The Place Of Blessing - Dependence On God

Series: Deeper Life Camp 2010
Tonight I’d like to tell you a story from the first book of the Bible - Genesis - but I’m going to introduce it by reading a verse from the last book of the Bible - Revelation 2:17.  It’s part of a letter that was written to a church.  I’m going to skip the middle part of the verse for emphasis.  Jesus is speaking, and he says, He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  To him who overcomes I will give . . . a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.  Now here is a message written to us who are the church of God and who will listen to what the Holy Spirit tells us.  But what does it mean to overcome, and what kind of new name will we receive for doing so?  The best way I can think of answering that question is to tell a story from the book of Genesis - the story of a man who experienced what that verse says.  It’s the testimony of how God brought Jacob into a right relationship with Himself and renamed him Israel.  This is an old story - about 4,000 years old - but it’s not at all an antiquated story without relevance for us today.  It’s  part of our family tree as Christians.  The name Israel was originally just one man’s name, but then it became the name of the whole nation of his descendents - God’s chosen people.  And those of us who are Christians today, who weren’t originally part of the nation of Israel and the promises God gave them, have been grafted into God’s chosen people so that His promises apply to us too (Rom. 11:17-27, Eph. 2:11-19).  In that sense Jacob, or Israel, is one of our earliest spiritual ancestors.  In fact his testimony is very typical of the journey to God that many of us take, so there‘s a lot we can learn personally from God‘s interactions with him.  Now invariably the question is asked whether this is a story about Jacob’s initial conversion to God or his ongoing growth with God.  In other words, is this message primarily for those who aren’t Christians and need to get saved, or is it mainly for those who are already Christians and just need to keep growing spiritually?  The answer is both.  The way we come to God the first time is the only way we can ever keep living with Him - in humility and faith.  The place of dependence and blessing to which God brought Jacob is the place to which God wants to bring the unsaved for the first time and the same place where He wants Christians to abide and grow.  Jacob’s testimony is for all of us here tonight.

Genesis chapters 25-35 is where we have most of Jacob’s story recorded, and there we begin with the fact that his father Isaac and his mother Rebekah had been married for 20 years without being able to have children.  God had promised Isaac, as well as his father Abraham before him, that the whole world would be blessed through their descendents.  Now Isaac and Rebekah wondered if God would continue fulfilling His promise by giving them a descendent.  So Isaac pleaded with the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his plea.  But a short time into her pregnancy, Rebekah wondered why she felt so physically miserable inside if this were a fulfillment of God’s good promise.  So she asked God, and He replied, “Two nations are in your womb, two peoples shall be separated from your body; one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”  Rebekah was pregnant with twin boys, and they were wrestling inside of her just like they would struggle against each other for many years to come.  When the day came for Rebekah to give birth, the first boy born was red and hairy all over, so they named him Esau which means “hairy.”  Determined not to be left behind, the second boy was born holding onto Esau’s heel, so they named him Jacob which means “heel” or “supplanter.”  But even before Jacob was born or had done anything good or bad in life, we learn something very important about him: God had already chosen him - the younger son, and not the older - as the descendent to inherit the promise that God had given to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac.  Through no effort of Jacob’s, God had chosen him for His own special purpose and had promised to bless him (see Rom. 9:10-13).  And, as Jacob was to find out in the years ahead, God would pursue him relentlessly until Jacob was willing to receive God’s blessing.  What was that blessing?  We won’t take time to read the version given to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 or the version given to Isaac in Genesis 26:2-5, but the essence of it was this.  God had promised Abraham and Isaac to be present with them, to give them a homeland, to protect and guide them, to multiply their descendents, and most importantly to bless the world through their offspring.  That was the blessing for which God also intended Jacob even before he was born.  And isn’t it the same with us?  Hasn’t God intended us for His blessing even before we were born?  Hasn’t He arranged the families we were born into and the places we would live and all the circumstances of our lives in order to call us to Himself?  Just think of all the different circumstances that God has ordained and arranged in your life to get you to where you are tonight.  Think of all the different ways and methods He’s used to call you to Himself.  And what is the blessing to which He’s called us?  It’s the same as the blessing He promised Jacob.  To put it in New Testament words: He’s promised to forgive us our sins for Jesus’ sake, to always be with us, to protect and deliver us from the enemies of our soul, to guide us in His paths of righteousness, to make us fruitful in godliness, and to give us an eternal homeland.  The Apostle Peter said to the Christians, You were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing (I Pet. 3:9).  God has called us to blessing just like He called Jacob.

