Pastor of Decatur United Methodist Church
When you meet someone for the first time, what do you do? You might extend a hand and say, “Hi, I’m Will.” The hope is that they will reciprocate with their name as well. How many times have you been in a circumstance when you go to introduce yourself and the other person acts as if you should already know them, so they don’t give you their name back. This is such awkward moment. I’m sure you have your stories of awkward introductions, like being a teenager and meeting and elderly uncle who insists on shaking your hand then awkwardly holding it through the entire conversation. To the teenage mind, this is the worst.
In the midst of the awkwardness, we value introductions. There is something about knowing someone’s name. There’s power in that.
One of my on again off again hobbies is looking at genealogy records. I don’t necessarily have proper documentation, but it’s fun to trace my history and see where my name comes from. There are always some road blocks when you are trying to do this, but I’ve found it neat to trace the different lines. Doing this, I’ve realized that my name has a past as well as a present – many people and dreams have come together to give me my name in this place.
Each society has its own names that are common. And often if your name doesn’t fit these conventions things can be difficult in life. There’s been some research into this. One study found that people with white-sounding names found it likelier to get hired for a job—in fact, they get about 50% more callbacks than someone with a stereotypically black-sounding name. Another study found that women at the top of organizations were more likely to go by their full names; and that if you use your middle initial people will think that you are smarter and more competent.
None of these things are particularly great; they show our prejudices. Truthfully, once we know someone their name doesn’t matter that much. We just know the person as a friend; know them for who they are.
But names aren’t just what you find on your birth certificate or your social security number. We say that the school yard bully calls other children names. He uses vicious combinations of letters and sounds to make another child feel worthless. Sometimes we tell our children not to worry; I remember being told the old rhyme: “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” If you haven’t used this line before I am sure that you have heard it; perhaps someone’s even said it to you. But we all know the truth, words can hurt—and when someone calls you names they assault your identity, and there is no getting around the pain.
It’s not just the school yard bully that calls names. Too often we call ourselves names, and these names hurt. When you look in the mirror, when you look at yourself, what names do you think of. Do you think of your given name? Or does a hurtful slur first come to mind?
Names such as:
Old. Too young. Skinny. Fat. Superficial. Insecure. Fake. Fraud. Tried. Unworthy. Dumb. Incompetent. Loser. Failure. Worthless. Lazy.
Perhaps you have never used one of these names. Perhaps now you look in the mirror and smile. But if you don’t use one now, I bet there was a season in your life when you used these hurtful labels to name yourself. You label yourself with a name, and since names have power, this is such a destructive cycle.
Perhaps you recall a negative event in your past, and you continue to replay it over and over. And you call yourself names that hurt. Names have power.
Jacob is this guy we read about in early parts of the Bible, and Jacob is someone who know how powerful names can be.
Jacob is a pretty important figure in many of the early stories that we find in the Bible. Jacob is a twin, and his brother’s name is Esau. Perhaps you recognize them. When they were born, the story is told, Jacob is fighting with his brother Esau to be the firstborn son. You see, in their ancient society firstborn sons were privileged. They were valued above the other children, and received a large inheritance. Jacob couldn’t be the first born, but the Bible tells us that has born holding on to his brother’s heal trying to be the first one out.
Throughout his life, Jacob is pretty shady character. He cons his brother into giving him the firstborn status. Then when his father, Isaac, was dying Jacob conspires to receive the blessing that Isaac intended to give his brother. There are other stories of his trickery, I encourage you to read them, beginning around Genesis chapter 25. But the short of it is, Jacob is trickster and never seems make it around in the world honestly. As long as he can get ahead, honesty doesn’t really seem to matter to Jacob.
You see, when he was born his mother named him Jacob. These days, Jacob is a fairly common name; in fact, I think it’s a pretty nice name. But when Jacob was born, his name had more in common with those names you call yourself in the mirror. Jacob’s name means something like usurper or even cheat.
Could you imagine, meeting someone holding your hand and introducing yourself as “the cheat.” “Hi, my name is cheat.”
