In times of struggle, God can do new things in us and to us.
Blessings to all of you. Our series Growing Through Adversity that we’ve been sitting with for a number of weeks. It’s built around the idea that there are going to be times in our lives when it’s really hard, not always easy. Maybe we came in struggling with something. Something that makes us a little bit afraid or causes us to be anxious, that’s real life. We’re talking about finding the opportunity in the adversities. Even now, Lord, we welcome your grace among us. One of the things we talk about is the idea of saving faith and how God wants us to build on that. The saving faith is something that is a starting place. The idea of what the Lord said in Romans 10:9. If you would confess with your mouth to the Lord Jesus and believe in our heart that God has risen from the dead. In fact, in Romans 10:9, you get a chance to see where it reminds us about what it is to make a faith confession. Maybe we’ve done that in our lives or we’re at the point of preparing ourselves to do that. We step forward into it, and this is one of the great biblical definitions of saving faith.
The idea is that the Lord wants us to build on that. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s meant to develop, mature, and grow. So after we start our journey with Jesus and welcome Him into our hearts, He wants us to grow in our faith. A faith He wants to mature and begin to become a vital and thriving faith. A faith that is adventurous, creative, and highly contagious. That’s how the Lord prefers it to be. Of course, He wants that faith to grow into a resilient faith. That resiliency or ability to negotiate challenging places in our lives is very connected, this is going to seem paradoxical, to our dependency. Jesus said in John 15:5, “I’m the vine, you’re the branches, he who abides in me and I in him, this is the one who bears much fruit. For without Me you can do nothing.” Not in the area that we’re talking about. Nothing is nothing, but the real strength is found in the vine. It’s an attachment. The paradox is about dependency.
Resiliency grows in the Christian life the more dependent we become on Jesus. The more independent we are, the less resilient our faith will be. It’s exactly the opposite of what our culture teaches us about what real strength looks like. The way of the Lord is a way of learning how to live in humility. It brings forth its gift of life. One of the key ways that the Lord often uses life or allows life to develop and grow us, is through things like adversity. That’s what often creates the openings for real growth to happen in our lives. We start wrestling with things and are more open to God than we would’ve been. Not all adversity is the same, that’s true. There are different levels of adversity. Some things are life-altering. Other things are hassles. Maybe we had our share of adversity this week. I was thinking about it a month or so ago. I was driving to church at six o’clock in the morning. It was probably close to 6:10, I’m driving curling around San Jose Avenue and there’s no traffic that early on a Sunday. San Jose Avenue is quite clear. In fact, there was nobody. There was one car coming off the 280 that was going to be merging.
I’m coming off the little ramp there speeding up to merge. I noticed that there were lights parked on the sidewalk. I almost couldn’t figure out what it was. I was going too fast to really see. All of a sudden it dawns on me as I hear this siren and see these lights shining behind me, “Pull over.” I’m thinking, “You got to be kidding me.” The officer walks up to me, I rolled down my window, “Don’t get out of your car.” I said, “You got to be kidding me, there’s nobody here. It’s like a speed trap. I like you guys, what are you doing? I’m on my way to church.” Which was true. I said, “You can’t be serious.” He said, “Well you were speeding.” So I started saying, “But, but…”He says, “I really can’t say anything right now we have a camera on.”I said, “Oh. Oh, this is great. This is just great. There’s nobody here, what are you doing?”He said, “Well, you’re speeding.”
The officer walks back to his car, he comes back and said, “My camera’s off now. If I were you I would protest this.” I said, “What?” “Yeah, I would protest it.” He said, “I think you got a good chance to win.” I said, “You know what that means? I’ve got to go to city hall, pay money, post $300 bail or close to it, and just to get in line for a protest. It could be three months down the line. I have to show up on the exact date. Then, even if you win, you’re telling me I’ve got a good chance at it, it’s going to take me months before I even get my money back. Oh, come on!” I ended up shaking his hand. It was a classic moment where I said, “What a way to start my day, my Sunday.” I had to get my head in a really good place because I was irritated. I couldn’t believe it. I was probably technically guilty, yes, but come on.
