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PSALMS OF ASCENT: Providence   Psalm 121

All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the life of faith is painted as a journey.  At the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 12, Abraham, this father of faith figure, is called out from the land where his family had lived for years and he’s invited to follow God into the unknown.  I think in a lot of modernity, the life of faith has been painted as this sort of ‘settler’ type faith, where we know what we believe and we sort of set up shop there.  In the Scriptures though, this invitation from God is to follow Him.  There’s movement.  There’s journey.  I’d say it like this — The life of faith is the life of a pilgrim more than a tourist.  It’s somebody who’s going someplace, who’s desire is to follow in the way of Jesus, to live in the way that He lived and to approach the world in that fashion. As opposed to a tourist who just observes.  They’re just sort of along for the ride, but a pilgrim gets their hands dirty.  They’re involved in the nitty gritty of life and a pilgrim of faith is one who’s learning to live that way daily, following Jesus.

The Hebrew people had these traditions that were woven into the fabric of their culture.  That they were pilgrim people.  They were on a journey somewhere.  In fact, three times every year, they would make a journey to Jerusalem, or Zion.  They would go during the feast of Passover, the feast of Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles.  In each one of these journeys they would go from wherever they lived and they would walk, literally up, to Jerusalem.  The ancient writer, the poet who wrote the psalms, David who wrote many of these psalms, wrote these songs that they would sing along the way on their journey to Jerusalem.  They’ve come to be known as the Psalms of Ascent—it’s Psalm 120 through Psalm 134.  These fifteen psalms were songs that these Hebrew people would sing as they walked from wherever they lived up to Jerusalem.

In many ways, they were not only their songbook, but their guide book as well.  Inevitably, in any journey, you’re bound to encounter obstacles, you’re bound to encounter trials.  I can remember last summer when my family and I were traveling from Colorado to California to go on vacation.  We’re one of those crazy families where we drive all night.  Driving all night is better than having our kids awake in the car for most of the time and wondering if we’re there yet; or our car turns into this snack bar immediately if my kids are awake, so I’d much rather drive all night than have my kids awake while I’m traveling.  We left (my in-laws house in) Vail at about 8 PM and headed west for California.  After we passed through Grand Junction and Fruita, hit the Colorado border and got into Utah, it was about midnight.  We were on the eastern desert of Utah and there was this massive thunderstorm that rolled through.  One of those heat thunderstorms where the lightning is purple and the sky lights up with every single bolt of lightning.  You can see everything around you for miles! Not only that, the rain was just pummeling our car.  Kelly was driving at that point in time and pulled the car over and said, “Ryan, I cannot go on any farther.  I can’t see the road!”  I couldn’t see the road either, but I took over at the wheel and drove us through the thunderstorm then handed it back over to Kelly.

I think in life we encounter those moments, don’t we?  Those thunderstorm moments.  Every significant journey encounters some prominent obstacles.  There’s no way to avoid it.  The question is:  Where do we go when we encounter those thunderstorms of life?  Where do we go when the obstacles hit?  Psalm 121, where we’ll be camping out today, is one of those Psalms of Ascent.  It’s a journey psalm.  It’s a pilgrim song that the Hebrew people would sing on their way to Jerusalem.  Listen to the way this psalm reads:  I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.  The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

In light of the thunderstorms of life that we inevitably face—the health crisis, the job crisis, the life that seems to be teetering on the brink of crumbling—what do we do with Psalm 121?  God seems to make a promise that, at least depending on how you read it, He sometimes doesn’t keep.  He says, I will not let your foot be moved. Your foot’s not going to slip.  Or, Israel, I will watch over you.  I’ll be your shade, the sun won’t strike you by day.  If we were to go around the room this morning, we could probably tell stories where it seems like our foot has slipped or the sun has struck us, metaphorically speaking.  What do we do with this psalm that seems to suggest that God’s going to protect us in any and every situation?  All throughout the history of people who have followed the way of Jesus and, before that, people who were worshippers of the One True God, they had this way of reading this psalm.  Their way of reading this psalm wasn’t that God’s going to just keep you from all harm.  It wasn’t that He was going to prevent you from all harm.  The way that they read this psalm was that God was going to preserve you from all harm, during all harm, keep you in and keep evil from overwhelming you, that God was going to be gracious to sustain you.  We say it like this:  God doesn’t promise toprevent you from walking into harm, He promises to preserve you when you encounter harm.  That’s the promise of Psalm 121.  That’s the promise that God gives, that He’s going to accompany you and that this world is ruled by Him. Paul, in the book of 1 Corinthians (10:13), would say it like this:  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.  Notice this journey of walking with God is not a promise that He’s going to prevent you from temptation or from harm, but that He will give you a way out, He’s going to preserve you through it.  That’s the promise of the Scriptures all throughout, that’s the promise of Psalm 121.

