Only Halfway

I’d like to share a Scripture with you right off the bat and I want you pay special attention to your reaction to it:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

My guess is that there is some variation in reactions ranging from a sense of comfort to perhaps questioning.  Should I feel good that I don’t completely understand what God is up to, or should I be offended because it sure sounds like He’s boasting?  I can assure you that the intent of this Scripture is not to boast and that God is indeed humble.  He will never use His word to evoke a sense of inferiority; instead, His goal here is to solidify His position of a caring Father who has a bigger picture in mind – one we can’t always see.  As the prophet Isaiah declared all that God spoke to him, the intended audience, of which you and I are a part of today, was to be left with a sense of security and encouragement in the face of disappointment.  This was written during a time in Israel’s history when things weren’t exactly panning out like the people expected; a time when oppression and broken dreams were common place. 

The more I interact with people, the more I realize that this feeling – the feeling of disappointment with the way things have turned out – is still something that many live with today.  We’re going to look at the rest of the Scripture in Isaiah later, but what got me thinking about this topic in the first place was actually the life of Jacob.  If you’d like to read some of the back-story about Jacob, you can start in Genesis chapter 27, where we get an interesting introduction – one that may leave you scratching your head as to why God chose to use him in the first place.  I want to focus on what happens after he steals the blessing of the first born son from his brother and when he is fleeing for his life.  Before we learn more of Jacob’s plight, I want to share a story that took place in my front yard – literally.

A few years ago my wife and I were sitting on our porch looking at a plot of grass that wasn’t being used for anything.  We envisioned tearing it all out and making a garden.  No more mowing and a plethora of tasty, organic veggies to fill our plates!  We traded some work with a friend who had an excavator, and in just a few hours of work, the grass was gone.  In the process, we made the judgment call to tear out our old cracked sidewalk too.  We had wanted to replace it and didn’t know when we would have access to another machine to make it happen. The excavator easily tore up the old concrete, broke it into pieces, and stacked it in the adjacent section of our front yard.  The pieces were manageable for the machine, but I knew they would take more work to break down into sizes that could be man-handled; but I would get to that later.

Fast forward a year and half and we’re at just a few weeks ago.  I had chipped away a bit here and there with a sledgehammer over the course of several months, and I even had one load hauled away, but there was still a pile of rubble and one large piece of my old sidewalk that I couldn’t break down.  It was about six feet long, too thick to break apart, and beginning to be an eyesore as the grass grew up around it.  I needed some heavy equipment again.  Thank goodness my father-in-law had access to an electric demo drill – pretty much a mini jack hammer.  Although the process of breaking apart the piece was slow, the drill did the job, and my son and I spent the better part of a day and a half getting it done.  Despite the exhausting work, there was a sense of completion and gratification when I was done...or so I thought.  Just as I was getting ready to put the drill away, I moved one of the smaller chunks I had created only to reveal the edge of something buried below and pressed into the dirt.  As I began to move more concrete, I uncovered a second chunk just as large as the first that had been buried under the original pile and compressed into the earth, making it nearly impossible to see.  I couldn’t believe it because I had the right equipment and even a pickup date scheduled for the debris!  The promise of completion was within reach and had verbally been given to my wife, yet the work was only half done.  If we expect complete fulfillment of a vision, promise, or dream, but end up seeing only part of that dream come to fruition after we’ve put in the work, disappointment can soon set in.

The apostle Paul understood this; listen as he expresses how to be an over-comer in the face of adversity – even disappointment.  I can picture him writing to those who have put in the time, worked hard, and still seem to come up short. 

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

Do you hear the echoes of Isaiah?  They sound something like this: God understands how you feel and is up to something.  Don’t lose heart because His ways are better.