We don’t really know anything about Jacob’s and Esau’s childhood and youth, but from the next snapshots we have of them in early adulthood we see what they had developed into.  Esau had become a rugged outdoorsman and a skillful hunter who could cook savory food from the wild game he caught.  He was his father’s favorite.  Jacob, on the other hand, had become more domestic, preferred to stay at home near the tents, and at some point began developing skill in raising livestock.  Jacob was the favorite of his mother, and it was probably she who taught him how to cook.  One day Jacob had some red lentil stew simmering when his brother Esau came in from a long day in the field.  Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.”  But Jacob had a plan of his own in mind.  What he lacked in brawn he more than made up for with a deviously shrewd mind.  So he said to Esau, “Sell me your birthright [in exchange for the stew].”  The birthright was a right which customarily belonged to the firstborn son upon his father‘s death (see the Int‘l Std. Bible Encyclopedia).  It was the right to a double portion of his father’s property and the responsibility of becoming the head and authority over his father’s family.  Naturally it included the passing down of any special blessings that God had bestowed on the father.  But Esau said, “Look, I am about to die [from hunger]; so what is this birthright to me?”  Then Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day.”  So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.  And then the Bible adds this sad commentary: Thus Esau despised his birthright.  Later on it calls him a profane person . . . who for one morsel of food sold his birthright (Heb. 12:16).  Esau’s desire for God was so nonexistent that he didn’t hesitate to forfeit God’s eternal blessings in exchange for something extremely temporal - a bowl of stew that he finished in a few minutes and which satisfied his hunger for only a few hours.  Esau despised God’s blessings, and so God rejected him from inheriting them - as we shall see.  Jacob, on the other hand, had at least some interest in inheriting what God had given his father.  We don’t know whether he’d been told about God’s promise concerning him before his birth, but it’s clear that he had no intention of waiting to find out whether God would freely give him the blessing.  Jacob decided to take matters into his own hands and try to buy God’s blessing for himself.  Of course a bowl of stew wasn’t a very high price to pay in exchange for something so great.  Still it was Jacob’s own effort at bringing God’s blessings into his life.  And don’t we today sometimes act similarly?  We try to produce things in our lives that have the same effect as God’s blessings would.  We strive by our own efforts to replicate what He says He can do.  For example, God has promised to those who trust in Him to protect and deliver them from evil and to give them peace through the storms of life; but sometimes we lean almost completely on the products of our own human efforts for safety and security.  We depend on things like money, medicine, new and improved safety features, emergency plans, and even our own wisdom and foresight instead of depending on God.  Or, as another example, sometimes we try to manufacture the blessing of the Holy Spirit’s fruit in our lives.  If we find ourselves lacking God’s joy in our hearts or His love for others, we try to produce the same results on our own.  We might substitute pleasure-seeking for real joy or kind words and deeds for true love.  But God’s blessings can never be replicated by our own efforts.  Like Jacob found out, God’s blessings can’t be bought or manufactured.

