Saturday, 30 August 2014

Sermon Sunday 31 August 2014, Philippians 1:1-11, Baptism of Joshua, Aidan, by Bruce

Today is a day of beginnings.  We start a series going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  We also baptise Joshua, and baptism marks a beginning to follow Jesus.
As you read the letter, certain words will crop up again and again.  Servant, saint, joy, partnership, affection, love.  Which, in your opinion, is the most important?  Paul wrote his letter in Greek: as we look at the different translations into English, we see the ways that the translators have tried to help us understand what he was saying.  In some cases we can see that they have struggled.  In verse one, for instance, Paul describes himself and Timothy as being douloi of Christ Jesus; the word means a slave, someone with no rights at all.  Most of our translations use the word servant, although the NASB tries bond-servant to try to get the sense across.  Doulos – the very word sounds sad.  We will come back to it in chapter two. 
So is bond-servant the most important word?  I think not.  Should I go for love?  This is mentioned in verse nine, and it seems a no brainer.  Of course we should love each other.  But note some important things.  First, this is more than a polite saying of the words “I love you”.  Paul says that he longs for his friends in Philippi with the affection of Christ.  When he says he “longs” for them, he literally says “in the bowels of Jesus Christ”.  In the same way that we might talk about someone being a pain in the neck, Paul uses this vivid idiom about a passion, a longing, that churns you up.  It really matters to him, and to Christ, that the people in Philippi should thrive and be blessed.  His highest prayer for them is that their love should abound, that it should grow and keep growing.  How will this be noticed?  First, they will grow in knowledge and discernment.  Surprised?  To love is more than a feeling; it is to think well and clearly, in ways that bless others.  It is more than theory and book learning; it is practical, sensible, hard-headed caring for those around us.  Second, as we grow in love, it will help us make better choices.  We come back to this in chapter four.  We learn to focus on the positive and make decisions that are right.  If we love well we will also live well.  Third, we will be filled with the “fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ”.  As we grow in the love of Jesus, so we will also come more and more to be open to the guidance of his Spirit to become more like him. 
So, is love the most important word here?  I think not.  I am going to suggest that the key concept is the slippery word that is translated variously as partnership, fellowship, participation, communion or contribution.  It is the word koinonia.  This is also a word that pops up again and again in this letter, and more widely in scripture.  Love is, of course, supremely important, but koinonia is “love in community”.  It is the word that we use for Holy Communion – where we share bread and wine to symbolise that we are “one body”.  I do not think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that koinonia is symbolised by baptism.  We are immersed in the water – we are also immersed in Jesus.  Although we have filled the baptistery with water from the tap especially for this occasion, we take seriously the words of Paul that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”.  As Joshua goes down into the water, it is as if he is joining every single Christian everywhere who has ever been baptised.  It is as if there is one river flowing, which Jesus went down into, followed by the 3,000 who were saved on the day of Pentecost, and the Philippian jailer, and you and me, and every one of us. 

This is the same faith that Aidan preached and lived out when he based his mission in Lindisfarne in the seventh century, and brought Angles and Saxons out of pagan lives to Christ.  He lived out koinonia as he shared the gospel in words and deeds.  The king gave him a horse so he could travel further and faster.  Very soon Aidan met a starving beggar.  he gave him the horse to sell and feed himself.  When the king was furious, Aidan replied that he did not want to look down on people from a horse like a lord; he wanted to speak to them face to face and share their lives.  He needed to be in fellowship, partnership with them.

Paul actually says that when we are baptised, we are dying with Christ and rising with him.  As Joshua is laid back into the water, it is like being laid in the grave.  Goodbye to the old life, lived in independence from God, and in rebellion against him.  “I reject the devil and all rebellion against God.  I renounce the deceit and corruption of evil.  I repent of the sins that separate me from God and neighbour.”  As Joshua is lifted up out of the water, it is a celebration of new birth, of a sharing in the Easter promise, of being united with Jesus.  “I turn to Christ as Saviour, I submit to Christ as Lord, I come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life!”

This is what gives Paul joy.  The Philippians are not merely his friends or his spiritual charges.  They are partakers, sharers, partners; they are bonded together in a way that seems right and natural.  They are united in the gospel – the active work of hearing, believing and living out the good news.  It began on a riverbank with Lydia and in an earthquake struck jail, and it continues now as Paul languishes in jail and the Philippians send him money for his support.

