“If God Had Not Been With Me”                                         March 11, 2012

Genesis 31:22-55

 

SI:  Jacob’s life is a lesson in God’s grace.

We see in every episode of his life and through the years,

   the Lord was with him, and poured out his blessings on a very undeserving man. 

 

Jacob’s life is, in that sense, a model Christian life. 

He goes through good and bad times, failures and successes,

   times of spiritual weakness and times of growing faith—

   and through it all, the Lord was with him.

 

And as the years passed, Jacob has able to see more and more,

   with eyes of faith, the presence and hand of God through it all—

   and that knowledge made him into a better man.

 

How about you, do you see God’s hand?  Do you know he is with you?


 

INTRO:  I have a seminary friend who was so talented

   that a well-known church called him as pastor before he had even graduated. 

He was only 24, he had a sharp mind, lots of ideas and energy.

   This was an old church with lots of tradition and lots of difficult members—

   but he seemed to have the magic touch.

There was no serious conflict, and even when there seemed to be conflict

   brewing over some of his youthful decisions, it just disappeared.

He ended up staying there a long time and having a very effective ministry.

 

But he found out many years later that throughout his early days as pastor

   he had stepped on lots of toes.  There were some of those difficult, confrontational

   members who were ready to criticize and stir up conflict and agitate against him.

And he also found out that there were a couple older men in the congregation who

   were working behind the scenes.  These men were pillars in this old church. 

   They had family connections and history and carried a lot of weight. 

 

These two men would go around behind this young pastor when they heard of

   feathers ruffled, and they would soothe people.  Listen to gripes and complaints.

They would say—You’re right.  We know.  He’s young, he’s green—

   but he has so many gifts.  And if you will just give him time, it will work out.

   Because of who they were, people listened to them, and it did work out.

 

That’s sort of what we see happening to Jacob on a spiritual level.

This passage marks the end of an era in Jacob’s life—the Laban era.

   Those 20 very significant years of Jacob’s life. 

   He arrived in Paddan Aram with nothing, with just the clothes on his back. 

   Worked 14 years for his two wives, had 12 children, worked six years during

   which he came into his own financially.

But there was one cloud that hung over those years—

   his uncle, boss, and father-in-law Laban.  The man was manipulative liar.

 

Just look at Laban’s lies and hypocrisy in this last encounter with Jacob.

Why did you leave without telling me?

   I would have sent you off with joy and singing, with tambourines and harps.

   Liar.  He would have confiscated everything Jacob owned.

He’s such a liar that he doesn’t even see the contradiction in his next statement

   when he says—I have the power to harm you but God warned me not to.

He very self-righteously tells Jacob not to take any other wives—

   even though it was Laban himself who forced Jacob to become a polygamist.

He forced him to work in unbearable conditions, he cheated him ten times.  

   He demanded Jacob pay for losses that no shepherd would normally have to bear.

   He made every effort to bleed Jacob dry.

 

But here at the end, when they finally part ways—it’s Jacob who is prosperous.

   It’s Jacob who is vindicated in spite of Laban’s bluster.

   It’s Jacob who is standing on the border of the Promised Land.

And most importantly, it’s Jacob who has become a tougher man

   with a truer and sturdier faith in the Lord. 

 

The focal point of this passage is verse 42.  Let’s read it again.  Jacob says:

   “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me,

   you would surely have sent me away empty-handed.  But God has seen my hardship and the

   toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.”

That’s Jacob’s testimony.  That is where he has come spiritually.

 

He is able to look at his life, reflect on 20 years, very difficult years and say—

   the Lord has been with me.  The Lord has been working behind the scenes

   all my life long, even when I didn’t see him.  Even when times were hard.

And that knowledge has changed Jacob.

   He’s a different man than he was when we first met him, very different.

 

Here’s the lesson of this chapter.  It’s simple and profound. 

   If you are a Christian, God is with you.  And knowing that must change you.

God is with you whether you feel like he’s with you or not.

