Sunday, October 20th, 2013 – Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

Genesis 32:22-31

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Who are you? How do you describe yourself to others?

Take a moment and turn to someone next to you and answer briefly that question: Who are you?

How many of you said your name, when describing who you are? Our names play a huge role in identifying who we are. I mean, it is the first thing we do when we get a new dog or when a child is born. We name it. I can remember months before Elliot was born, scouring through  books and books of baby names and what they meant. It felt like this sacred task. To name our child. To give him the thing that would forever be his identifier.

Today, for new parents, having a unique name seems to be the thing. You don’t want to be just like everyone else. So you find that really unique name for your child or you find a different way to spell it. In fact, some of our friends have called “dibbs” on some names. And I can’t tell you the number of times one of Lauren’s friends has called, lamenting that another friend, who had just had a baby, had taken her name for her future baby. The value of a name seems to be in it uniqueness.

But back in the days of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, names played a different role. Names are never just names. But rather, they describe who you are. Just a couple of weeks ago in Confirmation, we looked up the meaning of our names. Few of us know the meaning of our names anymore. For example, Dalton means “from the valley town”, and Victoria means “winner, conquerer.” Jonh means “God is gracious” and Emily means “to strive or excel.” And back in those days, the meaning of your name meant something about who you were.

The main character from our Old Testament reading is Jacob. And the name Jacob means the cheat. The cheater. And it is the perfect name for Jacob because that’s who he has been. A cheat. When he and his twin brother Esau were born, Jacob was holding onto Esau’s heel. He’s always grabbing at people’s heels trying to pull them back so that he can get ahead. He is the smooth-operator, the slick used car salesman, who is always trying to strike a deal that benefits him and him only. He swindled his brother out of his birthright and blessing. He scammed his uncle, Laban, taking his uncle’s daughters, livestock, and fortune all for himself. He is a scoundrel. He is a liar. He is Jacob – the cheat.

At this point in the story, after 20 years away, Jacob has decided to return home. Not an easy task, seeing how last time Jacob saw his brother Esau, Esau wanted to kill him. And for all Jacob knows, he still wants to kill him. And that reality seems to be coming true, as Jacob receives word that his brother is coming out to meet him. With an army of 400 men. And Jacob is terrified.

Living up to his name yet again, Jacob decides to try and bribe his brother off, by sending gifts, and livestock, and money up ahead of him.

And then it happens. He finds himself all alone. With nothing and no one to protect him. So often, it is when we are alone that we finally have to look in the mirror to face who we really. The dark parts of our life. The disappointments. The guilt and the shame. That’s why comedian Louis C.K. says we are all so addicted to our smartphones. Because if we can constantly be doing something – texting, calling someone, looking up the score of the game, stalking on Facebook – then we will never have to really confront the sadness that lurks inside of us.

All alone and in the dark of night, Jacob must face the reality of who he is. And it slams into him like a knee to the chest…literally. Our text paints it as a wrestling match between Jacob and a stranger. And with a myriad of half-nelsons, choke-holds, double-leg takedowns, and barrel rolls, the two struggle against each other all night long. At daybreak, the stranger dislocates Jacob’s hip and demands that he be released. Unrelenting, Jacob makes his own demands – “I will not let you go until you bless me.” There is something about that dark night of the soul. There is something about having to face who you really are. And then knowing that you desperately need a blessing. “I will not let you go until you bless me,” Jacob says.

And then, this stranger makes an unexpected request. He asks Jacob, “What’s your name?” And I have this sense that he didn’t ask because he wanted to know Jacob’s name. He asked because he wanted Jacob to know Jacob’s name. Who are you? Do you know who you are? And Jacob, in an out-of-character moment, tells the truth.

“I am Jacob”, he says, knowing full well the meaning of his name. The cheat. In this dark night of the soul, Jacob finally comes face to face with his own self and he must speak his own name. I am Jacob. I am the cheat. I am a liar. I am…a fraud.  This stranger has pulled out of a Jacob nothing less than a confession about who he really is. To speak that kind of truth – to see who you really are – can feel like death. Now that Jacob has been revealed, he’s got nothing left.

But then. But then, this man. This stranger in the night says to Jacob, “Your name shall be no longer Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled and wrestled with God and humans, and you have prevailed.” You shall no longer be Jacob, the cheat. But you are Israel, the one who wrestles with God. Suddenly, Jacob is given an entirely new identity. A new name. A new story by which to live. And that can feel a lot like resurrection. Which must be why Jacob can only assume that stranger in the night was God. For who else can give such a painfully beautiful blessing, an entirely new identity. Who else can raise the dead to new life but God?

Sometimes the greatest blessing can be having the truth about us revealed. And then to hear that that isn’t the whole truth. That that is not all you are.

I realize that our first names – Jon, Karyn, Rich, Joyce, Mark, Paul, Lisa, Jan – do not function like they did back in the days of Jacob. But I do think there are those names that we have been called by others, whether on the playground, or at school, or at work, or at home. Or those names that we call ourselves.

What names have you been called in your lifetime? Or what names have you called yourself? “What is that name you can scarce speak for fear or shame. Scoundrel, cheat, or phony like Jacob? Unworthy, irresponsible, unfaithful? Discouraged or burnt-out? Divorced, deserted, or widowed? Coward or bully? Unloved or unloving? Stupid or a know-it-all? Disappointed or disappointing? Abused or abuser? Ugly or abnormal?” [1]

Those are the names that can haunt us at night. They can diminish us and keep us down. And perhaps your greatest fear, and mine, is that they might actually be true.

And whether they are or not actually doesn’t matter because they aren’t the whole story about you. Not according to God.

You see, this story isn’t just a story of long ago. It is a story about what God is still doing to each of us. This very day, God invites you to God’s table. A table where there is always a place for you, no matter what name you carry with you. And it is at this table where you are given a new name. Beloved child of God. In this tiny piece of bread and cup of wine or a blessing on your forehead, you are reminded that Christ died not for just anyone. But that Christ died for you. And we hear it in the words. This is the body of Christ, given for you. This is the blood of Christ shed for you.

So when you come up here this morning, take all of those names that you have been called in your life that tear away and eat at you. Bring them up here and leave them here. So that you can depart from here as nothing less than children of God.

So again, I ask you, who are you? Or should I say, whose are you? For you belong to God. Now and forever. Amen.

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