Sermon 08-24-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 3: Jacob”

September 1, 2014

superhero graphic

Jacob was afraid on the night before he reunited with his brother, Esau. Twenty years earlier, when he fled his home to settle far away with his mother’s people, Esau had vowed to kill him. Was Esau still angry? Was he still willing to keep his promise? Jacob had no idea. To his credit, however, in spite of his fear, he resolved to risk his life to meet his brother. That night, however, he risked his life for a different reason: to receive God’s blessing. Jacob resolved to hold onto God, even if it killed him!

What about us? Are we willing to hold onto God, even if it kills us?

Sermon Text: Genesis 32:22-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

sane_godI have a friend named John Alan Turner who’s a theologian and author, and his most recent book is about the seemingly crazy stories of the Bible, and he includes today’s scripture in that category. Since John and I are kindred spirits on most matters related to theology and the Bible, I was surprised and disappointed by the way in which he begins his description of this story. He writes:

I hate Jacob, and I hate this story. ¶ I’m not supposed to say that, am I? It’s true, though. Jacob was a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. Frankly, it’s surprising to me that people still name their sons after him.[1]

Now, if you or someone you love did happen to name a son after Jacob, let me say that I disagree with my friend John. I love Jacob. And I call him a Bible hero because I sincerely believe that’s what he is! Yes, it’s also true that Jacob is a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. But let me explain!

Back in ancient times, you had something called the law of primogeniture. This meant that the first-born son was entitled to inherit most of his father’s estate. I know this doesn’t seem fair to us now, and it didn’t seem fair to Jacob then, either. Jacob was the second-born fraternal twin of his older brother Esau. And on two occasions in his early life, Jacob schemes, swindles, manipulates, and cheats his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac. First, he steals his brother’s birthright. Then, when his father is on his deathbed, Jacob and his mother conspire to trick the frail old man into thinking he was blessing Esau when he was really blessing Jacob.

In other words, Jacob stole the birthright and the blessing to which Esau was entitled as first-born son, and Esau is furious! So furious he vows to kill his younger brother.

So Jacob has a choice: stay and confront his brother, try to work things out, seek forgiveness, be reconciled to him—which is the Christian thing to do. Or get the heck out of Dodge while the getting’s good! What does Jacob do? He gets the heck out of Dodge. He runs away—far away—and lives with his mother’s people in a distant country. And he stays there for 20 years. And while he’s away, working for his Uncle Laban, marrying his uncle’s daughters, and tending his uncle’s livestock—and basically matching wits with his Uncle Laban, who is every bit his equal at scheming, swindling, manipulating, and cheating—Jacob becomes fabulously wealthy.

And now, finally, God tells Jacob it’s time to go home—to claim what’s his, to take his place in the land promised to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. Of course, the only problem with going home means facing his brother who, last time he checked, was promising to kill him. To make matters worse, Jacob sends spies ahead who report back to him and say, “Your brother is coming to meet you. And, oh by the way, he’s coming to meet you with 400 of his closest friends—an army of men!”

And guess what? As today’s scripture begins, Jacob is afraid. Genuinely afraid! He arranges to give Esau a lavish gift of cattle and livestock to soften his brother up, to buy him off, to appease his anger. He has no idea if it’s going to work. And he’s scared!

But here’s the thing… in spite of Jacob’s fear, he does what God wants him to do.

I like that! I have found in my own experience that being afraid to do something is often a sign that I need to do it! Being afraid is often a sign that God is calling me to do it.

For example, one of the most formative experiences of my Christian life happened to me a couple of years ago, when I went to Kenya for the first time on a mission trip. I went to teach Wesleyan theology and doctrine and church history to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors there. Our United Methodist Church is growing explosively in that part of the world. We can’t start churches fast enough. We can’t train and equip pastors there fast enough. So I was going to be part of that training effort. So I signed up. And I was excited… at least at first.