It’s echoed in the lives of these heroes of the faith.  Joseph — As he’s walking with God finds himself in jail, but God doesn’t give up on him there.  God preserves him through that experience.  Daniel — He’s this exile in Babylon.  This devout follower of Yahweh. God doesn’t prevent him from the lion’s den, but He preserves him through it.  You have the Apostle Paul who finds himself walking this road of suffering and yet, God continues to strengthen him.  Paul would even say hey, some of these things that have been the hardest moments in my journey have actually been the times when God has shined through me most strongly.  The question isn’t whether or not we’ll face obstacles in life—-that’s inevitable.  The question is where do we turn when we do?

So listen to Psalm 121 because it’s going to give us some instruction here.  The psalmist writes:  I lift my eyes up to the hills.  From where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  As the Hebrew people would travel this journey, this walk of ascent up to Zion, they would see mountains in their view.  They’d look to the hills, they’d look to the mountains.  Up on the mountains they saw, there would have been shrines of worship.  The mountains were places where many of the worshippers of other gods would set up their temples or set up their Asherah poles.  The mountains, for many of the ancient people that were living during the times the Scriptures were written, were where they worshipped.  The author of this psalm is saying, When I get into a pinch and when I get into trouble and when I need help and when the journey of life has obstacles along the way, where do I look for my help?  Do I look to these other gods?  Do I look to these idols—- Baal, Molech, these Asherah poles—-do I look to those things?  The sun god, the moon god, the rain god.  When I am in need of help, who do I cry out to?  He says, no, I’m not.  I’m not going that road where I’m going to cry out to these other cultic gods.  I’m going to cry out not to the god who stands on TOP of those mountains, but I’m going to cry out to the God who MADE those mountains.

I started to wonder for me, maybe for you, too, what are some of the mountains that we look to.  What are some of the things we put our hope in?  I’ve noticed, for me, that when I’m in times of need and when I face obstacles or thunderstorms of life, I’ll admit to you the first person I look to……is ME.  The mountain of me.  I try to control the people around me and I try to control the things around me.  I try to assert dominance in order to make things go the way that I want them to go.  The main mountain I look to is the mountain of me, the mountain of self, the mountain of ‘I can do this’ and ‘I can make it through.’  The invitation of Psalm 121 is not to look to ourself, it’s not to look to anything else other than the God who spoke all of this into existence. What a beautiful invitation the Scriptures give us — my help comes from God, the maker of it all.  If that’s true, I just want to draw out this morning, three really quick things that we can take home and apply from this psalm.

The first is this — I love that the psalm assumes that we’re going to need help along the journey of faith. Where does my help come from, I’m in trouble!  I am struggling here.  Here’s the first thing I would say to you this morning is instead of ignoring your need,admit your need!  There’s going to be times in life, inevitably, when we will need help.  The main determining factor as to whether or not we find help, will be whether or not we ask for it.  I know, it’s rocket science!  But that’s the main determining factor.  The people who find themselves helped by God are the people who cry out to God—-God, I’m in need and I need you to show up.  All throughout the psalms, we see David the psalmist crying out, God, I’m in trouble, I’m in a dark spot and I need you to show up.  Psalm 121 implicitly invites us to live a life where we constantly cry out, where does my help come from because I need help.  Many people know that the Titanic set out on its transatlantic journey and they didn’t have enough life boats.  They had only 20 lifeboats when they would have needed probably close to double that for all the people on board.  But what’s really interesting is of those 20 lifeboats that were on board, 18 of them were actually released to help people get off of the Titanic.  But there were 472 open spots on those lifeboats! Four hundred seventy-two lives that could have been saved of the 1500+ people that died.  Almost a third of them could have been saved if they just would have said, “I need help!”  Maybe that’s where you’re at this morning.  Maybe this morning would be a time where you’d say back to God, “God, instead of ignoring my need or instead of turning to the mountain of self, or whatever else we look to to rescue us, {you’d say} I am in need of help today and I’m asking you to show up.”  Instead of ignoring your need,admit it.

Here’s the second thing the psalmist would invite us to—- instead of looking to creation, instead of looking to the things that we can control and that we can do and the achievements that we can sort of hold close and cling to, instead of looking to creation, instead of looking to the mountains, look to the creator, look to the maker of the mountains.  Then the psalmist gives us these really beautiful pictures of the way that God looks after his creation.  Listen to what he says:  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  The thing I love about this is that God doesn’t say, hey, if you behaved well, if you have it all together, if you do everything that I ask you to do THEN I’m going to look over you.  No, that’s not what the psalmist says.  The psalmist says that because God is the creator God, He cares for you.  PERIOD.  He cares for you regardless of what your life looks like.  He cares for you regardless of the places you’ve been and the mistakes that you’ve made.  The psalmist says God watches over you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  There’s never been a day He hasn’t looked after you, that he hasn’t cared for you.  We look to the creator, not to the creation because He cares deeply.  He doesn’t slumber, he doesn’t sleep.  God’s interest in you does not wax or wane depending on your spiritual temperature or how good you think you’re doing.  He’s consistent.  He is constant.  What’s interesting to me is as I read through this psalm, the word “you” is used nine different times — He watches over you…. He keeps you….  He guards you….  He protects you….   And every single time, it’s used in the singular form as if to say, this isn’t a general ‘He’s watching over you or y’all or all y’all,’ but He’s watching over you, specifically YOU and He cares for you.