I told myself, “I have to get in a good attitude because I’m sharing and I don’t feel that great right now.” That reminded me of something that had happened. Remember I told you how in early 2015, that’s what prompted this series, I had to go on a medical sabbatical. I wasn’t doing great. It was probably the first time in my life I really felt like I suffered for a variety of reasons. Not just because of my vocal cord surgery. I just wasn’t doing well. One of the things that happened when the board sent me on that medical sabbatical was I had a lot of time. I started doing a lot of old-fashioned journaling. I was very tenacious about writing things down. I was writing out Psalms, writing out prayers, sharing my thoughts. I was meticulous. I was doing it all the time. I liked this journal for one thing because I picked it out. I remember because I liked the title of it Everything’s Going To Be Okay. I picked that as a promise.
I liked it and the way that it opened up. Not all journals are the same. Some, when you open them up the pages are bulky. This one layed flat and so I really liked it. I was writing in it. I was trying to write things in pencil, being very meticulous, putting my entries in, but I was very serious about it. During this time I was working out a lot of my thoughts, pain, and prayers. A lot of my soul was going into these journals. This one time, in particular, I remember we were on an airplane flight. I was on an aisle and my wife was by the window. It was a lighter flight so there was an opening in the middle. I remember, I pulled the window shade down. I was writing meticulously thinking, praying, and writing. All of a sudden, the attendant comes down the aisles passing out the beverages. Which is great.She gets to us and asks, “Hey, what would you like?”Cheryl says, “Oh, I’ll have a glass of water.” I said, “I’ll have a ginger ale.” She asked me, “Would you like a cup or a can?” I said, “Oh, I’ll have a can.”
I was happy I got extra. I was feeling pretty good and go back to writing. I’m writing and getting ready for my ginger ale. She starts to hand the water to my wife, slips, and all of a sudden it spills all over my journal. I remember just looking at it. I looked at Cheryl and I could see it seeping in, right to it. It was like, “Oh man. Oh, man. Ugh!” I already had visions of what was going to happen. How my journal was going to dry and curl up, which is what it did. I’m dabbing away and she’s, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” I dried it up as best as I could and put it to the side. She passes by and my wife says, “You really had a bad attitude.” I said, “Can I get a little sympathy here? I mean, my Journal’s ruined.” We start going back and forth and she says, Yeah, but you threw your hands up, all right” I said, “I did?” She said, “Yeah, you threw your hands up like, Ugh.” I said, “Well, I liked my journal, and it’s ruined.” About five minutes later she asked, “Do you want some food?” We packed our lunch because they don’t give you any free meals anymore. She pulls out a Trader Joe’s salad, it’s a beet salad. I said, “Okay.” She starts opening it up and I’m watching her. She starts opening up and gets that little plastic container that has the beets in it. She flips open the top and it squirts out on her. It was a creamy white shirt she was wearing. It looked like someone took red paint all over it.
When I saw it, I said, “Do you want any napkins?” Inside I was saying, “Justice has been served. That’s what you get.” I didn’t say that, but that’s what you get. She had a way better attitude than I did. She ended up clean. I was shocked. I said, “There’s no way that’s coming out,” on the inside, but it did. She was tenacious and got it out of there eventually. We were laughing about it, I wrote it down. I remembered it vividly and wrote it down because I thought, “I’m just going to remember this moment.” Those moments are like the ticket. A stained shirt, someone ruins your exquisite journal, these things can affect your day. These things may make it, “Ah, it wasn’t a great day for me.” Those are minor hassles in life. They bother us. They’re irritating. That’s not the same thing as significant adversity. That becomes a long swath of something we have to deal with in our lives. Or something that’s profoundly difficult or hard we have to work through, afraid of, or struggling with. Those types of things alter the landscapes of our life. It’s no different than when an earthquake hits. If it’s a big one, it shifts the very nature of the land itself. A forest fire when it hits if it’s big enough, alters the terrain dramatically for years. Stuff like that happens in our lives sometimes and when it does we’re not the same person coming out of it that we were going into it. Some of us may be walking through some of this right now. We might be experiencing a very difficult place of adversity.
