Today we’re taking a break from our series in Corinthians, and we’ll be looking at the life of a man named Jacob. And I’ve titled this message, “The ‘god’ of Me. The God of me.”
Recently, someone at Crossroad asked me, “What are you doing when you make this gesture? What does it mean?”
Well, we call them air quotes. And this gesture is really useful especially when we want to use sarcasm, or irony. For example, “He’s a really ‘nice’ guy, huh?” Which really means we don’t think he’s nice at all.”
In this case, we have the “god” of Me. Now are you really a god? Of course not. But so many people live for the “god” of Me. In other words they live their whole lives solely for themselves. They make themselves the center of the universe.
But that’s not the way we were designed to live. We were designed to look to God and say, “You are the God of me.” Or in better English, “You are my God. I live for you.”
I grew up in a Christian family, and I made the choice to become a Christian at a pretty young age. But it really took me a while to get to the point where I stopped following the “god” of Me, and started saying to Jesus, “You are the God of me.”
You see, although I said I was a Christian for many years, I was still only living for myself. And it was only when I hit my teen years, that I really started to say, “Jesus, you truly are my God. And I want to follow you.” How about you? Can you say that? Or are you still following the “god” of Me.
Now as I said, we’re going to look at the life of a man named Jacob. Usually, I like to take one main passage, and focus on that, but today we’re going to basically cover 25 chapters in one day. Which means we’ll be probably be here until 9:00 tonight. Just kidding. We’re only going to do an overview today. But I do encourage you to take the time to read this story when you go home.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a reader. I like reading. And it used to be that I would read a lot of fiction books, including books like this. This book is a monster. It’s over 900 pages. But I probably read this through in 3 or 4 days. And over the past couple of years, I’ve started to think, “Why can’t I read my Bible this way?” So often, I used to read one or two chapters of the Bible a day, and say, “Okay that’s enough.” But what I’ve found is that as I’ve read more at one time, as I read whole books or at least whole stories at one time, I’m starting to understand my Bible better. So let’s try reading the Bible that way today.
Just to give you some background, Jacob lived around 4000 years ago. And his grandfather was a guy named Abraham, who was the father of the Jewish nation. God told Abraham, “leave your country and go to the place I will show you.” And then he made Abraham these promises:
I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2-3)
Abraham obeyed God and eventually, God gave him a son named Isaac. Isaac grew up, got married, and that’s where we pick up the story today.
Take a look at Genesis chapter 25, starting at verse 21.
Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. (Genesis 25:21-26)
Jacob got off to a very interesting start in life. He was a twin, and when he was born, he was too lazy to come out of his mother by himself, so he just grabbed his brother’s heel and took a free ride out. Of course, I’m just kidding, but it was symbolic of how Jacob lived his early life. He lived for the “god” of Me. He was someone who often took advantage of other people for his own good. In fact, his parents named him “Jacob,” which meant “he grasps the heel.” And in their language, it was often used as an idiom that meant, “deceiver.” Not the best name to have. But Jacob certainly lived up to it.
In short, Jacob was a con man. And when you read his story, what you find was that he was willing to deceive his own father and brother to get what he wanted. “Nice guy,” huh? But while his father proved to be a forgiving man, his brother was not, and Jacob was forced to flee for his life.
That’s the problem with the living for the “god” of Me. Not only do you hurt those around you, but you can make an utter mess of your life. I have seen people wreck their marriages. I’ve seen them wreck their relationships with their kids. I’ve seen them wreck their health. I’ve seen them wreck their entire futures. And probably you have too.
But you know it’s so easy to point the finger at other people. To look at their failings and blame them for their stupid choices. But how about you? For many of us, the god of Me can be a tricky thing to detect. But how often do we end up serving it?
For the past several weeks, we’ve looked at I Corinthians, and when you think about it, one of their biggest problems was that many of them were serving the god of Me. For many of them, they were constantly thinking “My position. My rights. My life.” Because of that they could badly wound other people in the church, and they either didn’t notice or they didn’t care. And the church was a total mess because of it.
How about you? How would you describe your way of thinking? Are you constantly thinking of your position? Are you constantly worried about the respect or lack of respect you get from others? Are you constantly worried about your rights? Are you constantly offended when you feel like your rights are infringed upon? Are you constantly focused on your life? Are you constantly focused on what you need and want from the people around you. That’s serving the god of Me. Is that who you’re serving?
That’s who Jacob served for a very long time. But the amazing thing is, God never gave up on him. And as Jacob headed off to his uncle’s place to flee for his life, he had his first encounter with God. One night, he stopped for a rest, and while he was sleeping, he saw a dream. He saw this huge stairway stretching down from heaven to earth. And he saw angels going up and down this stairway, probably going off to do some errands.