   He’s with you whether he’s answering your prayers or it seems like he’s not.

   He’s with you when you’re walking close to him and when you’re not.

 

And he’s with you in such a profound and deep and secret way, that you will

   never know, never until you get to heaven, just how much of his faithfulness

   and provision you have consumed over the years.

 

A big part of spiritual maturity and growth in grace is simply coming to this 

   conviction that the Lord is with you and then letting that knowledge change you.

How does it change you?  Many ways, but we’ll look briefly at three.

It makes you a bold person, a humble person, a worshipping person. 

   Let’s look at this passage under those three points and end with a story.

 

Credit where credit is due:  Sermon by Dr. Robert Rayburn.

MP#1  Knowing God is with you makes you a bold person

As you read Jacob’s life, there is a recurrent theme of fear—

   fear of conflict, fear of people, fear of the unknown.

When Esau threatened him, he fled to Paddan Aram. 

   A decision that would change the course of his life forever. 

When Laban deceived him on his wedding night and switch Rachel for Leah,

   Jacob tried to protest but Laban browbeat him claimed this was their custom.

   Jacob was afraid to push the matter and ended up with two wives and seven years.

When his wives were fighting and his household in turmoil,

   Jacob fled from the conflict and made matters worse.

When it came time to leave, he was afraid to tell Laban and left town

   in the dead of night, so to speak.

 

But now when Jacob finds himself in one more fearful circumstance—

   confronted by Laban, surrounded by Laban’s unhappy relatives who had

   superior numbers and incentive to take whatever they wanted—

   Jacob’s fear evaporates, and he lets Laban have it.

What’s the change? 

It’s more than just pent up frustration.

   Call it boldness, or confidence, or courage—

   what’s important is that Jacob was motivated and empowered by his faith. 

He’s come to realize—God is with me. 

   Not only is he with me, he’s been with me all this time.

   And he will continue to be with me—my future is secure.

He has provided for me and brought me to the border of the Promised Land.

   Ultimately, Jacob’s not just bold with men, he’s bold with God.  Trust, prayer.

 

There are places in your life where you need the courage to do the right thing.

   You may be fearful or uncertain because of the people involved, their reaction.

There are decisions you have to make—and you don’t know all the information.

   You’ve found out all you can, you’ve sought counsel, you’ve prayed—

   but there is this uncertainty about the future that unnerves you.

You may be trapped in uncertainty, you may be world’s worst is second guessing.

  

If you are in Christ, God is with you.  He’s been with you.  He will be with you. 

   He sees your toil and trouble and he will bring you to the Promised Land.

Even if you move ahead and things don’t work out as you had hoped.

   Even if people respond in ways you hoped they wouldn’t.  God is with you.

   This will give you a confidence in your prayers and plans.

MP#1  Knowing God is with you makes you a humble person.

Jacob was fearful, but he was also self-confident. 

   I know that sounds contradictory, but by self-confident I mean for much of his life

   he relied on himself and not on God.  That was also the source of his fear.

Jacob thought that if anything good was going to happen, if he was going to get

   ahead in life, it would be up to him.  He would have to scheme and push.

 

That’s what motivated him to deceive his father Isaac to get blessing.

   Jacob relied on his cleverness, relied on his wits to get ahead.

He later relied on his work and determination.

   If I can only grit it out seven years, and another seven years, and six years.

   If I can only be clever enough, then I’ll get ahead.

 

And then Jacob looked up one day and he was a prosperous man.

When he speaks to Laban he says:  I worked hard for you, I was honest.

   You think at first Jacob is bragging about himself.

   He’s not.  He’s setting the record straight with Laban’s relatives.

No, Jacob’s not boasting in himself.  Look at verse 42 again

   Jacob attributed all of his success to the lord.

   If the Lord had not been with me, would have gone home empty-handed. 

   God has seen my hardship.  He’s seen my tears and sweat.  Seen my treatment.

 

Jacob had come to realize that everything good in his life has happened because

   of the active, caring presence of God.  And there’s even more to it than that.