As Jacob made his way to the land inhabited by his extended family, he was met by his uncle Laban’s daughter Rachel, and he immediately fell in love with her.  I know what you are thinking – that’s his cousin!  Technically yes, but traditions were a bit different back then.  After a month of working for his uncle with no wage, Jacob was asked what he wanted as compensation.  He couldn’t get the words out fast enough that all he wanted was to marry Rachel.  Therefore, the agreement was made that Jacob would work for seven years in exchange for her hand in marriage.  The Bible says that the seven years flew by and only seemed like a few days to Jacob because he was so madly in love.  If only he could have seen the future! 

The day had finally come and Jacob was claiming his wife, but Laban deceived him and gave Jacob his older daughter, Leah, the night they were to consummate the marriage.  Of course Jacob was furious upon seeing Leah the next morning, and his uncle merely explained it away as customary to have the older daughter wed first.  After what I can only imagine was a heated exchange, Jacob and Laban worked out another agreement.  Jacob would also be able to marry Rachel as soon as the wedding festivities ended with Leah a week later - in exchange for another seven years of work! (see Genesis chapter 29)

Disappointment must have settled in for Jacob.  Seven more years of work that he hadn’t signed up for had to be frustrating, plus, he probably figured he’d be starting his life with Rachel by now.  Instead, now he has two wives and is still under the employment of his uncle.  In spite of all of this, I find it interesting that Jacob did receive what he wanted – the desire in his heart, Rachel – but it occurred right in the middle of the work required!  It may have seemed like the end Jacob originally had in mind, but not in God’s plan. God had a behind-the-scenes plan that wasn’t finished. 

 In the same way, I had actually broken up and demolished the piece of concrete I had set out to move.  Like Jacob, what I thought was going to happen did happen, but I just didn’t realize there was more work to be done. 

Are you at a point in your life where you thought the tough part was over?  Are you nearing the pinnacle of a life-long dream only to realize there is more work to be done?  Do you feel your energy slipping away as you’re losing the battle with disappointment?  If so, please listen carefully.

In the midst of complicated family dynamics, the following years in Jacob’s life were filled with children from both Leah and Rachel.  No matter what the circumstance, God declares that children are blessings! (Psalm 127:3)  From Rachel’s womb came Joseph – one of the heroes of the Bible who rose up the ranks in Pharaoh’s palace, and became second in command after being sold by his brothers into slavery.  Joseph went on to save the land and its people during a time of great famine.  In the same way, and although born out of Laban’s deception, the seed from Leah’s womb became the lineage that would lead to Moses – the great deliverer of the Israelite people from Egypt.  These examples remind us that we cannot forget that God’s ways are higher than our ways.

I’m certain the extra work that Jacob put in over the years helped shape him.  In perhaps one of the most intriguing moments in the Bible, he literally had a face to face wrestling match with God (Genesis 32:22-32).  It began with Jacob contending for a blessing that wasn’t rightfully his, but the struggle did end with a blessing from God, and also a name change: Israel, meaning “struggles with God.”  As if that wasn’t enough, Jacob limped away with a physical impediment, because one doesn’t simply walk away from an encounter like that without something to remember it by.  I don’t believe God did it as a punishment, but a reminder that there is a real cost for a blessing.  The good news for you and me is that Christ paid that cost in full.  Christ has been a part of the plan from the beginning, to carry us through challenging times.  Listen to the way Isaiah continues his declaration from the Lord:

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11

We can’t forget that in the midst of our disappointment, as the bell rings for round two in what we thought was a one round fight - as the “rain and snow come down from heaven” - God always has a plan. 

There was indeed work going on underneath that pile of concrete that I couldn’t see.  The sheer weight of the material on top had pushed the large hidden piece into the dirt.  It compressed the grass that it originally rested upon and actually decomposed it, adding richness to the soil beneath.  Not having to remove the sod saved me time, plus the rectangular indentation left after I removed the pieces was like a perfect planter box.  All that was left for me to do was add a little mulch and spread new seed.  The extra few hours it took me to remove the concrete paled in comparison to the work God had been doing for a year and a half to prepare that patch of ground for the future.  He cultivates and sometimes compresses the soil of his people in this same way to prepare them to be leaders like Joseph and Moses, and from what I can see, He shows no signs of changing His methods now.