ‘The speckled shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore speckled; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. 9 Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father, and given them to me.

10 “During the mating of the flock I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats that leaped upon the flock were striped, speckled, and mottled. 11 Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ 12 And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the goats that leap on the flock are striped, speckled, and mottled; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and return to the land of your birth.’” 14 Then Rachel and Leah answered him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has been using up the money given for us. 16 All the property that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children; now then, do whatever God has said to you.”

17 So Jacob arose, and set his children and his wives on camels; 18 and he drove away all his livestock, all the property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.

19 Now Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household gods. 20 And Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean, in that he did not tell him that he intended to flee. 21 So he fled with all that he had; starting out he crossed the Euphrates, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead.

22 On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. 23 So he took his kinsfolk with him and pursued him for seven days until he caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. 24 But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night, and said to him, “Take heed that you say not a word to Jacob, either good or bad.”

25 Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsfolk camped in the hill country of Gilead. 26 Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You have deceived me, and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword. 27 Why did you flee secretly and deceive me and not tell me? I would have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre. 28 And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? What you have done is foolish. 29 It is in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Take heed that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.’ 30 Even though you had to go because you longed greatly for your father’s house, why did you steal my gods?” 31 Jacob answered Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. 32 But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsfolk, point out what I have that is yours, and take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.

33 So Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the tent of the two maids, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah’s tent, and entered Rachel’s. 34 Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them. Laban felt all about in the tent, but did not find them. 35 And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.” So he searched, but did not find the household gods.

36 Then Jacob became angry, and upbraided Laban. Jacob said to Laban, “What is my offense? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? 37 Although you have felt about through all my goods, what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsfolk and your kinsfolk, so that they may decide between us two. 38 These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. 39 That which was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it myself; of my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40 It was like this with me: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. 41 These twenty years I have been in your house; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. 42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night.”

43 Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about their children whom they have borne? 44 Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I; and let it be a witness between you and me.” 45 So Jacob took a stone, and set it up as a pillar. 46 And Jacob said to his kinsfolk, “Gather stones,” and they took stones, and made a heap; and they ate there by the heap. 47 Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed. 48 Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he called it Galeed, 49 and the pillar Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other. 50 If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”

51 Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and see the pillar, which I have set between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. 53 May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor”—the God of their father—“judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, 54 and Jacob offered a sacrifice on the height and called his kinsfolk to eat bread; and they ate bread and tarried all night in the hill country.

55  Early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them; then he departed and returned home.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Finally, Jacob has left the house of Laban. It took twenty years, but Jacob is headed home. He arrived in Haran with nothing, but leaves with wives and children and flocks and herds. But the exit from Laban’s house was not easy. As we sit with this story this morning, I want us to wrestle with a question: What story are you telling?

What story are you telling?

Jacob and Laban have wildly different stories about what is going on and the state of their relationship.

Listen to what Jacob sees: Laban’s sons are envious of Jacob, even accusing him of stealing from their father. Jacob’s blessing is the occasion for envy from the greedy. We know from the previous chapter that Laban was blessed through Jacob. Laban’s flocks multiplied under Jacob’s hand. But evidently that was not enough. Ten times Laban changed the wages of Jacob, hoping to cheat him and prosper more himself. Yet every time Laban cheated Jacob, the LORD worked to bless Jacob. If the wages were striped sheep and goats, the flock bore striped. If the wages were speckled, the flock bore speckled. The more Laban tried to cheat Jacob out of the wages he was due, the more God blessed Jacob and the more envious Laban and his family became.

We hear from Rachel and Leah that Laban now treats them as outsiders and they no longer have an inheritance in his home. Laban has even squandered their dowry, so that they have nothing left of what he would give them. Jacob tells that he served with all his strength to the point of suffering to serve Laban. The heat consumed him by day and the cold by night. When an animal was killed by wild animals, Jacob had to pay for it, never Laban.

Jacob tells of fearing that Laban, who cheated him again and again on his wages, would even work to take his daughters back from Jacob by force. Jacob fled because he did not trust Laban to let him leave, since Laban had done everything in his power to impoverish Jacob and, Jacob says, if God had not been on Jacob’s side, Laban would have sent Jacob away empty-handed.

This is a story of a wicked and greedy man. Laban exploited his son-in-law for twenty years. He envied his success, cheated him out of his just wages, and would have left him penniless and possibly even taken away his family. Greed had twisted Laban so that he would never be satisfied until he had it all and would be willing to do anything to get all the wealth for himself. That is the picture of Laban we get from Jacob and even from Laban’s own daughters, Rachel and Leah.

But that is not the story Laban tells about himself. Laban believes himself the victim. When Jacob flees secretly out of fear, Laban gathers all his kinsfolk and chases Jacob down. He hunts him for seven days until he catches him. Then suddenly, Laban is simply a concerned Father. Laban is the victim here. Jacob has treated Laban’s daughters like captives and carried them away. Never mind that Jacob consulted with Rachel and Leah, who fully supported this return journey to Canaan. Laban claims he simply wants to say goodbye properly and would have thrown a party for Jacob’s departure. In Laban’s story, he is the loving father and grandfather, while Jacob is the villain trying to take his family away from him. Laban includes veiled threats of violence in his story, telling Jacob that he has the power to harm him.