I was thinking about the Bible and some of the examples it has of people who’ve had to walk through a very difficult fearful place. How it altered them. One person, in particular, stood out to me as I was thinking about it. It’s an old Testament figure about a man named Jacob. Jacob’s account is recorded in the book of Genesis. Genesis 32, and I’m just going to read the first opening verses there. It says, “he arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, his 11 sons and crossed over the ford of Jabbok.” How he got his two wives and concubines is quite a story. It was a very different culture than ours so try not to judge it. That only explains a part of how that happens in his life. His uncle Laban worked him over good, but that’s another study and story. In verse 23, “Jacob took his family, sent them over the brook to the other side, sent over what he had. Jacob was left alone in this ravine right by the riverbed.” To appreciate what we’re reading, the reason he’s in this position is that he’s very afraid. He’s about to have, after nearly 20 years, a reunion with his brother Esau. The last time Esau saw him Esau said, “I’m going to kill you.” Jacob had run for his life. The reason that happened was because of a series of events.
If you study the Bible and read the book of Genesis you realize that Jacob had a highly dysfunctional family. Jacob was his mother’s clear favorite, Esau, his brother, was his dad’s clear favorite. They were very overt in their favoritism. It created an environment of manipulation and intrigue. The bottom line is the father Isaac is getting older. Isaac, the son of Abraham, who was given the blessing is going to give it to one of his two sons. Isaac has it in his mind, “I’m giving it to Esau, clearly, he’s the son I love the most.” He’s the physical one, a hunter. The Bible says in a unique description, “He’s very hairy.” It also says that he loved to create a special meal for his father. He would hunt and put it into a stew. His father just loved it. He loved everything about Esau. He even loved his smell. Isaac is describing Esau like he was an outdoorsy person. Esau was by far Isaac’s favorite. Isaac is getting older, his eyesight’s getting worse, and he’s also getting near death, which means he’s going to give the blessing. The blessing that was given to him from his father, Abraham, and now to the descendant of his choice. He’s going to give it to Esau.
Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, is thinking. She’s a plotter, and says, “You know what? When Esau goes out to hunt, create, and prepare the meal for this blessing ceremony, Jacob, I have a plan that’s going to allow you to have the blessing because I want you to have it.” She says, “This is what we do, we’re going to cook a beautiful meal together and then I’m going to have you put on animal skin with fur. Since your father can’t see, we’re going to have you pretend to be Esau, and then you’re going to get the blessing.”
Sure enough, Jacob wants to do it. His mom wants to do it. They trick Isaac. He can’t see. He asks, “Who are you? Let me touch your skin.” He’s feeling and says, “Hmm. Okay. Esau right?” Hairy as anything. He got the meal. Jacob gets the blessing from Isaac. Isaac gives this great blessing. It’s an irrevocable blessing. In their day, when you gave the blessing you didn’t take it back, so the minute Jacob gets the blessing he’s got it.
In Genesis 27:30 it says, “As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob and before Jacob had left his father, Esau returned from his hunt. Esau prepared a delicious meal and brought it to his father and says, “Sit up my father and eat my wild game so you can give me your blessing now.” Isaac asked him, “Who are you?” Esau replied, “It’s your son, father, your firstborn son, Esau.” Isaac began to tremble. The Bible says, uncontrollable when it dawned on him what had happened and he said, “Then who just served me wild game? I have already eaten it, and I blessed him just before you came. The way it is that blessing must stand. I don’t take it back.” when Esau heard his father’s words he let out a loud and bitter cry, “Oh my father, what about me? Bless me too.” He begged him. Isaac said, “Your brother was here, he tricked me and has taken away your blessing.”
