The Struggles of Life
Dr. Stephen Johnson
Genesis 25:1 - 35:1
October 07, 2017

There was an Indian warrior who came to his father one day and he said, “Dad, how did my brother get his name?” And the father says, “Well, I remember it well. On the day that your brother was born, your mother, after she finished her time of labor, and gave birth to this beautiful, I opened the flap of our teepee. And there was a running bear.  So I named your brother Running Bear.”

The warrior thought for a moment said, “Dad, how did my sister get her name?”

“Well, it was a beautiful day. Your mother finished the time for delivery, and when your sister was born and I had this beautiful baby girl, I opened the flap of our teepee, and there was a babbling brook. So I named her Babbling Brook. Just why do you ask, Pooping Dog?”

My name is Steve. My brother's name is Bill. He's William Francis Johnson, the third. And I'm Steve. He's Billy. Daddy's little boy. Daddy's favorite boy. He's got his name. Little Bill, and then there’s Steve. Interesting thing is “Little Bill” looks like Uncle Arthur. Steve looks like Bill.

At my dad's funeral service, people came up to me and said, “You are the spitting image of your dad!” They came up to William Francis Johnson, the third, and said, “Who are you?”

Nevertheless, there's such a foundation and an issue having to do with names, and what does it mean to you and how does it impact you, and for a long time I struggled with just being Steve. And there was Little Bill. As though he was the favorite because Dad gave him his name. Even though that wasn't literally true, that he loved Bill more than me, but it still set these psychological questions in my mind.

And a lot of people – maybe some of you – struggle with why do your parents treat you one way, and your sibling another way? Why did they give you your name? Jacob had that question.

Jacob, the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham, gets this name which isn't just like William or Steve. It's a name with a meaning. Deceiver. Trickster. And out of the receiving of this name, Jacob develops an identity. He lives up to his name as a cheat. A manipulator. A shyster.

He would manipulate people and things in the hopes that it would work out like he wanted them to. And for most of his life it seemed as though the only person Jacob cared about was Jacob. He worked on the weaknesses of others to serve his own ends. And it started while he was still in the womb.

Jacob and his twin brother Esau, we are told, struggled together before they were born. And when he was born, the second of two twins, as opposed to three twins, which wouldn't be twins… I’ve got to change those notes.

When he was born, he was holding on to the heel of his brother as though they were still in in battle. And although God promised his mother that the older, Esau, would serve the younger, we don't even get to the end of the chapter which records their birth before we read this in Genesis chapter 25 beginning of verse 27. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter. A man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Jacob. Jacob, who has jumped headlong into a life of struggle, in Genesis 25 we see him struggling with his brother. In Genesis 27, he's struggling with his father. In Genesis 29 to 31, he's struggling with his father-in-law. And at the end of his life, he's struggling with God in chapter 32.

His first struggle is a struggle for position. Who's going to be first? Who's going to be the one who has the heart of his father? Jacob faced some pretty serious daddy issues. He just didn't measure up.

Esau had all the advantages. He was a redhead, by all means! What could be more advantageous than being a redhead? Got you, Michael!

He was a hunter. A man's man. A man of the field and he had his father's love. Which would you rather do, go hunting with your dad, or go read a book in a tent? [Girl says book] Okay, but you’re a girl. [laughter]

Jacob appeared to be the polar opposite of Esau. He was a mama's boy. Quiet, stay-at-home type of guy. He was a cook. He wanted to go to chef school.

Okay. They didn't have television programs back then that celebrated great chefs. Isaac loved Esau! Rebecca loved Jacob.

And like many of us today, Jacob struggled to get his father's blessing and love. He wanted tangible evidence of a prominent position in Isaac's heart. As the younger son, he lived in the shadow of his more accomplished brother.

So true to his name, Isaac tricked Esau into selling his birthright for a bowl of soup. At least it could have been a nice thick steak! But then it would have been Esau’s steak. Esau, the man's man. But I think he was like a lot of us that didn't process things very well.

Jacob knew how to manipulate in life to get what he wanted. He couldn't buy the love of his father, so he stole his brother’s birthright to gain the position he wanted, even though it didn't guarantee a position of prominence in his father's heart. This is a struggle many face today. We just want to know that we have a position of prominence in our father's heart, and many will do just about anything to get it.

It's interesting to study the people of the Bible. We find out that they're not really that much different than us. Oh, they dressed differently. They ate different things. It's a different culture and different times, but the same in so many ways. We have a struggle for a position in the hearts of our fathers.

Jacob bought what God had already promised him. We are so much like Jacob, aren't we? God has promised us so much for free but we ignore his promises. We scheme, we worry, we work to get what God has already promised as ours.

In Genesis 27, Jacob, with his mother's help, tricks Isaac into giving him Esau's blessing. He's not content merely to have taken the birthright, but now he wants blessing. He lies and manipulates and cheats Esau out of the father's blessing just as he cheated him out of his birthright. You know, the birthright had to do with inheritance. The older child – the one with the birthright – would get a double dose of inheritance.

