ALL I AM: Breathe In, Breathe Out   Hebrews 11:21 & Genesis 48

Growing up as a kid, I used to love going to amusement parks.  We grew up near Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Six Flags, so I used to love to ride those roller coasters whenever we had the chance.  I can remember, as a little kid, standing in line and seeing the loops and flips the coaster would do and each step in line getting closer and closer to actually getting on the ride.  I could feel my blood pressure rising.  It was this nervous, fearful excitement.  I can remember getting on the ride and having the time of my life—-the flips, the turns, the speed. All of that fear and excitement got turned into a GREAT time!  I wanted my kids to have the same experience, so we went to the Eagle County Fair.  The “roller coaster” they had was, I think, backed in on a flatbed truck the night before.  It had a dragon on the front of it; it wasn’t exactly death defying, in any way, shape or form.  My kids resisted going on the ride.  Like any good father, I forced them to.  We were the only people in line and giving them that pep talk — Hey, you can do it!  You can get on this ride!  There’s tears…..   Finally, there’s enough bribery that they finally get on the ride.  They were flying…..it was like ten feet in a circle.  {Ryan puts up a picture of his son and daughter on the ride.}  If you could zoom in on Avery’s face…..her face is splotchy and red because she was crying.  They walked off the ride with THOSE faces!  What started off as fear, what started off as anxiety, was turned into excitement and fun!

I was thinking about that for your life and mine, every single moment of every single day we have an experience that’s similar.  That things are converted in our life all the time.  Let me give you one example: just take a deep breath and exhale.  Your body just did a conversion.  You took oxygen into your lungs and your body sent, and is sending, that oxygen through your blood, all throughout your body, to give your body the nutrients it needs. When you breathe out….you breathe out carbon dioxide.  You breathe in oxygen, there’s a conversion that takes place, then you breathe out carbon dioxide.

I started to think about that as I looked at the life of Jacob.  The question I wanted to ask was prompted by the book of Hebrews—When we breathe in faith….what do we breathe out?   When we breathe in life with God, what do we breathe out?  What is it converted into?  We could read through Scriptures and get a number of different answers for that.  We could look at some passages of Scriptures and what it’s breathed out as or what it’s converted into is confidence or boldness.  We can see that faith is translated into justice and a longing for God to make the world to rights.  Sometimes faith is converted into love, that’s what it looks like on the ground and in people’s lives.  Sometimes faith looks like telling people about this great God that we serve.  But in the life of Jacob, towards the end of his life as he’s breathing in faith, he’s breathing out something that’s different than the biblical list we just went through.  In the book of Hebrews, they actually give him a shoutout in the Hall of Faith for being a person of faith and they describe what this faith was translated into in his life. {If you have a bible, turn to Hebrews 11:21.  That’s where we’re going to start today.}  

The author of Hebrews is going through a number of people who lived significant lives because of the faith that they had in their great God.  He gets to Jacob and this is what he says about the life of Jacob:  By faith {So because of this faith and walking in this faith and because faith was what he breathed in….} ..Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.  It’s fascinating that what happened when Jacob walked by faith, lived by faith, breathed in faith that what he breathed out into the lives the people around him, specifically to his family, was blessing.  By faith, even when he was dying…..when his body was wasting away, what was coming out of every pore of his being was blessing.  As he’s dying, he’s speaking a good word over the people who were around him.  If read through the whole chapter of Hebrews 11, you’ll find great stories.  You’ll find the story of Noah building the ark.  That’s a pretty significant faith-filled achievement, is it not?  You hear stories referenced about people who stopped the mouths of lions, who stopped the edge of the sword.  You hear a story referenced about people, who by faith, conquered kingdoms.  That’s some pretty significant faith-filled activity, is it not?  Then you come to Jacob and it’s like….by faith he blessed people.  I’m thinking, “Well, that doesn’t seem all that big of a deal.”  Except if we were to go around this room today and ask how many of us want to live lives of blessing.  My guess is that most people would go, “Absolutely, yes, that’s the type of life I want to live. I want to live a life where blessing comes out of every pore of my body, where I speak a good word over the people that I interact with, that when they walk away from me there’s this “Jesus-residue” that stays with them, this blessing that stays with them.”  The question many of us wrestle with is how does that become a reality in life?  Because “try harder” doesn’t seem to work because there’s this thing about people that’s true:  some people tick me off and it’s hard to be a blessing.  Sometimes try harder doesn’t work.

