“Prayers for Desperate Times—Jacob’s Prayer”
Genesis 32:3-33:4 December 28, 2008
SI: When do you pray the most?
When things are going well, or when times are desperate?
And when do you pray with deepest feeling and greatest sense of urgency?
Of course, it’s when you are in some kind of crisis.
It’s when something huge is overwhelming you and it’s so big
that you know unless God steps in, there will be a disaster.
Those are the times you plead with God.
Those are the times you lay there late at night praying, unable to sleep.
Or you even get up and sit on the couch and cry out: Lord, help me.
As Christians we sometimes have these guilty thoughts—
Why don’t I pray like this all the time?
Am I just trying to use and manipulate God?
And those are legitimate questions to ask ourselves.
But at the same time, the Bible tells us story after story of believers
who prayed to the Lord in desperate times.
We could even say they prayed desperate prayers—and the Lord answered them.
He didn’t criticize.
He didn’t say: So now you’re praying to me!
He answered, and his grace flowed out in surprising ways.
This morning we are starting a nine week study of prayers for desperate times.
We’re going to look at nine different believers in the Bible who were facing
an overwhelming crisis, and they called out to God, and he answered.
These stories are faith lessons for when you find yourself in desperate times
praying desperate prayers.
Maybe that’s where you are right now.
You’re in some relational or emotional or financial or spiritual or moral crisis—
or maybe a combination of all the above—and you’re praying desperate prayers.
Good. These Bible stories are just what you need.
Let us pray as we begin this new study:
O Lord, may this study of the prayers of your people strengthen our faith,
and make our own prayers more powerful and effective. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jacob, you remember, had parted with his brother Esau on very bad terms.
Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright. Esau’s birthright was his father’s blessing.
Jacob had stolen that blessing by deceiving his old, blind father, Isaac.
Esau was so angry he promised to kill Jacob as soon as their elderly father died.
So Jacob ran away with the shirt on his back. Went to live with relatives far away.
He worked for his uncle Laban for 20 years.
During those years Jacob got four wives, had twelve sons,
he amassed great wealth of flocks and herds.
Then things went very sour between him and Uncle Laban and that side of family.
So Jacob had to return home.
In the back of his mind was what he had done to Esau,
and Esau’s threat to kill him. But that was 20 years ago.
Surely Esau had forgotten what Jacob had done.
Jacob didn’t know he was about to face the most desperate time of his life.
INTRO: One night, around the year 1900, a teenage boy was riding his horse
alone in the fields outside Stafford, Kansas. His name was John Taylor.
John’s father had died a few years earlier and his mother had raised
all five children through difficult times.
She was a strong Christian and was always pointing her children to Christ.
John admired his mother for that, but ever since his father’s death
he had struggled spiritually. His heart was far from God.
John’s church youth group met on Friday nights and they would take turns
praying the opening prayer. And that coming Friday it was John’s turn.
There was a girl in the youth group he liked
and he wanted very much to impress her so he wrote a very eloquent prayer
and he was trying to memorize it, so that when he prayed,
he would come across as a very, thoughtful, serious Christian.
But he was afraid that he would rush and mess up when he was saying it
and everyone would know he was a fake.
And as he rode in the dark, this problem seemed to get bigger and bigger.
It provoked a crisis in his conscience.
He realized he had been resisting the Lord.
And finally John broke down and prayed: This is how he put it.
“Being at my wit’s end, I had to call for help. At that point I gave up, called on Jesus Christ,
and agreed to do His bidding. My heart found rest. I resolved to do what I could to heal the
sores of others. I saw I would have to love the unlovely and serve them as Christ would have
me serve and love them. This has been my goal ever since that night.”
John became a doctor, and in 1914 he went to India where he served
as a medical missionary with Reformed Presbyterian mission for 50 years.
He started a number of Christian works that continue to this day.
John had no idea that the crisis of that night would turn out as it did
and change his life forever.
Jacob didn’t either. He just thinking about one thing that night—
What is going to happen tomorrow when Esau shows up with 400 men?
Jacob had prayed already. He had prayed, O God of Abraham and Isaac—
save me from my brother Esau. Don’t let him attack me.
But he was still worried and unable to sleep and so preoccupied he just
wanted to be alone. So after taking his family over the Jabbok River,
he went back to the far side to be by himself.
And it was there in the darkness that a man grabbed him,
and Jacob struggled with that man most of the night until he crippled Jacob
with a touch and then Jacob realized, this is the Lord.
And when Jacob realized that, his life was changed forever.
Because Jacob began to understand, just like John Taylor did,
what it means to trust God and what a great thing to know God and be known.
This is a strange story. It raises questions that are hard to answer.
Like, how could Jacob wrestle God to a standstill?
But let me give you a way to at least get your hands around it.
When believers have an encounter with the Lord during desperate times,
it’s often intensely personal. God makes impressions on the soul.
And in the telling of the story, there are questions that are hard to answer.
