Genesis 25:19-34; 27-33
We have often heard the saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” It is a good saying and certainly God wants us to be generous, but let’s think about this a little more. What do most of us find easier to do, to give or to receive? Someone gives us a gift and what do we think? “Oh, I don’t have anything to give them.” Sometimes even when we really need help, we are reluctant to ask for it and receive it. Rather than receiving help, we would like to be in control. To illustrate: I like to hold the remote control. I like to be the one holding the steering wheel.
Since we like to be in control, we are quite comfortable with the saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” but is it true? Is that the relationship God has in mind with us? Is that true when it comes to salvation? Can we be good enough to deserve salvation? Is it true when it comes to our life in Christ? Do you have the power to change the sins that are deep in your heart? Do we find satisfaction by striving for the good things in this life? Is it possible for us to make someone else a Christian?
For me there is something very appealing about leaning on the power and wisdom of God, but I find it hard to let go of the control that I like so much to have.
In our continuing series of faith biographies this morning, we will look at the life of Jacob. His story speaks loudly to me. As we look at how faith grew in his life, we will learn that faith is receiving the blessings of God as a gift. We will learn that in our relationship to God, it is more blessed to receive than to give.
In order to understand the faith story of Jacob, we need to be reminded where he fits into the plan of God. God has a plan. His plan is to create a people for himself who will follow Him. Near the beginning of human history, God began to prepare for that plan by calling Abraham to be his follower. He promised Abraham, in Genesis 12, that he would make him into a great nation, bless him and in fact bless all the people on the earth through him.
This promise was passed on to Isaac, his son, and it was also passed on to Jacob who was the son of Isaac. It is important to notice that Jacob was and knew he was an heir of the covenant promises of God which included both future and present blessings.
Please turn to Genesis 25:23 where we learn that before he was born, God already revealed to the family that Jacob would be the one to carry the promises of God to the next generation. There Rebekah is told, “Two nations are in your womb… the older will serve the younger.” Well, Jacob was the younger and so from birth it was known that he was the one who would carry the promises of God. He grew up hearing the stories of his father and grandfather and knowing the promises which God had made to them. When Isaac blessed his son, when he was older, he told him in Genesis 27:27-29, “May God give you of earth’s richness…May nations serve you…May…those who bless you be blessed.” When Jacob left his home, Isaac blessed him by saying, “May God give you and your descendants the blessing of Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land…God gave to Abraham.” When Jacob left home and came to Bethel he had a dream and God confirmed this promise to him saying, “…I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying…All peoples of the earth will be blessed through you…”
Jacob understood that God was promising him the blessings given to Abraham. These blessings included the promise of a land for his people, a good life and the salvation of all humanity.
But how did Jacob receive those blessings? Did he accept them as a gift from God? Did He trust God to bring them into his life in His way?
We learn about Jacob’s ways pretty early in his life. Jacob was a twin with his brother Esau. Esau was born first, but when Jacob was born immediately afterwards, he came out holding on to his brothers heel. Jacob’s name comes from a word which means “heel” and is often used to describe someone who grasps the heel and deceives or grasps from behind. It would be as if two people were having a race and the one behind grabbed the heel of the one in front and pulled him back and passed him. That is what Jacob’s name means and that is the kind of person Jacob was.
He manifested this manipulative, controlling nature when one day Esau came in from hunting and was very hungry. Jacob saw an opportunity and used it to manipulate Esau into selling him the birthright.
A while later, Isaac was about to bless his oldest son, Esau, with the a special blessing reserved for the primary heir. Often we have looked at this story from the point of view that Isaac should have blessed Jacob and this may all be true, but this morning, I want to remind us that Jacob was willing to stoop to deception and manipulation in order to receive the blessing God had for him. At the prompting of his mother, Jacob pretended to be Esau and received the blessing instead of his brother Esau.
In Genesis 27:36, we have the perspective of Esau who said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!”
Esau was so angry at Jacob for doing this to him that he vowed to kill Jacob as soon as his father died. In order to prevent this, Rebekah manipulated the situation so that Isaac would send Jacob away to her brother’s place on the pretence of finding a wife from the people who lived there. So Jacob left for Padan Aram to live with his uncle Laban.
When Jacob arrived at Laban’s place it seems he had met his match. We soon learn that the character trait of manipulation was one he inherited from his mother’s side of the family. She had already shown herself as a manipulator by prompting Jacob to get the blessing and Laban certainly was a manipulator. Jacob worked for Uncle Laban for 7 years. The purpose was to earn a dowry so that he could marry Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Laban fooled Jacob and on the wedding night he discovered that he had married Rachel’s sister, Leah. He worked another seven years so that he could also marry Rachel whom he really loved. Then after working 14 years for his wives, he continued to work for Laban in order to build up a herd of his own. We read in Genesis 31:41 that Jacob was aware that Laban had changed his wages numerous times. A manipulator had met a manipulator.