What a different story! Laban is telling a story about himself that simply is not true. Not only does it contradict all that Jacob, Rachel, and Leah say about what is happening in the house of Laban, but it goes against everything we have seen about Laban since we first met him in Genesis 24. Laban is greedy, a deceiver, and always ready to exploit Jacob for his own gain. That is who Laban is and has been. But that is not how he sees himself. That is not how Laban tells his own story.

I honestly believe that Laban believes the story he tells about himself. I believe he thinks that he is right in all the he does, that all his actions were justified because this is the story he tells about himself. Laban is generous, Laban is the loving father and grandfather, Laban is the victim seeking justice.

Jacob eventually challenges Laban’s story, but Laban doesn’t change. Jacob becomes angry and upbraids Laban for his behavior and treatment of Jacob. Yet Laban doubles down and throws up his hands. The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about their children whom they have borne? Laban never admits he is wrong, never changes his story about who he is and what he has done.

What story are you telling about yourself? Is it true?

Humans are story-telling creatures. We have to tell stories, stories that help us know who we are, where we come from, what we should do, and where we are going. However, we have the natural tendency to make ourselves the heroes of our own stories. We are infinitely creative in trying to justify ourselves.

For myself, I find it easy to justify really selfish behavior by telling the story of how much work I do at home or at church. I should be able to sit and play video games instead of playing with my kids, because I did the dishes, swept the floors, went to three night meetings, and lead worship last Sunday. I did all that, so I deserve this. I tell this story so I can feel right doing exactly what I want to do, to justify what I already want.

Maybe the story you tell is different. Maybe you justify gossip by saying that it is important that people know the truth. Maybe you justify your porn use by pointing to how stressed you have been. Maybe you justify how you treat your family by the burdens you have at work, or neglecting your neighbor by your busy schedule, or ignoring the poor by your judgment on their character. Whatever the story is, the question is whether the story is true.

The danger of Laban’s story and all our stories like it is not only that we are living a lie, saying we are always the hero, always right, when we are not. That is bad enough, but false stories like Laban’s also shield us from seeing our need for repentance. It blinds us from seeing the damage we can cause by our actions, because we have told a story wherein we are heroic or courageous or justified by doing what we did. 

With some regularity books or blogs will be published that tell grand stories of self-discovery. Sometimes it is a coming out narrative, or a journey to a foreign land to find yourself, like Eat, Pray, Love. All these stories have a hero, they speak of the courage of the people who took the risk to be ‘true to themselves’ and their desires, but no one tells of the families left behind, the spouses who have to pick up the pieces when, for the sake of being true to yourself, a marriage is abandoned. No one tells the story of all that was broken. We don’t tell that story because it makes us look bad, it makes us question whether it was right to do what we did.

Laban’s story was not true, but it enabled him to feel good about himself and what he was doing. It let Laban both exploit his son-in-law, Jacob, and sleep well at night. It was particularly dangerous because it prevented Laban from seeing all the damage he had done and blinded him to his need for repentance.

What story are you telling? Is it true?

The difference between Laban’s story and what we hear from Jacob, Rachel, and Leah about Laban should force each of us to take stock of ourselves, to ask whether the stories we tell about ourselves match up with the truth of things.

Sometimes they will. By the grace of God, some of us truly are faithful spouses, loving parents, compassionate friends, honest workers, and much more. In addition to the false stories of Laban that we tell, we do tell true stories about ourselves. Praise be to God for his sanctifying grace.

But what about when they don’t. What do we do when we take that hard look at our lives and realize we have been telling false stories about ourselves? As painful as it is, I believe those moments are place of opportunity for us. Opportunity to do what Laban did not, could not do. Laban was confronted with the truth about himself, about the way he had been living and treating Jacob and he responded by doubling down, claiming that everything Jacob had was truly Laban’s, including his family. He doubled down the selfishness that Jacob was pointing out.

Instead, he could have repented. He could have owned up to what he had done and the damage it had wrought in his family. We have the same opportunity, but with an even greater promise. If we take an honest look at ourselves, acknowledge the truth, and then turn to Jesus Christ in repentance, he promises both to forgive us for all that we have done, but also to give us a new story to live into – the story of a beloved child of God for whom Christ died and rose again.

The story of Jacob leaving Laban’s house places an opportunity before us all. It calls for us to do the hard, honest work of examining the stories we tell about ourselves to see if they are true or only something we wish to be true. And when we find out that there are places where we tell ourselves we are good and right when we are not, we can from that false story to the true one, where we are honest about our sin before God, but confident that we are forgiven through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

That is a story worth telling. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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