How can we live up to the high ideal of the love that we talked about earlier, to be filled with the “fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ”?  You might have thought that a tall order, and perhaps a bit idealistic.  But the message is that as you hear and believe the good news that Jesus has died and risen for you, and as you respond and open your life to him, so he comes and lives within you by his Spirit.  There is a sharing, a mixing, a communion that takes place at the deepest level.  This is what we celebrate in shared bread and wine and in a common immersion in water.  This is what we express when we share the Peace.  This is what we live out when we meet during the week.  This is what we live out as we care for each other when we hit problems and difficulties.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Questions to ponder (now and in the coming weeks)
1.    How significant is it that Paul and Timothy are slaves and not merely servants?
2.    In what ways would you consider love to be more than just an emotion?
3.    If the heart of our Christian faith is partnership or sharing, in what ways does this impinge on daily life, actions and attitudes?

4.    We each have our own individual take on what it means to belong to Christ.  Some attitudes have been described as Survival, Supermarket, Support, Subscription, submission and Sacrifice.  Where do you think that “Sharer” fits in to this pattern?

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Sermon for SMYL CAMP (7-11 year olds) Sunday 24 August 2014. Kim

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."  Matthew 11: 28 [NIV]
Are you in pretty good shape? Are you pretty strong? Do you exercise regularly? I have decided that I need to get in better shape, so one day last week I went to the gym to work out. There were a lot of others there working out too. Some were riding exercise bicycles and some were lifting weights. As I watched the weightlifters, I noticed that some of them were working in pairs. One of them would lie down on the bench to lift the weights while the other would stand near the lifter's head. I learned that the person standing near the lifter's head is called the spotter.
The spotter stands near the lifter's head just in case the lifter gets in trouble and needs some help. Sometimes, the spotter doesn't do anything at all. Just knowing that the spotter is there is enough to give the lifter the confidence needed to lift the weights.
At other times, the spotter calls out words of encouragement to the lifter. "Come on, you can do it! You can do it! Push! Push!" he calls out. Those words of encouragement are just what the lifter needs to give him the strength to lift the weights.
As more and more weights are added, the bar becomes very heavy and the lifter becomes very tired. When the weight gets to be more than the lifter can handle, the spotter reaches in and helps the lifter lift the weights.
As I watched these weightlifters, it occurred to me that it was a good picture of the way our God our Father helps us to bear the burdens we face in our daily life. There are some days that things seem to be pretty easy. Oh, we may struggle a little bit as we face a few obstacles along the way, but just knowing that God is with us gives us the confidence we need to overcome those obstacles.
There are some days that are more difficult and we may need more encouragement. We find that encouragement in God's Word. "Don't be afraid, I am with you." (Gen.26:24) "I'll give you strength." (Psalm 28:7) "I'm with you in times of trouble." (Psalm 34:6) These words of encouragement are just what we need to face the hard times that may come our way.
Do you ever have a day when the weight is more than you can handle? Of course you do. We all have days like that, don't we? It is good to know that when things are more than we can bear, God is there! Listen to these words that Jesus spoke, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light." On those really hard days, Jesus steps in and lifts our burden. With him, our burdens are lighter.
It’s good to know that we have a spotter in heaven looking down on us, waiting to step when we let or need him.  It’s not always easy. We need to be not only physically fit as we can but we also need to be spiritually fit.
A what?
That's right — a spiritual workout. It takes the discipline and effort of a physical workout, but has even better results — strong spiritual muscles.
Some Exercises
Here are a few exercises that can help keep you spiritually fit so that you can have an effective ministry.
If you don't stretch before a physical workout, your muscles won't be ready and you may hurt your effectiveness. It's the same with a spiritual workout. Without stretching and preparing your soul, you can overextend yourself. You see, you are only able to give to others what you have received. If you try to give more than you have, you will lose your effectiveness. Before you begin ministry, you need to focus on God and receive from Him.
Knee Bends!
The next thing you need is the right attitude. Become a servant leader and "bend down" to help others. Jesus says in Mark 10:43 that "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant." Jesus was the best example of this. He washed His disciples' feet, healed many people (even when He was tired), and welcomed children. Jesus continually served and ministered to the needs of others—often at the expense of His own needs.
But, what does it practically look like to serve? It means being patient with them, driving an extra ten minutes to pick someone up, being willing to do the jobs that don't get noticed, being kind to someone you don't like. Basically, it is putting others before yourself. It's being willing to do whatever God asks you to do for His glory and not yours.
Team Building
Working out is great, but we all know it's tough to do alone. It helps to have someone next to you, pushing you to greater heights. As the Bible says, "iron sharpens iron." Did you know that even a giant redwood tree can't stand by itself? You see, as the tree grows, its roots need to join with the roots of surrounding redwoods. If it doesn't have this network, it will fall over as soon as a strong wind blows.
Anyone of us can fall without encouraging support. You are now a leader. Could falling happen to you? Yes! But accountability is your safeguard. Find a trusted person who can ask you the tough questions and be honest with you. It involves submission, trust and risk, faithfulness, courage and fear of God.