Jacob was, however, not learning his lesson. He continued to be one who wanted to control the situation. In Genesis 30:37-43 we have the interesting story of the way in which Jacob manipulated the flocks and herds of Laban to gain the best advantage. I doubt if what Jacob did really was what produced a large herd for him. He placed stripped rods at the watering holes, in front of the best animals so that the speckled animals, which they had agreed were his, would multiply more and would be the best and healthiest animals. This is another example of Jacob trying to manipulate the situation.
Finally, Jacob and Laban could not get along any more and Jacob, at the prompting of God, decided to go back to his home country. The only problem was that Esau was still there and probably still angry enough to kill him. Slowly Jacob with all his family and flocks and herds travelled across the country until he came near to Esau. He could not avoid meeting Esau so he sent for him before he entered the promised land. When Esau heard about this, he went to meet Jacob with an army of 400 men. Well 400 men had only one implication and Jacob had come to a crisis point. As he anticipated, with fear, what was ahead, he once again tried to manipulate the situation by sending ahead of him a series of large gifts of animals to try to buy Esau’s favor. Many years earlier when he had bought Esau’s birthright, he had discovered that Esau had a price and he was hoping that he would still have a price at which he would be willing to overlook the offence. He also divided his family and remaining flocks into two groups so that if Esau attacked one, he could escape with the other. Once again, we see how he was trying to manipulate the situation.
Jacob possessed the promises of God’s blessings, but he wanted to be in control. He wanted to manipulate things to make sure he received God’s blessings. He would get the birthright in his own way. He would make sure that the flocks and herds reproduced to his advantage. He would make his brother not kill him. He would inherit the land by his cunning. His whole life was one of trying to gain the blessings of God by his own grasping, deceiving, manipulating ways.
Where did his manipulating ways get him?
Behind him was Laban. He could not go back there. They had made a covenant with each other, found in Genesis 31:52, “This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me.”
He could hardly go forward for in front of him was Esau who hated him enough that he had threatened to kill him.
He was, as we say, “between a rock and a hard place.” Jacob had come to a crisis point in his life. Although the possessor of the promises of God, he had tried so hard to make those blessings come his way that he had gotten himself into a situation that he could not manipulate his way out of. Is it not so often the same for us? We try to control a situation, we try to do it our way, we try to build the kingdom of God by our power, we try to change our sinful heart by our effort and where does it get us?
The crisis comes to a head in Genesis 32. His manipulating ways have gotten him into trouble and he knows that he needs a way out. So we read in Genesis 32:9 that Jacob prayed. But Jacob was still not aware of the deep nature of his controlling ways. From verse 13 and following we learn that he prepared a gift of livestock for Esau. He sent the gift ahead in groups. Jacob’s thinking is revealed in 32:20 when he says, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” Jacob was not thinking of confessing his wrongdoing. He was not seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. Once again, he was trying to manipulate the situation so that Esau would leave him alone. One commentator indicates that “…if it had succeeded, then the Church of God would have a most unholy example, not at all agreeable to the character of the holy God. Jacob’s plan had to be thwarted by personal confrontation with God.” If Jacob was not stopped in his manipulating, gaining by deception and control he would “never have seen the difference between receiving the inheritance just as a gift and gaining the inheritance by his own powers.”
Nevertheless, “His prayer here is to be answered through his own transformation and he will thereby come to God.”
In Genesis 32:22 ff we learn that all this happened at the river Jabbok which was the boundary to the promised land. He sent his flocks and herds across the river. He sent his wives and children across the river and Jacob was left alone on the other side of the river. To cross the river meant to enter the promised land. Jacob was alone on the other side thinking that the only thing preventing him from possessing the land was Esau’s threat. But he was wrong. As he was about to cross, a man grabbed him from behind and Jacob wrestled with him mightily. He thought that he desperately needed to get across and control the inheritance of the promised land. He needed to get to the other side and manipulate the blessings of God so that he would take them. But now he was prevented from doing so. All night he wrestled trying to get across and trying to make God’s blessings happen by his control, as he had all his life, but the man who wrestled with him would not let him go.