Esau exclaimed, “No wonder his name is Jacob supplanter, grappler, deceiver, for now, he has cheated me twice. First, he took my rights as firstborn, and now he has stolen my blessing. Oh, father haven’t you saved even one blessing for me?” Isaac said to Esau, “I have made Jacob your master and declared that all his brothers will be a service. I have guaranteed him an abundance of grain and wine. What is left for me to give you my son?” Esau pleaded, “But do you have only one blessing? Oh, my father, bless me too.” It says, this powerful man, this hunter, Esau broke down and started weeping. Finally, his father Isaac said to him, “You will live away from the richness of the earth, away from the heaven above, you will live by your sword, you will serve your brother, but when you decide to break free, you will shake his yoke from your neck. That’s all I can give you.” In verse 41 it says, “from that time on, Esau hated Jacob because their father had given Jacob the blessing and Esau began to scheme, “I will soon be mourning my father’s death, his days on this earth are not too many. As soon as he dies, not before, Jacob is dead. I will kill him.” He meant it to such a degree that Rebecca, the mother, says to Jacob, “You can’t stay here because Isaac could die any day and Esau will kill you. You must leave.” “Where do I go?”
“You have to go to your uncles. Go to my brother, Laban’s house.” 20 years pass. All kinds of stuff happen. We can read about it in the book of Genesis, that’s where we pick back up here. Watch what happens because that’s what sets the table. Jacob is totally afraid of what is going to happen. 20 years have passed and he’s about ready to meet his brother. Jacob is not sure if enough time has passed that this man who he knew had the capacity to lose his temper, was ferocious, and had homicidal tendencies if provoked, to have healed this relationship enough where Esau will let it go? I cannot be sure, I cannot. Jacob decides to send a group ahead with all these gifts, a retinue of people to sort of try to create a positive, initial interaction with Esau.
Jacob decides, “I hope Esau is willing to let it be, but I can’t take a chance.” He sends his family across the river to the higher levels where they’re further away. Jacob spends the night alone in the ravine, with the river Jabbok. It’s there, while he’s sleeping with all this stuff on his mind, so afraid, so unsure of what’s going to happen, that he has one of the most remarkable things ever described in scripture, take place. He has this wrestling match all night long, like a fight, a grappling going on. It says, “Then Jacob was left alone,” verse 24, “and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. When he saw that he did not prevail against him this man touched the socket of Jacob’s hip. The socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint. It got dislocated as he wrestled with him. He said, “Let me go for the day breaks.” he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob always wanted the blessing. AHe said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “My name is Jacob.” he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel,” recognize that name? “For you have struggled with God and man and have prevailed.” Jacob asked saying, “Tell me your name. I pray.”
He said, “Why is it that you asked me about my name?” He blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, “For I have seen God face-to-face, so my life is preserved.” Just as he crossed over the Penuel the sun rose on him and he limped on his hip. Therefore, to this day, the children of Israel have this tradition of not eating the muscle, that shrink on the hip socket because that’s of the meal offering. He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip in the muscle that shrinks, a little interesting detail. This is fascinating at so many levels. Oftentimes, life brings us into situations that scare us to death. Maybe some of us are in a place like that now. We need to appreciate Jacob’s dilemma. He feels extraordinarily vulnerable a d has legitimate concerns. He’s afraid, alone, and sending his family back away and part of his team ahead, no doubt he’s having a restless night. He’s having a hard time sleeping thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow, “Am I a dead man tomorrow?”
It’s quite possible Jacob initially thought that he was dreaming as well. He soon realizes that he was having this fight, this grappling match with an intruder into the camp. It’s a one-on-one struggle. The way the Bible describes it, it’s going on all through the night. At a certain point, he’s wondering, “Who was he? What did he want? Why was he here? Is he trying to steal from me? What’s going on?” We don’t know when, at some point during that wrestling and fighting that was going on, Jacob comprehended that this scenario was brought on by God and had something to do with his blessing. He also seems to instinctively feel that he must grapple with this man sent from God and not let go until he was given a blessing. Something about what was going on, Jacob understood it was meant for him to struggle for a blessing.
