A New Name

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TEXT:  Gen. 32:22-32; John 1:40-42
 

            During these summer Sundays, we're taking a look at Biblical characters who have left home for one reason or another, since leaving home seems to be a common thread in the lives of those who would call themselves God's people.  Last week we talked about Abraham, who left home at the call of God to live life in a new way in a new place.  This morning we'll take a look at Abraham's grandson, Jacob, a very different sort of character.
 

            In short, Jacob is not the guy you want as a role model for your kids.  Here's his story in a nutshell.  Jacob is a twin.  His twin brother Esau is technically the oldest, having been born first.  But Jacob was born seconds later, holding onto Esau's heel, which is why his name is Jacob, which means "heel-grabber." 
 

Their father is Abraham's miracle baby, Isaac, and Isaac's inheritance should have gone to Esau as the first-born.  But Jacob is interested in grabbing more than just heels and, with his mother's help, manages to swindle his brother out of both his inheritance and the formal blessing given by fathers to their first-born sons.
 

When Esau realizes what his brother has done, he vows to kill him, and Jacob leaves home for the first time as basically a thief on the run, heading north to stay with some relatives until Esau can cool down a bit.  On the way, Jacob spends a night under the stars and has the famous dream we now call "Jacob's ladder," where he sees angels coming and going from earth to heaven.  God also speaks to Jacob that night and affirms that Jacob will carry the promise that God made to Abraham.  An odd choice, but God does it anyway.
 

In the north country, Jacob takes two wives and manages to get tricked himself by his uncle Laban, who is looking for cheap labor.  Finally Jacob has had enough, pulls some tricks of his own, and after 14 years takes his wives and children away from their home to head back to his father's house.
 

Esau hears that Jacob is headed back and decides to go to meet him…with 400 armed men.  Apparently Esau knows how to hold a grudge.  Jacob has one last plan to avoid being slaughtered by his brother.  He sends his wives and his children on ahead of him in small groups, each group separated by several miles, each group bearing gifts for Esau from the considerable wealth Jacob has taken from Laban.
 

And that is where the Scripture lesson for today opens.  The others have all gone on ahead across the river, and we find Jacob alone on the other side, wondering if he has just sent his family to their doom, but apparently willing to take that risk in the hopes of saving his own skin.  And then, when he is all alone with his thoughts, God shows up to wrestle with him.
 

Jacob is, bluntly, a rogue and a scoundrel.  He is deceitful, greedy, and cowardly.  But he is still the one that God chose to bear the promise given to Abraham.  Jacob is still the one God picks to father a nation that will be known as God's people.  Jacob is a punk, but that is who God has chosen, so it is up to God to make something of him.
 

That, I think, is what the wrestling match is about.  Before Jacob crosses the river and goes home, he has got to be changed, and so God steps in.  It is a fascinating picture of God.  We see here in the very first book of the Bible that God is willing to show up in the flesh to do what needs to be done.  If you're paying attention in the Old Testament, Jesus coming as God in the flesh should not be a surprise.  God comes to Jacob in the flesh…in a tangible body that can be wrestled with.  God engages Jacob.  Jacob has to work for the change that is coming, and God is right there in it with him.
 

The most interesting thing to me in this passage is the report from the divine wrestler that Jacob has "wrestled with God and won."  Won?  How do you beat God?  I think the answer is that God is not interested in giving Jacob a humiliating defeat.  The purpose of the wrestling match is to change Jacob's attitude and direction, not to squash him.  God does leave Jacob with a limp that will be a reminder for the rest of his days.  But God grants Jacob a victory and, with a new name, calls Jacob to a new life.  Jacob is no longer "heel-grabber" but "Israel," which means "God rules."

Jacob won the wrestling match not in the way you win a game or a war, but in the way that you win the summit of a mountain.  The mountain has not lost, but by your struggle with a worthy opponent, you have gained.  The match proved to Jacob that God was not going to be a pushover like his brother Esau and that Jacob would not be able to run from God like he had run from his Uncle Laban.  Jacob gains a new understanding of God, and a new understanding of his own place in God's plan.  Soon Jacob's 12 sons will go on to become the 12 tribes of Israel.  Heel-grabber has birthed a nation, and those sons will bring him both great joy and great sorrow…victory and a limp.

A similar thing happens to Simon in the New Testament.  Simon is not the scoundrel that Jacob is, but he does get a new name that does not yet fit.  Jesus calls him Peter, which means "rock."  Well, in the weeks tha follow, Peter is anything but a rock.  He is a coward that denies even knowng Jesus when the going gets rough.  When Jesus is in his greatest need, one of his nearest and dearest says…within earshot of Jesus…that he doesn't know the man, and as Jesus dies on the Cross, the "rock" is nowhere to be found.  Why would Jesus call Simon a rock?  Why would God make Heel-grabber the father of a nation?
 

The name for this is "grace."  God gives us a gift when we don't deserve it, and that gift calls us through struggle to a new and better life.  That's one of the reasons that in earlier days a person was given a new name…a "Christian" name…at baptism.  No matter what the circumstances of our birth, no matter what our personality, faults, or disabilities, when we are claimed by Christ, we are given a new name.  Not a name that fits us yet, but a name to grow into…a name that represents our calling and God's hopes and dreams for us.
 

It doesn't matter what the rest of the world has called us.  In God's kingdom we are not humiliated.  We are honored with God's presence and called to engage the struggle to become the person God has named us.  Jacob's calling was to be the father of the twelve tribes which now…4,000 years later…still bear his new name.  Israel.  Peter, a simple fisherman with a tendency to leap before he looked, was to be the founder of the church.  They weren't the most likely people to get the job, but God gave them those names anyway.  And so it is with us.

When I was 14 years old, God called me "minister."  By the time I was ready to go to seminary at age 33, life had taken some pretty sour turns and there were those who told me that I should forget ministry because my life had not been clean enough.  But God did not revoke the name that was given to me in that moment of grace, and I took that new name, undeserving as I was…and am.  I have wrestled, and I go through life with the limp of my past and the blessing of a new name.
 

God offers the same to each of you as individuals and to all of us as a church.  There is a calling and a new name waiting for you.  You will have to wrestle with it before you can cross the river and go to your true home, but we are all given the grace of God to get us through. 
 

These days we are not generally given a new legal name at our baptism, but we are all given the name of "Christian," the name of Christ.  That doesn't mean we've attained the perfection of Jesus, but it means we are called to grow in that direction.  It is a call to a wrestling match…God with us and us with God.  If you haven't wrestled yet, you will…not with doctrines or dogmas, but with God's claim on your life.  We wrestle with who has control over our lives…us or God.  We wrestle with bringing our desires in line with God's desires and with learning to love the heel-grabbers of the world, who have not yet recognized their new name.
 

If you have been baptized, you have a name that calls you…not to an hour of church on a Sunday, not to a certain set of doctrines, but to a way of life that is modeled on the life of Jesus.  If you have not been baptized, God is simply waiting by the river for you to decide whether you will engage the wrestler and take the name.
 

Perhaps, like Jacob, you have run off far from home, trying to escape a past that wasn't pretty.  Perhaps you are considering going back home, but you know that across the river is your enemy, waiting with 400 armed men.  It will be a struggle to go back home, and you may come back into your own lands with a limp.  But if you are willing to openly wrestle with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…if you are willing to stare God in the face and realize who it is that is among you, you will come back home with a new name and God will say of you, "She has wrestled with God…he has wrestled with God…and won."  Amen.
 

(c) 2005, Anne Robertson

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