Finally, when the man touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that he could not fight any longer, Jacob submitted to God. Finally he stopped trying to grasp the things of God by his own power. Finally, he asked God to give him the promises, not as something that he controlled or worked for, but as a gift, as a blessing from God. We read in Genesis 32:26, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Finally the fight to do it himself was out of Jacob. One writer puts it this way, Jacob had to learn that “human ingenuity and strength do not prevail with God.” The same writer says, “he learned to distinguish between what mere physical prowess could do and what had to be received from God by faith alone.”
As we read on we learn that a change had truly occurred. Instead of using the strategy of dividing the two companies and sending them on ahead, Jacob went humbly to meet Esau and bowed down to the ground seven times. Bowing down is the oriental symbol of the younger bowing before the older. Jacob won his brother over not by manipulation, but by humility. Humility and being willing to give up control are the way to receive the blessings of God as a gift. In response, Esau embraced him. Asking forgiveness and acceptance are implied in this exchange.
When we look at the story of Jacob in this way, it seems pretty silly to us that Jacob could really think that he could get the blessings of God by his own power and manipulation. But are we really all that different? Do we not need to ask ourselves, “Is this the manner in which the gifts of God are obtained?” Zechariah 4:6 says, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.”
This is true in our salvation. We want to work hard to be good enough to earn our salvation from God. Instead, we ought to recognise that the only way we can receive it is as a gift from God, which means that we have it not because of our deserving it, but because God blesses us. I have heard many people struggle with the thought, “Am I good enough to make it to heaven.” They wonder if there is anything that they may have done which will disqualify them from the promise. That kind of thinking is the same as that of Jacob. That kind of thinking involves our trying to manipulate or control our way into heaven. A few times people have asked me if I think they are good enough to go to heaven and my answer is very quick. The answer is “no!” You aren’t now and you never will be. But the good news that accompanies that answer is that God has provided the way of salvation. “Can you receive the promise as a gift that you have no hope of deserving?”
In our striving for Christ-likeness the same truth prevails. We try so hard to become like Christ, not realizing that it is the Spirit who will make us like Christ and our responsibility is to respond to the work of the Spirit in our hearts. This means that there is still a place for obedience, but also the blessing of knowing that the work is not ours alone, but a work of God in our hearts. How many of us struggle with the same sins over and over again. We feel so powerless to change ourselves and we lose hope. In Galatians, God asks them why since they have started with Christ are they now trying to do it on their own. If we could pull ourselves up by our boot straps, Jesus would not have had to come and God would not have had to send His Holy Spirit into the world. We are changed by the power of God, “Can we receive a transformed life as a gift from God which will be given to us by His Spirit?”
What about in the area of receiving good things from God? I really struggle with this one. I work out my budget and am tight with my money to make sure that the budget I work out will make it through the year. As a result, if I meet someone in need in the mean time, I am inclined not to be willing to help them because it would destroy my budget. I might lose control and have to trust God to provide for me. In doing this, I am trying to control and manipulate the good things I have in my life instead of receiving all the blessings of God and being generous and trusting that God will, as he has promised in Matthew 7, provide for all my needs. We work hard to take all of the good things in life that we can find. We compromise and borrow and overspend and try to keep up with the Jones’s instead of accepting what God give us and rejoicing at the blessings he wants to bring into our life. Is what we have ours because we have earned it or deserved it or because “every good and perfect gift comes from the Father…”? When we learn that, then we no longer need to grasp, we can learn contentment and thankfulness. God does not always give us what we want, but always gives us what we need to fulfill His greater purposes in our lives. Can we trust Him and thank him?
The same truth pertains in Kingdom building. This is the point at which I need to listen to this lesson more than anywhere else. As a leader, I have often tried to manipulate the work of God instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to do what he wanted to do. It is hard to learn that we need to trust God to build his church and instead of relying on our wisdom and sometimes our sense of guilt to guide us we need to recognize what God is doing and fall in line with the work that God is already doing by His Spirit.
Isaiah, the prophet, told Israel at a time when they were once again failing to learn this lesson, “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
God has promised us many great blessings - sins forgiven, that we do not have to worry about what we will eat or drink, that He will make us into new creatures and will give us eternal life.
In our series on faith biographies we are trying to discover what faith is and today we have learned that faith is not trying to do better by ourselves, but letting God bless us. It is learning to receive His blessings as a gift. Can you receive God’s blessings as a gift or is it hard for you to give up control?
Manipulation and control were so deeply engrained in Jacob that he didn’t learn to receive God’s blessings as a gift until late in life. If God can take a guy like Jacob and make him into a man who received his blessing by faith, we should be encouraged that there is hope for all of us. God is at work in our lives. What is God doing in your life? Are you learning to receive his blessings as a gift? I invite you to learn to receive His blessings with open arms and deep gratitude.