Father, sometimes life is hard. We are thankful that you are always there to help us, to give us strength, to encourage us, and to lighten our load. In Jesus' name we pray. We are thankful that when we stumble and fall under the load of life's burdens, you are there to pick us up.  Amen.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Sunday 17 August 2014, Joseph forgives his brothers, Bruce

One of the oldest and most popular forms of fiction is the revenge story.  Examples include The Count of Monte Christo, Kill Bill, the Princess Bride; we find ourselves on the side of the one who has been wronged and hoping for their success.  We ignore the fact that when success is achieved, if it can be called that, and revenge obtained, the hero often limps away empty, deprived now of the all consuming passion that has driven them for so long.  And in today’s more cynical age, the hero does not always triumph, as Prince Oberyn Martell found out.  These and many others are all fictional, and perhaps not easy to believe or take seriously. So welcome to this instalment of the life of Joseph, where he does not seek revenge.  I wonder if we find that more difficult to believe?

When we last saw Joseph, he had been attacked by his half-brothers, who at first planned to kill him but then changed their minds and sold him into slavery.  They were deaf to his pleadings and distress, and went home to their father Jacob where they lied and said that Joseph was dead, eaten by a wild beast.

Fast forward 22 years, and we find Joseph has somehow become prime-minister of Egypt!  He started as a slave in the service of Potiphar.  Everything he did seemed to prosper and so he was swiftly promoted, ending up as chief steward, running the household.  But, he was unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife and throne into prison.  But, everything he did seemed to prosper and he was promoted and given status in the running of the prison.  But, he was still a prisoner.  Two prisoners had puzzling dreams, and Joseph offered interpretations of the dreams, which proved accurate; it went badly for Pharaoh’s baker who came to a sticky end, but well for the cupbearer who was restored to his position.  He promised to remember Joseph and help him. But, he did not.

After two years Pharaoh had a puzzling dream which his servants could not interpret.  Only then did the cupbearer remember Joseph who had helped him when he had been in prison.  Joseph heard the dream about seven fat cows being followed by seven thin ones, and seven fat ears of wheat being followed by seven gaunt and blasted ones.  He interpreted the dream as seven years of agricultural plenty, to be followed by seven years of disastrous draught and faminePharaoh was so impressed that he put Joseph in charge of economic planning.  Extra food was stored and put by during the fat years, so that when the famine started the store-houses of Egypt were full.

Two years into the famine, Jacob and the eleven remaining brothers are in trouble.  Jacob sends ten of the brothers on a trading mission to Egypt to get food.  He keeps the youngest, Benjamin, at home with him.  Benjamin is his remaining favourite, the son of his true love and favourite wife Rachel, and the true brother of Joseph, whom he presumes to be dead.  The brothers arrive in Egypt but fail to recognise Joseph who disguises his identity.  He carries out a complicated series of tricks to unsettle them, and persuades them to come back with Benjamin, leaving behind Jacob who is all the time fearing the worst and dreading the loss of his favourite son.  More tricks follow, and Benjamin stands accused as a thief who will be kept in Egypt and denied to his father.  The brothers are aghast.  They are convinced that God is punishing them for their terrible sin against Joseph all those years before, but they do not realise that Joseph is listening and able to understand what is being said.  Convinced that losing Benjamin will be the death of their father Jacob, the brothers offer themselves as slaves so that Benjamin can go free.