The entire episode is incredible. There’s isn’t anything like it in all the scripture. It stands on its own in that way, but it has so much meaning. His breakthrough occurs in a fearful place in his life. It’s often in the fearful place when we’re most open to wrestling with God. Fearful places, difficult places, scary places, and hard places, break us down. They reveal our weak zones and vulnerabilities. They often shine light through the cracks that would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed. Fearful places are in and of themselves wrestling places. It’s where our faith is challenged and refined. When everything in us wants to give up and run away, we struggle to hold our lines. We grapple with God’s words and promises. We do everything we can to hold on.
Up to this point, Jacob’s life is mischaracterized by willfulness and manipulation. He had it down to an art form, he was good at it. He knew how to manipulate. He had learned. It was the way he was made. He struggled with God and has struggled with the man. Now, at a critical juncture, we see God is trying to harness him, break him, and bless him. Here are some things I want us just to look at as we bring this to his piece of finality. One, God will not only meet us in our fearful places, He will also struggle with us in our fearful places. That is, He will meet us where we are. God will condescend to us. He will push. He will provoke. He will prod. In Jacob’s case, He allowed himself to be apprehended, to be subdued. He forced Jacob to work the blessing he would give, yes, but it would come with tremendous effort. It wasn’t going to be easy. Basically, the Lord will struggle with us to clarify our heart, to make His blessing our focused desire, to get us out of our fears. That’s what He does. Think about it because God was wrestling with Jacob, in a way. Jacob spent the night wrestling with God instead of his fear. It was God’s gift. It was His provision at multiple levels.
The second piece out of the wrestling in the fearful place comes a new blessing and a new name; your name is Israel. That was a shift, and so it will be with us if we just hold on and remember He will help us. He’s trying to help us wrestle with things. We will often find that we will come through with new things. When there’s this season in our life and we’ll just struggle with it. Hold on with God and ask Him for the blessing in the midst of all the difficulty and fear that’s ahead of us, in the midst of what we don’t understand that’s happening right now. What happens is all of a sudden we find that the Lord is opening us up to something new, like a new name of sorts. He wants to call over our life, which represents a life shift in our lives. A new emergence of something that wasn’t there before, the fearful wrestling places, when God is working with us in the hard place. Some of us may be there right now, they become hopeful places that break us into new ground, perspectives, and possibilities.
Note, not only does God give Jacob a new name, Israel, but He gives them a mark, a mark of grace. What is it? What was it? Remember? He knocks his hip out of the socket, and evidently, for the rest of Jacob’s life, he will walk with a limp. It will always be a reminder of this period in his life. It will be a reminder of the new thing that God is doing. It will be a reminder of the grace of God working itself through there in the brokenness. The limp becomes a metaphor of dependency, a shift that occurs. When we wrestle through difficult places in our lives with God, it should not catch us off guard or shock us to experience some type of such a thing. Something that is a mechanism of grace at work in our lives that reminds us the way forward is connected to God, not your old self.
The old way of independence, the old way of Jacob, no, the blessing is now Israel. There’s a new thing. There’s a limitation in your life. That limitation is designed to remind you that your real strength is not found in your own conniving, it’s found in God. That is a very different thing. What’s more, when the Lord gives us these blessings in our lives, they’re designed for the purposes of others, to bless others. Grace is given so that we may be a blessing to others. In Jacob’s case, he ends up becoming a much better man, a much better leader in his own household, and he ends up becoming the one who brings forth the Messiah. Jesus comes from the line of Jacob, the one who blesses the world. When we come out of these places of struggle in our lives, wrestling with God is learning to grow through these places. When we do that, the person that comes out is much better. It’s like we’re more capable of blessing others because of what we’ve walked through. We may not have an external limp, we may have an internal limp, but it’s a reminder of God’s grace at work in our life.
The daily prayer is designed for the series. It was meant to follow up each message just for this series and to have a way of being able to connect in our prayer time with what we shared on the weekend. We pray, Lord, I have things of which I am afraid, are there any? Some of which I’m wrestling with right now. You know what they are and you know how they trouble and afflict me. I need your grace. I thank you that in these places of struggle you not only meet me where I am, but you also work with me, you struggle with me until I learn how to prevail. God, please show me the way forward, break me into new ground, open up new possibilities and mark my life with your goodness. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.