Sermon, November 8, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
What is Your Name?
Originally preached by Interim Pastor Paul Parsons – Ft. Collins Presbyterian Church, June 2015
Preached at Grace Reformed Church, Casper, WY, November 8, 2020
We’re in a summer series about questions that God asks of us. This morning’s question, as you will hear in the passage that we will read in a few moments, is: “What is your name?” It’s an identity issue for Hebrew people. The name contains one’s identity. God, at certain key places in salvation history, actually comes to a person, and He changes their name, which occurs in our passage today.
When I first became a minister, I was doing youth ministry in a Presbyterian church in eastern Washington. I didn’t know hardly anything about anything. I had never worked in a church. I didn’t really know how to prepare a bible study. I was halfway through seminary, but they had only been teaching us the building blocks, but some of the practical pieces hadn’t really arrived yet. I really didn’t know how to do youth ministry. And by the grace and mercy of God, everything that we touched during that time turned to gold – it was so easy! The youth didn’t have small groups, so we started small groups, and they flourished and multiplied. We didn’t have any Sunday school curriculum, so a couple stepped forward and they developed a 5-year curriculum – it was awesome! – and the kids loved it. And the camping ministry at Camp Gormley near Yakima, Washington was booming! We had several full camps every summer that were full of junior high and high school students. Our youth club on Sunday nights with junior high first, then senior high, were thriving. I thought, “Man, ministry is really fun! I mean, it is so easy!” And then I moved – took another call – to the Bay area of California. I went there to expand my résumé, to build my abilities of working with high school and college students. And everything that I touched in those 5 years fell apart.
It was painful. I don’t even know all of the reasons why, but the high school group never grew – never really got traction. The college ministry began to falter – it had been a great and growing program, and now it seemed to be diminishing. It seemed like everything we tried to do, failed. My relationship with the senior pastor came to some conflict. He eventually moved on and we got a new senior pastor that was not a good fit for me, or for the entire congregation. It was a really troubling time, and I was desperately trying to get out. That’s when the famed, “55 rejection letters” I received during a 3-1/2 year period occurred, while I was trying to obtain another call.
I despaired, and somewhere toward the end of that time, as I would take our dog across the street to the elementary schoolyard, I would cry out to God and I would say, “Where are you?! Why are you so silent?” and “Is this your love, really? If so, I don’t want it! This is so hard, what are you doing?” And through all of this, I began to be aware that God was either directing the things that were causing me pain, or at least permitting them to occur. And I had this really, uneasy sense growing in me that God was bringing me to a point of confrontation, where he was holding up a mirror so I could see some things that I didn’t want to see, about me. God was asking me the question: “Paul, what is your name? Who are you?”
This is also Jacob’s story. A lot of you probably know Jacob’s story: It was prophesied by his father, before he (Jacob) and his twin brother, Esau, were born, that the younger would rule over the older, which was unheard of in a Semitic culture: that this one would rule and lord it over, even, his older brother.
Sure enough – Esau comes out first. He’s hairy, he’s strong, and he’s big. Then his smaller, twin brother comes out, clutching Esau’s heal. So, they gave him the name of Jacob that means, “the one who grabs the heal” or, to put it in broader terms, “the one who supplants.” Jacob is determined to supplant his brother, and as we would find out later, a lot of other people, as well. He is one who will seek to take control. So, one day, when they were young men, Jacob’s mother and Jacob dream up a scheme to rob Esau of his birthright, which meant a double inheritance for Esau and a single inheritance for Jacob. And they swindle Esau out of it – they fool and deceive him. There’s nothing good and right about it. And then Jacob has to run for his life. He has supplanted his brother as the one who is “the lord over his brother” in kind of the pecking order, birth order, a kind of understanding of that age. But Esau is going to kill Jacob, so the family is fractured – and he runs away. And on his way to move to his Uncle Laban’s house far to the north, he has a dream. This dream in which God reaches down to him at a place that ends up being called Beth-El – the house of God – and in this dream he sees the blessing of God coming upon him. But Jacob isn’t done. In spite of the grace of God being offered to him, he goes on to Laban’s house and he runs into the buzz saw of an uncle who is even more manipulative and controlling than Jacob is! And Laban eats him for lunch. For 20 years he extorts out of Jacob. But by the end of that time, Jacob turns the tables, and essentially brings the relationship with Laban to an end. Laban ultimately says, “Get out of my house.”
So where is Jacob to go now, with the 2 daughters he has married of Laban, and the 11 children, and the 2 maids, and the livestock that belongs to him? There is nowhere else to go, but to try and go home. It’s been 20 years since the encounter – this upheaval with Esau – so Jacob takes his family and personal belongings and heads in that direction, and they eventually arrive at the edge of the river Yabbok. We would pronounce it “Jabbok.”
And he receives word that Esau is coming, and he is coming with a horde of armed men. And even though you would have thought that Jacob would have come to the end of himself before now – he MUST at this point. So, Jacob sends his 2 wives, 2 maids, 11 children, all of the livestock, and all of the servants across the river to meet with Esau – hoping, perhaps, to mollify what he fears is the rage, which would still be in Esau.
This brings us to our passage today, because what we will discover is that Jacob still hasn’t hit bottom. He still has not come to the end of himself. He still hasn’t surrendered. So, God takes one more step.
Let us pray together.
