Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Battle for our Identity—Genesis 28 ( Part 3)

Jacob travels on to meet up with his uncle (mom's brother), and we soon learn that the deceiver gene is in the whole family. Laban is actually much better than his own sister or Jacob, since after seven years of work, Jacob ends up with the wrong sister, and then quickly agrees to another seven for the right one! We fast forward as Jacob is now married, raising kids and livestock, and in short, living the life of most of us. Day after day, kids and work, dinner and bed, rinse and repeat. And then he gets restless. He sees that he's been enriching Laban, but doesn't have much to show for it himself. In a dream, God gives him a plan on how to get his fair share, properly, with God's blessing and Laban's approval. But it works out so well, that Laban the deceiver, suspects that Jacob the deceiver, has deceived him! Our reputations precede us, and those who are suspicious will always see things that they can't understand, and so assume that we're still our old selves. You can read that part of the story in Gen. 29 and 30. But Jacob has clearly changed. Now we come to this, spoken to Rachel: (Gen 31:5-13 ESV)  . . . the God of my father has been with me.  You know that I have served your father with all my strength,  yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me.  If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped.  Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me.  In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled.  Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’  And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you.  I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.’” And so it's time to go, but this time, it's God who is calling him to leave, and Laban who is livid.

Now we arrive at chapter 32. As Jacob is headed home, word comes that his brother Esau, yes, the one who wanted him dead, is coming. With 400 men. Right. That feeling in your gut just now is nothing like what must have hit Jacob's. This cannot be good. So he does two things: He prays, asking for help, and He prepares, doing his part. It is so easy to do one or the other. We cry out to God and sit. Or we worry ourselves and work in a frenzy without God. Usually, God calls us to do both, to invite Him into our battles, and then to do our part, whatever that may be. After crying out to God, remembering the promise and blessing, he divides his family, servants, and livestock, and sends a greeting party ahead to meet Esau, with a present of livestock and servants. And then: (32:21, 24) So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp. . .And Jacob was left alone. 

Jacob is now exactly where he started, alone in the wilderness, with an uncertain future, and a past that he cannot return to. Don't miss it. When he fled from home, there was no way back, and he had no idea what lay ahead, and he was alone. Now, he's fled Laban's and cannot return, has no idea what lies ahead, and is all alone. Except, this time, he is NOT alone, and his future has a promise attached to it. God is there with him. And that makes all the difference in the world. What occurs next is puzzling on so many levels since there is nothing else like it in Scripture. (v 25-31)  And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.

"A man" who we quickly learn is God with flesh on, begins to wrestle with Jacob. No, we don't know why! But Jacob will not let go, and persists until he receives a blessing. You may ask, but he's already received God's blessing. And I remind you of something I said in the very first part, Jacob is so much like us. He fights for clarity, to remember God's blessing, and so quickly forgets, and needs a fresh reminder. And God, who is rich in all things, does not withhold. But God asks a strange question, "What is your name." Now, God knows his name, so the point must be for Jacob to give voice to it, to effectively say, I am a deceiver, it's who I am, it's who I'll always be accused of being, and every day, I try to live differently, but I fail so often. We live up to the taglines that have been given to us. Addict. Felon. Divorcee. Broke. Unemployed. Animal. Angry. In a moment, all that we are and all that we truly believe we are, surfaces. And we know that we cannot change it, no matter how hard we try and run.

God changes everything, and here we see Him change Jacob's identity. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel..." Have you heard of Israel? Yes, it exists today. And remember, Jacob is the father of the 12 tribes. This Jacob, no longer Jacob, but Israel. God has given him a new identity, new papers.

We can ask a lot of questions and make a lot of points here. Perhaps there is only one right question, which is, "Does this apply to you? Today?" By that I mean, we so often read these stories and think, "Oh, how nice...It really worked out well for them. (Or didn't, for some.)" Instead, we should wonder, was that ordinary or extraordinary? If extraordinary, we would expect to find no more stories like this. Parting a sea, ok, two seas. Walls falling down for victory. An angel slaying a vast army. The firstborn of a country all killed on one night. Virgins impregnated. But for name changes, there are MANY! It's almost normal for God's people to have their names changed, to get a new identity. And when it's in keeping in understanding that we're getting a new heart (Ezek 36:25ff) and that we're new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), it's actually consistent with Scripture. We should wonder, and even ask: "God, do you have a new name for me?"

Second, you're going to have to fight for this new identity. Remember in the Matrix how 'Mr. Anderson' has to fight the agent? All the while, the agent will call him nothing but Mr. Anderson. The agent fears that Neo will discover who he really is. The enemy fears that you will discover who you really are. You are fearsome, and God's glory is being replaced on you day by day (2 Cor. 3:18). You must fight to hold onto your new identity, to remember what God has told you. To remember the blessing.

And here's the other ordinary thing: We can ask God. Find a quiet place, take your Bible, a pen, a notebook, and ask, "God, what would you say to me now? Who am I?" And wrestle with Him until you hear Him speak. He loves to transform his children.And He only broke a hip once in Scripture.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Battle for our Identity—Genesis 28 ( Part 2)

Enter God. Up until now, the entire story of Jacob, who will become father of the 12 tribes of Israel!, nor his father or family, has been told without a single mention of God. Perhaps you find that odd, as I do. But how much of life is engaged on our own, without even a single glance to The One who gave that life, understands it, knows where it leads, and knows how to head off the problems sure to come? Now, without any invitation, but at a time when Jacob's soul was at its lowest point, when he's all alone with a broken past and uncertain future: (v. 11-16 ESV) Jacob came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth 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 promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 

Imagine for a moment. You've blown up your life, maybe walked away from your wife and kids, or job, or ministry, maybe you've been in prison, bankrupt, lost your drivers license. Maybe you've lost a spouse, or been told a dire diagnosis. And you're alone, trapped in whatever small world you have left, so despairing that you don't even cry out to God anymore for fear that even He won't listen! Until you hear, “I am the Lord..." 

