Last week, we started looking at famous bad people of the Bible. I love the fact that the people we read about in the Bible are so real. I’m always surprised by the people that God has chosen to use. I can’t relate to everything that they went through. I lose it when I read about all their concubines and their cattle and some of the strange things that happened. But I always relate to their struggles, their doubts, and their mistakes. I begin to realize that the people that God used were just like me – just as messed up, and they made just as many mistakes. That gives me hope.
The person I want to look at today is named Jacob. You may or may not be familiar with the story of Jacob. He was the grandson of the man we looked at last week – Abraham. He’s one of the most significant people in the Old Testament, the third link in God’s plan to start a nation from Abraham. You still hear people talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even today.
When Jacob was alive, he developed a reputation for two things: scheming and manipulating. As he was being born, he and his twin brother got into a wrestling match, almost like they were fighting to see who would become the firstborn son. Later, he manipulated his older brother into giving him the birthright, and still later, he manipulated his dying father to receive the blessing that belonged to his brother. He manipulated his dishonest boss, who also happened to be his father-in-law, into a good severance package after a lengthy tenure. Jacob spent his entire life scheming and manipulating. He was very successful, very prosperous, very determined – somebody we would admire. He fought for everything he had, and he usually ended up winning.
Today, I’d like to look at two scenes from his life. These are not normal, everyday scenes, yet they represent two struggles that I can relate to. I’d invite you to look with me at the first one, found in Genesis 28 (page 32 of the pew Bibles).
Scene One (Genesis 28:10-22) – What God Really Wants
The first scene is pretty familiar. You’ve probably heard about Jacob’s ladder. This is the inspiration for the song Stairway to Heaven. Let’s read what happened, beginning in verse 11.
At sundown he arrived at a good place to set up camp and stopped there for the night. Jacob found a stone for a pillow and lay down to sleep. As he slept, he dreamed of a stairway that reached from earth to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down on it.
At the top of the stairway stood the LORD, and he said, “I am the LORD, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I will give it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will cover the land from east to west and from north to south. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I will be with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. I will someday bring you safely back to this land. I will be with you constantly until I have finished giving you everything I have promised.” (Genesis 28:11-15)
When Jacob was alive, in that area, it was common for people to think of gods traveling down stairways to descend and be worshiped. In Joseph’s dream, it’s like a portal has opened between heaven and earth, and he sees angels traveling to earth to do their errands, and ascending to heaven with reports when they’re done. And then Jacob sees God standing beside the stairway, and God has a message for Jacob.
The dream wouldn’t have unusual in Jacob’s time. What’s unusual is what God says to Jacob. God blesses Jacob by promising that he would bring Jacob back to the land where he was sleeping, and then promises that his descendents would fill that land and bless the entire world. When Jacob wakes up, he recognizes the place where he slept as a sacred spot – as a portal between heaven and earth – and he makes a conditional vow. Read with me what Jacob says in verses 20-22:
Then Jacob made this vow: “If God will be with me and protect me on this journey and give me food and clothing, and if he will bring me back safely to my father, then I will make the LORD my God. This memorial pillar will become a place for worshiping God, and I will give God a tenth of everything he gives me.”
Jacob actually keeps this vow when he returns to the land in Genesis 35, a little while later. God had to remind him to return to this place and complete his vow. But for now, Jacob’s vow was conditional. He didn’t get rid of his gods. He didn’t make the LORD Jehovah his God. He hadn’t yet given God a tenth of what God gave him. Jacob was ready to commit only if God came through and things went his way. Jacob was more interested in what God would give him than in committing, unconditionally, to God.
I guess a modern parallel would be God saying to us, “Let me bless you. I want a relationship with you,” and then having one of us reply, “If I get this promotion that I want, and if my kids turn out, and if you start to help my marriage, then I’ll consider making you my God.” We live at a time in which there are so many choices, that many of us feel that if God doesn’t work out, there’s always something else. It’s almost like God has to compete with Dr. Phil on Oprah, and we’ll see which one makes our life better.
I thought about this in my own life. When I started to think about becoming a pastor, part of my struggle was wondering if God would really come through. I thought, “Okay, God, I’ll do it, but do you realize I could make more money doing something else?” I remember battling with this for quite some time. I didn’t want to – I knew I should just obey – but it’s hard to commit. I used to looking after myself and following the best options.
Sometimes I’ve even preached messages like this. “If you want your life to be successful, if you want your kids to grow up right, if you want to have a thriving marriage, follow God’s commandments.” It’s not that this is wrong. Following God will make you a better parent and marriage partner. The problem is the presupposition. It’s almost saying that following God is worth it for the benefits. Would I still follow God if the benefits weren’t as attractive? Does it open me up to competing offers? What if following God didn’t enrich my life, it actually cost my life? Do I see my walk with God as another way to improve my life – quit smoking, lose weight, go to church?
