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During this series on underdogs, we have learned from some of the true underdogs of Scripture how to rise above the excuses we often use in life to keep us down. David could have listened to those around him and said, I’m not qualified to be a leader or the King, and remained an obscure shepherd. Esther could have said, the odds are against me, and remained quiet while her people suffered. Peter could have said, I’m tired and I’m tired of failing, and not stepped out to try again. And last week we saw that Gideon could have easily said, I do not have enough to step out in faith to do what God is asking me to do.
Sometimes it is excuses like these that keep us living the underdog life, and sometimes it is the labels that we are given. Labels are powerful because they shape our thinking, define our potential, and set the course for our lives. If we tell a child they are smart and can achieve great things in life, we open up a world of possibility for them. I was always encouraged as a child to do new things and my parents gave me every opportunity they could to achieve my goals and reach my dreams.
In 4th grade when I wanted to play the violin, they got me into the music classes at school. In junior high when I decided I wanted to be in the band, they asked the band director what instrument I could play and he said, we always need tuba players, so they got me into the band and made sure I got some tuba lessons. When I wanted to play the guitar, they enrolled me in an adult education class that taught guitar, and when I wanted to play the piano, they bought an old piano and started me in lessons with our church choir director. My parents always opened the door for me to explore music which didn’t shape me as a musician as much as a person. I began to believe that I could do and be anything in life if I worked at it.
Affirming labels can lead people in good ways and build people up, but if we label a child as a problem, if we say, you aren’t smart enough and don’t have what it takes, then we are shaping their world as well, only this time we are limiting them. While positive labels expand our horizons, negative labels limit people, but they do not have to limit us forever. We can overcome the labels that limit us, and today we are going to learn from an underdog who got labeled as a problem very early in life, in fact, he was labeled the day he was born.
Jacob was a twin, but he was the second one born. His brother came out first and he was covered with hair so they gave him the name Esau, which means “hairy one”. When Jacob came out of the womb he was literally holding on to his brother’s ankle so they named him Jacob, which means “he grasps the heel”. That phrase was also used to describe people who deceived others so Jacob was labelled as a deceiver. Growing up he probably heard the stories about how he always wanted to be first and how he was always grabbing to take hold of what his brother had. That was his label, his name, and his identity, and Jacob lived up to it.
As a young man, Jacob wasn’t content being the second born son, he wanted to be the first, so he manipulated his brother and got the birthright from him. He literally grabbed it from him. A few years later, when Jacob and Esau’s father, Isaac, was old and blind, Jacob deceived him and grabbed the blessing that should have been given to Esau. Jacob pretended to be his brother, he put goat skin on his arms so that he would feel hairy like his brother, and he asked his father to give him the blessing. Isaac didn’t think it was Esau because it didn’t sound like Esau, but when he felt the hair on his arms, he assumed it was. Just to be sure he asked, “Who is this?” Jacob, the deceiver said, “I am Esau, your first born.”
Jacob deceived his father and got the blessing that should have gone to Esau. This may not seem like much to us, but this blessing was the promise that had been given by God to Abraham, and then to Isaac. It was the promise that God was going to give this child, and this child alone, all the good things in life. Genesis 27:28-29.
There was only one blessing to give, only one promise to make, and once it was given it could not be taken back. Jacob had deceived his father and grabbed the promise away from his brother.
Jacob manipulated his brother and deceived his father all in an effort to get a blessing from God. Because of this, he has often been considered one of the least likely people to get right with God let alone be used by God. And if the story ended here, we might agree. Jacob was a deceiver, there is not much good in him, and after he steals his father’s blessing, Esau is ready to kill him. So Jacob runs for his life and he runs for 20 years.
Jacob’s story is pretty extreme. He was given the name deceiver and he lived up to it. We also are given labels in life and there is one label we all have and we live up to it every day. It is also a label that makes us the least likely to get right with God – sinner.
We might not have manipulated our siblings, or cheated our parents, but we have all deceived others, cheated, or stolen to get what we wanted. If we aren’t guilty of these things then we are guilty of lust, greed, hate, indulgence, indifference, anger, pride, or selfishness. We have allowed evil and harmful thoughts to invade our minds, allowed selfish motives to direct hearts, and daily we fall short of God’s glory. We are all sinners and just like Jacob we daily live up to that name. That label shapes our lives and it limits our destiny and it’s time we own up to the truth of that label. We are sinners by choice, but this label doesn’t have to limit us forever.
