Greater Than

PICKLED CUCUMBERS

I’m ashamed to admit it was late in life I realized a pickle was a cucumber.

It’s not like I thought there were pickle farms with pickle trees. It’s just that I was like, huh-never thought of that.

In my defense, we pickle a lot of vegetables. But you know what we call a pickled asparagus? A pickled asparagus!

I’m not alone in this, I promise. Go order a Big Mac at McDonalds with extra cucumbers and see what they say.

Even if it’s not pickled cucumbers, there’s something for you that you’d be like–oh, never thought of that.

NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT

Like did you know that Baa Baa Black Sheep and Twinkle Twinkle and the ABC song all have the same tune? Baa baa black sheep little star… H I J K L M N O P. See? Huh-never thought of that.

Speaking of the alphabet, the word alphabet is the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. Alpha beta.

Or the word percent is per cent. Like cent in century is 100 years or centimeter is 100 meters, so per cent is a portion of 100.

Never thought of that.

Words are funny. Like when someone says “it was in the last place I would’ve looked” it means, literally the last place they looked. As in, they found it so the could stop looking.

Or when you say “See you later” and someone says “Not if I see you first” it’s actually an insult. They’re saying if they see you first, they’ll hide.

Huh–never thought of that.

I should stop, but someone in here needs to know the number on the toaster dial isn’t how hot it is, it’s how long you’re toasting it. The Fed Ex logo has an arrow, the Wendy’s logo spells “mom”, the Goodwill logo is a G, the arrow in the Amazon logo sells everything from A to Z.

SPIRITUAL EXPLORATION

Life is full of things that are huh–never thought of that. And perhaps no area of life better captures this idea than our spirituality.

There have been a lot of studies that people tend to be on a spiritual quest for a relatively short period of time. It takes too much stamina to be constantly searching. We eventually come to a conclusion of what we believe based on what we found.

So if you’re here today and you’re truly searching for this thing called truth–if you’re looking for the huh-never thought of that–you are in a great place, because today we will honor that pursuit.

But if you’re here because you want a pastor to just tell you the answer, or if you’re here but the idea of looking for an answer sound exhausting–I’m inviting you to find it within yourself the heart to pursue again.

Because today we’ll encounter this phrase:

God is with you

It’s a phrase that sounds like a platitude, a nice phrase. That maybe is personally reassuring but how is that supposed to be practical? I mean, what about God being with you is supposed to change the way you go about your life?

And I’ll never forget when this phrase came alive for me. Like a pickled cucumber. It was a huh-never thought of that moment that I’d love for you to consider. It’s deeply personal, and deeply practical to me, and I’d love for you to see if the same is true for you.

Sound good?

ABOUT THE SERIES

So, to bring you up to speed, or to refresh your memory, we are in the middle of a series called Greater Than, journeying alongside the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A bit of backstory, today’s account follows the life of a man named Jacob.

Jacob

And I’m going to ask the folks in our small group to help us out here. (We gather in Large Groups like this the last Sunday of the month, but the Sundays in between we do church in Small Groups in homes and coffee shops around the city. And our Small Groups started to unpack the story of Jacob a bit.)

Now Jacob has a twin brother who was born first, and then when Jacob is born he’s doing what? [Fighting.] Right, he’s a fighter.

Fighter

And then later in life what does he sell his twin brother in exchange for his inheritance? [A bowl of soup.]

Con

It’s a strange story, but in our Small Group we were startled to see how much we can learn about our own impulses in the account.

And then last week in our Small Groups we looked at how Jacob and his mother contrived a plan to do what? [Steal a blessing.]

Thief

From who? [His dying father.]

Traitor

To the point that he dresses in what? [Goat skins.]

Liar

Jacob is the kind of guy who commits fraud and lies to his dying father.

After he does this, like any good soap opera, his enraged brother vows to kill Jacob as soon as their father is dead.

So Jacob decides to take responsibility for his actions and calmly asks his brother to articulate his feelings so he can make amends.

I’m just kidding. He turns tail and runs. He’s a coward.

Coward

Fighter. Con. Thief. Traitor. Liar. Coward. These are the words most-likely used to describe Jacob. These are also the words you would least-likely use to describe someone God would want. Amen?

Turn to your neighbor and say God loves me at my worst.
Turn back to your other neighbor and tell ‘em That’s why it’s called grace.

A DREAM IN THE DESERT

Another message for another time. We gotta’ move on. So the fighter, con, thief, traitor, liar, coward Jacob under the guise of finding a wife and raising a family, flees for his life. And we get to today’s account from Genesis 28,

10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran.