At this point, Joseph can keep the pretence up no longer.  As we read earlier, he sends out of the room all of his servants and reveals his true identity to his brothers.  They are horrified!  The obvious thing that they are expecting to happen next is that Joseph will extract a bloody revenge for the torment that they have put him through.

What has Joseph been thinking about during those long years.  We know that when he came out of prison and was married, he gave his sons the names Manasseh and Ephraim; these had symbolic meanings suggesting that he was coming to terms with the loss of his family and homeland, and was getting over his sufferings.  It backs up the suggestion that he was miserable and desperate all the time that he was in prison.  Joseph was not a goody-two-shoes who just wondered through all these events, not being affected by them.  When he confronted his brothers, he was looking at siblings who had treated him most terribly.

And yet there is a bigger picture.  As a teenager he had been unbearably spoilt and conceited.  This was partly what had got him into the mess in the first place.  For 22 years he has been living out the process that Paul talks about in Romans 5: 3 “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Something kept Joseph going through all of his terrible ordeal.  Something kept him from accumulating a mass of hurts and indignities and becoming bitter and twisted, giving him hope for the future.  Andrew Lloyd Webber gets it partly right in the songs that he has Joseph sing:  it is not true that any dream will do, but it is true when Joseph sings “I have been promised a land of my own”.  God had made promises to Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham, that he would have descendants who would become a great nation, that they would inherit a land, and that through his descendants all the nations of the world would be blessed.  If Jacob and his family had been wiped out by the famine, then what would become of the promises?  As Joseph thought about God’s purposes, and the amazing way that he had come through all his hardships to be raised up to a position of power and influence at just the right time to protect and save his brethren, I wonder if his thoughts were similar to those of Paul in Romans 8: 28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” 

Joseph’s reflection on his experience was that God had planned it all.  That may very well be Joseph’s take on it.  Paul is a little more circumspect: he never says that God wills evil on anyone, but God is nevertheless able to bring good out of the most trying circumstances.  Joseph welcomes his brothers literally with open arms because he is seized with a higher vision.  Where there was a history of bickering between the brothers with their different mothers, and tis would be carried on down the line of their descents who became the tribes of Israel, Joseph saw them as one family, united in the purposes of God, and the mission to be part of the fulfilment of the Promises made to Abraham.

Today the followers of Jesus are united in one family.  Our great elder brother Jesus has been through the torment of imprisonment and death on our behalf and has brought us new life.  We are part of the family, the gathering, the church, that is bringing hope and new life to this troubled world.  Are there things to distress and trouble us in our lives today?  Yes.  Do people cause us hurts that might make us want to retaliate or withdraw ourselves?  Yes.  Even if we have experienced nothing to rival all that Joseph went through, are we called to be a people of love and forgiveness?  Yes.

Listen to these words of Jesus: Matthew 6:15: “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Luke 6:37:  ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’
Mark 11:25: ‘And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’

And this is what Paul said in Colossians 3:13: Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

More widely, we are to the loving people.  Jesus said in John 13:34-35 ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’

Paul said in Romans 12:10Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.”  And in Romans 13:8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”  And in 2 Corinthians 13:11 he says “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. “

In 1 Peter 3:8 we readFinally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”  In 1 John 4:7 we readDear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

It is not a surprise that we have to be reminded so often.  Joseph’s brothers did not expect forgiveness, and people in the time of the early church found it did not come easily.  God our Father help us to share the forgiveness that we have received in Jesus, and find joy in him and each other.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

10th AUGUST 2014. YOUR LIFE IS IN GOD’S HANDS. ROBERT. Genesis 37 : 1 – 4 & 12 – 28 Romans 10 : 5 – 15 Matthew 14 : 22 – 33

I have a text for you this morning: – Psalm 25: 5 :”Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long.”

I think the story of Jesus walking on the water, and of Peter jumping in faith out of the boat, his faith faltering and his experience of sinking and being caught just in time by Jesus, is a favourite incident in the Gospels for many of us. And, whether we are conscious of the connection or not, I think the reason is that it rings so many bells. We unconsciously identify with Peter. We too set out in faith and some confidence, only to find ourselves falling flat on our faces. Our lives, too, go through many ups and downs. Times of faith, times of doubt. Times when things go well, times when things go badly. Times of joy, times of great sadness. Lives and faith which begin well and then go downhill. Lives and faith which begin very badly, but from which God produces wonderful miracles.