What we learn from underdog Jacob is that God can redeem us and restore us if we will acknowledge the truth of our label. For 20 years Jacob ran from the truth that he was a deceiver but then he decided to head home and set things right with his brother, but he was still trying to manipulate him and do this his way.
Here’s the story, Jacob is afraid that his brother wants to kill him so he sends gifts to Esau to try and ease his anger before he arrives. Jacob sends 550 animals to Esau in 9 different stages to try and manipulate Esau. He wants to bribe him so that he can return home. Jacob hasn’t really changed his ways. He is still trying to do things his own way. He is choosing to deceive and manipulate others instead of being truthful, humble and honest.
The night before he is to meet his brother, Jacob sends all of his family away to safety and spends the night alone in the wilderness. Genesis 32:24-30.
Since this story has first been told there has been a lot of speculation about who this man was who wrestled with Jacob. Most likely it was some kind of an angel of the Lord, but what he was doing was getting Jacob’s attention. What God wanted was for Jacob to face the truth about himself so that he could mend the relationship with his brother and be used by God in the future. While it may appear from the story that Jacob won this match, let’s be clear, he did not. You can’t win a match when the other person has the ability to simply touch you and break you. In one touch, Jacob was done and the match was over. Jacob did not prevail, God prevailed, and what happened to Jacob during this encounter was that he finally got honest about who he was.
Did you hear what the angel asked him? He asked, What is your name? Before, when Jacob was asked this by his earthly father he said, I am Esau. He lied and deceived his father. But here, when he was asked by his heavenly father, he finally got honest and said, “I am Jacob, I am the deceiver.” Jacob finally got honest about who he was and instead of crushing him, instead of destroying him, God blesses him. Jacob got honest, and God forgave him.
When we are willing to get honest with God about who we are, we are not crushed or destroyed, God forgives. When we are willing to own our label and confess that we are sinners by choice, it is then that we are also able to understand that we are saved by grace. Once we own up to our sin, once we acknowledge the label that we carry with us throughout life, we are able to rise above it and find forgiveness and new life. Jacob got a new name that day. He got a new identity, a new label to live into. He got the name Israel.
While the name Israel has several different meanings, one of them is God rules. Think about it, Jacob went from a life where he tried to rule everything through deception and manipulation to a life where God was now ruling his life. That new name allowed Jacob to shed his old label and live in the fullness of God’s grace and mercy. We do not have to be defined by our old label of sinner, we are not limited by that label but can be defined now by God’s grace and embrace a new name, a better label like: forgiven. loved. redeemed. child of God.
Underdog Jacob would tell us all to shed our old labels by owning up the truth that we find there and then embrace God’s grace and the fullness of God’s love. Jacob would also tell us to stop trying to rule our own lives, and do things our own way, and allow God to rule in us. Jacob would tell us to let God lead us into the blessing he has for our lives. As long as we hang on to the old labels that have limited us, and as long as we try to move beyond being a sinner in our own strength and power, we will fail. We will wrestle with God and we will fail. But if we will allow God to touch our hearts and lives with his grace, if we will allow God to humble us, God can then forgive us, and fill us with his spirit. Then, and only then, will we prevail.
I want to close by giving us all an opportunity to get honest with God about our sin. How have we been deceiving others? How have we been deceiving God? How have we been deceiving ourselves? Let us confess all the ways we try to rule and run our own lives and let us ask God to wrestle us down to a place where we can experience the power of God’s grace and the touch of God’s love.
Underdog – Our Labels Limit Us
1. Read the story of Jacob in Genesis 25:19-34, 27-33.
● How did Jacob live up to his name (label)?
● How did Jacob overcome his name (label)?
● What was Jacob’s new name (label)?
2. What name or label have you been given in life?
● Was it affirming or limiting?
● In what ways did this label shape you?
● In what ways have you had to overcome it?
3. What labels have you given to your children / grandchildren (either intentionally or unintentionally)?
● How can you give them new labels that will not be limiting but empowering?
4. We all have the label – sinner. We are sinners by choice.
● Where do you need to acknowledge the sin in your own life?
● Take time this week to honestly confess your sin to God and own up to this label.
5. We all have been given a new label through Jesus Christ – forgiven. We are saved by grace.
● Where do you need to accept God’s forgiveness in your life?
● Take time this week to honestly ask God to touch your life with his grace and accept these new labels: Forgiven ~ Loved ~ Redeemed ~ Restored ~ My Child