Did you choose your name? Probably not the name that’s on your birth certificate but what about the name that people call you?
Meridith Palmer offered a meditation last April on this same story of Jacob wrestling with an unknown man. Meridith spoke about how much time and consideration she and Mike spent when naming their children. I imagine that many parents go through a similar process, putting together a long list of family names or names from favorite books, songs, and movies. Yet after all of the effort that our parents put in to naming us, at some point in our lives, we begin to choose what others will call us.
I was named after my father. I’m proud that I can carry that little piece of who he was with me for my whole life. But having two people in one family with the same name can also get confusing at times. My father called himself “Tom,” and most of his friends called him “Tommy” so, when I came along my family called me “Thomas.”
As I got older and began to find my own way in the world, apart from my parents, I started to have people call me “Tom.” Growing up and moving away from my family gave me the opportunity to separate myself from my dad and develop my own identity. I don’t have remember having any great reason for choosing Tom over Thomas, there’s no deep meaning or story, it’s just the name that I chose for myself. Even though I’m still “Thomas” to my family, the rest of world knows me as Tom.
Is there a name that you’ve chosen for yourself?
In the Bible, names often have important meaning. Today’s story is a great example. But first – as I’ve mentioned, we’ve been using the Narrative Lectionary to choose our scripture readings each week. I like the Narrative Lectionary because it gives us a good sense of the story of the Bible, starting with the creation story and moving through the Hebrew Bible before telling the Jesus story. It’s a great overview but, in order to get through the overarching story, we obviously have to skip over large parts of the individual stories. There’s too much that’s already gone on before this morning story so I need to give you the Wikipedia version of Jacob’s life.
Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, were born to Isaac and Rebekah after 20 years of marriage, when Isaac (who was just born last week) was 60 years of age. Rebekah was uncomfortable during her pregnancy and went to inquire of God why she was suffering. She received a prophecy that twins were fighting in her womb and would continue to fight all their lives, even after they became two separate nations.
Just as Meridith talked about in April, the twins’ parents put a lot of thought into their names.
When the time came for Rebekah to give birth, the firstborn came out covered with red hair, as if he were wearing a hairy garment, and his heel was grasped by the hand of the second child. Isaac and Rebekah named the first son Esau, meaning “hairy” or “rough”. The second son they named Jacob, meaning “heel-catcher”, “supplanter”, “leg-puller”, “he who follows upon the heels of one”.
The boys displayed very different natures as they matured. “…and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a simple man, dwelling in tents” Moreover, the attitudes of their parents toward them also differed: “And Isaac loved Esau: but Rebekah loved Jacob.”
A few chapters before today’s reading, we hear the account of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob. Genesis 25 tells that Esau, returning famished from the fields, begged Jacob to give him some of the stew that Jacob had just made. Jacob offered to give Esau a bowl of stew in exchange for his right to inherit all that his father has, to which Esau agreed.
As Isaac aged, he became blind and was uncertain when he would die, so he decided to bestow Esau’s birthright upon him while he was still alive. He told Esau to go hunting and make and serve his father a venison stew. While he was out hunting, Jacob and his mother Rebekah plotted to deceive Isaac. They made him a goat stew and covered Jacob in the hairy goat skin so that the blind man would think it was Esau who served him. The trick worked and Jacob received the blessing meant for Esau.
Although Esau was the one who sold Jacob his own birthright, Esau still hated Jacob for receiving his blessing that their father Isaac unknowingly had given to him. He vowed to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac died.
Today’s story takes place as Jacob is returning home after years of running away from his brother. Just as he is about to cross the river into his ancestral homelands, Jacob faces an unknown man and wrestles him all night long. The story never actually reveals who this man is. For centuries, scholars and theologians have presented a variety of theories: has Jacob come face to face with his brother? Is this an angel, sent from God?
As the two fight to a draw, Jacob asks his unknown opponent for a blessing. The man asks his name and Jacob tells him. Jacob; a name that holds so much meaning, that reflects the life that he has been leading. Jacob, “heel-catcher”, “supplanter”, usurper, cheat. Revealing his name tells his story as clearly as if he said “I’m the one who cheated my brother and deceived my father.”
“The Man declared: You will no longer go by the name Jacob. From now on, your name will be Israel because you have wrestled with God and humanity, and you have prevailed.”
Jacob’s name is changed to reflect a new call. This unknown opponent, whom Jacob believes is God, is saying to him “No more. No more cheating or deceiving. You’re better than that. It’s time for you to change.”
Since this is a Bible story, everything is pretty cut and dry. We’re not usually so lucky to have such dramatic, life-changing moments when God tells us exactly who we are supposed to become.
But if we open our hearts to God, maybe those moments become more obvious. Are you wrestling with God about something in your life? Is there something that God is calling you to do that you are resisting? Maybe it’s reconciling with someone, healing a friendship. Maybe it’s taking on a new challenge or ministry that will take you out of our comfort zone. Maybe it’s something else that only you and God are aware of.
You’ve chosen a name for yourself. Is it the same name that God has chosen for you?
Given names, nicknames, what other names do we have for ourselves? For some of us, our jobs are tied in with our identities, we’re teachers and ministers and doctors and lawyers. For some, our most important name is parent or child.
What about the name “Christian?” Do you call yourself a Christian outside of these walls? I confess that I sometimes struggle to do so. I don’t always identify as a Christian because I’m worried about what people will think. The way that Christians are presented in today’s media feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me. The brand of Christianity that I see on TV news and on the internet doesn’t match with my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. I don’t want to identify with preachers who call themselves Christian yet tell auditoriums full of followers that they can recognize God’s blessing in the prosperity and riches they can gain. I don’t want to call myself Christian when businesses can somehow say they are Christian and use that identity to deny women access to birth control and healthcare. I don’t want to say I’m a Christian when others are using the name of Jesus to preach hatred and deny equal rights to transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay people. (By the way, speaking of so-called traditional, Biblical marriage, did anyone else notice that Jacob made this journey with his two wives?)
So, I wrestle with God’s call. I know that God wants me to go out into the world and live a life based on Jesus’. I’m called to follow Jesus. I’m called to be a Christian. But it makes me uncomfortable to say that name out loud. I do believe that we need to wrestle the name away from other who have misunderstood the teachings of the Bible but that sounds like a lot of work, and it makes me as uncomfortable as a hip knocked out of joint. I want to reclaim the name but I don’t want to force it on others. I’m working on calling myself a Christian, at least in my heart. I’m trying harder to find the name that God is giving me.
I wrestle with God. Do you?
Is there a struggle going on in your heart now?
Are you resisting God’s call?
Who is God calling you to be?
Let us pray.
O God of many names, help us find our true identity. Be patient with us when we wrestle with you all night long. Give us the courage to hear your call when you bless us with our true name. Amen.