Those names don’t mean much to us, but it’s about the distance from St. Louis to Dallas. It’s far, and there’s nothing but desert between the two.

11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

It seems like he leaves town so fast he doesn’t even have something to make into a pillow.

I can’t say this for sure, but I think he’s we get away from our normal routine, and get a change of scenery, we tend to get some perspective on our choices and decisions. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever flown on a plane by yourself or if you’ve ever gone camping in a remote place.

And for Jacob, I have to think he’s not only reflecting on his life decisions, but he’s also trying to deal with his regret.  I mean his has intentionally and repeatedly betrayed the people he loved the most. He’s perfected the art of silencing his conscience.

As he’s riding into the desert, as the sun starts setting, he has to be thinking about what’s behind him. The family. The lies, the deceit, the fighting, the struggle for power, for worth. But now he’s stripped of all of that. The barrenness and the darkness of the desert night around him is a picture of what he feels inside. Barren. Dark.

And most importantly, alone. Then watch what happens,

12 He had a dream in which he saw a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord,

There’s so much to get to, so I’ll just call out a couple things to keep in mind as we move on. Just remember that something from heaven penetrates the divide and touches the earth. For Jacob who’s life has been a fight to climb over his peers, this is most importantly a ladder that God first uses to come down to him.

And watch what God says,

and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.

Throughout, this entire series we’ve seen God introduce himself to humanity as he introduced himself to Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, who grew up knowing the names of many Gods, he meets the one God with many names. Each interaction revealing something more about him. We discover with Abraham a God who is named God Most High, the God Who Provides, the God who is sovereign, the God who Sees, the God who Hears… and each week we’ve applied that concept to our lives. If His name is such-and-such, then I respond in this way.

And this is the moment where God introduces himself to to someone as despicable as Jacob. The God of your noble grandfather Abraham and your faithful father Isaac? I’m you’re God, too, Jacob.

Then God hits him with the same promise he gave to his father and his father before him:

I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 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.

Notice how Jacob deserves none of this. Yet we somehow keep forgetting that we can’t earn what God gives us.

Turn to your neighbor and say, He gives me what I don’t deserve.
Turn to your other neighbor and say That’s why it’s called grace.

Then we get to the phrase for today.

“I am with you”

Of all the things that God could have said in this moment, why is this the thing he chose? Why would this matter?

Well it starts by remembering Jacob’s story.

A FOSTER CHILD

The last week or so our home got a little bit tighter because my wife and I did what’s called respite foster care. We had a three-year old friend stay with us for a little while. We’ll call her Angela. My wife did most of the care because she’s a rock star, but it was great to help out a family in need and our kids love having a new friend to play with in the house!

I wasn’t home when she was dropped off at our house. So when I got home from a meeting I opened the door and tried to step into the house with a welcoming smile. My five year old and eight year old ran up to me and gave me a hug. I’m hugging them and look up to smile hello at Angela, and there was no question what her body language was telling me–

This little girl who moments earlier was playing Legos on the floor was now wrapped up in a ball on the couch, clinching a cotton blanket, and looking at me with a sideways glance. It was obvious she had a preconceived idea of what a man in the house meant for her.

Our 8-month old is learning to crawl, so I got on the floor and kissed her. Then I sat crisscross and looked back up at Angela. I made another “bid” towards her and said with the softest tone I could find, “Hi sweetie, I’m Mr. Chris and I’m so glad you’re here.”

She looked at me and all she could say was, “no.”

“Okay, honey. Just know, you are safe and I am kind.”

I got up, with a pain in my chest for this little girl, knowing this would take a while.

As the days progressed, she warmed up to me. I smiled a lot. Read books from a distance. Talked like Donald Duck to her. I’d ask her simple questions. Each time I’d get a, “No” and I’d remind her, “You are safe. I am kind.”

Finally, when we went to Longhorn Steak House for Father’s Day. I got of the car, opened her door and asked her, “We need to cross the parking lot, will you hold my hand?” And I gave her one finger to hold. She looked at me and I told her again, “You are safe. I am kind.” She reached up with a fragile hand and wrapped her sweet little fingers around mine. And we walked across the parking lot together.

It may have seemed small, but she became a little less afraid.

JACOB’S HEART

These events events from my house this week gave me new eyes to read today’s story of Jacob.

We don’t know Jacob’s childhood. What trauma or wiring made him the way he is. But you know who fights, cons, steals, betrays, lies and hides?

Someone who’s afraid.

Afraid of what they are. Afraid of what they are not. Afraid of what may happen to them. Afraid they aren’t enough. Afraid. Mama was right. The the meanest kid on the playground is the most afraid.