This name is appropriate for Jacob, he spent his life trying to get by on things that weren’t his. Cheating his way through. And it catches up with him. Remember his brother, Esau. Well, as you can imagine, Esau hated Jacob for what had happened. At one point Esau has his army opposite Jacob and they are about to meet. It’s time for Esau to claim what was rightfully his all along, and it’s time for Jacob to get what’s coming to him.
That’s where I want to turn to now. At night, Jacob is trying to help his family escape from Esau’s army, and so he send them across the River. But Jacob stays behind, and he is alone. Then all of a sudden, in the darkness and alone he is attacked by an unidentified man. Perhaps it’s Esau getting early start on the fight. Perhaps it’s a bandit trying to steal whatever Jacob has on him. And that’s where I want to read to you.
This is Genesis 32:24-31.
But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
--Remember, Jacob is used to cheating people of things. Jacob is used to using other people to get by in life, and even to prosper. He’s come this far with attacker, and they seem to be about to call a truce. And Jacob wants to ensure that he gets something. Jacob want’s a blessing.
Then the attacker says to Jacob:
27 “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.”
At this point, Jacob is revealing himself to the attacker. Jacob, in a way, is confessing who he is. Jacob is saying: I’m a cheat; I get by in life by taking from others. Jacob is confessing to being a fraud, to being too lazy to make his own way, to being a common conman. Jacob, in giving his name, confesses that he has wasted his life, destroyed relationships, and is a phony.
Now he is exposed—completely vulnerable. Perhaps, Jacob thinks he is about to die, and this is sort of a death bed confession. Esau was going to give Jacob what was due him, now it looks as if someone else will give Jacob what he deserves.
But this is where our story takes a turn. We find out that Jacob isn’t wrestling Esau or some unknown bandit. Instead, Jacob has been wrestling with God all night long. And Jacob has just opened his soul and confessed his sins before God. How freeing that must be. How scary that must be. What’s going to happen next? Jacob wanted a blessing, will God instead give judgment for his misdeeds?
We read on:
28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[a] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel,[b] “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
In this exchange, Jacob reveals the self he sees in the mirror each day. He reveals this true self to God. And what does God do? God takes it away. God gives Jacob a new name. No longer is he called “the cheat,” now he will be known as Israel, which means something like ‘one who struggles with God.”
No longer is Jacob defined by what he sees in the mirror, but he is defied by how God seems him. Now Jacob is defined by his relationship to God by God’s closeness to him. Because of God, Jacob has a new name.
Just as Jacob is given a new name, I want you to know that you too have a new name or can have a new name. Those names you call yourself in the mirror or late at night or when you are obsessing over the past, those names define what you think of yourself. But those names don’t truly say who you are.
If we look at the example set by Jacob, we should begin by confessing these names. Maybe God is asking, “What’s your name?” And maybe now is the time for you to say, I don’t know, but these are things I call myself. These are things that hurt my soul. These are things that I’m scared people are going to find out about.
This is not any easy thing to do. It takes incredibly vulnerability. But I think the Catholics had something right when they began the practice of confession. Perhaps there have been abuses, but it is good to confess what is on your heart. And God wants to hear that confession. You don’t have to confess to me, but as your pastor, I am happy to stand with you and hear any confession that you need to make.
If we continue to follow the example of Jacob, after confession, comes blessing. About this blessing, one of the New Testament writers named Paul says this: “16 The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. 17 But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17).
If you are a Christian, this is your true name: child of God. No longer should you call yourself by the names: lazy, incompetent, fat, stupid, fraud. The good news is that if you are a Christian you have a new: child of God. When you start to want to call yourself by these old names, confess it, and remember who you really are – child of God – heir with Christ.
If you aren’t a Christian, God wants you to know your true name too. If you would like to accept this new name, I invite you do so and if you would like help with this please talk with me as we close this service or feel free to give me a call.
And I want you to know. That as we sing our final song, the chancel rail is open for you to pray, for you to confess, for you to hear your true name.
Decatur United Methodist Church
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