The years passed by and Isaac was getting pretty old now.  He had become nearly blind and knew that he might very well die soon.  Before he did, there was something he must do.  So he asked his son Esau to go hunt some wild game and cook savory food from it, “That I may eat,” Isaac said, “That my soul may bless you before I die.”  But Rebekah overheard that conversation and, as soon as Esau left to go hunting, she laid out a deceptive plan for Jacob to follow.  Jacob was to kill two goats from the flock, and Rebekah would quickly prepare Isaac’s favorite savory food from them.  Before Esau returned, Jacob would take the meal to his father and receive the blessing intended for Esau.  To complete the deception, Rebekah tied goat skins to Jacob’s neck and hands to imitate Esau’s hairiness and she gave Jacob some of Esau’s hunting clothes that smelled like the outdoors.  The plan worked.  Isaac was confused at first by Jacob’s voice; but the smell of his clothes, the hair on his hands, and the savory food convinced Isaac that it was Esau.  Isaac ate and blessed his son.  “May God give you . . . of the fatness of the earth . . . .  Let people’s serve you, and nations bow down to you.  Be master over your brethren . . . . Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be those who bless you!”  As soon as Isaac had finished, Jacob left.  And no sooner had he left than Esau came in with another dish of savory food for Isaac.  “Who are you?” Isaac asked.  “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.”  Isaac trembled as he realized what had happened.  “I have blessed [your brother Jacob],” he said, “And indeed he shall be blessed.”  “Bless me - me also, O my father!” Esau cried.  But it was too late - Jacob had already been made Esau’s master.  The New Testament’s commentary is that when Esau wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears (Heb. 12:17).  His heart had become too hardened towards God over the years to repent and go back, and so God rejected him from inheriting the blessing.  Jacob, on the other hand, very much wanted the blessing but he was still determined to get it by his own methods.  Before, he had tried buying it; now he tried lying and deceiving for it.  And there are still those today who try to gain God’s blessing through deception.  They think that they have God’s blessing - but only because they’ve deceived themselves into believing so.  It’s heartbreaking, but true, that there are many people - even in churches - who deceive themselves into believing that they have God’s forgiveness and salvation although they have never repented of their sins or felt any sorrow over them.  Yet God’s Word says, If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I Jo. 1:8).  And aren’t we Christians sometimes equally guilty of self-deception?  Have we ever prayed for God to be present with us and bless what we’re doing while at the same time we have sin hidden in our hearts?  The Psalmist said, If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear (Ps. 66:18).  And James said, Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts you double-minded (Ja. 4:8)  Like Jacob found out, self-deception is no substitute for God’s true blessing.  At first it seemed like Jacob’s deception had succeeded, but before long an angry Esau let it be known that he intended to kill Jacob after their father died.  In an ironic twist, Jacob - the one who was to be master over his brother - had to flee from his brother to save his own life.  

At his mother’s suggestion, Jacob took off on foot for his Uncle Laban’s home several days’ journey away.  On his journey, he came to a certain place at sunset one day and decided to spend the night there.  Using a rock for a make-shift pillow, Jacob lay down to sleep.  And as he slept, he had the most amazing dream.  In his dream, there was a ladder set up with it’s bottom touching the earth and it’s top reaching to heaven.  There were angels of God walking up and down the ladder.  And at the top of the ladder, God Himself stood and talked to Jacob.  He said, “I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendents.  Also your descendents shall be as the dust of the earth . . . and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.”  When Jacob woke up, he was in awe.  “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it,” he said to himself.  “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”  Reverently, he took the rock he had used for a pillow, set it upright like a monument and poured oil on it.  He also named that place Bethel which means “house of God.”  And then, although God could not have spoken His blessing to Jacob any more clearly and directly, Jacob did an astonishing thing.  He tried to bargain with God for the blessing.  He vowed, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God . . . and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.  “Yes, God,” Jacob was saying, “if You really will protect me and provide for me in the years ahead, then I will worship and serve You someday when I return home.”  Have you or I ever done something similar to what Jacob did?  Have we ever bargained to do something for God in the future if He comes through for us now?  “God, if You will guide me in this venture of mine and make it profitable for me, then I’ll thank You publicly and give something back to you.”  Or even more seriously, have we ever bargained to give God part of ourselves in exchange for part of His blessing?  “God, I’ll surrender this particular area of my life to You - I’ll give up this certain sin - if You will just bless me with Your peace and joy.”  Sometimes we offer to surrender certain areas of our lives to God in exchange for certain blessings, but we’re not willing to surrender our whole selves to Him because there are sinful things and habits that we still want to hold onto.  And God’s full blessing never comes.  Why not?  Because a person who bargains with God doesn’t really understand what God’s true and full blessing is.  Jacob didn’t understand that the essence of God’s blessing - the main part of it from which all other parts flow - is God Himself.  You see, Jacob definitely wanted all the things that God promised to give him - protection, prosperity, and peace - but he didn’t really have much desire to be one with God Himself.  Before God could give Jacob that true and ultimate blessing of oneness with Him, He had to get Jacob to the place where he even desired it.  And the way that He brought Jacob there was unique and remarkable.