If you could ask John Taylor how exactly his teenage desire to impress this girl,
and his willingness to impress her by faking a prayer, and then the moral crisis
that provoked—how exactly did that lead him to think he was called to be a
medical missionary in India?
He would probably say, I can’t explain it exactly,
I just know the Lord met me in the fields that night.
And after struggling with him in prayer, I was changed
knew he was calling me to serve.
And it may happen that way to you.
As you go through desperate times, and as you wrestle with the Lord in prayer,
you may very well be changed—and you may start to see things very differently.
The big faith lesson for this entire sermon series is this:
As you pray to the Lord in desperate times, be ready for him to do more than deal
with the situation you are praying about—be ready for him to change you.
Be open for him to change you.
Three places where the Lord works those changes—
He changes the way you see your problem, yourself,
and your relationship with him.
Let’s look at each.
MP#1 The Lord uses your prayers in desperate times
to change the way you see your problem.
Jacob was a problem solver.
When you read his life, you see that he got into one problem after another,
usually involving people. And he often got the better of them.
Just before this encounter with Esau, we are told about Jacob’s conflict
with his Uncle Laban, who was also his father-in-law.
Jacob worked for Laban for 20 years, and Laben tried to cheat him many times.
But Jacob was smarter, and he figured out how to work every situation
to his advantage. At the end, he was wealthier than Laban.
And in the final conflict, Jacob backed Laban down, shamed him,
and came out smelling like a rose.
So when Jacob came back to the Promised Land,
he knew he had to deal with what he had done to his brother 20 years earlier.
He sent messengers ahead to tell Esau.
I’m coming back and I’m a rich man.
That seems like he was bragging but he wasn’t.
He was sending Esau a message—I have everything I need.
I don’t have any plans to move in and take over. Don’t pay attention to me.
Then the messengers came back and they said:
We gave Esau the message and he didn’t say anything, coming with 400 men.
And Jacob immediately went into damage control mode.
Divided his people and animals into two groups, maybe one could escape.
And then he prayed: This is the first time a prayer of Jacob actually recorded.
Appealed to God of his fathers, asked to be saved from Esau.
And then he got busy again and started planning.
Decided to send this succession of herds ahead to his brother as gifts.
He hoped this would soften his brother, so wouldn’t kill him.
But then after all this planning, Jacob was still worried, because for the first time
he found himself in a situation that he was unable to manipulate.
So after dark he crossed over the river to be by himself
and think through this thing one more time.
At that moment Jacob saw his whole life in terms of his problem.
Esau is coming and he might kill me.
That was the issue of his life.
That was the matter of supreme importance.
He could see nothing but Esau. He feared nothing but Esau.
Now, let me ask you a question.
Have you every been in that place, where one big problem just dominated you?
You ate it and drank it and breathed it.
You went to bed with it and woke up with it.
Have you ever been there? It’s a miserable place to be.
And God doesn’t want you to be there.
So what happened? God came, and Jacob forgot all about Esau.
When Jacob realized that this man he had struggled with all night was the Lord,
Jacob clung to him and said: I won’t let you go until you bless me.
Do you see how different this prayer was from the first one he prayed?
He didn’t say—Save me from Esau.
Because that problem no longer dominated him.
Jacob realized that the only thing that really mattered was the gracious
blessing of the living God.
Without that blessing, the greatest success in the world was worthless.
And with that blessing, the greatest problem was an occasion
for God’s strength to be made perfect in weakness.
If a huge problem is dominating you right now.
And if you feel like Jacob—desperately planning and trying to fix this
but going under—listen. This is what you need to know.
“If God is for us, who can be against us.”
Believe that. Pray it. Push it down deep into your heart until it comes alive.
And you will start to see that the biggest thing in your life is not this problem—
it’s the Lord, and the smile of his face, which he has promised over and over.
We also see in this story that . . .
MP#2 The Lord uses your prayers in desperate times
to change the way you see yourself.
Why does the Lord ask Jacob his name?
To answer that question,
you have to go all the way back to the day Jacob was born.
Jacob and Esau were twins. Esau was born first.
And when Jacob came out second, he was grasping his brother’s heel.
It was an unusual birth, and his parents thought it was significant.
So they named him Jacob which means, “He grasps the heel.”
And that is what Jacob became, a grasper.
He became a deceiver who was always looking out for himself.
When he stole Esau’s birthright, Esau said:
“Is he not rightly called Jacob? He has deceived me these two times.”
So when the Lord asks: What is your name?
He was forcing Jacob to look at himself and confess his character and his sin.
That’s what prayer in desperate times will often do—
It will lay your soul bare before God.
Your sins and idolatries and character flaws will be exposed.
The lies you’ve told yourself, the excuses you’ve made—
it will all be laid out there.
Remember the story of John Taylor.
It started out for him with turmoil over this girl and then he saw
that he was a fake and was trying to avoid God’s claim on his life.
As he called out to God for help that night, he was led to confess his sins.
I’m not saying that every big problem is caused by your sin—some are—
but many aren’t.
They are just caused by life in a fallen world.