What Jacob’s life displays to us is that the hand of blessing is always extended through the life of faith. This walk with Jesus, this trust in God, is the thing that allows us to consistently be a blessing to the people around us, to speak a good word over the people around us.  When I walk faithfully, I bless consistently.  It turns out that one of the by-products of trusting Jesus is being a blessing and a blesser of the people around me.  If I want to bless the people around me, I’ve got to trust God because blessing flows through us when faith lives within us.  Jesus said a similar thing (in Matthew 15:18):  But what comes out of the mouth {or exudes from your life} proceeds from the heart.  Have you ever thought about that?  That everything you say is speaking about and from the deepest places of your soul.  When we give that parting word to someone that’s meant as a curse or that criticism or that cynical remark or that put down in order to make ourselves feel better, here’s what we’re actually doing.  We’re putting on display the condition of our soul.  That this is what’s going on inside of me.

I watched, like many of you did, the funerals for the people killed in the Orlando shooting.  I watched as the Westborough Baptist Church picketed those funerals.  I looked at that picture and thought, “Please, Jesus, don’t let this be what the world thinks Christians are like.”  And then I thought, “Man, if that’s what’s coming out of their life, think about what’s going on in their heart.”  My heart went out to them, because can you think of how much anger and how much bitterness and how much rage must be dwelling inside of people to go there. Everything that comes out of our life is indicative, is a picture, is an expression of what’s going on in our soul. The book of Hebrews would say that if we want blessing to come out of our mouth—almost all of us would say we would—then we’ve got to be the type of people who cling close to Jesus, who trust Jesus, who live lives of faith, because the hand of blessing is always, always, always extended through the life of faith. 

If I were you, my question would be: how does that happen?  And why does a life of faith lead to a posture of blessing?  Why is that true, Ryan?  If you turn with me back to Genesis 48, we’re going to go and read the story of Jacob actually giving this blessing that he’s commended for in the book of Hebrews.  It’s going to show us how the hand of blessing is extended through the life of faith.  To catch you up…..we’re closing out a series on the life of Jacob that we’ve doing over the last ten weeks.  We’ve seen Jacob start off as this second born in a first-born society, he was sort of born a rung lower than he wanted to be.  He was loved more by his mother than he was by his father, that wasn’t a great thing in a patriarchal culture.  He found himself drawn to cooking in tents rather than hunting in fields which wasn’t the manliest way to live back in the day.  He goes through a number of things in his life—he’s on the run for a lot of time.  As we pick up the story in chapter 48:8, Jacob is at the ripe old age of 147.  He’s coming to the end of his life and dying and listen to what he does:  When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?”  {Joseph is his eleventh-born son and he hadn’t met these sons yet. Joseph had been taken off into captivity in Egypt where he’d been living, so Jacob is finally reunited with his whole family.}  Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.”  And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.”  Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see.  So Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them.  He’s going to go on from here and give them a blessing, as the Scriptures say.

I want to ask some questions, though, about this passage, because there are some intricacies of what’s going on that will let us go deeper into how to become people of faith that blessing just naturally comes from us.  If you were to look at Jacob’s life on the surface, everything is not going as “planned.”  Jacob, at this point in time, is in Egypt; he’s not in the land that God promised him.  He’s had to flee from that land because there was a famine and they ran out of food and they were on death’s doorstep.  Luckily, by coincidence, one of his younger sons had been sold into slavery in Egypt where he became one of the rulers in Pharaoh’s household and then he welcomed him back.  Crazy coincidence, right?  He’s not in the promised land.  He’s not in the house that he built and the land that he purchased and the life that he thought in his mind.  Not only that, but his people are getting ready to spend 400 years in this land as slaves.  You add on top of that, his life is coming to a close, his body is shutting down.  He’s taking what he views as some of his last breaths and what does he do?  He blesses. In the midst of a body that’s failing, in the midst of a story that’s crumbling, in midst of everything going wrong, Jacob refuses to allow his present moment to redefine God’s past faithfulness.  That’s what faith does in us. Faith gives us this ability to see life through a new lens.  It gives us the ability to see life through a different perspective.  Jacob could have cursed that day.  He’s dying.  He’s in exile.  They’re going to be in slavery.  He doesn’t have the things God promised him in the land that he longed for.  Yet, what comes out of his life is not cursing, but a life of blessing.  How is that even possible?  Jacob refuses to allow the present moment to redefine the entire story.  He’s going alright, God, this is what’s happening now, but I can see the bigger picture. I refuse to let the temporal define the eternal—that’s what he’s saying.  This is a new faith-given perspective.