Back in the time that this was written, one of the major gods that was worshipped by the other religions and the other tribes of this time was Baal.  One of the priest’s main jobs in their interaction with their god Baal was to wake him up.  So when Elijah was sort of going at it with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18, he says they should shout a little louder because maybe your god’s sleeping and maybe you just need to wake him up and maybe then he’ll show up and fire will reign down.  The psalmist is saying your God never sleeps and you don’t need to wake him up.  And you don’t need to dance for him and you don’t need to perform for him. You can trust in the creator, not the creation because He loves you, because He’s for you, constantly.  There’s never been a moment when that wasn’t true.  I love the way the great Puritan author, John Owen, puts it: “The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay of the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to him is to not believe that he loves you.”

The psalmist goes on and he not only says my God is not falling asleep, He is not slumbering, He looks over me and He keeps me every single day, but he goes on to say:  The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.  The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in….  So, we see not only that God cares for us and that’s why we can worship the creator and not the creation, but we also see that He keeps us, that He guards us, that He protects us.  It’s one of the main themes of this psalm.  That word “keep” (the way the ESV translates it) is used six different times — God protects you….  God guards you…. God keeps you…  He echoes what Psalm 46:1-3 would say about this God Yahweh, this covenantal God:  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  {Don’t you love that?  I love how real the Scriptures are.  They don’t say, Hey, good news!  You’re never going to face trouble.  No, they’re way more real than that.  It’s great news; you’re going to face trouble and in that trouble God will be your strength.} Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way {Can you imagine the earth giving way and having the type of trust in our God that we would say even then God, we’re going to trust you and even then we’re going to push into you.}  …though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.    God, we’re going to trust you that you are good even then.  What’s the psalmist saying, because we’ve all faced times when it seems like God’s protective hand seemed to slip off of our lives. What’s the psalmist saying?  The psalmist is saying NOT that you will not encounter trouble—-we’ve already talked about that—-but that I will never encounter a trouble or an evil that will sink my faith because God is the one who’s holding me tight.  No trouble we encounter will have the ability to get between us and God. That’s what the psalmist is saying.  He’s going to keep you, He’s going to hold you, in the midst of trouble, in the midst of struggle.  He not only cares for you, but He keeps you.  Eugene Peterson, in his great book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (which we highly recommend you read along with this series), paints this picture:  No amount of water in the ocean can sink a boat, unless it gets inside it.  That’s the picture the psalmist is painting, this picture that there can be all of this evil that is swirling and swarming around you, but God is this God who says I will not let it get inside of you and I will not let it sink your boat.  He’s echoing what Paul would write to the church at Rome in Romans 8:28, 31, 32.   That nothing can separate you from the love of God that’s in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Martin Luther, the great theologian and hymn writer, wrote the hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God and one of the verses of that hymn says:  And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed, His truth to triumph through us.  The Prince of Darkness grim, We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, For lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.   One little word is going to take him down.  So, instead of ignoring our need, we admit our need.  Instead of looking to creation, we look to the creator because our God cares and our God keeps what’s entrusted to Him.  Because that’s true, instead of living with uncertainty and instead of living in fear of the next obstacle we’re going to face, the next thunderstorm that’s going to blow through our life because hey, this just in—it’s going to come, it’s a matter of time……instead of fearing those things, the invitation is to trust in our great God, to have an abiding confidence.  That’s what this psalm is.  It’s a declaration of trust.  Where does my help come from?  It doesn’t come from the mountains, as beautiful as they are and as majestic as they are.  My help comes from the creator of the mountains.

For us as followers of Jesus, help has a name.  In Psalm 121, they didn’t have this full picture of God yet, but for us as new covenant believers, our help has a name.  His name is Jesus!  We can trust him in any storm and any thunderstorm in any season of life on the journey of faith.  He is faithful and we can trust him confidently, because he has already quieted the biggest storm that we will ever face.  The storm of the sin that separated us from God.  He quieted it with his life, with his blood, with his death and with his resurrection.  Hope has a name and if you don’t know him this morning, we would love for you to meet Him.  The name of our hope is Jesus the Messiah, who, in giving his life for us, invited us to confidently walk with Him regardless of whatever trials come in our life.  We are the type of people who say God, we trust you.  We’re walking with you.  We are looking to you for our help, because our help has a name and his name is Jesus.

