The Names That Matter
Rev. Julie Jensen
August 3, 2014
When we make lists of Biblical Heroes, Jacob is not a likely contender to make the list. From his entrance into the world – grasping the heel of his twin Brother Esau until our reading for today, we see him as a schemer, a crook, greedy, sneaky, and – if we can be honest about it – kind of a jerk. Jacob was born as the second twin – in a time when the firstborn son inherited twice what the others did, this was a bitter pill to swallow. Jacob tricked his older brother, Esau, into giving him both his rights as firstborn. Then he tricked his dying father into giving him the blessing reserved for the firstborn son placing him as the head of the family. When Esau realized what happened, he was furious and threatened to kill Jacob. Jacob had no choice and fled settling with his uncle Laban, for 20 years.
It is on his way to his uncle’s that Jacob is alone for the first time in his life. One night he laid his head down and fell into an exhausted sleep, dreaming of a ladder to heaven, with God at the top. Jacob promises to devote his life to God and worship only him. However, he has not changed his ways, and finally meets his match in Laban. Laban promised Jacob he could marry his daughter Rachel. When the day of the wedding came, Laban had secretly switched the bride for her sister, Leah. The now married Jacob was furious, and yet he remained and worked seven years to earn the hand of Rachel, and they were married. During the seven years Jacob worked for Laban, he amassed a fortune, due in part to his manipulating the breeding practices of the livestock to ensure that he received more than he should have.
Jacob is finally free to leave Laban, and he and his rather large family head out into the desert to follow what he believed was God’s call to go to the homeland of his father. Along the way, he receives word that his brother Esau is near. Jacob panics – the last he knew of his brother was the word he received that Esau wanted to kill him for stealing his blessing and birthright. Jacob has no idea what to expect when the two will finally meet. So, Jacob first sends word by his servants to Esau that he is near, he is rich, and he wishes to find favor with his brother. Jacob does not have to wait long for an answer. Esau approaches with 400 men. Terror grips the heart of Jacob, and he finally prays for divine direction. He takes matters into his own hands, sets aside a portion of his own holdings, and sends them ahead as a gift for Esau. Time passes and there is no response. Jacob has to decide – does he flee as he has in the past, or does he stay and face what is to come. Jacob’s trickster mind decided to divide his family into 2 camps – surely one of them will survive, and he sends them across the river. This is where we enter into today’s scripture reading from Genesis 32:22-31:
22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
What I take from Jacob’s encounter with God this week is the power that names have over us, and the transformative power of this night. In Near-eastern culture, a name was not just what you called someone. A name told everyone who heard it the most basic character traits of the one who held it, and sometimes revealed their destiny. As one scholar writes, “to know a person’s name is to have a certain power over that person, for no matter what he or she says or does, you can reply “Hey – you can’t get away with that – I know you.”
My name comes from the name Julia, which means “downy-haired or youthful.” Well, I do have baby fine hair, and when I reveal my age, folks can hardly believe it. I looked up a few others for folks on our staff. Ted means “divine gift.” Angie is “heavenly messenger”, Rebecca means “tied”, Katie means “pure”, and Pamela means “all honey”. If we were all with Jacob, when folks heard our names, they would automatically think of the meanings at the same time. When Jacob is at the verge of utter exhaustion and ready to finish the wrestling match, he demands a blessing from the stranger. Instead, comes the request – what is your name? When Jacob utters the two syllables that tell who he is, he also lays out the worst and best of who he is. “Jacob” means heel – he was born grasping at his brother’s heel. It means “supplanter”, “usurper”, and can also be loosely thought of as “the cheat”. How appropriate for this man who spent his whole life figuring out how to get ahead without worrying about what it may do to others.
Jacob knows all of this when he speaks his name. He knows when he says it, he will be exposed for who he really is. He can no longer run from the consequences of his actions, but must instead face his history. The response of the one with whom Jacob wrestles is not what we may have hoped. There is no outcry of “ah-ha – got you!” no come-uppance or vengeance-is-mine. What comes instead is a blessing – in the form of a new name. “From now on you shall be called Israel – for you have striven with God and humans and prevailed.” In that moment Jacob has a new start, and we learn who his opponent has been all night.