Then I talked to my friend and seminary classmate Leslie whose church was responsible for organizing my trip, and who went on this same trip the year before I did. When she got back I called her up, anxious to find out how it went. To my surprise she described being afraid for her life, for example, when her entourage visited one of the world’s largest slums and a large group of hungry people surrounded her and her friends. She said, “I was afraid I would never see my children again!” But she wasn’t only afraid of her physical safety; she was afraid for her health: she worried that she would get some exotic, life-threatening illness. She said, “Oh my gosh, Brent. It was terrifying. I will never go back again… By the way, we got your plane ticket, and you’re scheduled to leave in September.”

Now, keep in mind: I’m ever so slightly a hypochondriac already. I worry about stuff. So when Leslie told me this, I was already wondering what my obituary would say. Seriously, to make matters worse, you have to fill out paperwork that asks you for the name of the funeral home where you want your remains sent if worse comes to worse.

None of these things helped ease my anxiety, to say the least.

Then I went to Emory Midtown Hospital to get all these shots and prescriptions in preparation for the trip. The doctor recommended that I get a yellow fever vaccine. It was optional, he said, since there were currently no active cases of yellow fever in Kenya. I said, “Are there any side-effects I should be concerned about?” I expected him to say, “Nothing to worry about.” Instead he said, “Oh, sure… It’s a live virus vaccine, which means there’s a very small risk that you could contract yellow fever from the vaccine itself.”

So in my mind, I was already planning on getting yellow fever. “Oh, well… Why don’t we just save money on gas and just check me into the hospital now!”

That’s how my mind works! I’m not proud of it! My comfort zone is incredibly small, and it’s very easy for me to find myself outside of it. And God has this funny way of constantly pushing me outside of it!

But brothers and sisters, when God pushes me outside of my comfort zone, that’s when the best things in life happen. My work in Kenya, the people I met, the friends I made, the things I accomplished… easily among the top five best experiences that I’ve had in my life!

Listen, even recently, a part of me was afraid to make the changes necessary for our new, improved children’s ministry. Suppose we invest all this time, all these resources, all this money into this program, and it fails I was afraid, but I also believed God was calling our church to step out of our comfort zone and just do it. And last Sunday afternoon, on only the second week of the new program, we had 50 children from our community. Fifty children! Most of whom have no connection to this or any church, most of whom never get to hear God’s Word, most of whom don’t get to hear the good news of Jesus Christ… Fifty children! We couldn’t get more than five children to show up for children’s programs in the past couple of years, and now we have fifty.

Isn’t our Lord showing us that the fields are white for the harvest? Isn’t he showing us that good things happen when we step outside of our comfort zones? Isn’t the Lord showing us that he’s faithful to us when we’re faithful to him? And we’re just getting started! If we’re going to continue to be successful, it’s going to take a lot from you. A lot of your prayers, first of all. A lot of your hard work. And a lot of your money! Clearly, it’s outside of many of your comfort zones to give the money that our Lord is calling each of us to give. And if that describes you, step outside your comfort zone and give it anyway!

Good things happen outside of our comfort zones—as Jacob himself would soon learn when he is reconciled to his brother in Chapter 33.

You may have heard that our church is starting a new small group/Sunday school class aimed at reaching out to young adults college-age up to mid-thirties. These are the so-called Millennials. And if you are a Millennial, you have received a lot of attention recently in Christian magazines and blogs. “Why are Millennials dropping out of church?” all of us pastors anxiously wonder. A recent blog post, written by one prominent youth pastor, answered the question from the other side: What about the Millennials who aren’t dropping out? Why do they stay?

This youth pastor said the number one reason why Millennials stay in church is this: when they were younger, they were converted. Not merely confirmed. Not merely baptized. They didn’t merely become church members. They were converted. Changed. Transformed. Regenerated. Reborn. In other words, they had a life changing encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ.

That’s exactly what Jacob needs. Jacob’s relationship with God before today’s scripture is like the relationship that some of you have with God—like Jacob, you were “born” into a religious family. Like Jacob, you inherited your religion from your parents—and they made sure you went to Sunday school, got baptized, got confirmed. But like Jacob, you never really made this faith your own. Like Jacob, you cared about God, but mostly insofar as God could help you accomplish your own plans and goals. Like Jacob, you call on God to get you out of a jam every once in a while. Otherwise God really isn’t very important to you.

As C.S. Lewis said, “[You] regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.”