Jude, in this little tiny letter at the end of our Bible, right before the book of Revelation, has this beautiful doxology and it’s where I’ll end our time together this morning, too.  Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling {Hope has a name. He’s not going to let the water get in the boat, so you can admit your need instead of ignoring it.  You can cry out for help, he’s not going to let you down.  He’s not going to let you stumble.}  …and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only god, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:24-25)   So as people who walk this pilgrim journey of faith, inevitably, troubles will come.  When they do, know that you can call out not to the creation, but to the One who with one word spoke it all into existence.  What a joy to walk with that God!  I pray that you will, in the name of Jesus.  Amen.

I was a college pastor for five years before the Lord led Kelly and I back to Colorado to pastor this church.  As a college pastor I would walk onto college campuses and had the chance every single week to engage college students with questions about faith.  I started to hear this resound that echoed off of university campuses all across southern California.  It was this resound:  I used to go to church.  I just didn’t get it.  I started to ask more questions and you know what was interesting?  It’s not Jesus that they didn’t like.  It’s not necessarily even YOU that they didn’t like.  Or me.  What they didn’t like was that church never felt like a safe place to struggle. What they didn’t like was that church never felt like a safe place to doubt.  What they didn’t like was that they felt like, in order to enter these doors in any sort of church, they had to have life figured out and they had to have it together.  In order to come (to church), they had to arrive at a place where they knew intuitively, if they were honest, that they would never get to.  They didn’t know that we all just play games!  Or do we?  They didn’t know that THIS is a safe place to struggle, a safe place to wrestle.  The question I want us to engage with this morning is: What happens when life falls apart?  What happens when we have questions that we don’t have answers to?  Do we push in or do we run away?

I have three kids: seven, five and three.  I have a boy, a girl and a boy.  My boys absolutely love to wrestle with me.  They love it!  My son Reid, who’s three years old, will come and jump on me unexpectedly.  Anybody else have that blessing on a daily basis?  I’m sitting there minding my own business and it’s like a cannonball and he lands on my lap!  He grabs my shoulders and says to me, “Daddy, I’m a jaguar!  Rowr!!”  For a few moments I pretend to be scared and then I go, “Well, I’m a lion!”  Then we’re rolling around and we’re wrestling on the floor.  I had a friend a number of years ago tell me, “I measure my parenting effectiveness by how much time I spend on the ground.”  I like that.   Our kids love that!  What is it about wrestling that our kids love?  They love the contact.  They love the clinging.  They love the physical interaction.  They love to feel you.  I think they also love to know that you’re stronger than them, even though they resist that.  They love to know that at a moment you could just flip them over, pin them, done, no conversation, no questions asked.  They love that! They desire that contact, that interaction.

What if God was the same way?  What if God loved the wrestling? What if far more than answering questions, God loved authentic doubt?  What if faith looked far more like wrestling than it did certainty?  What if?  What if church once again became a safe place to say, “I don’t have it all figured out.”  “I don’t know all the answers.” “There’s some things that haunt my soul.”  “I can’t figure out why we’re following God and they passed away.”  “I can’t figure out why I lost the job.”  Why the relationship crumbled. Why the health report didn’t come back the way we wanted.  I can’t figure it out.   What if church became, once again, a safe place to wrestle?

If you have your Bible, turn to Genesis 32:22-32.  We going to look at a passage where Jacob is going to wrestle with God.  Over the past few weeks we’ve been walking through this narrative of the patriarch Jacob. Remember, Jacob is born as a second born in a first-born society.  He’s loved way more by his mother than he is by his father.  He prefers to cook in tents rather than hunt in the fields.  All three of those things were stacked up against him from birth.  From birth, he’s trying to prove himself.  He’s trying to say, “I’m okay and I’m deserving of any love that should come my way.”  Throughout the course of his life, he has some successes.  He goes and lives with his uncle for 20+ years.  His uncle is coercive and manipulative, but Jacob prospers even there.  God’s hand is on him.  Now, he’s being led back home, the place that he left over two decades ago.  On the way there he’s going to have to encounter his brother, who he ran from 20+ years ago.  It’s this picture of….you and I know this journey….to face the things on the deepest level that haunt our souls.  We can’t run from them forever.  Jacob is throwing things ahead.  He’s sending gifts to his brother to try to appease him and to be accepted by him.  It’s on THIS journey, before he meets his brother, that he has an encounter with God.

