Text: Genesis 32:22-31
How did you get your name? Who named you? What is the family lore about how you got your name? If Jacob were asked how he got his name, he might well respond, “Which name?” If anyone did not need another name, it was Jacob. He already had a host of names, all perfect fits: Jacob or The One Who Supplants or The Trickster or the Go-Getter at any cost. Each one is a fitting name for Jacob.
From stealing the family birthright from Esau to duping doughty ole Isaac out of the family blessing, Jacob has spent his life taking what is not rightfully his. If you love the moral lesson that cheaters, liars, and thieves never prosper, then you might want to avoid this story. Jacob does all of the above and is the richer for it. And, in addition, at the river Jabbok, Jacob even gets a new name.
In case the story is not fresh in your mind, after milking his family dry, Jacob has to leave town, but like any “go-getter,” he does not plan to stop getting. He spends some years away from home for his own safety sake, but time passes and “Jacob wants to go home again, back to the land that God promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and now to him, as a gift. A gift. God’s gift. And now Jacob, who knows what he wants and how to get it, goes back to get that gift. And I mean get,” writes Frederick Buechner, “and you can be sure that Jacob means it too.”
“When he reaches the river Jabbok, which is all that stands between him and the promised land, he sends his family and his servants across ahead of him, but he remains behind to spend the night. Why? Maybe in order to savor all his achievements, savor this moment for which all his earlier moments have been preparing and from which only a river separates him now” (Buechner, “The Magnificent Defeat,” from his book The Magnificent Defeat, p. 17).
The story then takes a strange twist. Deep into the night a wrestler from God appears and not to lecture Jacob on his morals. In fact, we are not told why the wrestler appears and late into the nocturnal wrestling match, Jacob, the “go-getter” is at it again. The divine wrestler has wounded Jacob, but that does not lessen Jacob’s vice grip on his divine opponent.
Finally, the wrestler speaks, asking Jacob to let go of him before dawn, but Jacob is not in the habit of letting go of anything he wants. Jacob wants one more blessing and this one, not from Isaac, but from God.
That is when the wrestler asks Jacob his name, as if he did not already know it. “They call me, Jacob.” “No longer,” says the wrestler, “Now you will be called Israel, someone who has struggled with God and with humans and has prevailed.”
Now, wait a minute. I could understand the divine wrestler calling Jacob: “Schmuck” “Conniver” “Thief” “Two-timer,” but not “Israel.” Yes, “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God and, yes, Jacob at Jabbok wrestles with God.” But what kind of morality lesson is this? Here is the opportune moment for God to teach Jacob some lessons in basic human dignity and what does God do? God gives Jacob a limp, yes, but also gives him a brand, new shiny name. Jacob even wins when wrestling with God.
Now, that is one way to read this ancient story and it is often read that way. Today, I invite you to consider another way to read this story. The morning after the wrestling match at Jabbok, Jacob now named Israel, crosses the river not with the proud limp of a wounded victor, but with a new gait and a mysterious new name. In his new name holds the future promised first to Abraham, a future of struggle, but a future led by and accompanied by God. Before crossing the Jabbok, Jacob now Israel names the spot of the wrestling match, Peniel, which means “face of God.” You see, even stealing, conniving, lying Jacob cannot be named by God and remain the same.
“There is a question I would like to ask him,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor. “Jacob, why didn’t you run when you got the chance? When the sun came up, when he wanted you to let him go, why didn’t you shout, ‘Glory, Hallelujah!’ and head for the river?
“’Because it was the most alive I had ever been in my life. Because I had never seen anything like the shining in that face and I could not bear to let it go. I thought maybe if he blessed me we would be related somehow. I thought the blessing might keep me company after he was gone’.
“’What about your leg? Didn’t it hurt?’
“’Sure it hurt. It still hurts, but it goes with the blessing. They are a matched pair. Every time I tilt to the right and feel that hot pinch in my thigh, I remember my name. Israel. The one who strives with God’” (BBT, “Striving with God,” from Gospel Medicine, p. 113).
Who named you? How did you get your name? According to Charles family lore, my mom gave me my first name, Gary, and my aunt from Ohio gave me my middle name, Wayne.
Who named you? There is another answer to that question and it is where my story and your story intersect with Jacob’s. Who named me? Who named you? God named me. God named you. God named us, not at the river Jabbok, but by the waters of our baptism. God named us whether we were infants sleeping or crying at the top of our lungs in the pastor’s arms or a youth coming forward to the river for baptism or an adult deciding it is finally time to dive into those holy waters.
God named us in our baptism whether we have been paragons of virtue or lived like scheming Jacob. And, with that new name comes new insight, new responsibility. With a fresh new name, you and I never see the world the same way as Jacob saw it for most of his young life – as a candy store where we can get whatever we want, whenever we want, and by whatever means that works. The blessing of our new God-given name comes with a new set of eyes to see the world as a place not to be manipulated for our own needs, but as a fresh canvas on which to paint lives of mercy, with the striking colors of forgiveness, and the rich palette of trust and hope. It is a name given from the One who loves us and who calls us to live into that love.
A few months ago, I met the local writer/poet Charlotte Matthews and since then, I have come to love her work. When I read this passage of Jacob getting a new name, I thought of her poem: “Love Song.”
Emptying my mother's dresser,
I found she'd saved my baby
teeth in an amber prescription vial.
On the label, in tiny cursive--
the date I'd lost each one. Just maybe
I was what she'd wanted after all.
Just maybe, all Jacob really wanted “after all” was a God-given name, a name that reminded him each day that he was not hunted by God, but “wanted after all.”
Who named you? The unswerving answer to that question in the Christian faith is that “God named you.” How did you get your name? In the waters of baptism.
What is your name? “Child of God.”
What is your name? “Child of God.”
What is your name? “Child of God.”
That’s right and don’t ever forget it.