Jacob wrestles with a man in Genesis 32:22-30. The mysterious wrestler asks, “What is Your Name?” This question creates a defining moment for Jacob and for us. This sermon explores how spiritual formation must begin with a healthy identity as a child of God.
What is your name?
The answer to that question really depends upon where and when you are.
When I was a kid they called me Stevie, because I was the youngest of the whole clan for many years.
When I was 17 and got a job drawing caricatures at the amusement park, I was the youngest artist and our boss’s name was Steve. So, I was Stevie T. To this day, if one of those artists saw me, they would shout out “Stevie T!”
There are four people on the planet that call me Dad. Two of them still call me Daddy sometimes.
Some people are starting to call me Dr. sometimes.
When I walk into this building, I’m Pastor Steve
To some people I’m teacher. To others I’m heretic.
To some people I’m rich white dude. To others I’m simply middle class.
We all have names that society places on us.
Successful, rich, power, popular.
Loser, poor, weak, lazy.
Gringo, nigger, skinhead, fag.
Those names shape us in a powerful name.
But, I wonder about a different name.
What is the name you give to the person you see in the mirror?
Take a moment, in the quietness of your own mind. What do you call yourself, truly?
Our theme this year is CULTIVATE: Making Room for God’s Promise. We believe that it is possible, through the spiritual practices, to cultivate the soil of our heart to be a fertile place for God’s Promise, for the Kingdom of Heaven, to grow and flourish in us, with us, and through us for that sake of the world. Will be coming back to that all year.
Here’s what I think. We cannot make room for God’s promise if we don’t start with this question. What is my name? Who am I really?
Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as yourself, but if we have a distorted view of self, then our hearts will be perpetually hard, rocky, or thorny.
Spiritual formation begins right here, in our own identity.
That’s what I think we learn from our story today. The text itself is very short, but we really need to look at the whole story of Jacob and Esau that spans from Genesis 25:19-33:17.
Remember, the whole Bible is the story of how God works in the world to fulfill the promise made to Abraham. God promised to bless Abraham’s family so that the whole world would be blessed.
Last week Pastor Mark told us the story of Laughter. God told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child long after they were too old to have children.
These are the notes I took while listening to the sermon last week. This is Sarah laughing at God. But then her laughter of pain turned into laughter of Joy, so she named her son Laughter. That’s what Isaac means.
Then Laughter grows up and marries a woman named Rebekah. She, too is not able to conceive and God makes a promise of children for her.
Then Rebekah gives birth to twin boys. These boys could not be more different from each other.
The first boy is named Esau. He is like the combination of a pro wrestler and Bear Grylles. He’s covered with red hair and he grows up to be a big burly man.
“My name’s Esau and I kills stuff and then I eats it.”
The second boy is born immediately following Esau and he is holding on to Esau’s heel. They named him Jacob, which means heel or deceiver.
He grew up to be a smooth-skinned man who liked to stay inside and cook. But he was also schemer and conniver. I imagine him like a mixture between the moustache twisting villain and a Food Network Host.
“Yes, and now I’ll make a fabulous red sauce.”
These boys grow up in a constant state of sibling rivalry.
We need to remember something about the culture of that day. It was a patriarchal society, which means that the father of the household held all the property rights and the estate would be passed down to the first-born son. Every child received an inheritance, but the first-born received a double portion. This was called the birthright.
One day Esau was out doing his manly outdoor things while Jacob was inside cooking up some stew. Esau came home and was hungry.
“I’m so hungry I could eat rocks!”
“You know, Esau. I’ve just whipped up some fabulous red stew here. Would you like some?”
“Yeah, gimme some a that grub.”
“Ah, ah, ah. Not so hasty. First give me your birthright, and I’ll give you a pot of stew.”
“Yeah, whatever. I’m so hungry I’d eat my own toenails. Take it.”
I’m not sure who is really to blame for this blunder, but Jacob took what belonged to Esau.
The next story is a little more obvious.
Isaac had grown old and blind. He knew he was going to die, so he was going to give the blessing to Esau. This would actually pass the power of the estate to him as the rightful heir. Isaac told Esau to go out and hunt some game and fix up a nice meal for him, and then he would bless him.