Here’s how the encounter looked.  The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.  And Jacob was left alone.  And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  And he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”  But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”  And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.  Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

What’s going on?  What a strange passage!!  Can we all admit that that’s a weird passage?!  We don’t have to pretend that the Bible always makes sense at face value!  What a strong passage!  Jacob is camping.  He’s on a solo camping trip, he’s all alone.  He’s got his tent pitched and he’s ready to go and somebody shows up out of nowhere and goes MMA on him.  They wrestle through the night.  At some point, this man/God just touches his hip and he’s out of joint in his hip for the rest of his life.  Couldn’t you have done that earlier?  If all he had to do was touch his hip, was this really ever any sort of wrestling match worth betting on?  What in the world is going on here?!  I think if you read the passage from the perspective of God, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  But if you read the passage from the perspective of Jacob, it starts to make more sense.  Jacob saying: Oh yeah, we were wrestling and it was……we were face-to-face and we were going at him and I almost had him. If you were to ask my kids if they could beat me in wrestling matches, both of my sons, three years old and seven years old…..and I’ll admit I’m not exactly a physical specimen, but I’m pretty sure I can take them…..most of the time they would agree with you.  They’d go hey, I think it’s 50/50.  We’re hearing this interaction (of Jacob) from the perspective of Jacob.  We read it through the lens of our enlightened minds and go, “Come on!  That would never happen.”  God just appears out of nowhere and wrestles with Jacob throughout the night?  Come on!  The Bible is so ancient, it’s so primitive, it’s so out of touch.  And yet….  We’ve all have those seasons in life where we’ve wrestled with God, haven’t we?  We’ve all had those questions that we can’t seem to get resolution for.  We’ve all had these mysteries that sorta sit on our shoulders and weigh us down where we go God, I don’t get why you did that or didn’t do that and God, I don’t understand why that’s happening.  All of us, whether you’re a follower of Jesus this morning or not, have had these questions where we’ve wrestled with God.

My experience has been that those questions revolve around two primary things: 1) God, who are you?  Because I believe you are all-powerful and I believe you are all good and the Scriptures really teach me that.  But if you’re all-powerful and you’re all good, then do you not care?  That’s one of the questions we have.  For well over a year after my mom passed away, I wrestled with this: God, who are you?  The second question is like it. God, who am I?  Who am I to you? Do you love me?  Do I have worth?  I think all of the questions that we wrestle with as human beings—-and those are human questions—-if we were to boil them down and tear away all the layers, what we’d get down to are two primary questions:  God, who are you? and, in light of that, God, who am I?  So here’s what I want to do this morning.  I just want to give you the freedom to say, “I don’t always understand what God is doing.”  I want to give you the freedom to say, “I have questions.  I have doubts.”  I know, I get it.  In modernity and a version of Christianity that’s been entrenched in modernity, we have equated faith with certainty, but I want to assure you the Scriptures never do.  They never do.  People who walk by faith, they wrestle with God.  They struggle with God.  You read through the book of Job, ok?  Job interacts with God.  He wrestles with God.  It’s only when his friends come and they have all the answers that Job gets off track.  His friends start trying to answer the questions that aren’t intended to be answered.  They want to say, “Job, here’s why it happened.  And here’s how it happened.  And here’s a resolution.”  And God goes no, no, no, no, no, just wrestle with me.  This stinks!  Draw near.

David, the man after God’s own heart, will say to us in Psalm 73:3, why in the world do the wicked prosper? He’s like I don’t get it.  I’m trying to do everything right here, God, and the people that are against you, antagonistic towards you, are the ones you seem to be blessing.  What’s the deal?  You have John the Baptist, a friend and relative of Jesus the Messiah, sitting in a jail cell (Matthew 11:4-6) knowing that his days are coming to an end.  In fact, days later his head, literally, will be on a platter at Herod’s party.  He sends his disciples to go ask Jesus, “Hey, are you the one that we were waiting for?  Because this doesn’t look like it’s going to turn out good.”   What’s he doing?  He is wrestling!  He’s wrestling with God.  He’s not settling for easy answers.  You have the apostle Paul, once called Saul, who has this thorn in his flesh and he says:  Three times I pleaded….. (2 Corinthians 12:8).  It’s not this hey, three times I politely asked you, “Jesus, would you please take this away?” In the Greek it carries with it this emotive, deep longing of…..God, COME ON!! ACT! MOVE! DO!  I believe that you can.  Why aren’t you??

If you read through the Scriptures and look at people who follow Jesus, here’s what I think they would testify to you and to me — they would testify that the only faith worth having is an honest faith.  A faith that’s mixed with confidence and questions.  A faith that doesn’t always have it all figured out, but that says I’m unwilling to let go even when there’s questions.  I’m clinging to you.  I’m wrestling with you.  God, I am in this for the long haul.  Here’s the truth of the matter, friends—-Wrestling with God is essential towalking with God.  It’s not some sort of nice addendum to the Christian life.  It is central in who we are as followers of Christ.  That there’s things that are going to come up in our life where we’re not going to have the answers and we’re going to have to enter into seasons of struggling and seasons of wrestling and we are better for it.  I think a lot of the narrative that we’ve embraced as a church culture in the West is:  walking by faith means that you’re always certain, that you’re always confident, that you’re always sure and if you aren’t, then you’ve gotta get it figured out before you really consider yourself a follower of Jesus.  Dallas Willard, sort of tongue in cheek, said the way that we teach theology, typically, is you should believe this whether you believe it or not.   And that’s true, isn’t it?  We know we’re not suppose to doubt, but what happens when we do?  We know we’re “not suppose to question,” but what happens when we have questions?  You show me a strong friendship and I will show you two people who have the ability to wrestle with each other.  To disagree and to still say, “We’re in this together.” You show me a marriage where one person has just shut down and another person makes all the decisions, tells everybody what to think and what to do, and I will show you a straw man of a marriage.  It’s this question, it’s this interaction, it’s this wrestling where we really grow in relationship.

