Last week in our Story of Scripture course, one of the take-home assignments was to think about your name. Not the one your parents gave you, necessarily, but to think about what your name might be in light of the Hebrew mentality about names, which is reflected in our first lesson today and indeed throughout the Old Testament. In Scripture, somebody’s name often reflects who they are and what their calling is. Sometimes it’s a pun. For example, there are names that reflect something about the circumstances of a child’s birth -- “Zebulun” which sounds like Honor, “Asher” which sounds like Happy, “Dan” which sounds like Judged. Sometimes a name has a prophetic meaning: Hosea is told by God to name his child Lo-Ammi, which means “not my people,” as a sign that his people are not living up to their calling. Later, in Isaiah, God changes the nation’s name from “Azubah,” Forsaken, to “Beulah,” My Delight Is In Her, to show his redemptive purpose.
So the question was: what would your name be, if you were named in the Hebrew fashion. Would it be Diligent? Timid? Clear-Sighted? Always In A Hurry? And then part 2, what would you like your name to be as you grow into the person God sees in you, the person God is calling forth? Because re-naming is part of the business God is in. We come to him seeing ourselves in one way, and through his grace he opens up the possibility of a new identity.
Receiving that new name is not always an easy process, and we certainly see that in today’s lesson from Genesis 32. This scene has been written about and painted and commented on for centuries. It’s ancient, it’s disturbing, it’s enigmatic, and we could ask questions of it all day. In the first verse, Jacob is preparing to see his twin brother Esau for the first time in 20 years. This family is as dysfunctional as they come, with lies and betrayals from top to bottom, including Jacob himself having swindled Esau out of his birthright before fleeing the country. Jacob is a moral disaster, and his name sounds like “Heel,” although it could also mean Usurper, in other words the guy who takes over other people’s stuff for his own ends.
Jacob is so apprehensive about what Esau may do that he sends a few caravans’ worth of bribes ahead of him, and just as we come in today he is making sure to hide his favorite women and children in a different location, in case things get violent. When all that conniving is done, Jacob is left alone, in the dark, by a river, in the dead of night. And then it starts to get mysterious. The text says “A man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
Who is the man? What does he intend to do? Why does he wait all night to show his strength, and why does he still keep the match going even after he has incapacitated Jacob with a single touch? Why does he urge Jacob to let him go, but reward him with a blessing when he refuses? So many questions hang in the air, but you can just sense, I think, that the words from Genesis we’ve inherited bear witness to an almost indescribable experience. Something happened by that river that left a permanent mark, even more significant than the limp that Jacob carried with him the rest of his life as a reminder of this wrestling match.
“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Funny how it doesn’t say Jacob wrestled with a man, or that a man and Jacob were wrestling, but that a man wrestled with him. The text, eventually, seems to want us to conclude that what is at first called a man has to have been a manifestation of God, and it’s God who starts the wrestling match. God is after something from Jacob. We like to flatter ourselves that we, in our sophistication, are the ones who choose to wrestle with God, as if God were kind of inert, as if he were an object about which we pose our questions and raise our objections. Often the real thing is the other way around: God starts the match, because God is after something from us.
What’s he after? Well, part of it may have to do with this fascinating naming business. Look near the end of the reading. Jacob has figured out that whoever or whatever this wrestler is, it has the capacity to deliver blessing, flourishing, fulfillment. And as big a mess as he is, he is thirsty for some of that. Who knows if it isn’t in part for the wrong reasons, even? But he wants what he senses this wrestler can give him. So he vows “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” One painting of the scene shows an immense angel rising up into the night, with Jacob wrapped around his ankles, holding on for dear life.
The angel, man, God, asks a question: “What is your name?” Now remember, this is the Old Testament: names are never just names. They’re descriptors, prophetic statements of identity. What’s your name? Heel, says Jacob. For, as Lutheran pastor David Lose writes, “he was the one who was grasping at his twin brother's heel as they were born. And he's been grasping ever since -- living from his wits and cunning, trusting no one and proving himself untrustworthy at every step of the game…. [To speak his own name is to] confess -- confess his ill-gotten gains and checkered past, his fears and failures, his shifty arrangements and dubious social interactions.” I’m a heel. I’m a usurper. I’m Jacob.
Once he speaks his own name, however, something unexpected happens: God refuses to stop there. He will not accept Jacob's confession as the end of the story. With God involved, that old identity is not all there is to Jacob. With God involved, he can be more than a heel. So God renames Jacob with a new identity, a new possibility, calling him by a name that will become known worldwide: Israel, for, says God, “You have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Again, Lose comments, “[God’s choice of name] is an act of generosity and grace, as Jacob has wrestled but hardly prevailed. Yet with this new name, Jacob enters into a new future, and passes his name, faith, and future on to his descendants, who bear that name even unto this day.” We begin as one kind of person, but when we let God get at us, we can become something more, something he sees in us that we don’t yet see in ourselves.
An Episcopal example of that went out earlier this week in the Mini-Messenger, a video that was at the top of the email, and I hope some of you watched it. It’s from an Episcopal church named St. Aidan’s and it starts out as a biting satire of fundraising at parishes that don’t treat money as a spiritual issue. The video begins with a hilarious James Bond type presentation of what they call “Prior Unsuccessful Stewardship Campaigns,” including first smarmy guilt-induction by the rector, second apocalyptic threats of imminent financial crisis by the treasurer, and third relentless dunning of individuals to do their duty and pay up by an unidentified gentleman with a baseball bat. I think anyone who has spent some time around churches, at least churches that don’t teach giving as a spiritual practice, has seen these methods at work.
But if you stuck with the video through those 200 seconds of satire – I know 200 seconds is an awful lot to ask these days – but if you stuck around, you came to the real message of what St. Aidan’s had to share, which was their experience of renaming -- just what God did for Jacob in the reading this morning. In this section of the video, they showed us a handwritten book, which briefly summarized a series of parishioners’ stories of how God had changed who they were through St. Aidan’s.
“I was angry and guilty,” says page one, but then the page turns and you read the second part: “But God made me free.” In the Hebrew sense, first the name they came with, then the new name God has given them through their parish. “I was important at work, but I learned how to be important at home.” “I was a freak, and God told me I was wonderfully made.” “I was a great helper, but I became a spiritual leader.” “I never had enough, but God showed me I am blessed beyond my imagination.” In other words, it’s the same story: I was Jacob, but God made me Israel.
Now I’ll bet every single one of those people was wrestled with by God in some way. They decided to start coming back to church, but pretty soon there seemed to be lots of other things to do on Sunday, and God hounded them until they got back to Mass and let him really go to work on them. They came in convinced they were a freak and searching for some church that would at least let them sit alone in the back and be ignored, but God pushed them until they let him give them more love than that, through more people than that. They came in expecting that eventually the other shoe was going to drop and someone would corner them with guilt or fear and speak over them the name “You Are Not Good Enough” or “You Should Do Better” but over and over God kept speaking grace instead, until they admitted he was right. God has infinite patience for keeping at that kind of confrontation, seizing every opportunity when we might just be vulnerable enough to let him give us the blessing of love and identity he has been carrying around for us all these years.
So if your story was in that book, what would it be? What name did you come to Emmanuel with? How has God renamed you? What identity did you think you were stuck with until God started wrestling you into a better life? If you were Jacob, who are you now, and how do you plan to say thank you?
The citation from David Lose can be found here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1597