He’s realized that this is a fallen world and there are lots of evil people.

   And no matter how clever you are, how hard you work or how good you try to be,

   unless the Lord is with you, that evil will eventually wear you down and ruin you.

Jacob says:  I would have been empty-handed.

   Full of regrets and bitterness, broken dreams, lost opportunities.

   Disappointed with life.  That’s what sin does. 

 

And it’s not just the evil of other people, and life in a fallen world—it was Jacob’s

   own sins and failures.  His sin made everything more complicated.

But God worked it out, and he was standing on the border of the Promised Land. 

There are places in your life where you need the humility to say—

   I’m going to work hard, but if the Lord is not with me, I will be empty-handed.

   If you don’t, you’re going to end your days in bitterness and regret.

You must come to believe, not just in head, but in your soul, that God with you.

   Working and caring for you.  Trust him, even when you don’t see his hand.

MP#3  Knowing God is with you makes you a worshipping person.

This is certainly the biggest thing.  This is the real life-changing effect of faith.

   That the knowledge of the Lord’s presence throughout your life fills you

   with wonder, awe, and worship.

The mystery of God’s presence amazes you. 

   When you catch glimpses of God’s hand you praise him.

 

Here it is with Jacob—and you have to see how far he has come spiritually.

   Who is this God who has been with him his whole life?

   What does he call him? 

“The God of my father, the God of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac.”

   Jacob is affirming in those names that God works through the generations.

He’s saying:  I believe God began to be with me to bless me even before I was born.

   There is a complexity and thoroughness to his plans for me that is amazing.

 

Look at this wonderful name he calls the Lord—the Fear of Isaac.

   This is the God before whom my father Isaac stood in awe and wonder.

   And now I fear him too.

Jacob looks at the past 20 hard years of his life and he worships.

   He looks farther back than that, to his father, and grandfather and he worships.

Because he believes that God has been at work in ways seen and unseen—

   through the generations, always keeping his promises. 

 

Someone has compared the way God is with us and works for us to the

   autonomic nervous system of our bodies. 

We don’t watch over the beating of our hearts, or our respiration, or any of the other

   biological processes that keep us alive.  Those things are so deep, that we don’t

   even think of them.  We focus on how we feel, our plans for today.  Surface stuff.

So it is with the Christian life.  There are such deep things going on, deep ways

   God is working in your life, over years, over generations. 

 

It brings to mind those amazing words of David, Psalm 139.

   O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.  You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain . . . How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!  Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.  When I awake, I am still with you.

   If we could fully grasp this, how different our lives would be.

A Story of God Working In the Life of a Believer

I’ve covered those three points quickly, because I want to tell you the story.

   How did the Holy Spirit communicate this truth, that the Lord is with us?

   He didn’t just tell us, he gave us a story, the life of Jacob. 

Nothing convinces us more of the presence and faithfulness of God than

   those kinds of stories.  I ran across one a few months ago that I want to share.

 

It’s rare to see a story of God faithfulness in the mainstream media, but that’s where

   I first read it, back in December of 2011.  Maybe you saw it.

A number of media outlets covered this story, but the best was a local newspaper

   article written by Tom Berg of the The Orange County Register.

 

San Clemente, California—For 77 years she kept it hidden inside.  Her secret.

Each May 22, Minka Disbrow silently wished a happy birthday to the baby girl she gave away

   in 1929.  How is she, Disbrow wondered.  Where is she?  Who is she?

But there was no way of knowing.  Not after what happened so long ago.

   Back then, no one talked about sex.  Or pregnancy.  Or 16-year-old girls who were raped

   among the small dairy farms of South Dakota.  So Disbrow bottled up her secret deep inside.

   And kept it there.

 

Months turned into years.  Years into decades.  Until Disbrow woke up May 22, 2006, and after

   wishing happy birthday to her little girl, she prayed:  Lord, if you would just let me see Betty

   Jane, I won’t bother her, I promise.  I just want to see her before I die.”