I want to show you the dynamics of how this happens in the life of Jacob.  Genesis 32:22.  Let’s look at this and sort of dissect it a little bit more to see what was going on in Jacob’s life and how did God use it.  This is after he sent all these gifts ahead of himself to try to earn the acceptance back from Esau.  The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.  And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”   Not only has day broken, but the narrator of Genesis is so poetic and it’s so beautiful…..there’s this breaking of day that’s happening, certainly, but there’s also the breaking of Jacob. Jacob’s being torn down.  Jacob’s being shown who he really is.  Over the course of this evening what’s been happening his entire life sort of comes to a focal point, to a fruition, and what we start to see is God is lowering him in order to eventually elevate him.  He’s breaking him in order to rebuild him.  It’s often in those unwelcome seasons of brokenness that we see the preceding unprecedented seasons of fruitfulness.

Jacob’s left alone.  He is vulnerable, he’s open and what I have found over the course of my life, and maybe you would disagree, but what I’ve found is when I’m most broken I’m most open.  Anybody want to agree?  I will to cling to my own abilities until I have nothing left to cling to.  Any amens out there?  This is the human story. This is human nature.  When Jacob is left alone, here’s what he starts to do.  He starts to be open.  He starts to be vulnerable.  He starts to interact with God in a different way.  We see that his isolation leads him to a place of revelation.  Here’s the thing for you this morning.  You may be going through one of those seasons of loneliness.  You may be left alone.  The word I want to speak over you is when you’re alone you have two choices:  loneliness or solitude.  It all has to do with the attitude.  God, are we going to wrestle with you or are we going to focus on the fact that we’re all alone.  Loneliness or solitude?  Jacob chooses solitude.  He engages with God.

The second thing we see is that he’s out of joint.  Not only physically with his hip, but life just feels like it’s just been thrown upside down and spun around and thrown out there.  The attempts he’s making to win the approval of his brother are falling short.  He thinks he’s walking into a war that there’s no way he’s going to win.  He is out of joint.  God is bringing him low.  It’s the picture of a farmer tilling the soil in the springtime before he starts to plant the seeds.  The soil that’s gotten hard after a long winter.  He needs to dig deep down into in order to start to break it apart, so that the seeds will take root.  If God just throws the seeds on top of Jacob, his heart isn’t ready to receive them.  It’s this process that God leads him through where he eventually comes to the place where he’s able to receive.  I love the way that John Bunyan, the great Puritan author, puts it: “Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think.  It’s wounding work; without the wounding there is no saving.”  It’s that tilling process.  We don’t like it, but we need it.  The song that Aaron just sang so beautifully for us by Jason Gray, he says, “The wound is where the light gets in.”

All of us get to that point in life where God is tilling the proverbial soil of our soul and here’s what we all have to deal with:  are we going to be the type of people in those seasons who tap out or cling on?  I call my generation the “tap out” generation.  When it gets hard, we leave.  When it’s tough, we’re gone.  What I love about Jacob is he knows he’s not going to win this battle.  He’s already lost it!  He says, “I won’t let go.”  A few weeks ago, I meet with a friend in my office.  He’s been through the valley of the shadow of death.  He’s lost some things that were dear to him.  Sitting with him in my office, I said to him, “Hey, I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t know why this all happened and I don’t know why God allowed it.”  To say anything else would have been disingenuous.  I could have gone theological as far as the problem and pain and the reason of suffering, but it wasn’t what he needed.  My encouragement to him was you have two choices:  you can either push away or you can cling on.  That’s the place we all get to in the wrestling with God.  Are we going to be the type of people who cling on or are we going to be the type of people who push away?