Sometimes people think that God is not very active in this world. But one thing that we see in the Bible is that God is active. Though we may not see him, he has his angels doing his work here on earth. And he himself is active here on earth. He reaches down to us in love, working in our lives to achieve his purposes. And here we see him reaching down to Jacob, messed up though he was. Look at what God said.
“I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (28:13-15)
Here, God gives Jacob the very same promises that he gave to Abraham. You know what’s amazing about that? Jacob deserved none of that from God. He was still a very selfish, me-centered person. But that’s what grace is about. It’s God reaching out to us when we deserve nothing from him.
What was Jacob’s response?
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” (28:20-22)
Do you notice something interesting about this response? Jacob doesn’t say, “God, your grace is incredible. I can’t believe you would do this for me. So from now on, you’re my God and I will follow you.” Instead he says, “Well God, I’ll wait and see. If you really do look after me, then I will follow you.” Despite all the grace God shows him, Jacob still is following the god of Me.
Many people today take this same kind of attitude when it comes to God. They say, “God if you do this and this and this for me, then I’ll follow you.” But that’s not really following God. It’s following yourself. How about you? Is that your attitude toward God? Do you ever carry the attitude that God owes you something? A happy life. Money. A wife. A husband. A good job. God doesn’t owe you a thing. And as long as you believe God owes you something, and you condition your following him on whether he meets your demands or not, you’re not following him. You’re following the god of Me.
Anyway, Jacob goes to his uncle’s place, pretty much with the same selfish and self-sufficient attitude he always had. But there was a problem. His uncle was even more a con man than Jacob was. And because of that, Jacob had a lot of struggles during the 20 years he was with his uncle. But because of God’s grace, Jacob prospered and became very wealthy despite all his uncle did to him.
Then God said, “Jacob, it’s time for you to go back home.” Jacob obeyed, but now Jacob had to deal with his brother Esau. And Jacob, being the schemer he was, tried to smooth things over on his own. He tried to bribe his brother by sending him all kinds of things, but the next thing he knew, his brother was coming with 400 of his men, and now Jacob was panicking. “Esau’s coming to kill me!”
And so he prayed to God for help. And it’s very interesting how he addresses God here. He says, “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac.” (Genesis 32:9). He still doesn’t call God his God. Even so, God in his grace answered him. Not only that, God appeared to him personally. And in that meeting, Jacob finally realized, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep fighting God and living my own way. I need him. I need his blessing in my life.” And for the first time in his life, he truly surrendered to God.
And God gave him a new name. He said, “Your name is no longer ‘Jacob.’ Your name is no longer ‘deceiver.’ From now on, you are ‘Israel.’ This is the first time we ever see the name “Israel” in the Bible. It wasn’t given to a country. It was given to a man. One possible meaning of the name is, “He struggles with God.” And God said to him, “You have struggled with me, and with man. And now you have finally overcome. You’ve finally found the key to victory in life. The key is to victory is not constantly fighting me and those around you. The key to victory is surrendering to me.”
God then brought peace between Jacob and Esau, and after they had parted, Jacob built an altar and worshiped God. He called the altar, “El Elohe Israel.”
Let me ask you a quick question, how many of you want to understand your Bible better. If you really want to understand your Bible better, I’ll give you a couple of secrets right now. The first secret is to read the footnotes in your Bible. How many of you have ever taken the time to look at the footnotes in your Bible? I know they’re really tiny, but they give you some valuable information. And if you look at your footnotes, this is what you find: El Elohe Israel means, “God, the God of Israel.”
The second secret to understanding your Bible is: read your Bible. Then read it some more. And then read it some more. And like I said before, when you read it, don’t just read one or two chapters at a time. Try reading whole books or stories at one time. And if you do, you’ll start seeing things you never saw before. For example, if you read only chapter 33 of Genesis, even if you looked at the footnotes, you’d probably miss out what Jacob was really saying here. He wasn’t saying, “God you are the God of the nation of Israel.” Israel wasn’t even a nation yet. But if you read the whole story, and you realized that God had renamed Jacob “Israel,” you’d realize that Jacob was really saying, “God, you are the God of me. You’re my God now.”
How about you? Can you truly say, “God you are the God of me?”
What does it mean when we say, “God you’re my God?” I think it’s important to know that it starts not with what we do, but with what God does. What does he do?
First, he saves us. Just as he saved Jacob from Esau, he saves us. Like Jacob, we brought a lot of trouble on ourselves through our own bad choices. In fact, we were headed for hell because of all the bad choices we’ve made that wounded God and the people around us. But God reached down, and he sent his Son to die on a cross and take the punishment we deserved for our sin.