But every time you pray in desperate times, your heart is laid bare,
and sins you didn’t want to see and deal with are revealed.
I was talking to a preacher friend a while back who was facing a problem
that was not of his doing, but he said—the Lord is humbling me.
But what if the big problem is of your doing?
What if you are the one who got yourself into this mess
and you have that additional weight on your shoulders.
If that’s the case for you, you should find Jacob’s story especially encouraging.
Because it was Jacob’s sinful grasping 20 years earlier that had gotten him
into this mess along with a long line of more selfish decisions,
the last of which was the way he broke off relations with his Uncle Laban.
In every way, Jacob had gotten himself into this mess.
He had woven a web of selfishness and gotten caught in it.
But here’s the great thing—This was exactly where he needed to be,
for God to accomplish this spiritual breakthrough in Jacob’s life.
None of us come easily to a place where we say:
Lord, I’m not going to let you go until you bless me.
Sometimes, we get to that place through our own sinful messes.
A preacher put it this way:
“Jacob created the opportunity that God then seized to show himself to Jacob and to draw out of Jacob a powerful faith that Jacob himself didn’t know he had and to confirm to Jacob’s mind and heart the victory of faith.”
Jacob created the opportunity that God then seized.
That should encourage you.
Our God is sovereign, and is able to work all things, even your sins,
for his glory and your good.
And out of Jacob’s exposure and confession came a new name.
The Lord says, your name will no longer be Jacob, it will be Israel.
Israel means, He struggles with God.
The Lord gives him a name so that he would always remember
this night when he struggled with God and got God’s blessing.
Jacob wasn’t perfect after this. He wasn’t Israel all the time.
Several times the old Jacob came through, but he ended well.
No matter what desperate time you are going through, God can use it to make you a
better man—be open to that, be humble, it often starts as he lays your soul bare
and calls you to confess your sins to him.
We also see that . . .
MP#3 The Lord uses your prayers in desperate times
to change the way you see your relationship with him.
Jacob said: Please tell me your name.
But he replied: Why do you ask my name? Then he blessed him there.
Why didn’t the Lord tell Jacob his name?
Why didn’t he say: I am indeed the God of Abraham and Isaac?
By withholding his name God was saying to Jacob:
You don’t control me. I don’t do your bidding.
But you can trust me because I am good.
I’ve blessed you. Now, believe that and go into this new day and face Esau.
Then God disappeared into the dark, and Jacob had to walk by faith.
When you are in desperate times, you want God to do things.
Just want him to fix things, so you can get on with your life.
But God says: You don’t control me. But you can trust me.
Now, walk by faith.
And Jacob did walk with renewed faith to go out and meet Esau.
But he walked with a limp.
Even told an interesting little custom that developed among the Israelites—
they wouldn’t eat the tendon attached to the hip socket.
(Aw shucks, I love a good tendon.)
That tells us that Jacob walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
His weakness was a perpetual reminder of God’s blessing,
and the need to hold on to him and not let him go.
God still does this. He sometimes wounds you so that you learn to trust him.
And you may limp the rest of your life from that wound.
But it’s not a sign of God’s cruelty or apathy—it’s his love.
Paul understood this. There is that intriguing reference in one of his letters
to a thorn in his flesh. Bible scholars have speculated on what that was.
Was it his eyesight, was it some other chronic condition, strong temptation.
But you remember God’s answer when Paul prayed that it be taken away—
No, my grace is sufficient for me.
Joni Erikson once said that she hopes that she will have her wheelchair in heaven.
Not that she will need it. She’ll have a new, glorified body, no longer paralyzed.
But she says without a bit of hesitation that her crippling was the path
through which she learned to trust God.
When you call out to God in desperate times, he will always answer and bless.
And part of that blessing may be this:
He may allow permanent, crippling reminder of that desperate time—
not out of cruelty, out of love—so that you learn to hold on to him at all times,
not just desperate times.
So that you are always saying, I won’t let you go till you bless me.
There’s a famous line in CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles where the children
hear of Aslan the Lion. He’s the Christ figure in the books.
One asks, Is he a tame lion.
Narnian laughs and says, Goodness gracious no. He’s not tame.
He’s devoured mighty men and kings and kingdoms.
He’s not tame. But he’s good.
The Lord’s not tame. He may not do things your way.
He may give you a permanent limp.
Any number of things in your life may be permanently crippled:
Your body, your finances, your life goals, your self-confidence—
But he’s good, and you can trust him.
You might ask, but how can I be sure this is really for my good?
Because Jesus Christ received the ultimate wound.
In his dark night, when he was facing the cross he wrestled with God.
He said I won’t let you go till you bless.
And God the Father left him in the darkness.
He was forsaken and died the cursed death on the cross—
so that you will never be forsaken.
And it is the cross that assures you that every desperate time you go through,
every crippling blow, will not destroy you or do you any lasting harm,
but it will be used by God to deepen your trust in him,
so that you can go forward into a new day, confident in his blessings.