The blessing was different. The blessing was a highly prized event which they felt revealed the will of God to those who received it. The birth right had to do with stuff. The blessing had to do with hopes and dreams.

Jacob’s struggle for position drives him to forget what he already had. He gets the birthright, and he gets the blessing, but that is exactly what God had promised before his birth. And you know what? God didn't need Jacobs help.

The same is true for us. God was going to fulfill his promise without the need to rely upon Jacob’s deception, lies, and manipulation. In our struggle for position in life, we could follow the pathway of Jacob and seek to trust in our own wits, our own wisdom, but take a look at the results of Jacob's deceptions, and you might want to reconsider following in his footsteps. The text tells us that once Isaac figures out that he has given the blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, we're told he trembled violently upon hearing of Jacob’s deception.

The result of his deception is that Esau his brother hates him, and he has to run for his life. I would suggest it is better to allow God to fulfill His promises in His time and in His manner.

As we reach Genesis chapter 28, Jacob has entered into the second great struggle of his life. A struggle for prosperity. Jacob flees the scene after he has stolen the blessing, and he searches for a wife. And along the way, he has an interesting dream. In it, recorded in Genesis 28:10-22, Jacob sees a ladder going up into heaven. And angels descending and ascending on this ladder. It is one of those Bible stories that we teach our kids, make some interesting art out of it. In the midst of this dream the Lord speaks to him reiterating the promise he's given to Abraham, to Isaac, and to his mother Rebekah.

Jacob has a mountaintop experience. Listen to what he says after waking from that dream. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” He was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of Heaven.”

Isn't that so like us? We have a mountaintop experience – this incredibly powerful time with God – we think it is the place which is important, rather than the experience of meeting God.

The text goes on in Genesis 28:18 and following. “So early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called the name of the place Bethel. But the name of the city was Luz at the first. 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 the 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, and this stone which I have set up for a pillar shall be God's house. AND, of all that you give me, I will give a full tenth to you.’”

Wow! Incredible mountaintop experience, and Jake is at a turning point of his life. On the surface it looks like he makes some sincere vow to God, but as we're going to see Jacob is actually doing the same thing many of us do when we find ourselves in a tight spot. He plays, Let's Make a Deal, God! He knows that his brother Esau has promised to kill him as soon as Isaac dies. So he sets out this deal with God: if you protect me, then this place will be your house, and I'll give it you a tenth of everything I have. But if you read through the book of Genesis for the next twenty to thirty years of his life, even though God keeps his part of the bargain, Jacob basically puts his life on autopilot, and pretty much forgets his promise.

He immediately goes and seems to forget all about this mountaintop experience because life gets in the way. He meets Rachel and falls in love. He agrees to work with her – for Laban – for seven years, for the privilege of marrying Rachel. And in an interesting twist, the trickster, the deceiver, is deceived and he takes Leah's his wife instead. And the deceiver, being deceived, he works for seven more years.

He marries Rachel, who he loves more than Leah. They have a bucket load of kids. Life and the struggle for prosperity takes over. For 20 years, Jacob struggles for prosperity, and he pretty much finds it. But at a great cost. He lives a life of deception and pain. His wives are at odds with one another, and they bring Jacob into the fight. His relationship with his father-in-law is strained, to say the least, and he eventually frees again, running for his life.

For the twenty years from the time of his experience at Bethel, Jacob does not appear to consider God in his struggle for prosperity. But as he talks with his wives about leaving, he begins to recognize that his prosperity has not come from his own ingenuity, but from the continued blessing of God.

Again, Jacob is so much like us! We struggle for prosperity. We leave God out of the equation, and it's only in retrospect that we begin to see, oh wait! God had a pretty healthy hand in my life.

Jacob’s schemes, which he credited with bringing him fortune, begin to crumble. Leaving behind his father-in-law who could no longer be trusted to look upon him with favor, Jacob sets his path for the land of his father, and Esau who has vowed to kill him. He could look upon his schemes as effective in bringing him the position and the prosperity he so longed for, but his schemes have also brought incredible headaches and fear. And now as he heads back to the land of his father, his schemes have caught up with him.

So he begins his final struggle. Jacob's deceptive schemes for obtaining blessing did not meet with divine approval. His schemes for obtaining prosperity did not meet with divine approval. Through Jacob’s plans, God's will had been accomplished, but the writer of book of Genesis is intent on pointing out, as well, that the schemes and tricks were not of God's design. And they did not bring him the one thing that Jacob truly needed. The one thing which would be the final struggle for him. The struggle for peace.

Beginning in Genesis 31. We reach a point a turning point in the narrative of the life of Jacob. At the beginning of chapter 31, God comes to Jacob and tells him to return to the land of his fathers, and promises again to be with him. So Jacob takes his family and livestock and leaves Padan-aram. Along the way, he finds out that his brother is coming to meet him. With 400 soldiers. Might be a little overkill. And kill was the thing he was worried about.