Last week, Curtis Joseph signed with Detroit. The issue really wasn’t the money. The issue was that Cujo wanted to sign with a winning team, one that had a shot at the Stanley Cup before he retired. Who can blame him? We’ve been waiting in Toronto since 1967 for another Stanley Cup. When I read Jacob’s conditional commitment to God this week, it hit me that I have a tendency to approach God the same way – conditionally, based on what I get from the relationship. God approaches our relationship as our Creator, the one who gives us every single breath, the one who sustains the entire world by his power. He says, “I want to bless you.” We say, “I’ll consider your offer.” God says, “No, don’t consider it based on what you’ll get, even though you will get a lot. Consider it based on who it is that’s speaking to you. Don’t put me on the same level as Dr. Phil. Don’t put your life out to tender. I am God.”
You may be here thinking, “That’s a little heavy. Yes, I want to relate to God, but to be honest, I am here because of what I’ll get out of that relationship. The real reason I’m here is because I want my kids to be religious or because my girlfriend brought me here or because I want to go to heaven.” I appreciate your honesty. I don’t think God is offended by those reasons. I know I came to God for some of those reasons – heaven sure sounded better than the alternative. You can come to God with motives that are probably less than ideal, and God won’t turn you away. He didn’t with Jacob. But he wants more.
God will gradually work in your life so that the real reason you love him isn’t because of what he can do for you. He will lead you to relate to him ultimately because he is God, and because if you don’t praise him, the rocks will cry out. Where you are now is okay, but God will lead you to more. God doesn’t want your conditional commitment, based on what he’ll do. He wants you to surrender, not because of what you’ll get, but because of who God is.
Scene Two (Genesis 32:20-32) – How God Will Get Us There
The next scene we’re going to look at is found in Genesis 32. By this time, Jacob is 97 years old. Jacob’s spent his whole life fighting for himself, and most of the time, he’s won. He still hasn’t learned, though. His commitment to God is still conditional. But God is about to bring him to the point where he has no other choice.
Sometimes God takes a long time to teach us what we need to know. Sometimes we’re very slow learners.
This is another one of the famous scenes from Jacob’s life. In this scene, Jacob wrestles all night with an angel – possibly with God, at least an angel of God. Jacob eventually gets a blessing from God, even though he’s injured. I’ve heard that this is a model of prayer for us, that we should wrestle with God all night to try to extract a blessing from God. But that isn’t the point of this passage. Jacob didn’t pick this fight with God; God picked it with Jacob. Jacob was only defending himself. Jacob didn’t win the fight by wrestling; he won by surrendering. For years, God had put up with conditional commitment, but now God was about to bring Jacob to the point in which the only option he had left was to surrender to God.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in one of those situations, in way over your head – some sort of crisis in which you reach the end of yourself, and there’s nothing left to do but what God can do for you. When we meet Jacob in this passage, he’s at one of these points in his life. All his life, he’s been fighting for himself and winning, but he’s now at a point that he can’t handle by himself.
Jacob was about to meet his brother, Esau, for the first time in 20 years. He was afraid – probably with good reason – that Esau was coming to kill him in revenge for stealing his birthright. For the first time, Jacob knew that this was a situation that only God could handle. Listen to what he prayed:
O LORD, please rescue me from my brother, Esau. I am afraid that he is coming to kill me, along with my wives and children. But you promised to treat me kindly and to multiply my descendants until they become as numerous as the sands along the seashore—too many to count. (Genesis 32:11-12)
When we’re at a very low point in our lives, God has a way of teaching us what we needed to learn all along. It’s hard to learn when things are going well. God sometimes waits until we hurt enough before he teaches us what he wanted us to know all along. God decided that this was a good time for Jacob to learn surrender and unconditional commitment to him.
Genesis 32:24 says, “This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until dawn.” We read later that Jacob recognizes this man as a divine being – an angel, possibly even God himself. Use your imagination for a minute and try to picture what’s happening.
What’s the point? I don’t think the point is a physical wrestling match. Think about it. It’s an angel – possibly God himself – verses a 97-year-old man. The point isn’t who’s stronger. Look at what happened when the angel just touched Jacob’s hip, in verse 25: “When the man saw that he couldn’t win the match, he struck Jacob’s hip and knocked it out of joint at the socket.” The fight could have been over before it started if it was just a physical fight. There was something deeper going on, something that God wanted to teach Jacob.
When Jacob fights all night, finally getting injured, he realizes it’s the first fight in his life that he isn’t able to win by himself. When you’re the undefeated champion of your entire life, you start to think that you can handle everything yourself – that even God isn’t really needed. What happened here is in some ways a picture of Jacob’s entire life. He had spent his whole life fighting, but finally he was fighting a battle he couldn’t win. I love how J.I. Packer puts it: God was bringing Jacob to “a spirit of submission and distrust… low enough for God to raise him up by speaking peace to him and assuring him that he need not fear about Esau anymore” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God). God was raising him up by bringing him low. He was blessing him by humbling him.
