Foundations Week 3: I'm Not Letting Go
Today we are going to be exploring the third of a five part sermon series for the month of January--a series we've entitled Foundations. The basic idea behind this series is pretty simple: We want to explore what we need in order to have the best foundation to step off in the right direction for 2017.
As we learned the first week in this series, it's important to take a good first step in the right direction because--as Pastor Andy Stanley wrote in his fine book The Principle of The Path--"It's your direction, not your intention that determines your destination." In other words, it doesn't matter how good your intentions are, if you step off in the wrong direction, you won't get where you want to go.
The last two weeks we've learned some valuable lessons. We learned that we need some solid foundations stones--faith and trust to be precise. Today we're going to be focusing on the foundation stone of Hope.
I want you to remember one thing today--it's my central point today, and it's an important one. If you recall nothing else from this morning, I want you to hold on to this:
A genuine encounter with God is the first step toward a hope-filled future.
About thirteen years ago, I took about a dozen middle school students on a mission trip to one of the worst neighborhoods in Nashville, TN. We worked in a neighborhood that had been decimated by drug trafficking and violence.
As part of our mission, we went along wth an organization that was setting up events in public parks--to keep the drug dealers away. Before we went out to serve the community, we had a worship and prayer service to prepare our hearts and minds for what we were about to do.
No one knew this, but I was going through a real crisis of faith at the time. On the surface, everything was awesome. I was leading a youth ministry with around 350 high school and middle school youth. Our budget was six figures. I had pastors and youth pastors coming to me trying to figure out what we were doing to have such a successful youth ministry in a stodgy, old Presbyterian church. But in reality, I was going through the motions, struggling to believe that anything I was doing was really making a difference. Seminary was hard, my belief system was being torn apart and reassembled.
During the worship service that day in Nashville I found myself being torn apart inside as I realized what was at the heart of all of my struggles: I had built a life, an image with my hands, and my own effort and for my own benefit in a lot of ways. I felt broken. I felt like a hypocrite. I was the wrong person. I had done too many things to disqualify myself from serving God in any capacity.
I was angry, and bitter because of this---but I was mostly scared.
There was this mean little voice inside my head--we all have that mean little voice that pops up when we are feeling vulnerable to tell us that we aren't worthy. "If everyone knew what was really going in inside you--they wouldn't think you were so great."
For so many of us, coming face to face with our brokenness is often the very thing that keeps us from being the people that God has dreamed for us to be. It also robs us of our hope for the future, and keeps us from stepping in the right direction.
Some of us know that we are broken and messed up because of our past, and sometimes it's hard to shake that, to come to grips with it. And there are some of us in here who have been doing things on our own strength for so long that we've gotten used to doing it our way---but deep down inside there's that little voice that keeps whispering, "If people really knew... If they really knew... boy oh boy..."
Genesis 32:22-32 contains one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and it also happens to be one of the foundational scripture passages for my life. It's the story of what happens when you have a genuine encounter with God that changes you forever.
Genesis 32 is the story of the patriarch Jacob's wrestling match with God--an encounter that left him changed forever. If you aren't familiar with the story of Jacob, let me give you a primer.
Jacob was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. He was a twin, but was born second in the birth order, which meant his brother Esau was going to be the head of the family when their father died.
Esau was Isaac's favorite son, and in his old age, when he was blind and nearing death, he meant to give Esau the patriarchal blessing before he died. This was a huge deal in the ancient Near East. Once given, the blessing could not be re-given. It was a sacred act.
So, Jacob, with the help of his mother, tricks his blind father by disguising himself as his brother, and steals the blessing, which incensed Esauh. Esau vowed that when Isaac was dead, he would kill Jacob and so Jacob is forced to flee his homeland and remains in exile for 20 years.
Those 20 years are spent scheming, hustling, trying to make his own way in the world. He ends up marrying the love of his life, but not before he's tricked into marrying her sister first. It's a soap opera. "
But we're not there yet. In this account, Jacob is returning to his homeland after being away for those twenty years and he finds out that Esau is on his way with a bunch of armed men. Jacob's strategy is to keep sending servants loaded down with gifts of livestock and other goods to bring to Esau as he is pursuing Jacob. The strategy is meant to slow his brother down so he can put some distance between them and muster his own forces, and also to try to placate Esau.
Finally, he knows that he can't postpone the inevitable meeting with his brother, and he resigns himself with finally coming face to face with his past.
Let's pick up the story already in progress:
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
The text says that "a man" wrestled with Jacob. The Hebrew word here is "ish" which literally just means "man." Lots of scholars have debated what this meant. Was Jacob wrestling with himself in a dream? Was this an angel? Was this actually Esau? Lots of ink has been spilled over this.