Does that sound familiar? Do we ever treat God like Santa Claus and wonder, “What can God do for me?” If so, well,, to paraphrase JFK, “Ask not what God can do for you. Ask what you can do for God!”

I hope you were paying attention to Whitney Pasch’s testimony about Disciple Bible study last week. She took a Disciple class, and it changed her life. Why? Because for the first time, her faith became personal to her. She made the Christian faith her own. She had a supernatural encounter with God as she read and studied and discussed God’s Word.

In today’s scripture, something similar happens to Jacob! See, at first he begins wrestling with some mysterious man. He doesn’t know who it is—maybe at first he imagines that it’s his brother Esau, who’s planned a sneak attack. Regardless, Jacob proves to be a fierce competitor and fights his opponent to a draw. And then, as daybreak approaches, the man merely “touches” Jacob’s hip socket—and the Hebrew word suggests a gentle touch—he touches his hip socket and what happens? His hip is dislocated. The lightest touch by this man, in other words, causes a serious injury. And Jacob’s like, “Whoa!” And that’s when he realizes the truth: he’s really been wrestling with God this whole time! God could have easily killed him but chose not to!

And when Jacob realizes that, what does he do? He won’t let go of God! For the first time, Jacob wants God—not for the good things God can do for him or give him—but for God himself. But please notice that Jacob is risking his life to hold onto God, because the sun is rising. And God knows that if, in the daylight, Jacob sees God face to face, Jacob will die. But still, Jacob is going to hold onto God… even if it kills him!

Hmm… Holding onto God even if it kills us? Sounds like Jacob is a lot like Dr. Kent Brantly, the doctor with Samaritan’s Purse who contracted the Ebola virus while serving the Lord in West Africa. He and his fellow missionary were released from Emory Hospital last week.

Columnist Ann Coulter said he was idiotic for going there in the first place. Idiotic? I’m reminded of something missionary Jim Elliot said: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Donald Trump said he didn’t think we should bring Dr. Brantly back for life-saving treatment in the U.S., saying, “People who go to far places to help out are great but must suffer the consequences!”

Oh, please! It’s clear Dr. Brantly was perfectly willing to suffer the consequences for his decision to follow Jesus.

Because Dr. Brantly was prepared to hold onto God, even if it killed him!

Friends, unless or until we’re ready to hold onto God—even if it kills us—we’re not quite ready to follow our Lord Jesus! Unless we hold onto God, unless we’re faithful to God, even if it means risking everything, including our lives—we’re probably not yet Christians. We haven’t yet made it personal. We haven’t yet had that personal encounter with the Lord. And if that descries you, the Lord is calling you even this morning to repent and change. Will you have the courage to do so?

My friend John, whom I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, went on to say in his book that the “real reason” he hated Jacob was because, of all the characters in the entire Bible, he “identified with Jacob the most.” John, in other words, looks at Jacob’s life and is reminded that like Jacob, John also schemes and swindles, manipulates and cheats.

And so do I. And maybe you do too.

But for me, this is why the story of Jacob gives me hope! Because think about it: if God gave Jacob what he deserved, God wouldn’t have merely dislocated Jacob’s hip—he would have utterly destroyed him because of his sins. But God didn’t do that. That’s God’s grace!

If God can be gracious and forgiving to a scheming, swindling, manipulating, cheating sinner like Jacob, then that means he can be gracious and forgiving to a scheming, swindling, manipulating, cheating sinner like me!

And God’s grace is made available to Jacob and me and you and everyone because two thousand years after Jacob’s wrestling match, one of his descendants—the Messiah, God’s Son Jesus—would suffer not just the gentle touch of God, but the full force of God’s wrath toward human sin; Jesus bore the full weight of it; and it killed him. He died the death we deserved to die; he suffered the hell we deserved to suffer. And through that death, and through that hell, God gave us life and God gave us a new birthright: that we who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead will now become beloved children of God and will now inherit eternal life!

Will you hold onto God, even if it kills you?

After all, Jesus held onto you, even though it killed him! Amen?

[1] John Alan Turner, Crazy Stories, Sane God (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2014), 30.

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