More than that, he gave us a new identity. He did that for Jacob. He said, “You’re no longer what you used to be. I’m making you something new. You’re no longer a deceiver. You’re the one who struggled with God, and have now overcome. In Revelation 2:17, it says that to those Christians who overcome, God will give them a new name too. You’re no longer what you used to be. You’re something new.
And because of all that, we now have a future hope. In chapter 35, God reaffirmed all his promises to Jacob. He even expanded on them, saying, “Kings will be among your descendants (35:11). It’s interesting. Like I said, one possible meaning of “Israel” is “He struggles with God.” Another possible meaning is, “Prince with God.” And we see that in this expanded promise that God gives Jacob. He promised him hope. And he promises us hope too.
So in light of all that God has done for us, what should we do? What does it mean to call God your God?
First, stop fighting him. Stop trying to do things your own way, and surrender your life to him. Recognize that more than anything else, you need him. That’s the lesson that Jacob had to learn.
Second, make him the center of your life. Worship him alone. That’s what Jacob started to do. In chapter 35, God told Jacob to go back to the place where he had first met with Jacob and to build an altar to him. Jacob went, and look what he told his family.
Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone. (35:2-3)
It was really important to Jacob that he and his family separate themselves from any kind of idol worship and to serve God alone. So Jacob and his family threw away not only their idols but certain earrings they had as well. Not because jewelry is bad, but because those earrings were probably used in idol worship.
This is an issue we face even today in Japan. It was an issue that the Corinthians faced as well.
Last week, Fumi taught from I Corinthians 10. He didn’t have the time to talk about this last week, but it seems that one of the problems that the Corinthians had was that some of them thought that it was okay to go to pagan temples and participate in their religious feasts. Their excuse was, “Hey these idols are really nothing. They’re just wood or metal statues.” But Paul told them, “You can’t do that. The idols may be just wood or metal, but behind them stand demons. And you can’t on one hand have communion with the Lord one week, and then participate with demons in these pagan feasts and rituals the next.”
That’s why I think it is wrong, for example, to offer incense at Buddhist funerals. It’s why some Christians don’t even feel comfortable going to Buddhist funerals at all. But if you do go in order to show respect to your relatives, (and I personally will do that), I think it’s important to keep that point of separation in not offering incense, using Buddhist prayer beads, chanting the sutras, or anything like that. It’s one thing to passively attend and pray for those who are there. It’s another thing entirely to actively participate with spiritual forces who hate the God you love.
That’s said, it’s a very difficult choice to make. It’s something that you would have to talk to your relatives about before the ceremony. You would have to explain why you feel the way you do in a loving way. Hopefully, they would understand. I’ve been fortunate. Both my relatives in Hawaii and my wife’s relatives in Japan have been very understanding.
But some relatives may not be so understanding, and it can be a very painful thing. But remember this: Jesus understands. Jesus understands what it means to be rejected by those he loved. His own family rejected him when he was on earth. His brothers mocked him. And the people he loved, nailed him on a cross to die. He understands, so take your pain to him. Cry out to him, “You’re my God.” And he will remind you, “You are my child.”
Finally, calling God your God means being a blessing to this world. For many years, Jacob wasn’t a blessing to the people around him. But I find a scene at the end of his life very interesting. His son Joseph became prime minister of Egypt, and was responsible for the saving of many lives during a great famine. And when Jacob came to Egypt to see his son, Joseph introduced him to the Pharaoh. Look at what happened.
Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. After Jacob blessed Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked him, “How old are you?” And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.” Then Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from his presence. (47:7-10)
Here Jacob blesses one of the the most powerful men in the world at that time, not just once, but twice. Now if you read chapter 47 in Japanese, you might see that it’s different from the English. It says “Jacob greeted Pharaoh.” But remember what I said about footnotes? If you look at your Japanese Bible, it gives another possible translation in the footnotes: “Jacob blessed Pharaoh.” And I think that’s the proper translation here, because it is the same word God used when he told Abraham and Jacob, “This world will be blessed through you.”
When we call God our God, it’s not just so that God will bless us. Rather, it’s so that we can be a blessing to those around us. How about you? When you encounter people, do you leave them touched by the hand of God?
One warning before I close today. Following God doesn’t mean that your life will always be happy happy, joy joy. Jacob’s certainly wasn’t. After his decision to make God his God, he experienced many hardships. His daughter was raped. Two of his sons committed murder. His wife died giving birth. Then his favorite son was taken from him, he thought, forever.
But even in the midst of all that, God never abandoned him. Even when God seemed silent, God was working behind the scenes for Jacob’s good. So at the end of his life, when he looked back, Jacob could say this: “God has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” (48:15). This same God is our shepherd too. So let’s trust him. Let’s follow him. And make him God in our lives.