I believe that clearly this story was about Jacob having an earthy, genuine encounter with God. Yahweh meets Jacob right where he is.
25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Isn't this incredible? The ONE THING that Jacob wanted more than anything else was to be blessed. He'd stolen his father's blessing, but he knew it wasn't the real thing. He'd lived his whole life with that shadow hanging over him: Pretender, Usuper, Liar, Fraud, Con-Man, Schemer.
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Some scholars believe that the name Jacob is actually derived from a word that means "May God protect," but the Genesis account explains that Jacob's name actually means "One who takes hold of the heel," or more plainly, "Second Place."
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
I read somewhere that Jacob's limp reminded him for the rest of his life that he not only couldn't run away from God, but that more than anything he needed God.
I love this story for so many reasons. It teaches me that God breaks into our plans and forces a new direction. It teaches me that God is always looking for openings to enhance the divine purpose in our life.
And it teaches me most of all that a genuine encounter with God is the first step toward a hope-filled future.
So... I was sitting there in Nashville praying to God with my face buried in the carpet of a musty Pentecostal church in the "bad" part of town. I was feeling like I had made a terrible mistake. Because of who I'd been, what I'd done, what I was feeling, the doubts I had about myself... I just knew I had no business trying to do anything church-y at all.
And as I laid there on the floor with face in the dirty carpet, I caught a vision of myself holding on to God's knees, wrestling and struggling. And I started to pray, "I am not letting go until you bless me. I am not letting go until you bless me."
All I wanted was to feel chosen, to feel whole, to know that God accepted me in spite of what I knew about myself and all of the things I'd done while I was running from God, and all the ways I'd covered up the truth about myself.
"I'm not letting go until you bless me." I prayed. "I'm not letting go until you bless me."
Just at that point, a pastor, who was part of the organizing group we were working with, came over to me and put his hands on my shoulders. The guy's name was like Reggie or something, but he had legally changed it to Dov, which was Hebrew for "bear."
With his hands on my shoulders Dov spoke into my ear. "I don't know why," he said, "but I feel like I am supposed to tell you this: 'Rest. It's all right. You are enough."
An incredible peace washed over me then like a warm wave. I found myself smiling into the carpet, which made me get a whole bunch of carpet gunk in my mouth. I didn't care, though. For the first time... in a very long time... I felt like I was enough--as broken and messed up, prideful and stubborn as I was---I was enough. I felt like the facade I'd put up was being torn down, and my inside was coming in line with my outside.
A genuine encounter with God is the first step toward a hope filled future.
What are you facing right now? What is it that is waiting for you across the river? Is it your past? Things you've done? People you've hurt? Mistakes that you've made? Broken relationships? Are you facing doubts? Struggling to believe? Do you put on a show that everything is all right? That you've got it all figured out?
So many of us walk around displaying a cardboard Christianity. We say the right things at the right times... We post the nice church-y posts on our Facebook... We might even have convinced ourselves to a point that we are doing just fine without having to really wrestle with God.
Maybe you''re acting like Jacob did at first when he was running from Esau. Maybe you are busy planning... trying to avoid confronting who you really are... or maybe you are flat out running from it... Maybe you've been living with the feeling that you are not good enough, or too good for God for so long, you don't know how else to feel.
Maybe you need to stop being so busy planning.... and start getting busy praying.
Because God just wants to mix it up with us. God honors our relationship with God by engaging and persisting in the struggle---just so we will know God is with us, truly with us.
And sisters and brothers... the blessing of God is there for you. You are not defined by the life you have constructed. By your past. By who you think you are. You are not defined by the stuff you've accumulated, the success you think you've attained.
You are defined and blessed by the One who has given everything to rescue you from all of that.
And God doesn't care who you think you are. God cares about who you are becoming when you finally encounter God and walk away limping, changed, transformed forever.
So how do we have these genuine encounters with God?
Well, first and foremost you have to desire it with your whole heart. You have to be willing to admit that you need God. If you've never really done that--it's the first step. If you have and forgotten it, it's your first step back.
And then you wrestle.
You never let go of praying.
You never let go of reading and struggling with the Bible.
You never let go of giving of yourself to others.
You never let go of coming to church, worshipping God with others.
You never let go of surrendering your life in a thousand ways every day to God's will.
You never let go of what it means to stumble after Jesus.
You never let go...
You never let go of God as you pray, "I'm not letting go until you bless me." "I'm not letting go until you bless me."