Sometimes God invites us into seasons of mourning rather than seasons of knowing.   And that’s okay.  We don’t need to trivialize those things.  As Christians we sometimes do, don’t we?  Here’s one refrain that just drives me nuts — Well, everything happens for a reason.  It’s like the Christian trump card.  BOOM!  What are you going to say to that?!  Well, does it?  Does everything happen for a reason??  If that’s true, we’ve got to find reason for some pretty crazy things, don’t we?  Do you know what the Scriptures actually say?  You can’t find any verse that says “Everything happens for a reason.”  What the Scriptures actually say is that God weaves together good out of everything for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)  He’s able to take these things, that maybe without Him would be disjointed, and He weaves them together for your good. You know what that means?  Not everything was good until God got ahold of it. {That’s for free.}

Jacob is alone, he’s wrestling, he’s out of joint, he’s disoriented.  Verse 26:  Then he (the man/God) said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  And he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.”  Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  What’s Jacob’s deepest longing? When we gets ahold of God, what does he want more than anything else?  Blessing.  He wants a good word spoken over him.  He wants to hear the voice of God saying you’re okay, I’ve got you.   I’m good.  I’m in control.  I love you.  He wants to hear that his life matters.  You know what’s interesting?  Jacob’s already been blessed.  If you read back through the Jacob narrative, it starts with him stealing a blessing from his older brother.  Remember, he dresses up as Esau.  He walks into Isaac, his father.  Isaac lays hands on him and Isaac blesses him.  But Jacob knows that blessing was never intended for him.  For the decades that follow, those words, rather than being seeds of hope in his life and goodness, actually start to turn on him, because the words spoken over him he knew wasn’t actually for him.  When He’s wrestling with Jacob, what does God ask him?  What’s your name? You go back to Genesis 27…..Isaac, his father, asked him the exact same thing:  What’s your name?  At THAT point, he did not answer honestly.  He said, “My name is Esau.”  Because I think that’s what I have to do to get blessed.  I have to lie about who I really am.  I have to ignore the deep, painful places of my soul where I didn’t add up.  I’ve got to put on a mask.  I’ve got to put on a show.  In order to be blessed, I’ve got to lie about who I really am.  But when God gets ahold of Jacob, He says, “Jacob, what’s your name?  I need you to say it.  I need you to admit it.  I need you to step out of the shadows.  I need you to come clean, because if you’re going to be blessed, it’s only going to be as you actually are, not as you wish you were.  So, Jacob, what’s your name?”  I imagine Jacob’s mind immediately goes back to putting on all of the clothes that were Esau’s, covering himself in fur that looked like Esau’s freaky hair and lying about his name.  At this moment, Jacob says, “I am Jacob.” My prayer is that some of you will have an “I AM JACOB” moment with God today.  This is who I really am.  And in saying “I am Jacob,” what Jacob’s saying is I’ve been the swindler, I’ve been the cheater, I’ve been the liar; I’ve lived up to everything my name meant and everything my name said.  It’s in this moment—this moment of brokenness, this moment of solitude, this moment of openness to God—God says back to him, “Ok, Jacob. Here’s the thing….drum roll…..your name is no longer Jacob.  You’re wrestling with me, Jacob.  You’re interacting with me.  You’re not pushing me away, you’re drawing me in and you’re saying I won’t let go! Therefore, your name is no longer Jacob, swindler, cheater, liar, thief.  It’s no longer that.  Although you have to come to terms with the fact that that’s reality.  Now your name is Israel, which means you strive with God.” Isn’t it interesting that Jacob’s name goes from cheating people—which is horizontal—-to wrestling with God.

Here’s what we start to see—that you and I, we have to admit that so much of the time God doesn’t answer the questions we have.  We don’t have the “everything happens for a reason and here’s the reason” type of life with God, do we?  If you do, I’d love to meet and talk with you.  I’ve got some questions for you.  I don’t.  We have the type of interaction with God where we go to him with questions and longing…..hey, will you bless me?  Will you make this situation turn out well?  Will you redeem the pain?  I’m going into battle with Esau and all I want, God, is for you to tell me that I’m going to win this battle.  That’s not what he hears.  What God does, so much of the time, is he doesn’t answer the question that we ask, he answers the question underneath the question underneath the question.  He answers the thing that’s deepest within us—the longing that we have most that just occupies it.  If we were to resolve that question the other ones wouldn’t matter quite as much.  Here’s what God does.  He says:  genuine prosperity (or blessing) is only grounded in renewed identity. It’s Him saying this is who you really are.  It’s the only way we can live with and wrestle with the questions of life.  Why does this happen?  Why did that happen?  Why did that person get sick?  Why did that person die?  I don’t know all the answers to those questions, but I’m going to wrestle with God and I’m going to cling to God and I’m confident that what’s more important to God is not that I gain something, but that I become someone.  That He starts to change me from the inside out.  Did you know that you’re invited to have an Israel type of faith?  The type of faith where we wrestle with God, where we strive with God.  Why is that a great and beautiful thing?  Because it means you’re clinging to him.  It means you’re saying, “I will not let you go until I hear from you—who am I?”  And, friends, that’s the gospel.  The gospel answers the question: who are you?  So if you walked in here JACOB, my hope is that you walk out ISRAEL.  You walked in maybe cheating and manipulating people.  I want you to walk out wrestling with God.  This is the gospel, because here’s what he says over you—-I have adopted you! (That’s identity, yes?)  I have called you my own.  I chose you before the foundation of the world that you would be holy and blameless in Christ.  That you would be adopted as sons and daughters of the King.  He will not always answer every question, but He always gives his blessing.  His blessing is found in the reality that YOU..Hello!!..you’re name is child of the one true King!!  You’ve been saved!  You have been redeemed!  That’s your name!!

