Key verse: Genesis 32:28
Big idea: In the beginning, God taught Jacob to hold on.
Unfortunately, one of the many trade-offs in covering the Old Testament this year is skipping Genesis 29-31, one of the most compelling stories of humanity in the Bible. I strongly encourage you to read it for yourself. Jacob went to the land of his relatives, where Abraham's family had settled before the final journey to Canaan. He fell in love with a beautiful woman named Rachel, and her father Laban agreed that they could be married if Jacob worked for him for seven years. Jacob did, and the Bible tells us that it seemed like only a few days because of the love he had for her. But on the day of their wedding, Laban sent his older daughter, Leah, in under a veil. Imagine the conversation leading up to the wedding: "Leah, the only way any man will ever marry you is if we trick him." So the next morning, Jacob awoke and found Leah beside him. Laban agreed that if Jacob completed the weeklong honeymoon that Leah was entitled to, then he could marry Rachel - provided he worked for another seven years after. Jacob, the con man, learned what it was like to be conned.
After the stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar or Isaac, Esau, Jacob, and Rebekah, it is hardly surprising that this generation of the family is a mess too. But the disfunction runs deeper. After Leah has a child, she named him Reuben and said that now that she had a baby, her husband would love her. The cycle goes on, and the two sisters each give their husband their servants to bear children on their behalf. Repeating the mistakes of the past seems to be a family pastime. After fourteen years of labor, Jacob worked another seven years in exchange for livestock to support his new family. Despite Laban's wickedness, God blessed Jacob, and Jacob's heart was slowly changed. Eventually, Jacob and Laban separated and made a promise to stay apart. With Laban behind him, Jacob had no place to go but back to Canaan - and Esau.
Teenagers and adults: I wonder if Leah tried to convince herself that once they had spent their wedding night together and Jacob awoke in the morning, he would love her. Obviously, she was disappointed. In the same way, when she had a baby, she thought that would win her husband's affection. When that didn't work, she thought the second would. Then the third. In the fourth son, she finally turned to the Lord for her salvation. (She fell back into her old thinking with her sixth and final son in Genesis 30:17). Many people today could learn a lot from Leah's heartbreak before they make the same mistake.
Jacob sent all of his possessions as gifts to Esau, trying to bribe him for his favor. He even sent his wives (but Leah before Rachel, of course) and children. The seeds God had planted in his heart were obviously not mature yet: Jacob was once again trying to manipulate his way out of the situation. On the edge of the river, Jacob was alone, just as he had been over twenty years before. But then he wasn't. "A man" wrestled with him until dawn. When He saw that Jacob would not give up, He dislocated his hip with a touch. He told Jacob to release Him - they had been at it all night. But Jacob said, "I will not let you go until you bless me." He could not win or overpower this Man; there was no way for Jacob to manipulate the situation in his own favor. So after decades of exile and being cheated, the cheater finally learned to just hang on. That is when the Man revealed who He was: Jacob had wrestled with God, and God was going to rename him from Jacob (supplanter) to Israel. God had prepared him for this moment when he was made into a new man and finally fit to be the father of the nation. Crossing the Jabbok (a branch of the Jordan River), Jacob was finally ready to enter the Promised Land. But not because of his cleverness or strength: because he held onto Jesus.
Discussion idea: Has it been your experience that God prepares you for big changes over a long period of time and then they fall into place quickly? How did the mistreatment in Laban's household help turn Jacob into a man fit for God's use?
Prayer focus: Thank God for the struggles He has used to prepare your path, and that nothing happens by mistake in His world.
Key verse: Matthew 20:16
Big Idea: Rewards in God’s Kingdom do not correspond to our expectations.
If you listen to the State of the Union addresses given by Presidents throughout the last several decades, you will notice that they spend very little time on the big numbers. Despite the title, the State of the Union is not primarily about the birth rate, the military’s capacity, or the economy. Instead, the President makes a point and backs it up with stories, often of people he has carefully selected to be in the room. This is no accident. Every gifted speaker (and every parent!) knows the power of a story to engage, challenge, or encourage. A story can slip past our defenses and draw the truth. A story can fester in our hearts, remembered but not comprehended until the right moment. It is no wonder that the Bible records thirty-seven parables of Jesus, about a third of the total teaching of the Master Teacher.
Our knee-jerk response to the parable of Matthew 20:1-16 is probably the same as it was for Jesus’ listeners in the first century. Every diligent student remembers with horror what it was like to be assigned a group project; you did all the work, and the freeloaders got an A too. Consider a more adult example: Imagine you worked hard for a company all year. The hours were long, the work was challenging, but you did your best. Then someone else came in to help with the holiday rush and received the same salary for a month as you did for a year. You would probably not be sending your boss a Christmas card.
We have certain expectations of what is fair, and we get angry when those expectations aren’t met. But in this parable, Jesus takes that reaction and exposes its rottenness. What right do we have to be angry when someone else receives more than they deserve? Does God’s grace toward them somehow mean we get less? Of course not.
One of the greatest temptations we face is the self-righteousness that leads to arrogance. We compare ourselves to others and delude ourselves into believing that we are worthier than they are. But here is the truth: In God’s Kingdom, no one is getting an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. You do not want God to square up your account, I can assure you. We have been offered grace when we deserve judgment. We are adopted into the royal family when we have committed high treason. If someone comes to faith at the end of their life, do I have any right to compare the super-abundance of grace they receive with the super-abundance of grace I receive? If I think someone is not pulling their weight, what kind of wake up call do I need to realize that I am not either? Grace smothers our expectations of justice.
Discussion Idea: Who is someone in your life that seems to always be there for the reward but half absent from the work? How does God’s grace toward you soften your feelings about them?
Prayer Focus: Praise God that He is not fair, but gracious.