When Jacob arrived at his Uncle Laban’s home, the first thing he did was fall in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel.  Jacob loved Rachel so much that he agreed to work seven years for his Uncle for the privilege of marrying Rachel.  But when the seven years were up, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying his older daughter Leah instead.  So Jacob worked another seven years to marry Rachel also.  By these two wives and their two maids, Jacob had 12 sons and 1 daughter.  For twenty years he worked for Laban taking care of his livestock, and God prospered Laban‘s flocks because of Jacob.  Ten times Laban deceived Jacob by changing his wages.  Finally Jacob requested permission to take his wives and children and return to his home, but Laban persuaded him to stay.  “Name me your wages,” Laban said.  Jacob replied that he wanted all the streaked, speckled, and spotted animals in the flocks and all such that would be born in the future.  Laban agreed to the price.  Now Jacob’s goal became to make the flocks give birth to as many streaked, speckled, and spotted young as possible; and to accomplish this he did something so strange that I’m not sure there is a logical explanation for it.  He took tree branches, peeled white streaks in the bark, and set them up in front of the watering troughs when the stronger animals came to drink.  This was supposed to ensure that when the stronger animals conceived and gave birth it would be to streaked, speckled, and spotted offspring.  And by all outward evidence, the plan seemed to work.  Jacob’s flocks grew large and strong while Laban’s flocks decreased and languished.  Jacob had succeeded in gaining a blessing by his own ingenuity.  Or had he?  Now God came to him in a dream again.  “Jacob,” He said, “I’ve seen how Laban has been deceiving and mistreating you, and I am the One Who’s made all of the flocks give birth to streaked, speckled, and spotted.  I’ve taken away Laban’s livestock and given it to you.  Now I want you to leave Laban and return home.  Remember how you made a vow to serve me.”  So it was God who had blessed Jacob’s flocks.  He had given Jacob temporal, earthly blessings in order to draw Jacob to Himself.  And similarly for us today, the Bible says that the goodness of God leads [us] to repentance (Rom. 2:4).  It’s not our own strength or hard work or ingenuity that have earned the physical blessings that we have.  It’s God Who’s given them to us.  He’s the One Who’s given us things like the sun and rain, food and clothes, the ability to earn money, health, and all the earthly possessions that we have and enjoy.  Those are His blessings, and He uses them to lead us to Himself where we’ll find His greater eternal blessings.  He give us these temporal, earthly blessings so that we’ll realize that Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights like the book of James says (1:17).  He wants us to look past the earthly blessings and see Him behind them so that we’ll seek Him.  Well, Jacob heeded God’s words in the dream, and he packed up his family and possessions and left to return home.  When Laban found out, he was angry and pursued Jacob for seven days till he caught up with him.  But God warned Laban in a dream, Be careful that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.  So Laban merely expressed his displeasure with Jacob, and the two promised never to harm each other.  Then Laban headed back to his home.  Again, Jacob had been the beneficiary of God’s blessing; it was God who had protected him.  Like Psalm 105 says concerning Jacob and his family, [God] permitted no one to do them wrong . . . [He said] Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm (105:13-15).

But now Jacob was to face a bigger problem than he’d ever faced before.  As he got nearer to his homeland, he sent an envoy to his brother Esau to decipher if he was still angry.  The report came back: Esau . . . is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.  Jacob was scared.  He divided his family and flocks into two groups in hopes that if Esau attacked one group the other group could escape.  For the first time in his life, Jacob had a problem that was too big for him.  By means of a terrifying situation, God was leading Jacob to see his own insufficiency and his need for dependence on God.  Jacob remembered all the blessings that God had promised him, and now he realized how much he actually needed them.  So he humbly prayed, simply asking God to give him what He had promised.  “O God of my father,” he prayed, “the LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you’: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies.  Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother . . . for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children.  For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well, and make your descendents as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.  After he prayed, Jacob prepared several gifts of livestock to send ahead to appease Esau.  Then that night he sent his family and other possessions on ahead over the river.  He was left alone to wait till morning and to see if God would answer his prayer.  And the way that God answered was one of the most unusual and dramatic ways that He’s ever answered a prayer.  He sent a man to wrestle with Jacob.  Actually it was the Angel of God Himself.  All night they wrestled, but neither one could win or prevail against the other.  Finally towards sunrise, when the Angel saw He was getting nowhere with Jacob, he touched Jacob’s hip and put it out of joint.  Now not only did Jacob feel vulnerable to his brother’s attack, but he would even be too weak to defend himself.  God had brought Jacob to his breaking point.  There was no more use in depending on himself; there was only one thing left to do.  The Angel said, “Let me go, for the day breaks.”  But for the first time in his life, Jacob wanted God’s blessing more than anything else.  “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” Jacob cried out.  “What is your name?” the Angel asked.  “Jacob.”  The Angel replied, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  And He blessed him there.  No longer was Jacob to be a supplanter who tried to take care of himself.  Instead God renamed him “Israel” - a prince with God . . . one who reigns with God (see  He had been made one with God, and God would dwell with him and protect him and provide for him in every way.  But it was not until Jacob had become completely dependent on God that he received that full and ultimate blessing from Him.  Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [face of God]: “For,” he said, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