“Lord, that we might have you hold us up to a mirror, that we might see ourselves, out of your great and undying love for us, that we might see ourselves. We surrender to you. Work your will in our life. There is nothing better for us than your will in our lives. To that end, we pray and surrender in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
Friends, hear the Word of God: (Genesis 32: 22-32)
“The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he could not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And He said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
Then He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please, tell me your name.” But He said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” (or in Hebrew, “You already know.”) And there He blessed him.
So, Jacob called the name of the place Peniel ("face of God" or "facing God"), saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip. Therefore, to this day, the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because He touched the socket of Jacob's hip on the sinew of the thigh.
Friends, this is the Word of the Lord. (Congregation: thanks be to God)
This confrontation was not initiated by Jacob. He didn’t ask for it. In a sense, maybe he had been asking for it, but he didn’t go out and seek it. Someone threw himself at Jacob. Grabbed him. And he could not run away – even if he had wanted to. And so, in the wrestling match that ensues, and it goes on for a long time – we don’t know how many hours – but it goes on until dawn that they are fighting. Mightily fighting. I can only imagine that this same driving force that had always been in Jacob came out in full that night. That he threw everything he had into surviving against this man, who is unnamed. And so, as morning arrives, the man somehow touches Jacob’s hip and throws the hip bone and the hip out of the socket. Now I’ve been told that that is an extremely painful condition to be in. I can only imagine. But one thing is for sure – Jacob cannot walk. He at this point is utterly clutching the other man because if he lets go he will fall to the ground. And the truth is that if the man leaves him like this, he is likely to die because by the time the family figures out that Jacob isn’t coming he will probably be dead. And he will not be able to get to safety.
Jacob refuses to let the man go. He says, “Not unless you bless me.” What he is asking for is help: I must have help from you or I am done for. That’s when the man speaks the question of God to Jacob: what is your name? To the Hebrew: what’s your identity? Who are you, Jacob? And he honestly says, “Jacob, the one who grabs the heal. The one who must prevail. The one who will lord it over his brother and anyone else who gets in his way. But it’s at this point that we finally realize the real issue is Adam’s sin – original sin. The real issue is “I will not bow to you, God. I will prevail over you.” This is the nature of all sin that at its heart we are saying, “But I want to be lord of my life, I want to be in control, I don’t trust you!” And the man says to him, “From now on you will not be named ‘Jacob,’ you will be called ‘Israel’” which means one who strives with God and humans. It is a word, a name, which means “clings to because one must.” In other words, now your name means dependence on God.
And so the man blessed him. I guess that means that he touched him on the hip, because the hip comes back together, and as the sun comes up, Israel passes by this place that he now names Peniel. Because in the last interchange between Jacob and this man, he says, “But tell me what your name is.” And he says, “You already know.” And so he named the place “the Face of God”, for there it was it says, that he came face to face with God, and yet he was not destroyed. Israel is not utterly perfect from that point on, but there is a humility in him, because he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
So, what are we to make of this? That God relentlessly sought Jacob his entire life. Refusing to impose and coerce some sort of transformation on him. He sought to woo him and invite him to be a willing partner with God, and only then, does the human transformation happen.
God permitted Jacob to suffer the consequences of his bad choices, such that his pain grew and grew, and yet, it still was not enough. Not until Jacob hit bottom and was undone, and beaten, and vanquished, by a stronger foe – not until then. Would that it does not require all of that for you and me. But it required that for Jacob. And God gave Jacob the gracious gift of pain – a pain that he would walk with the rest of his life – this wound in his hip, this limp that he would never be free from, for a reason, because God cares that much about the change in our lives. Being given a new name.
What about you and me? How does this speak to us? Are we in this story? I was in this story. I’m still in this story. I relate a lot to Jacob. And when I came face to face in 1987, 88, and 89 with what God was wanting to show me, I really didn’t want to see it. Because I had hoped that being saved – becoming a Christ follower – had taken care of this deep, abiding, horrible fear that dominates every area of my life. I’m afraid of everything. Have been since the beginning. I can’t explain that to you, maybe you don’t have a clue about what that’s like, but there is a great fear in me, and God was raising it up, and showing me that he was about to call me to be a senior pastor, and that I wasn’t ready.
I was going to have to go through a transformation before I could be ready. And out of his great love for me and the congregation I was about to go serve, he was taking me, allowing me, willing me, to feel pain, because he had a new name for me.
My name was Paul, which can mean “the weak one, the fearful one, the powerless one.” And what he wanted to change my name to, and has been in the process of changing my name is Paul, which also means “humble.” It’s a nice transformation. I like humble better than frightened.
What about you? What’s your name? Is God wanting to give you a new name? And what about us as a congregation? We’ve wrestled with the man at Peniel, as a church, and we are wounded in the hip and we always will be. We’ll never forget. We will never forget those years. And that’s good, because God is giving you a new name. And what I want to leave you with today, is that you have to find the answer to that: what is your new name? That’s what you’re going to discover.
God thank you that you love us so much that you do not leave us alone in the accumulative misery of running our own lives. You do not leave us as victims to our own fears, to the “isms” that want to take hold in fallen hearts like racism and sexism and ageism, consumerism. God you love us too much and you seek to transform us into the likeness of Christ and we love and thank you for it that you are never going to give up on us even as you never gave up on Jacob. We pray that you would give us courage and the willingness to receive the redeemed name – the name that you have for us individually and as a congregation. To that end we surrender ourselves to you with gladness, in the beloved and beautiful name – the name of Jesus.
Hebrews Chapter 13, Verses 20-21
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.