I have three life stories to illustrate how God’s guiding hand can do great things with even the least promising material; and how that hand that reaches out to catch us and hold us, works in many different ways. We see also how – once Christ’s hand has taken hold of ours – he never lets go entirely. As Jesus tells us in John 10: 27,28: “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

1. Peter is perhaps the best known example of this in practice. Jesus calls him and Peter responds, and follows eagerly. But this story of him jumping out of the boat in enthusiastic faith only for him to begin to sink in doubt, is a very good illustration of his life as we see it in the Gospels. He is absolutely adamant that he will never deny Jesus as his master and lord, only for him to do just that no less than three times within the space of a few hours. His bold faith and certainty suddenly – in the face simply of a waitress’s challenge – turn not just to dust and ashes, but to vehement denial, and then to bitter tears.

But Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him, just as he did as he sank in the water. And on the shore-line, over breakfast some days later, Jesus re-commissions him and sends him out on a life’s work that will be fundamental to the foundation of the infant Christian church. Peter may have had  many faults, like most Christians, but God never lets go, and uses him in wonderful ways.

What was the problem when Peter jumped out of the boat? I think what happened was that Peter took his eyes off Jesus and started looking at the water beneath his feet, and feeling the wind blowing him about. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes in Chapter 12:2 “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith...” Perhaps if Peter had fixed his eyes totally on Jesus, to the point where he ceased to be conscious of the water and the wind, he could have walked to Jesus.

In times when the circumstances around us fill us with anxiety, uncertainty, doubt and indeed fear – whatever those circumstances may be – at home, at work, concerns to do with major decisions, relationships, money, or health – we need to take our eyes off the presenting problems, and look to Jesus. We can ask him to save us, as Peter did, and Jesus will stretch out his hand and catch us and bring us safely through – even if sometimes we find ourselves landing in unexpected places.

2. If we turn to Joseph we see a very different life story. I wonder what it was exactly that made his brothers hate him so much. He was manifestly his father’s favourite child – the youngest, the most cherished and cosseted and indeed paraded as the favourite. That can hardly have been good for him, or for good sibling relationships. Perhaps he preened himself in a way sure to wind his brothers up to the point of fury. No doubt it was partly dad’s fault, giving him pride of place, signified by the coat of many colours. But also, no doubt, Joseph was partly to blame too, trying to lord it over his brothers. When he was sent out to see what they were up to, did he tell them they were in the wrong place, or not working hard enough? Something brought a simmering hatred that had been boiling away for a long time, to a vicious head. It’s one thing to want to knock someone’s block off – quite another to want to commit murder.

The outcome was that the proud and obviously handsome youngster, who had enjoyed every privilege in life, found himself a slave in Egypt. Someone with no rights of any kind at all, and totally at the mercy of his owner. He ends up in jail with his life seriously in danger. Riches to rags in one easy move. It may not happen to us quite like that. But it happens. Our lives can suddenly be turned upside down in ways which can be quite devastating. Something happens which threatens everything we held dear, everything we thought was safe, everything that gave us our sense of who we are.

But God has a purpose for Joseph – actually a quite magnificent purpose. Not only is he restored as a person and given a vital new role, but God uses him to fulfil an essential part in his plan for Israel and hence his plan for the whole world. If you don’t know the story – read on in Genesis 37! It’s a truly great tale!

Life can deal us cruel blows – sometimes apparently almost mortal blows – but God can do great things if we wait on him and keep our faith alive.

3. My third case study for this morning is Jacob, whom we have been thinking about over the past few weeks. I’m not going to tell you about his life, because you have been hearing about it, and – if you missed bits – again it makes a great read in Genesis – I recommend it strongly!

Suffice it to say that Jacob was not, for the most part, a very attractive character. My Old Testament tutor at theological college used to say that if Jacob had swallowed a nail, it would have come out a corkscrew! Having stolen his brother’s rightful birthright and blessing, he runs for his life. But he has a dream in which he is assured by God that he has a plan for his life through which will flow blessing. It takes a long time to work out, and has many twists and turns, but God never deserts him, and eventually conquers his stubborn will and there follows reconciliation with his brother and much besides.