Jacob didn’t win this battle by prevailing. He won the battle by submitting – by surrendering to God. Jacob finally said the words that God had been waiting to hear for over forty years: “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). Finally, Jacob realized he was helpless, and cast himself on God’s mercy. The minute that Jacob submitted, he won. Verse 28 says, “Your name will no longer be Jacob…It is now Israel [God fights], because you have struggled with both God and men and have won.”
This is a hard lesson for us to learn. It’s only when we stop fighting, stop relying on ourselves, that God is finally able to bless us as he wanted to all along. We put conditions on God. We fight the battles ourselves. But God will eventually bring us to the point where we realize that we can’t fight all the battles, that the only way to live is to die – that the only way we can win with God is if we surrender to him.
Sometimes I think that one of my greatest spiritual problems is that I’m doing pretty well; that overall, I’m contented and happy with my life. I start to think that I’m responsible for my successes. I start to think that I’m the reason that things are going well, and that if things aren’t going well, I just have to try harder, and with enough resolution, enough effort, there isn’t any battle that I can’t win.
Larry Crabb writes:
Satan’s masterpiece is not the prostitute or the bum. It is the self-sufficient person who has made life comfortable, who is adjusting well to the world and likes living here, who longs only to be a little better—and a little better off—than he already is.
One of the most deadly spiritual diseases is one that I have – the sin of self-sufficiency. One of the deadliest conditions we can have is to think that we can get by in our lives based on our own efforts, with a little bit of God thrown in to help out. God will cure this disease by bringing me to a point in which I realize I can’t win – I never could – apart from surrendering everything – who I am, all I have – to God.
It’s very possible that you’re going through a period in your life in which things aren’t clicking. Things are actually falling apart. You’re not used to this. Most of your life has been good until now. You’re wondering if God is punishing you, or you can’t figure out what’s going on in your life. All you know is that you’re at the end of your resources, and you need God to come through for you in a big way. As somebody once said, “Well, we’ve tried everything else. I guess there’s nothing left to do now but trust the Lord!”
I want to suggest that what could be happening is that God is bringing you to the end of your resources, the end of yourself, so that God can show up and bless you. He wants us to “relax our determined grasp of our empty selves enough to appreciate His purposes” (Larry Crabb).
This won’t take away your pain, and it might not make it easier. But I do know that coming to the end of ourselves is a very good place to be, especially when God is there. When we’re at the end of our resources, we see for the very first time that we never had the resources to deal with life in the first place, that the battles we thought we had won before weren’t really battles that we had won. They were battles that God won. We just t ook the credit.
Sometimes, God uses failure in our lives to draw us to depend on him. One man has said, “In his severe mercy, God takes away the good to create an appetite for the better.”
You may be at that point where all you have to do is to surrender to God, to give up and ask for his blessing. Stop fighting for yourself. Stop your conditional surrender. Give it all up to God today. He’s been waiting for years for you to get to this very point.
There may be others of us here who aren’t going through a hard time right now. The reality is that our faith is real. We’ve trusted God for our salvation, we say grace at every meal, and we believe that God has blessed us. But we also think we’re invincible. We haven’t fought many battles that we haven’t won. If the truth were known, we haven’t completely surrendered to him. We haven’t come to the end of our resources. We’re more interested in what God can do four our lives than in unconditionally surrendering to him.
God is waiting for us to stop taking credit for what he is doing, to stop setting conditions on our obedience. He is waiting for us to be still, to know that he is God. We don’t have to learn this lesson the hard way – we can surrender and submit to him today. But if we don’t, God will find another way to teach us. When God wrestles, he always wins. When Jacob wrestled with God, he won – not because he was stronger, but because he submitted. The only way to win with God is to surrender to him.
I’m going to invite you to reach that point today. It took Jacob 97 years to get to this point. I think all of us have Jacob beat. Let’s pray and surrender to him right now.
Jacob was wounded, at the end of himself. He had been fighting all his life, but he had nothing left to give. He was fighting a battle he couldn’t win. He said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Today, God is inviting you to come to him – wounded, limping, at the end of yourself, and to say, “I surrender. I’m ready. I surrender – not conditionally, not reservedly. I surrender. Now bless me.”
Would you silently acknowledge to God the times that you’ve been self-reliant; the times that you’ve felt you were in control – maybe even the times that you’ve schemed your way through life, and thought that you were in control?
It’s only by submitting to God that we win with God. “Only in the agony of His absence, both in the absence of blessings and in the felt absence of His Presence, will we relax our determined grasp of our empty selves enough to appreciate His purposes… Only when we’ve given up on everything else can we finally find that ultimate hunger in our heart.” (Larry Crabb)
Would you silently relax your grip of your empty self…open yourself up to the ultimate hunger in your heart – to know God, to submit to God, to be blessed by God?
In our weakness, Father, show us your strength.
In our struggles, reveal our limitations
So we can see that you have none.
In our woundedness, let us lean on and submit to you.
May we realize that the way to win with you
Is not to fight against you
But to surrender to you.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.