Some might consider it a fool’s prayer.  Disbrow was 94.

   And her baby girl, if still alive, would be 77.  To meet would take a miracle.

 

Scatterwood Lake, South Dakota

She hauled water from a well.  Used an outhouse for a toilet.  

   Rode a horse-drawn sled to church in winter.

“At age 6, we had to pick mustard and potatoes in the field,” says Disbrow, who also fed pigs

   and milked cows before walking to school.  Chores increased after eighth grade.

“High school is for city kids with nothing to do,” said her stepdad, who kept Disbrow home to

   work.  You can imagine her delight to be invited to a picnic the summer of her 16th year.

It was held at Scatterwood Lake with girls from a local sewing class.

 

“Let’s go for a walk,” said her friend Elizabeth.

They meandered along the South Dakota lake—unaware of three men watching.  Approaching.

The attack came fast.  Its violence was foreign to a girl who still believed storks delivered

   babies.  “We couldn’t go back and say we were raped,” Disbrow says.

   “We were paralyzed.  We never said anything.”

She had no one to tell.  No one to comfort her.  No one to explain what happened.

   Nothing but cows that needed milking and milk that needed bottling

   and bottles that needed washing.  Nothing but chores.

“You just kept it all in your heart,” she says.  Until her belly started to grow.

She was sent to the Lutheran Home for Girls in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

   “My mother and stepfather made up their minds, I was not to come home with a baby.”

It was there, someone finally explained what had happened and what would happen.

   Betty Jane was born May 22, 1929, with a dimple on her chin

   and a good home waiting for her in Iowa.

 

“She was my darling,” says Disbrow, who spent a month with her baby before being sent home.

Back on the farm, she milked cows each morning, worked in a slaughterhouse all day

   and faced more chores at night.  Then, in the quiet of her room, she would write letters to the

   Lutheran home asking about her baby.

“How is my Betty Jane?” she wrote in one letter.

   Any word from her adoptive parents?  I hope she’s being a good girl.”

   “Our holiday would be complete,” she wrote in another, “if we were to just get word about

   Betty Jane.”  But of course, she couldn't.

 

And so the months turned into years.  The years into decades.

   Until Disbrow woke up May 22, 2006, and prayed to see the little girl she gave away in 1929.

   A fool’s prayer?

Within days, a South Dakota court granted permission to a 77-year-old woman in Viroqua,

   Wisconsin, to see some records she sought about her adoption.

 

Disbrow’s phone rang six weeks after her prayer.

“Do you know anything about Betty Jane?” a man asked.  Or Sioux Falls?”

   “Yes,” said Disbrow.  “But who are you?”

“I’m the son of your daughter,” he said.  Would you like to talk to your daughter?  

   To Betty Jane?”  My knees buckled,” recalls Disbrow.

 

She learned that her baby girl, now named Ruth Lee, was married and had six children—

   including astronaut Mark Lee who’d flown into space four times.

She also learned how her prayer was answered:

   Ruth recently had undergone heart surgery and thought it wise to find her birth mother’s

   health records.  Her search uncovered Disbrow’s letters and, eventually, the fact that Disbrow

   was still alive.

 

“I got goose bumps all over my body,” Ruth recalls. “I just didn’t expect that.”

Finally, after 77 years apart, mother and daughter would meet.

   And Disbrow’s secret would come out.

“Oh my goodness,” she fretted.  “What are people going to think?  My own family doesn’t

   know.”  Right away, she called a daughter in Portland, Oregon to explain.

Her secret gushed out—as it did, a joy overtook the pain.

 

“I never heard her so excited,” says Dianna Huhn, 65, of Portland, one of two children Disbrow

   had from her marriage to Eugene Disbrow.

“And from that day on, I have never seen my mom so happy.”

   Disbrow’s family, friends and church all embraced her story.

Grown men cried when she described it at Heritage Christian Fellowship in San Clemente.

   And when mother and daughter met?