Jacob provides us with a remarkable psychological study that goes right back to his birth as a second twin ferociously hanging on to his brother’s heel. There’s much to learn. But you will be relieved to hear that I’m not going to embark on a psychological study this morning! But he provides us with a type that we might recognise. Someone with an inborn chip on his shoulder – a sense that life has treated him unfairly – and a burning desire to get even, if necessary at the expense of others close to him. Not, you would think, very promising material for God to use. But God’s hand is over his life, God never deserts him or gives up on him. And – in the end – God is going to confront and challenge him – and from that is going to come immense blessing.

So what do we learn from these three case studies? Perhaps you have recognised yourself somewhere as we have looked at these three characters. But even if you haven’t, there comes through the abiding message that God’s hand can be over your life through thick and thin, and just when everything seems to be falling apart, God is close by, and can bring good out of the least promising people and the most disastrous circumstances.

The most important thing is to make contact. When Peter felt himself sinking, he will automatically have stretched out his hand. And the moment he did, Jesus took hold of it, and from that moment he was safe, no matter how strong the wind and how fearsome the waves. Your faith may be reduced to the merest flicker of a flame, but it’s enough, and when you come to look back over the years, you will see that all the time, God was there with his guiding and protecting hand. I can certainly say that from my own experience, and I’m sure there are many here this morning who will have that same sense of life in the hands of God, whatever the circumstances. So, if life at the moment is at a low ebb, take heart, stretch out your hand, and make contact with the risen Lord.

Do you recall the text with which I began? Look it up in your Bible at home, and mark it – or write it out in bright colours and pin it up in a prominent place.  It’s a guide and a promise in all circumstances. Psalm 25:5 - :  ”Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long.”

Sermon 27th July 2014 Promises and Obstacles Anne

Over the last few weeks we’ve been following the story of Jacob.  Last week, we heard how he ran away to his uncle’s house in Haran to escape his brother Esau’s anger.  Jacob deceived their father into giving him something that wasn’t meant for him - Esau’s blessing – and Esau wanted to kill him. Jacob escapes into the desert and as he lays down to sleep, he has a dream.  In that dream, God makes him an amazing promise.  He says to Jacob, “I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.  Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  All peoples on Earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.  I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.” (Genesis 28:13b-15a)

But how can God’s promise be fulfilled?  To have descendants, to have offspring, you need a wife and Jacob doesn’t have one.  Before he left Beersheba, Jacob’s father gave him the instruction to take one of his Uncle Laban’s daughters for a wife and so, with God’s promise and his father’s blessing, he continues his journey to Haran.  His mission is to find a wife, but there seems to be some obstacles in the way of God’s promise being fulfilled.

Jacob himself is an obstacle.  His faith is questionable.  After God makes that amazing promise to him he says, “If God will be with me…and will give me food.. then he will be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-22) Sounds like he’s trying to do a deal with God after God has already told him in the dream that he will always be with him. 

Jacob’s character and motives are questionable too.  I always imagine him as a sort of lovable rogue… a rascal.  Maybe he’s a sort of “Del boy of the desert”,  you’re never quite sure whether he’s sincere or not and when he’s playing it straight.  For example, as he’s travelling to find his uncle, he comes across a well in a field.  He asks the shepherds who are watering their flocks where they come from, “Haran” they reply.  This is excellent news for Jacob.  That’s ‘wife country’.  So he asks the shepherds, “Do you know Laban?” (Genesis 29:5).  “Yes”, they reply.  That’s even better news!  His mission to find a wife is going well.  And then, who should arrive bringing her father’s sheep, but Rachel, one of Laban’s daughters.  We’re told, when he saw Rachel…and Laban’s sheep…he watered the sheep first before even acknowledging her”.  Only after that, did he then kiss Rachel and weep aloud!  Now this could have been an act of kindness to the sheep, or to relieve Rachel’s workload, or to protect his vested interest and future wealth.  (Read Genesis chapter 30 for more about his interest in sheep).  There is a comical air to this too – a humorous overtone – at the well he is clearly eyeing up Rachel and the sheep and this would not have been missed by the original listeners of the story.  We don’t know what Rachel’s reaction was, but she does run home to tell her father.  I would have liked to have been part of that conversation… can you imagine what it might have been like “Father, there’s some crazy cousin, called Jacob, at the well…he’s after the sheep… and me”. 