Now admittedly this is kind of a strange story.  Why couldn’t the Angel of God prevail against Jacob, but instead Jacob was told that he had prevailed against God?  Of course it doesn’t mean that God is weaker than certain people.  But what does it mean?  Well, let’s explain it this way.  In the Bible, there are two very different aspects of God revealed.  On one side is His punishment of evil and on the other side are His promises of goodness and salvation.  In the Lutheran church, we often refer to these two aspects of God as law and gospel.  The New Testament sometimes refers to them as the judgment of God and the mercy of God.  And here’s a key truth regarding those two aspects of God.  James 2:13 says, Mercy triumphs over judgment.  Even before Jacob’s birth, God had promised Jacob His mercies . . . His blessings.  And so God could not overrule what He had already promised.  He would have been going against Himself if He had made His Angel judge and kill Jacob.  In that sense, God could not overcome Jacob.  Jacob, on the other hand, could freely claim God’s mercies and blessings because God had already promised them to him and appointed Jacob to them.  In that sense, Jacob overcame the judgment aspect of God and prevailed upon God to give him the blessings He had already promised.  All of this is true for you and me too.  Like we said before, God has intended us for His blessings even before we were born, and He has called us to those blessings.  He arranges and uses all the circumstances and situations of our lives - even the difficulties and trials - to call us to Himself.  And when He finally brings us to the place where we realize that we’re too weak to depend on ourselves but that we need to depend on Him, then He also shows us that we can call out to Him and claim the blessings which He’s already promised us.  We can find the forgiveness and salvation which He’s already made available to us through Jesus.  We can come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may find mercy and grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).  We can be one with God and experience His true presence in our lives - His full and ultimate blessing.  And He will never fail to guide and protect us.

Well, the rest of the story is that Jacob - having found true blessing in God Himself - also experienced God’s protection.  God had removed Esau’s anger and made him so favorable toward Jacob that he ran to meet Jacob and hugged him and kissed him.  Jacob was a changed man.  At his next stop, he built an altar to God and named it “El Elohe Israel” which means “God, the God of Israel.”  In other words, Jacob was proclaiming, “God is now my God.”  For the first time in his life, Jacob was truly able to worship God - because it’s only possible to worship God in spirit and in truth when one is completely dependent on Him.  Later, God appeared to Jacob again and confirmed the blessing to him.  “Your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name.”  “A nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you . . . The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you and to your descendents after you.”  God reassured Jacob of His blessings, and we 4,000 years later can see how they have been and are being fulfilled.

As we wrap things up tonight, let’s go away with this one simple truth: the place of blessing is the place of dependence on God.  It’s sad to say that there are many people who think they can have God’s blessings without being dependent on Him, without submitting themselves to Him.  But the Bible says that this isn‘t possible.  Certainly God has intended us for His blessings even before we were born.  He’s promised us forgiveness of sins, an eternal homeland, protection and deliverance from our souls’ enemies, guidance in His paths, lives that are fruitful in righteousness, and most of all to be one with Him and experience His presence.  And He’s arranged all the people and places and circumstances in our lives to call us to Himself and to those blessings.  If we will submit to His call - if we will yield ourselves to His ways - He will freely give us what He’s promised.  But if we resist His call and insist on doing things our way and remain independent from Him, then we will not receive His blessing.  This is true for both non-Christians and Christians.  A non-Christian is one who continually resists God’s call to repentance and salvation.  But there are also many Christians who think they can bargain with God and still receive His full blessing although they aren’t completely submitted to Him.  That’s a precarious place to be.  That’s why the verse we started off with tonight, Revelation 2:17, is an exhortation to those within the church to be overcomers.  Overcomers are ones who see their deep need for dependence on God, and they prevail upon Him to give them His promised blessings.  God never denies those who ask sincerely.  So let’s examine our own hearts tonight and see if we have a need.  If we do and we will humbly submit ourselves to God, He will give us His blessings.

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