“You got it pops. I’ll be right back with the grub.”
Jacob took advantage of this moment, at the suggestion of his mother, and tricked Isaac. He put goat hair on his hands and neck and wore Esau’s clothes so he would feel and smell like Esau.
Isaac was tricked and gave the blessing to the wrong son.
When he returned he turned redder than red.
“that low down, good for nothing, lily livered, yella bellied, lyin, cheatin, blankety, blank. Let me at him.”
What did Jacob do? He ran for his life.
The next four chapters tell us about how Jacob continued his lying, scheming ways and got rich off of tricking his father-in-law Laban.
Laban wants to kill him and Jacob is no longer welcome in that land.
God tells Jacob to go back to the land God promised to Abraham, So he decides to go.
There is one small problem though. In order for Jacob to go back to the Promised land, he first has to cross the Jabbok River. And on the other side of the river, guess who’s waiting for him?
Jacob gets word that Esau has come to the river with 400 fighting men. That can’t be good, can it?
So, what would you do in this moment?
It’s like that time you’re at the store and you look up and see the girl that you cheated on in high school and dumped right before the prom. Or the employee you unjustly fired. You know, that person you hoped you would never see again, who has every reason to hate your guts.
What do you do?
That brings us to the text for today.
Jacob has sent peace offerings and gifts across the river. He sent his family on ahead.
He’s all alone, in the dark, left only with himself and the reality of all the lying and cheating that he had done in his life.
Have you ever had a night like that. What do you do when you are forced to face the truth of who you are and the consequences of your action. It’s like a wrestling match, isn’t it?
Jacob was attacked and it says “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” It’s a very strange story, because it never actually says that this man is God or an angel. Perhaps it was Jacob’s own guilt.
Two things happen during this scene.
First, Jacob is weakened.
They wrestle all night and the man touches Jacob on the hip to weaken him. Jacob limped the rest of his life and lived in weakness.
The second thing is: The man looks him in the face and asks the question.
“What is your name?”
“I am a heel,” Jacob responds. “I am a liar, a cheater, a deceiver.” That is what his name means, and that is how Jacob perceived himself.
Then something amazing happens.
The man looks at him and says,
“no. You are ISRAEL, for you have wrestled with God and with humans and have prevailed.”
You are not the negative things that have defined you and controlled you. You are God’s child, and God will fulfill the promise in you, with you, and through you. Now go, face the truth.
Then Jacob declares, “this is Peniel. I have seen the face of God.” In his darkest moment, when all seemed lost, and he had been stripped of all his pretense and strength, that is when he was able to see the truth, and see God.
No longer Jacob, Israel crosses the Jabbok river, a transformed man, who is ready to face the consequences of his actions.
Esau rushes up to him. “this is it, I’m dead.”
Look at chapter 33 verse 4. It says, “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
Look how Jacob responds in verse 10,
“for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.”
That, my friends, is the Gospel.
So, what do we take away from this story?
If we are truly going to Cultivate our heart this year so that the Promise of God can grow for the sake of the world, then we need to learn two things from this story.
First, we need to realize that it is only when we acknowledge our weakness and come to grips with the reality of who we REALLY are, that we can ever start to grow. Jacob was given a limp. We all limp. We all struggle with something that keeps us weak and in need of help.
Second, it is through God’s strength that the promise grows.
When we talk about cultivating our heart. We are not called to make God’s Kingdom happen in the world. The farmer can’t make seed grow.
That’s God’s job.
We are called to prepare our heart through humility and openness.
Let me ask you again. What is your name?
I don’t care what you have done. I don’t care what people have called you, or what you call yourself.
Listen to me right now. You are a child of God and God loves you.
God has promised to bring life and goodness—to bring the Kingdom of Heaven—in you, with you, and through you for the sake of the world. God created you, and knows your name, and you are blessed.
My prayer is that you and I would be able to look in the mirror tonight, before we go to bed, and say, you are a child of God, and you have something good to bring to the world.