So Jacob develops another elaborate plan to try and preserve the family, since he assumes that Esau is coming to kill him. And then, Jacob has this novel idea. He prays! Talks to God about it. The Bible does not record any prayer of Jacob for the 30 years between the dream about the ladder, and the prayer recorded in Genesis 32. That's a long time.

He continues. Jacob continues to make preparations to meet the brother whom he fears is still filled with hate and murderous intentions, and he has another meeting with God. In one of the most bizarre encounters, Jacob spends the whole night playing tag-team wrestling with an angel. Jacob even overpowers the angel, and wins the match.

Now honestly, I actually think that that was like when I used to wrestle with my kids when they were six, and every once in a while they would “overpower me” and they would “pin me.” It did not have anything to do with my ability to lay them out on the floor, and pin them. It had to do with my willingness to let them overpower me. Because I'm pretty sure the angel could have done just about anything to Jacob that he wanted to.

But the story says that the angel lets Jacob win. The winning wasn't Jacob's real issue. Jacob lacked the assurance of his father's love, and especially in that culture, of his father's blessing. This is the real issue of Jacob's heart. All of Jacob's life, you see him struggling. Struggling for this, struggling for that. But his real struggle was a struggle for peace. The assurance that he wasn't second best, but unique. Just as good. Just as important as his brother.

So Jacob says to the angel in verse 26 of Genesis 32, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Even though earlier in life he deceived his father into giving him the blessing, Isaac hadn't really meant to blessed Jacob. He meant to bless Esau. And deep down, Jacob knew it. His struggle for position had produced a hollow victory. His struggle for prosperity had not brought him peace of mind.

Even Jacob's father-in-law didn't care for him. Jacob needed a dramatic change. Jacob needed to be released from the title of deceiver. So the night before he meets his brother, Jacob wrestles with God. And God changes his name from Jacob – from cheater – to Israel, which means “he strives with God.”

None of his scheming mattered. God had changed the heart of his brother. Esau wasn't coming to kill him. He was coming to offer him peace. Jacob didn't need to scheme. God was intervening on his behalf. From Jacob, to Israel.

The transformation in the life of Jacob takes a while. It's not until Genesis 35 that the new name really sticks. But by coming to God, Jacob received peace.

Jacob was a man of faith. That's what we learn from the scripture. One of the big three: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But he lived a common life. A life like we live. And when we read the life of Jacob we see reflections of our own life in that.

We got the wrong name. The wrong birth order. You know, birth order books are fascinating. How they impact your life. There's just seconds between Jacob and Esau in birth order, but it messed up their whole life. Maybe your birth order has messed up your life. You've struggled with feeling second-best and not good enough. And you felt that you need to scheme, and to manipulate. To get what others got just because they were born before you.

Or maybe you had an experience with God. Years ago, you went on a retreat. You went to Promise Keepers, and you had a fantastic time there. You went to camp, and you turned your heart over to God. Maybe you were getting ready to have eye surgery, and thinking about spending four months with your head down below your waist, and God intervened.

And you said, “God, if you will just do this, then I will…” Tithe for the rest of my life. That's what Jacob said. “God, if you'll just do this, I'll go to church every week.” By the way, that's a crazy promise. Life happens, and you're never going to go to church every single week. If you're going to promise God something, at least promise something that has some realistic chance of being possible.

Maybe you've done that. In your mountaintop experience, you determined that you would do something for God because God did something for you. But then, like Jacob, your life got put on autopilot. You know, you really have to get up tomorrow morning and go to work. Okay, some of you are retired. You don't have to go to work, but you do have a honey-do list.

You get in this autopilot, and you just do the same thing, day after day. And you forget. The further you are away from your mountaintop experience, the easier it is for you to forget the mountaintop experience, and to forget the commitments you made to God at that time. So maybe you've never fulfilled that vow. And Jacob gives us a great lesson.

Even after 20 or 30 years of not going to God in prayer, you can always come to Him. He's calling you home. And if that's the case, then this account of Jacob is good news. Because it shows that a promise-keeping, patient God makes it possible for you to fulfill that vow and come home to Him, no matter how long you've been away.

I've long since given up any idea that William Francis Johnson, the third, has a bigger portion of my dad's love than I had. It might help that my dad's been gone for 20 years, but that's another story. I've long since given up the idea that because I'm named Steve, and he's named Bill, it makes a difference. But I'm guessing I'm a lot like you. There are times we just want to hear Dad say, “I love ya, dude.”

We want to hear God say, “I love you.” The life of Jacob tells us that in our struggle for prosperity, God still wants a relationship with us and our struggle for peace.

We are always welcome to return to the God of our mountaintop experiences. And receive the blessing of peace. Let's pray.

Our gracious Father, we ask today that you would help us to recognize that our lives, just common everyday lives, can also be faithful lives. And we don't have to be named with the Patriarchs to continue to walk with You. Help us to realize we have Your blessing. To realize that all prosperity comes from You.

Help us to embrace the peace which passes understanding, available through faith in Jesus Christ. Amen