Despite these obstacles, his questionable faith, his flawed character and his ‘far from perfect’ motives, God chooses Jacob to fulfil his promise and his plan for the world. 

Jacob is not the only obstacle though.  The people around Jacob and the prevailing cultural norms seem to be obstacles too.  Jacob wants to marry Rachel.  That’s his mission, that’s his route to having descendants, but his uncle Laban has other ideas.  He is better at wheeling and dealing than Jacob is.  The rascal Jacob has met his match and the deceiver is deceived!  He thinks he’s marrying Rachel, but his uncle Laban tricks him.  Instead, he ends up marrying her elder sister Leah and then has to work for another seven years to pay the bride price for Rachel!  In Jacob’s time, the cultural norms dictated that the eldest marries first and therefore Laban deceives Jacob into marrying Leah.  Brides wore veils and it would have been difficult for Jacob to recognise who he was marrying, but, to add insult to injury, Jacob does not even recognise Leah when he is intimate with her.  Poor Leah, it’s obvious she’s not the most attractive of the sisters and she’s treated badly.  I wonder how she’s feeling in all this. 

The whole episode seems very unsavoury.  Jacob’s marital arrangements are of course not a model for us to copy.  Neither is his uncle’s behaviour a moral example for us to follow.  The treatment of the women in the story does not sit comfortably with us.  The story takes place in an alien culture where women are treated as possessions.  We can get a sense of what it must have been like for the sisters if we think about how women are treated in Afghanistan or when we hear about forced marriages of young girls on the TV.   And yet, despite the brokenness of the situation, the deception, the cultural norms of the treatment of women, and the absolutely wretched situation that poor Leah finds herself in, God works through the obstacles.  We’re told later on in chapter 29 that “when the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” (Gen 29:31).  Even though Rachel does eventually have two sons, the promise of descendants is first fulfilled through Leah who goes on to have six sons and a daughter.  We also know that the descendants of all of Jacob’s sons go on to populate the conquered land of Canaan.  God’s promise to Jacob is fulfilled – God’s plan comes to fruition; even when there are seemingly impossible obstacles, he works for the good in all things.

What then is God’s promise to us?  In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul reminds his readers and us that nothing will separate us from God’s love through Christ Jesus.  God promises us His love.  Now that’s all very well, but obstacles seem to get in the way; they seem to separate us from God.

Like Jacob and Laban, it might be our own character that creates an obstacle or a resistance to God.  We are flawed characters, just take a few seconds to consider what it is you like least about yourself – painful isn't it.  And maybe like Jacob, especially when we’re desperate, we try to do deals with God, ‘if this, then that..’.   Or perhaps like Leah, the obstacles come from a situation that’s beyond our control.  There will be times of suffering, times of loss, times of being unloved, times of loss of freedom.  There may be a loss of a past that you preferred and situations in the present you’d rather not be in.  Or, maybe like Rachel, you live in fear of the future, when the plan doesn’t quite seem to be coming together and what you thought should happen, doesn’t.  And yet God works through our weaknesses and our sufferings, through our brokenness and our limitations, to draw us to him through his Son.      

What does it mean to have the promise of the ‘love of God’?  Romans 8, verse 32 perhaps best describes it, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”  Our God’s love is self-sacrificial love.  He gave His Son as a love offering on our behalf, he will do anything, give anything, to ensure our spiritual flourishing.  His love for us in Christ Jesus triumphs over every power on this earth and beyond.  There is no trouble, no hardship, not even persecution or danger – nothing in creation - there is no obstacle … not a single thing, that can separate us from the love of God.   And when we are too weak to pray, when the obstacles seem insurmountable, when we have no words to bring to God, when he seems far off and we doubt Him, He searches our hearts and the Spirit intercedes for us with groans and sighs too deep for words.  He is present and attentive, and by His Spirit, he joins with our groans, prays for us and prays within us.  He overcomes all obstacles and works for the good through them, be reassured, we can have hope in that promise … because nothing …. nothing…. nothing can separate us from His love.


1.         Can you think of any situations where you have experienced ‘insurmountable obstacles’ but some good   seems to have come out of the situation in the end?

2.         When have you experienced the love of God?

3.         The Genesis passage is quite challenging.  How do you deal with challenging texts in the Bible?