Jacob wrestled with the Lord and was the name of Israel. If you look that up in the Hebrew Baby Book, it means “God contends” or “one who contends with God”. Jacob has changed in this battle. He has been marked forever with a limp as the sign he contended with God, but more importantly, he has a new name and a new destiny. In the name Israel is the promise of God to God’s people. Jacob carries with him the promise that he will be the father of many who will become the 12 tribes of Israel – a people who still bear his name to this day.
I think it is probably not an accident that this encounter with God occurred on the side of the Jabbok River. The story of Jacob’s fight with God illustrates what happens to us when we enter the waters of Baptism. When we come to the font, when we feel the water, we too are marked by God and claimed as God’s own. We receive a new name – child of God, God’s beloved, and Christian.
This new name says so much about who we are. When it is spoken, it brings up all the good and all the bad. We can’t run from people, because they say, “hey – I know you, and you aren’t supposed to act like that.” The name Christian sets us apart as those who follow Christ, live as he taught, and believe in him. The name says something about whom and what we value. It also says something about what we have left behind – the sins we have committed, the grievances we have carried, the brokenness that is ours.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Were you taught this rhyme as a child, or did you teach it to your children? This is good advice for living in a world where people can be cruel and names can be called in an attempt to wound deeply. Yet, when we wrestle with the truths of our lives, we wrestle with the names we carry with us – the names we have been given by parents and family. The names we have been called that wounded, and the names that have built us up. These names have power over us. Adults still remember when classmates called them stupid, when parents called them worthless, when friends called them ugly. I want to invite you to take a moment and think about your names. What is your name? What do others call you? What do you call yourself? What is the name that you can hardly say because of shame, anger, or disappointment? What are the names that hurt you? As you hear those names – names from the past or present, I invite you to hear a louder voice – the voice of God that gives you a new name – the name of beloved, the name Child of God, the name Christian, the name “mine”. As we confess the ugliness of our past names, we make room to be filled with the power of the new names we are given by God.
This is the place each week where we can bring the old names and what they have done to us, where we can bring our brokenness and shame and offer them to God, and be reminded that we have a new identity in Christ. We have a new name to mark our transformation by God. Jacob was marked by his encounter with God – he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. We too, are marked by our encounters with God. We have been marked in our baptisms by the water of Christ. We are marked with hope we have both now and eternally in Jesus Christ. We have been marked by what we reject and by what we embrace. We are marked by our common name – Christian – and our common heritage in claiming that for ourselves.
Bring the old names and the brokenness here. Drown them in the font, or lay them on the table. When we participate in the Lord’s Supper together, we are affirming that we have been recreated in Christ, that we have been transformed, and that we will continually be transformed. Together we confess the past and live into the promises of new life for our futures.
Lose is quoted in another article as saying, “Law and Gospel is all about naming reality. It’s about telling the truth, twice. First we hear the difficult truth of our brokenness, our fears, and (our) sins. And second we hear the good and gracious news about God’s response to our condition, for Christ’s sake, no matter what.” In Jacob’s story, the first truth is that he was a cheater, a liar, a trickster, a deceiver, and the deceived. What is the truth of your life story? After that truth is faced, God gives Jacob a new name, and we see the second truth of who he is becoming. A new man, the father of a new nation. One who can embrace his brother and be forgiven. Jacob, who spent much of his life being all about Jacob, is transformed into a wise patriarch who leads a nation. We too have encountered God, and there is a truth about who we are, and who we are becoming. What is that truth about your life story as a beloved child of God?
Our new names, our true names are the ones we find in our identity as the body of Christ, and as members of it. Our names are the ones we are given in this place, and our traits are the ones we seek to emulate in our walk of discipleship. Week after week we come together as a community to tell each other the truth – the truth that while we are broken, it is here we can find healing. The truth that while we are imperfect, flawed, and sinners, it is here we will hear the words of forgiveness and grace. The truth that while we may not always be loveable, we are always loved by God, and we carry that love with us always. Amen.