Narratives

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached by Brice Laughrey on August 29, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, as we look into your scripture this morning, Lord, and as we examine our relationships with you, and as we examine ourselves, I pray that you would guide us through our thoughts and guide us through our understanding — that you would remind us of your deep love for us and that you would help us to come through whatever season that we’re in with a deeper appreciation and love for Jesus and what you have done for us but also for the story of God into which we have been assimilated, Lord.

Help us to find our story in your story. Help us to find those things that are true about you and deep about you and your love — in the way that you seek after creation, in the way that you draw us near to yourself, in the way that you draw near to us, Lord. Help us to be reminded that we were created to be with you and that you have always sought to be near your creation.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

I’m going to start in Genesis chapter 31 this morning. Not quite the beginning of the Bible, but we’re getting pretty close. Genesis 31 is where we find Jacob — Jacob from “Jacob and Esau.” If you’re not familiar with that story, the gist of it is that Esau was supposed to get a blessing from his father, and Jacob’s mother helped Jacob steal that blessing, and then Jacob fled, and he hasn’t seen his brother, [Esau], since. That’s essentially where we pick up, here, with Jacob and his father in law, Laban. I have no idea if I said that correctly.

In Genesis chapter 31, in verse 1, it says,

Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were saying, “Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.” And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.

Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”

Genesis 31:1-3, NIV

Already, we have a story — a narrative — from the perspective of Laban’s sons, and the story is this: Jacob, our brother in law, has gained everything that he’s gained from our father by taking what belonged to him. That’s the narrative. It’s the narrative they tell themselves, it’s the narrative they tell to others, and it’s the narrative that Jacob has heard them telling.

Now Jacob, influenced by their narrative, begins to notice that his father in law’s attitude toward him is different. It’s changed somehow. It is not what it had been. That doesn’t mean anything; it’s not even clear how it’s different. He only says that it is different.

So, Jacob, in verse four:

…sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. You know that I’ve worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.

“In breeding season I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’”

Genesis 31:4-13, NIV

Now we have another narrative. We have Jacob’s narrative. We have Laban’s sons who say this is the narrative: Jacob took everything that belonged to our father, and that’s how he became wealthy. Then we have Jacob’s narrative that says, “Your father…” (He’s talking to his wives, now.) “Your father tried to cheat me. Over and over he cheated me, but God blessed me, and that’s why I have all these things. The God of my father has given me the things from your father.”

Two different narratives, same event. One says you stole everything that belongs to us. The other says you tried to cheat me, so God gave it. Jacob acts on his narrative even as the brothers act on their narrative, so he gathers up his things and he flees. He takes all that he owns — he takes all of his stuff — he takes his wives, he takes his children, he takes his livestock, and he leaves. He doesn’t tell anybody. He just goes.

So, Laban pursues Jacob. In verse 22, it says,

On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

Genesis 31:22-24, NIV

So Laban catches up with him, has this vision from God, and confronts Jacob.

Essentially, he says in verse 28,

“You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and my daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But why did you steal my gods?”

Genesis 31:28-30, NIV

Because his daughter, Rachel, had taken all of his idols before she left.

Laban is telling a different story. Laban is telling a story of — a narrative of — being cheated by Jacob. Jacob absconded with his family — his daughters and his grandchildren — didn’t tell him, didn’t let him say goodbye, didn’t let him celebrate with them and send them off with joy, and then, on top of that, in his narrative, Jacob stole his gods. He doesn’t know that it was Rachel/ Jacob doesn’t know that it was Rachel. Nobody knows, except Rachel, but that’s Laban’s narrative.

All of these people are coming together with these different narratives, and they’re interacting with each other as though their narrative is true. Who’s true here? Who’s right? Are they all right? Are they all wrong? Is one of them right, and the others are wrong? There are elements of truth in all of their narratives, but there are also parts of their narratives that are all wrong.

Laban is perfectly right when he says that Jacob took his family — his daughters, his grandchildren — and fled without giving him a chance to say good night, or goodbye. That’s exactly what happened. That was the intention the whole time. He’s wrong about Jacob stealing his idols, but he’s right about the idols being stolen. There are elements of truth and elements of falsehood in each of these narratives.

Jacob is right that Laban tried to cheat him. That’s why he’s married to two of his daughters. Over and over, Laban does this, but he might be wrong in Laban’s attitude — in his understanding of how Laban’s attitude has changed toward him. If Laban is sincere in his desire to send them off with good tidings and to say goodbye to his children and grandchildren, then Jacob is incorrect about why his attitude toward him changed.