   “It was like we’d known each other all our lives,” says Ruth Lee, now 82.

“It was like we never parted,” says Disbrow,

   who recently told this story to friends at her 100th birthday party.

 

When I read that story, I knew that there had to be more to it.

   That this news story had barely scratched the surface of this woman’s faith.

So I called her church in San Clemente, spoke to a member who told me to go on

   their website and listen to the audio recording of her giving her

   testimony back in 2008 when she was 96. 

Just as I suspected, it was a testimony to the presence of God. 

   I wrote down some of her words at the beginning and the end.

 

She begins with this:

   “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.  Who can fathom the depth of his wisdom, or his love as he works out all things according to his purposes and our good.  I have been given the opportunity to scan my life of 96 years because of something that happened recently.  Can we know the destiny of lives, families, cities, and nations?  The Bible says the prayer of a righteous man availeth much, and to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto thee.  I pondered these words in my heart and mind as my life took a dramatic turn in July of 2006.” 

 

At this point she tells the whole story of her assault, pregnancy, giving up her child

   for adoption and the reunion with her daughter and family 77 years later. 

There were a number of facts that were not in the news story which were very

   significant to her.  Places where she saw God’s hand. 

One was that she found out, after being reunited with her daughter, that the adoptive

   parents were a godly Lutheran pastor and his wife.  And she found out that for the

   rest of their lives, they has prayed for her. 

She said, Not only did I pray for my daughter all those years,

   “I too had been the recipient of the prayers of my daughter’s adoptive parents.”

 

She listed with amazement the accomplishments of her six grandchildren.

   One an astronaut (lives in Alabama).  Two teachers.  One a football coach.

   One a lieutenant colonel in the army.  One an engineer for Bowing. 

Said:  If I had been raped today, would have been counseled to have an abortion.

   And the world would have been denied this wonderful family. 

This is how she ended her testimony: 

    “My life was a challenge and hampered by a lack of education.  But I look back and I see his guidance and direction, leading me to a higher spiritual realm, a higher spiritual maturity . . . I am blessed beyond measure.  To God be the glory.  And to all others who had a part in my growing up in him, held in his hand and grafted into his plan.  

 

Hope is that which gets us up in the morning when we know God cares, but haven’t seen any evidence of it in the past days, weeks, months, or sometimes years.  Hope drives us onward when we want to stop and quit.  Hope keeps our dreams alive while we are waiting.  And we need hope because we can’t always control the time table.  2 Samuel 22:31 says, ‘As for God, his way is perfect.  The Word of the Lord is flawless, he is a shield for all who take refuge in him.’ 

 

May these words give someone hope, a new lease on life, for our Lord and Savior promised never to leave us or forsake us, and sent his blessed Holy Spirit to guide and to direct us.  The Father’s love, mercy, and grace endureth unto all generations, and he is still in control of all things, now and forever.  May your prayer be:  Father, open the eyes of my heart to see who you are, and I lay my cares at your feet.”

 

A true story. 

And every single child of God in this room has a similar story the Lord’s

   faithfulness, provision, protection and care through the thick and thin of life.

The Lord doesn’t always pull back the curtain like he did for Jacob and for Minka

   Disbow.  And even in her case, she went for 77 years not knowing the details

   of how he was working and how he was answering so many prayers.

But even if the Lord had chosen not to reveal it to her in this life but had waited

   until heaven, even then, he would have still been faithful and at work in her life.

 

Friends, you too can say, you must say, as Jacob said to Laban—

   “If God had not been with me.” 

All those long years, even when I often forgot that he was with me.

   Even when I acted as no one should act who is walking with God.

Even when I sometimes searched for the sight of God’s hand and couldn’t see it.

   Even then, he was with me to bless me and care for me.

 

And like Jacob, our father in the faith, the model of grace,

   the Lord is leading you to the border of the Promised Land,

   and to the gate of the Eternal City.

 

Say it to yourself, ten times a day—“If God had not been with me.”