I think you can see this best in chapter 35:16-18.  Jacob had practiced living this way.  If you were with us last week, we read about the call that God gave Jacob to rise and go to Bethel.  It was this invitation back to a place of vitality.  It was an invitation to return to his life being full and his soul being alive.  As he goes back to Bethel, they leave from there and they’re returning to their home.  We’ll pick of the story there:  They they journeyed from Bethel.  When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, {Just a quick note.  Rachel is the wife that he loved more than Leah.  Rachel is the hot wife!  Rachel is the one he wanted to have kids with this whole entire time.  They had Joseph and now she’s in labor.}   ….and she had hard labor.  And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.”  {My guess is that at that moment Rachel’s eyes lit up, her face lit up.  This is what she wanted.  This is what she hoped for.  This is what she prayed for.}  And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni.  You probably have a notation next to that name and a note at the bottom.  The note at the bottom will tell you that Ben-oni….Ben means son in the Hebrew and oni means sorrow.  Son of my sorrow. Rachel says, “I know I’m breathing my last” and takes that little baby boy and they wrap him up.  As she’s breathing her last breath, her midwife takes her baby and Rachel says, “Hey, one thing before I die.  Can you tell Jacob to name this son Ben-oni.  Name him “son of my sorrow” because I’m about to take my last breath. Labor has taken it out of me and his name should be indicative of how he came into this world.”  As the midwife takes and carries that baby to his father Jacob, she says, “Here’s your son.  Your now late wife Rachel wants you to name him Ben-oni, ‘son of my sorrow.'”  It would have been a real fitting name.  It was a sorrowful condition to which he was born into.  This was the wife that Jacob loved.  He’d given his heart and his soul to this woman and now, in childbirth, she passed away.  I wonder if Jacob looked at the midwife and said, “That’s a good name, that’s a fine name.  Is Rachel dead now?”  “Yeah, she’s gone now.”  “Okay, great. So we’re not going to name him Ben-oni.  We’re actually going to name him Benjamin.”   Ben-oni means “son of my sorrow”—that which just rips the guts out of me and takes the life out of me, but Benjamin means “son of my right hand.” Which was the hand of strength, which was also the hand of blessing.  He goes, “Okay, Rachel, I get how you could see this circumstance as one that would be indicative of death, but I see this circumstance as one that is indicative of blessing.  We prayed for this boy.  We hoped for this boy.  We longed for this boy.  God’s delivered this boy and yet, you’re going to take your last breath and that’s tragic and that’s sad and that’s sorrowful.”  But what Jacob speaks back to the world around him is—I refuse to let a moment in this boy’s history to define his destiny.  I refuse to let one thing that happens in his life speak a word over his entire life.  What Jacob says to you and to I in the most beautiful, thought-provoking way is that I’m going to trust God’s promises and God’s promises are going to be greater than the pain that I experience in my life.  