The brothers are right that Jacob has gained his wealth from their father’s belongings, but they might be wrong about how he went about it. Jacob might not have been the one scheming to get the wealth. It might have been God giving him the wealth through providence. Yet, everybody acts as though their narrative is the right one, and you get to really see this later on in chapter 32 and chapter 33, because Jacob is headed home to the land of his father.

Waiting at the land of his father is his brother Esau, the one who he cheated out of the family blessing and then ran off. He hasn’t seen him since that day, and the last he heard of his brother, Esau, he was in his tent plotting to kill Jacob. As far as Jacob knows, his brother still hates him and wants to kill him, yet he has nowhere else to go.

He can’t go back to Laban. They make a covenant that says, look… They set up this pillar, they pile rocks there, and they say, “I’m never going to cross this boundary to do harm to you, and you’re never going to cross this boundary to do harm to me,” (Genesis 31:45-53) but clearly the trust is broken. He’s not going back toward Laban, so he presses forward toward Esau.

The whole time in chapter 32, he’s stressing out about Esau. He sends him gifts. He sends servants on ahead — many servants with many many gifts: all kinds of livestock and all kinds of things — and he has them tell him, “Your servant Jacob is coming behind me, and these are gifts to my lord, Esau.” (Genesis 32:13-21)

When Esau shows up in chapter 33, Jacob has already split his group into two with the expectation that one group is going to die and the other one is going to survive, and he’s arranged his children and his wives in an order that seems to be least important to most important in the hopes that, if some of them die, some of them will survive. He has the worst possible concept in mind. That’s his narrative.

His narrative is, “My brother’s coming out to meet me with 400 men, and those 400 men are there to kill me and take everything I have. Maybe if I send him a whole bunch of stuff and I placate him and then I protect myself by splitting my group into two, maybe everything will work out ok in the end.”

In verse 30… (misspoke)

In chapter 33 and verse one, it says,

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

Genesis 33:1-3, NIV

Everything he can possibly do to make sure his brother knows he’s not there to do him harm in the hopes that his brother won’t kill him. This is Jacob’s narrative.

Verse four:

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.

Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”

Then the female servants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.

Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?”

“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.

But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”

“No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.

Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.”

But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the flocks and herds before me and the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”

Esau said, “Then let me leave some of my men with you.”

“But why do that?” Jacob asked. “Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord.”

So that day Esau started on his way back to Seir.

Genesis 33:4-16, NIV

Jacob’s narrative is so powerful for him that he won’t allow any compromise from his brother. He does eventually make it to Seer, but he takes the long way around. He doesn’t get there until many chapters later, and he passes through many other places before he finally arrives, and the only time it mentions Esau after that and them interacting is when he finally goes back to the land of his father to bury his father with his brother.

Jacob’s narrative is so powerful that he won’t accept, fully, the trust of his brother who runs up to embrace him and throws himself on his neck and weeps with him. He’s captive to the narrative that he tells himself about his brother and his brother’s desire to seek revenge against him. Even after that moment, he does everything he can to slow himself, to protect himself, until eventually he gets to the land.

That’s all they tell us about it. They don’t mention anything after that. I assume that their life was fine after that, but Jacob takes time to get out of that narrative. He takes time to accept the narrative of his brother, which is that his brother wants reconciliation.

We see a similar story in the New Testament in Luke chapter 15. It’s the story of the prodigal son, and in that story, Jesus echoes this story in that the prodigal son goes and squanders the wealth of his father and then eventually, when he’s forced to return, he creates this narrative for himself about who he is in relation to his father. He says, “I’m just going to go to my father, and I’m going to tell my father, ‘Let me be like one of your servants,’ and I’m going to throw myself on the ground, and I’m going to beg him, and then he’ll accept me, and I’ll have food and a place to live, but I’ll be nobody.” (Luke 15:18-19)

The father has a different narrative, and he, like Esau, rushes out to meet his son before his son has even said anything. Before his son has even done anything, he does what Esau did to Jacob, and he embraces him, and he weeps. Even though he does that, the son resists. Even though the father ran out and hugged him, the son still gives his speech. Father, I’ve wronged you. Let me become like one of your servants. Just let me live in the servants quarters, and feed me, and the father, like Esau, insists. He turns — he doesn’t even address the son’s request — he just turns to the servant and says bring me the robes, bring me the rings, put them on his fingers, put them on his back, kill the fatted calf, invite everybody to celebrate — my son was dead, and now he’s alive. (Luke 15:20-24)

The father’s narrative was completely different from the prodigal son’s just like Esau’s narrative was completely different from his brother’s. Even so, there’s resistance from the prodigal son. There’s resistance to his father’s narrative. He can’t accept it. His narrative is so powerful for himself that he insists he still has to give the speech to his father about just being a servant in his household. More than that, his brother has his own narrative.