As Jacob starts to walk away, he walks away with this limp.  It’s the “gospel limp,” friends.  It’s the “I have wrestled with God”….I’ve come with my questions, I’ve come with my doubts, I’ve come with my fears and I still have a lot of those, but I know who I am!  I am loved by Him and I am chosen by Him and I am called in Him and He is the rock that I am building my life on!  Struggling with God always leads to a transformation from God. He goes, “God, I’ve seen you face-to-face.  We’ve been intimate together.”  But that only happens through the authenticity.  It only happens through the wrestling and the struggling.  We often look for answers, but God just wants our honesty.  I don’t get it, God, but I know you’re good and I trust you.  Isn’t it fascinating that when Jacob wrestles with God and he comes out the other side….if you were to look at him you’d go, “Oh, man! He got the worst end of that deal! The rest of his life he’s just dragging a foot!”  But I think if you were to talk to Israel, what he would say to you is….I know it looks like an injury, but I want to tell you it’s a reminder.  It’s a reminder that I’m no longer Jacob but I’m Israel.  It’s a reminder that I can have a relationship with God that’s honest and I can wrestle with him.  It’s a reminder that I’m no longer who I was, but I am who He says I am!   I don’t know about you…I want that limp!  I want the reminder God, this is who you say I am.

If you’re thinking, “Paulson, I’m still a little bit held up on the ‘is it all right to question God?’  Is it all right to doubt?  Well, I would submit to you it is.  Jesus did.  That’s the trump card!  He’s in the garden going to the cross and he cries out, “Father, if there’s another way, let’s do it that way!  Father, I don’t get it!”  Luke 22:44 says he’s sweating drops of blood!  He’s so agonized by what he knows awaits him.  He’s wrestling with God. Then he clings to his Father and then surrenders to him — Not my will, but yours be done.  It’s interesting that in the same way that Jacob was left alone, your King, your Messiah, was left alone.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Therefore, because he was left alone, the Scriptures say that you never have to be abandoned.  The Scriptures are really clear in Romans 8:38 that nothing can separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Just like Jacob, Jesus was out of joint on the cross.  His bones had dislocated, his muscles moving around.  He was out of joint Psalm 22:14 says, but because he was out of joint, you can be made whole.  The Scriptures are clear in saying that by faith you are made complete in him.  Because he gave up his name…..the Scriptures say that he emptied himself of all that it meant to be God (Philippians 2:7) and that he took on the very nature of a servant and submitted to God, even to death on a cross.  He gave up his name and because he gave up his name and his glory, YOU can be filled with all of the fullness of God.

It doesn’t mean that we always get all the answers.  But it means that we have the most important answer.  The answer to the most important question:  God, do you love me?  And in the midst of all the chaos in the world, of all the pain and all the questions, His cross and His resurrection declare over you—You are loved.  You are chosen.  You’re forgiven.  That’s your new name.  You are redeemed.  So, friends, because of the work of Jesus, we can wrestle honestly with God AND walk confidently in his world!  And I would pray that you do.  My prayer is that this would be a safe place to say, “I don’t get it.”   A safe place to say, “I’ve got questions.”  A safe place to say, “God, I don’t understand why you didn’t heal this way and this time and God, I don’t understand why that didn’t work out the way that I hoped it would.”  Where the cross would hold us in such a way that it would allow us to cling to God, even when life doesn’t make sense.  Let’s pray.

Before we go running out of here, I just want to invite you to take a deep breath.  What’s going on in your life that maybe you’ve ignored and pushed down?  I don’t know about you, but I’m really good at that.  What are the things that if you were just honest with God and didn’t say what you thought He wanted to hear but what was really in you, what would you say?  This just in—he knows anyway!  Jesus, we come to you today. And in all of the brokenness of this world—we don’t have all the answers to it, we don’t have it all figured out, but Lord, in the midst of all of that and whatever life brings our way, whatever storms we find ourselves in, our desire is to be the type of people that say I’m holding on; I’m clinging to you, Lord.  We believe that you’re clinging even harder to us.  Lord, would you help us to be honest with you, to engage you not as we wish life were, but on the terms that life really is.  Father, as we’re honest with you and honest with ourselves, may we hear you speak a better name over us.  Lord, would be hear the truth that we are children of the One True King—adopted, saved, redeemed, made holy—because of the work of Jesus.  May that draw us in in every season.  May we cling to you, rather than running away.  God, as we’re honest, would you do a work that only you can do.  It’s in your name that we pray.  And all God’s people said….Amen.