Here’s the deal, friends—so much of our life is this mixture.  It’s this mixture of…..you see Rachel dying, she’s passing away while Jacob is holding this brand new little life.  So much of life is a mixture of both sorrow and joy.  Of regret and of strength.  So much of life is a mixture of both pain—things that hurt, things that we’d rather avoid, things that stink and we’d like to fast-forward through—and God’s promise to be ridiculously, graciously good to us.  So much of life is a mixture.  {Will you look up at me for just a second?}  Here’s a beautiful thing about that—YOU get to decide how you label it.  Is it going to be Ben-oni or is it going to be Benjamin?  And everything that comes into our life has to pass through a lens and we have to look at it and decide…when we look back on this story, what is going to be the story we’re going to tell.  The label that we give will often lead to the story that we tell about the things that happen in our life.  I can tell you, a lot of your anger and a lot of my anger comes from mislabeling.  From mislabeling the kids — they’re just crazy, rambunctious, misbehaving kids.  OR they’re three!  Both are true.  What label are you going to give them?  The dog’s a terrible dog.  It just pees all over the house and is untrained.  OR they’re a puppy!  What label are you going to give them?  Everything in our life has to pass through the lens of the label that we give.  So here’s some questions for you:  Is there some pain in your life that could be labeled growth?  Is there some failure in your life that could be labeled strength?  Is there some breaking down of your body that could be labeled hope?  Is there some death that could be labeled life?    For Jacob, faith stirs inside of him this ability to have a greater perspective — I refuse to get caught in the momentary and define the destiny that happens in the moment. That kid is NOT Ben-oni, he’s Benjamin, son of my right hand, son of my strength, son of my blessing and he speaks it over him.  I love the way that Viktor Frankl, the great author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, puts it:  “Life is NEVER made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”  What labels are you giving?  We read about Jacob and the faith that he has because of the blessing that he gives, but that’s all birthed out of his ability—faith gave him an ability to see a greater perspective—to zoom out.

Listen to the content of the blessing that Jacob gives.  He gives this over Joseph and his grandkids. (Gen. 48:15-16)  And he blessed Joseph and said, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”   Jacob is claiming that God has taken care of him every step of the way.  He says, “He’s been my shepherd all my life.”  If you’ve been with us over the last ten weeks, you’re going, “All my life??”  There’s some crazy, mixed-up, soap-opera-type things that have gone on, has there not? All my life means God has been my shepherd even when I stole the blessing from my brother.  Even when I got bad advice from my mom and I ran away from home.  Even when I approached crazy Uncle Laban, even then God was my shepherd.  Even when crazy Uncle Laban took advantage of me and even when I woke up next to Leah when I thought I was going to wake up next to Rachel.  Even then God was my shepherd.  And God was my shepherd when I came back and encountered Esau and he had 400 men to fight me.  Even then God was my shepherd when the men of Shechem were wiped out because of a surgery that they had because my boys tried to talk them into a covenant and then we had to flee.  Even then……God was my shepherd.  Here’s what Jacob would pour into his boys and his grandsons as he’s dying:  My life story is a testimony of God’s faithfulness. That’s what he would say.

Faith grounds us in the reality of God’s providence.  It’s this 20/20 hindsight vision that followers of Jesus get to operate in.  It’s the putting on of the proverbial 3-D glasses of the movie.  They just look silly, but to put them on and to see the faithfulness of God all around us.  That’s what faith allows us to do. Have you ever met somebody who’s just walking with Jesus and they saw him at work everywhere in their life??  Sometimes we label them as nuts or crazy.  But we should probably label them as faithful, walking with God, seeing his fingerprints.  All my life.  Faith gives us eyes to see the fingerprints of God all over our life.  Looking back, that’s what Jacob tells his sons and his grandsons—-He’s been my shepherd all my life.  Even when I went to crazy Uncle Laban and I had nothing to my name, he was my shepherd and he provided.  Even when I left and I was uprooted and I didn’t know what the future was going to bring, even then God was my shepherd and he provided.  And when we walked through the valley of the shadow of death, He was my good shepherd and he did provide.  And when I didn’t know which way was up and when I had so much pain in my life that I felt the world was crumbling around me, even THEN He was good and He was my God.   John Owen, the great Puritan author, says this about this passage:  “It was a work of faith to retain a precious thankful remembrance of Divine providence in the constant provision of all needful temporal supplies, from first to last, during the whole course of his life.”  Here’s the CliffNotes version of that note: God never let me down!  Doesn’t mean it was easy, but it means He never let me down!  He (Jacob) goes on to say through the hazards and through the trials, even angels attended to me.  They redeemed me.  Jacob’s saying that the life of faith doesn’t mean we’re skipping through a field the whole day; it means that God holds us even in the darkest moments of life.  And that God has been faithful to His covenant.