We are so undeserving. The grace of God is beyond understanding. And when it falls on us, we are overwhelmed, or should be. This young man, Jacob, so desperate for a blessing just a few days ago that he connives a way to steal it, now receives a REAL blessing from THE ONE who can give it, and who gives it freely and without condition. God does not show up on the scene and say, "Well, son. I've been watching you, and you're a real mess, and I don't have much hope for you. BUT, IF you would do x and y and z, then I will pour open my storehouses..." No, you won't find that passage in the Bible. What you find is written above:  "The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth 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 promised you.” It's pretty amazing stuff when you see the circumstances, who Jacob is, where he is...But God! The God who redeems, restores, heals, frees, and who promises abundant life.

The good news is that Jacob isn't totally clueless. He recognizes that God has appeared, out of nowhere. What follows so clearly shows the difference between us and God. (v 20-21) Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God." Compare this to what God had said to him. Do you see a difference? Notice the first word of Jacob's prayer to God. If. If you will do x and y and z, then....Now before we're too rough on Jacob, haven't we all prayed prayers like this? We don't know God, we sure don't love God, and especially we don't trust God! So we put Him to the test with some conditions. We figure that if He does show up and do what we expect, then maybe He's worthy of our attention. Pathetic, yes, but He's heard it millions of times! And notice what isn't here in Scripture: (time for the 'read what isn't in there' lesson) God does not speak again, "Nope, try again. No good." This may be heretical, but it seems that God receives whatever we are able to give Him. Another example is Jesus and John on the beach in John 21 where English translators mangle it, for Spanish and Greek have it, so why can't we? But when Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him twice, and twice Peter responds that he likes Jesus an awful lot...the third time, Jesus then asks, "Do you even like me very much?" (Or something very close to that.) Jesus accepts what Peter is able to give, and not force it.

What does this all have to do with the Battle for our Identity? There's one more part to come. Already we begin to see something here though: Things are not what they seem. Jacob had a pretty good idea of who he was, or so he thought. But when God shows up, everything changes. Deceivers are blessed, prisoners are set free, blind see, the hopeless given hope.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Battle for our Identity—Genesis 25 and 27 ( Part 1)

From the very day that God begins doing a work in our hearts, calling us to Himself, a Great Battle begins. An enemy arises, working non-stop to prevent the very work that God is doing to rescue us from darkness and hopelessness and despair. That enemy gets up each morning with one goal: to destroy us any way he can, and he has 1/3 of an 'uncountable number' (according to the Bible) of angels, now demons, on his team. What's 1/3 of an infinite number? Right, an infinite number. We have a lot of opponents set against us. And you wonder why life is so hard?

When the enemy loses that initial battle for our soul, and we are God's forevermore, he does not pack up his bat and ball and go quietly home. No, he renews his work against us. Why? Once we're God's, what can he do? Well, Biblically, we know that he cannot have us back. There are those who disagree, but it's just too clear that we cannot lose our salvation. If our kids can never not be our kids, then God ensures that we can never not be His. Rest in that. No matter what, when you're in, no one can snatch you out of His hand. (John 10:28-29) So the enemy does what he can, to neutralize us, to make us ineffective, to rob us of the abundant and free life that God intends. He attacks our hearts by convincing us that God is holding out on us (see my June 29/30 entries on Your Father's Heart). But once we know that God is good, and something is still wrong, he works overtime to convince us that the problem is us. He attacks our identity.

 The Matrix was a strange film which demonstrated clearly two Biblical truths: first, there is something more going on that we can see and understand, and second, if we'll enter into it, we'll discover that there's much more to us than we know. When geeky Mr. Anderson enters the matrix and sees what's really going on, he can't begin to believe it, but as he does, he then can't understand what he can do about it. Over time, he begins to understand that perhaps he's not who he thinks he is. And in the seminal scene where he turns and fights the agent, who represents our demon foe, in the subway tunnel, the comment is made, "He's beginning to believe..." Believe what? Believe that he is not Mr. Anderson, but Neo, one who is given the privilege and responsibility of making a difference and rescuing the lost and hopeless.

It's an amazing story, and not far from one found in Genesis, about a guy that I used to really dislike. I've recently come to realize that his story is my story, and your story, and it's all about this fight for our identity. Jacob. Rather than going into a lot of detail here, I'll explain the backstory. Jacob and Esau are twin brothers, Esau the oldest by an ankle...! Jacob hangs out with mom at home in the tent learning how to cook and clean. Esau is a manly man! who lives outdoors, hunting, and bringing wild game home to his dad who loves it and him. So within the family, for no apparent reasons that we're given, is this great divide. Jacob and mom vs. Esau and dad. While Jacob is tagged with the name deceiver, his mom is the queen of deception, and all he knows he's learned at her feet. One day, she puts him up to the theft of a lifetime: Dad's blessing, which is to go to Esau, the eldest. And in a con that we can barely imagine could work, it plays out, and Jacob indeeds steal's Esau's blessing. When Esau returns and discovers it, he's outraged, and the only thing that calms him is the thought of killing his brother! (Gen 27:41) And he's a hunter. He knows how!  Mom sends Jacob away, to save his life, and we find Jacob now in the wilderness, alone. He can't return home, he has no allies, his future is dreadfully short, he's now in that spot that many of us have been in: utter hopelessness and despair. How did we get here? How do we get out? How can I be rescued? Is this it? Is this all there is?

Thankfully, there is One who hears the questions and sees our despair. On to Part 2.