His brother’s narrative is similar to his. His brother comes to the father and says, “I can’t believe you’re throwing this party for him.” The brother’s narrative is, “That son of yours stole half your money, took his inheritance, squandered it and came groveling back, and you just accept it.” (Luke 15:28-30)

The father repeats his narrative: yes. He doesn’t deny any of that, but he says, “I have to celebrate. My son was dead, and now he’s alive. He was lost, and now he’s found. This is my narrative.” (Luke 15:32) It echoes the other parables that Jesus tells — the parable about the woman who loses her coin and searches her whole house and then celebrates, the parable about the shepherd who loses the one sheep and leaves the 99 to go after it.

The narrative of God is the narrative that we call the Gospel. The narrative of God is the Gospel. The narrative of God includes everything that God does to be reconciled to creation. The word of God brings everything into creation. (John 1:1-3) It provides the light and life of the world. (John 1:4) It comes down to what is its own. (John 1:11) Even when it’s rejected, it pursues, even to the point of death. God loves the world so much that he gives his only son (John 3:16) that even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) And on and on and on. The narrative of God is that God loves you. The narrative of God is that God is pursuing you. The narrative of God is that God is waiting to run out to meet you and throw his arms around you and throw himself upon your neck and shower you with kisses and weep because you are found.

Yet, our narratives are so powerful on us that we refuse to accept that. We refuse to find ourselves in these stories. We refuse to find ourselves as the ones being loved and forgiven and pursued. Instead, we have this narrative of who we are, and we have this narrative of who God is, and we buy into the hellfire and brimstone and condemnation and wrath and all of the hate. We buy into that narrative, because we buy into the narrative of violence and death and power and authority and manipulation, and we can’t accept that that’s not the reality. We can’t accept that anything that could be true is not that.

We look around at our politics and our economics and our sociologists, and we look around at everything that happens in our lives, in our workplace, in our schools, in our communities and neighborhoods, and we say this is all just pain and suffering and everything is hateful. We have to look out for number one, and the only thing that matters is us protecting our families and our own communities. We buy into the tribalism. We buy into the shame and the fear. We buy into that little voice that comes to us, whether it’s from society or it’s from authorities, that tells us we’re not good enough, that we can’t strike out on our own, that our voices don’t matter… We buy into all of those things that oppress us. We say we want to fight against them, but we buy into what they tell us — that violence and death is the only way to fight.

Buying into all of those things and making that narrative our narrative, we reject the narrative of God, that God is standing there, running toward us, waiting for us, looking out for us, throwing himself upon us, loving us to the point of death, loving us without expectation… We can’t see that. We can’t accept it, because the other narrative is so powerful, but the Gospel is this: that other narrative, it’s not true.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that other narrative is not true. It’s a lie that we have been fed. It’s a lie we continue to tell ourselves, and there may be many reasons for that. I don’t what your reason for telling yourself the lie is, but I’m here to tell you that it is a lie — that God does love you, that you do matter, that your voice does count. I’m here to tell you that God is inviting you into God’s narrative that says that you, as a part of creation, are good. That is how it was declared in Genesis at the beginning of things. God looked around and saw that it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)

You are very good.

If you can find yourself in that story — if you can even imagine yourself in that kind of a narrative — then I think you can begin to imagine what the Gospel really is. It is an invitation to be part of a God and a story of a God who has been pursuing you relentlessly and has been pursuing creation since its inception. That kind of a God — a God who is love and pursues relentlessly everything that is lost to reconcile it to himself — that kind of love lives on forever into eternal life.

If that sounds like something you would like to talk about and pursue, then that’s what we’re here for. Not just us as 1310 Ministries but us as people, us as Christians, and I hope that if you feed yourself any narrative, it will be that narrative — that you are loved by God.

Thank you.

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