I love what Jacob does as he gathers his boys around him and his grandkids around him.  He doesn’t say, “Alright, boys, I’ve written a ten page paper on the faithfulness of God.  I’d like to read that to you.  Point one, God has been faithful.  Point two…..” and walk them through the Scriptures.  He’s not giving them a doctrinal dissertation.  He’s inviting them into the story of his life.  The truth of the matter, friends, is that the stories we tell will be the seeds of hope in the lives of the people that hear them.  Listen, the faithfulness of God in the previous generation, in the stories that are told, will be the hope of God’s faithfulness for the coming generation.   {Will you look up at me for just a second?}  We need to hear your stories—-those of you that are farther along the pathway of faith—-we need to hear your stories.  We need to hear the ways that God has been faithful, that He has been good, that He has held you.  We need to hear the ways that God didn’t always come through in the way that you hoped that he would, but that he was always sufficient and he was always enough.  We need to hear those stories, because those stories are seeds of hope in the lives and souls in the people that will walk with Jesus for the next however-many-decades he gives us.  We need to hear those stories.  Jacob is telling one of those stories, because stories of God’s faithfulness is the stamina of faith for people that currently walk with him.

This is for free: you should read biographies of people who have walked with Jesus.  You should read biographies of people who’ve seen God do miraculous things.  You should read Bonhoeffer’s biography.  You should read Aquinas’ biography.  You should read the stories that people tell about St. Francis of Assisi.  You should read about Hudson Taylor.  You should read about these heroes of the faith.  Why?  Because their story is meant to sow seeds of hope into your life.  When it does, it starts to look like faith.  And then it starts to be breathed out as blessing.  I have this confidence God’s been good before and I have this hope He’s going to be good again.  My friend and one of our elders, Eric Nevins, has started this blog/podcast called Halfway There. He’s telling people’s story of faith—some of the people are from this congregation and you know them.  Some of the people are people he’s run into.  His conviction and the Bible’s conviction and our conviction as a church is that the stories of faith that people have to tell are the seeds of hope that we need to receive.  He’s telling stories, but they’re not stories of “then everyone lived happily ever after.”  Praise God!  Because that isn’t real life for most people.  They’re stories of faith — on the darkest night of my life, He held me close.  I the night that I thought or the day that I thought He’d taken His hands off, looking back I realize He has been my shepherd.  There’s this spiritual heritage that’s passed down.   When you tell your story, you plant seeds of hope.  We need to hear it, because God sometimes doesn’t come through on the timing we think he should come through on.  Amen?  Sometimes it doesn’t look like what we thought it should look like.  That’s true all throughout this passage and all throughout the Scriptures, which is why need people looking back going, “You know what?  Now that I think about it, 100% of the time my God’s been faithful.  There’s never been a day where he let me down.”

Here’s the way this passage closes.  Jacob blesses both of his grandsons and then says this:  Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers.  If I could summarize what Jacob just said….I’m going away, but good news, God is going NOWHERE! Yeah, I’ve been the leader of this family and I’ve been the father—sometimes a good father, sometimes a bad father—but through it all, God’s been the one who’s been faithful and I want to speak a blessing over you as I’m taking my last breath.  The person, the thing, that sustained me through my whole life is not dying with me.” The baton of faith that Jacob hands to the next generation is not “I was awesome.”  The baton of faith that Jacob hands to the next generation is “God has been amazing!” and I’m dying, but He is going nowhere!  Praise the Lord!  That’s what faith does — it stirs in us this confidence in God’s presence.  He’s been with me, Jacob says……you wonder if he’s thinking back, “Yeah, there’s been some times where I’ve been a little bit shady and if God was going to tap out, he would have done it on me.”  So with all confidence he can say, “God stuck with me through the muck and mire and He pulled me out of the pit and in the same way that God has been with me, He will be with you.”  This is the substance of faith.  To be able to see the world with the perspective of God is at work even when things are falling apart.  To see the world with the perspective of I know there’s pain, but there’s promises from God that undergird all of that and I’m holding on to the promises.  I’m not labeling it as pain, I’m seeing the promise and that’s the label it’s getting.  It’s the stuff of faith that allows us to look back on our life and see the providence of God in any and every situation that we have walked in and walked through. It’s the stuff of faith that allows us, with confidence, to say, “Every step of the way He’s been with me and so He will be with you.”