In our foster care training, as every psychologist will tell you, the antidote to fear? The way you “fix” it is to recognize it as a symptom, not the source.

From the fear that expresses itself in anger to the fear that expresses itself in avoidance, fight or flight, the root cause is almost always the same: a deep and intense feeling of isolation.

You wanna’ fix the fear or the behavior? Address the isolation. And you do that the only way you can–Connection. Attachment. Relationship. Community.

You demonstrate over and over and tell them over and over that they are not alone. You tell them exactly what God tells Jacob:

I… Am… With… You.

Listen to how the verse continues,

15 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.”

Sounds a whole lot like “You are safe. I am kind” doesn’t it?

And slowly, after repeated and consistent evidence that a person is truly with you, as a person who was isolated begins to live longer and longer in this thing called relationship and community, the fear that enslaved them begins to diminish and this sweet, beautiful thing emerges called trust.

Connection is greater than isolation.

And look at what Jacob says in response:

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

I love that. Jacob’s worldview begins to grow. He begins to realize he’s not alone. God is not limited to holy places or holy people. Me. God is with me.

THE PURPOSE

And we begin to see it here but we will see it more and more going forward, but the motive, the value, the benefit, the purpose of God telling Jacob, and telling humanity, why he wants to be the God with us–trust.

God is with you so that you will trust Him.

A ladder out of from heaven to touch the earth is no different than an outstretched hand to cross the parking lot. God isn’t just with you to get a better view of your misery.

God is with you so that you will trust him.

THINGS GET PERSONAL

We’ll continue with the Jacob’s story next week and see how this plays out. But this is where things start to get personal. Because no matter where you are on this thing called faith, it becomes the great equalizer for all of us. Because all of us can grow in this thing called trust.

Follow me here. One of the reasons we lift up baptisms around here so often is because Jesus promises that in the waters of baptism you are adopted into the family of God. Which means once you WERE an orphan. You WERE a foster child. But in baptism now you ARE a child of God. Not his grandchild. His child.

Which means, when you were an orphan, there was or is a time where you were familiar with isolation. God was distant. Vague. Detached. And you were isolated. Alone. Afraid. And like anyone afraid, you responded with fight or flight. Towards God, and towards the people around you.

Either you fight those around you, make a name for yourself, take, conquer, gain at everyone else’s expense… or you take flight and escape, to chemicals and habits and behaviors that wrap one more blanket around you… or a combination of both.

I know I’m pushing in a bit here, but if I may invite you to consider one more thing–

Jacob’s ladder is not only God making a bid to not only connect with a fearful and isolated Jacob, I am with you, but it’s a picture for you that you may recognize another moment when heaven reached out to you…

IMMANUEL

When God promised to send his Son, he gave him the name “God with us”. In fact, Jesus even told his followers, they would see the angels of God ascending and descending upon him. We’d recognize something about him in the story of Jacob’s ladder.

Jesus is God in the flesh, and His life was a picture of connection. He touched the untouchable. He spoke to the outcast. He looked in the eyes of the lowly, the foreigner, the child, the slave, the despised… And every time, these isolated and fearful people connected with him. Attachment. Relationship. Community. Their fear began to dissipate and their trust began to grow.

And as Jesus breathes his last on the cross we cannot help but see heaven’s great ladder as the ultimate price to end our ultimate isolation:

God is with you that you may trust Him.

You can trust someone willing to die for you.

God is with you that you may trust Him.

THINGS GET PRACTICAL

That’s how this thing is personal. And here’s where this gets practical.

I could go through a list of decisions before you and ask you to trust God with that decision and you would feel a certain amount of suspicion, or doubt if I pushed hard enough.

But I am inviting you today to consider a new question:

What choice would trust make?

What would trusting God in this moment look like?

As you think about the decisions, the lifestyle, the relationships, the behavior before you–

What choice would trust make?

You already know what choice anger would make.
You already know what choice revenge would make.
You already know what choice suspicion would make.
You already know what choice hatred and competition and fear would make.

But if you consider trusting a God who dies for you. If you consider a God who leaves heaven to connect with you. If you trusted him with that situation-what choice would trust make?

Imagine, just for a second, you made the choice trust would make. You’re on the other side. I bet, you find the world didn’t burn down, nothing was damaged. You crossed the parking lot safely. And suddenly there’s this thing called hope injected into that situation. And you are a little bit more inspired to trust him with the next decision. Trust grows because you see you are safe and he is kind. And you’d realize it because the message of the cross couldn’t be clearer:

God is with you that you may trust him.