As I look at my life, I don’t know that I have a deeper desire than to say to my kids, “He’s going to be with you in the same way He’s been with me.”  To say there’s a different way to see the world—to bust out of the temporal and to see the eternal.  That’s the type of thing I want to pass down to my kids.  You know we’ll all leave a legacy, every single one of us.  The question isn’t whether or not we’ll leave a legacy, the question is what our legacy will be and what type of legacy we’ll leave.  I stumbled across this story of a missionary whose name is Dr. William Leslie.  In 1912, William Leslie spent 17 years of his life ministering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  After 17 years,  he came home assuming his ministry there had been an absolute failure.  He got sick and nine years after he returned home, Dr. Leslie passed away and died.  In 2010 there was a group of people who went back to this same area.  When they went back—based on what Leslie had told them—they expected to find people who had heard the story of Jesus and who maybe, at some level in some syncretistic way, may understand the gospel, but they didn’t expect to find followers of Jesus.  When they went to these villages what they found absolutely astounded to them.  Listen to what Eric Ramsey, the leader of the expedition, writes: “When we  got in there, we found a network of reproducing churches throughout the jungle. Each village had its own gospel choir, although they wouldn’t call it that.  They wrote their own songs and would have sing-offs from village to village.”  They found a church in each of the eight villages they visited scattered across 334 miles.  They also found a 1000-seat stone “cathedral” that often was so crowded in the 1980’s—people walked from miles around to attend—that a church planting movement was birthed out of those worship services.  Dr. Leslie, Ramsey writes, traveled throughout this remote region teaching the bible and promoting literacy.  He also started the first organized educational system in these villages.  For 17 years, Leslie fought tropical illnesses, charging buffaloes, armies of ants and leopard-infested jungles to bring the gospel to this remote area.  He died feeling like he had failed, but instead, his faithfulness and courage left a powerful legacy of vital churches.

I love that story because it can be so easy to measure our faithfulness at the time by our fruitfulness in the moment.  Did you know God never commands you to be fruitful?  He only tells you that you will be as you abide in him.  I don’t know about you, but I can look at my life and think, “I wish there were so much more coming out of it.”  If that’s you this morning, here’s what God wants to say:  Don’t look at that as the measurement of your life.  Your job, and your job simply, is to walk by faith.  To live a life where you trust God.  To live a life where you surrender to God.  To see from His perspective, to know his providence and to recognize his presence in every moment.  As you walk by faith, you WILL be a blessing.  Friends, the legacy we leave (and we all will leave one) will be determined by the faith that we live!  I imagine a community of followers of Jesus who tell the stories of God’s past faithfulness, who refuse to label things “pain” when they could be labeled “promises,” and who say to the coming generation, “You live in a God-bathed world and He’s been my shepherd every day of my life and I’m 100% confident that He will be yours, too.”  Let’s pray.

Father, as we look back on Jacob’s life, we see what, in many ways, could have been construed as just a mishmash of disconnected pieces of some successes and a lot of failures.  A lot of lying and some truth.  Of mountaintops and valleys low.  But, Lord, as we look back on his life, we see that you’re the thread that weaves its way throughout the whole thing.  From the get-go there was a promise over his life and you were faithful to that promise, God.  We’re confident that you’re going to be faithful to your promises over our lives, too.  This morning, in a fresh way, we surrender to you.  We say that we want to live lives that are defined and shaped by the faith that we have in you.  Lord, we do that in light of the faithfulness that you have displayed throughout every generation.  Lord, as we look back, would you help us to see from your perspective, would you help us to see your providence, would you help us to know your presence and out of that, may we people that speak blessing over any and everybody we come in contact with this week.  We pray in Jesus’s name.  Amen