Sorry for the lack of material lately, business is picking up so to speak and with a visit from both sides of the family and an intern retreat these past couple weeks have been a bit hectic. As a result, the blog has been on the back burner. Here is a transcript of my sermon from this past sunday. I will have a more substantive post up soon though sorry for the delay!
Grace and Peace from God our Father and our Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.
“What is your name?” Jacob can still feel the question ringing in his ears. It may seem like a simple question, what’s a name after all? But you get the sense that the angel isn’t asking which letters he should write down on an adhesive sticker. No, the question runs deeper, it cuts Jacob to the core. The angel is really asking, “Who are you?”
Indeed, in the ancient near East your name was your identity. It defined who you were and told people about your character. In the book of Genesis we see this in the names of the Patriarchs. For instance, Abraham means “father of many”, an apt description of a man who will be a blessing to the nations; or his son, Isaac, which means “she laughs” because Sarah laughed at the thought of God blessing her with a child at the ripe old age of 90. So we come then to Jacob’s name, what does his name mean, what is He all about?
His name means “he usurps” it means “he cheats”.
You see when the angel asks Jacob for his name he must face his sordid past, a past riddled with greed and deceit in which he stole the family blessing from his older brother Esau and cheated his Father-in-law Laban out of a large portion of his flock. In today’s reading we find Jacob, having parted ways with Laban, is making his way back home. However, we get the sense that this homecoming may not be a happy one. Jacob is on the eve of meeting his brother Esau whom we can only assume is full of bitterness and wrath over his lost blessing. But the conniving Jacob has one more trick up his sleeve. He sends half then all of his great wealth on ahead of him as tribute to Esau, hoping to assuage his brother’s anger.
His wealth and pretensions having left him, Jacob stands alone in the dark, by the river, deeply regretting the past, and looking anxiously toward the future. Jacob is still unsure how Esau will receive him. It is then that the angel descends upon him and the two of them struggle into the night and on through the morning. Even though the angel succeeds in injuring Jacob, Jacob will not let him go and insists on a blessing… his OWN blessing not the one he stole so many years ago. Indeed, Jacob is not simply struggling for a material blessing like food or land but is struggling for his identity, the meaning of his existence. His persistence pays off, he is blessed by the angel and he is no longer Jacob the cheat but Israel; the one who has struggled with God and prevailed. It is a trait that is to become a hallmark of his descendents, the nation of Israel, who will struggle with God through the Wilderness, in the Promised Land, into Exile and back again. It is a rocky relationship in which Israel is constantly grappling with the God who blessed them.
Now, as we take a step back from this story, an important detail stands out. God’s blessing did not come to Jacob until Jacob admitted to God and himself just the kind of person he had been, a cheater and deceiver. Jacob knew he had wronged Esau and as a result found himself on the run. He realized that when he tried to go his own way, taking another’s blessing, that it brought nothing but strife in his relationships and emptiness in his soul. Jacob found himself alone by that river, isolated by his own scheming designs. He was a shell of a person, with no identity. Indeed, He was not himself but only remnants of what he had taken from Esau and Laban. It is when Jacob put these things aside, sending them on ahead of him to Esau, that he could truly grapple with God and discover the blessing that was in store for him. He is no longer a cheat but a descendent of Abraham and heir to the promise of the great nation of Israel that is to come through his twelve sons.
Well that’s great for Jacob, but what about us? What does God have to say to us in this story? I think it’s that same thorny question the angel posed to Jacob, “What is your name?” “Who are you?”. You probably would respond as Jacob did with our given name but like Jacob would also realize the question runs deeper. It might be more like: “What else are you known by?” “What is your reputation?” “What do others call you or do you call yourself?” Perhaps you are called “powerful”, “attractive”, or “successful” and you pretend that you have it all together. Or you may dwell on different names… ugly, unworthy, or disappointing. In either case when we are asked the question “What is your name?” We come to our own Penuel, standing face to face with God, examining our lives. We become acutely aware that we are not who we claim to be. We try so hard to be someone or something that we are not. Or we let our failure and brokenness define us. In the end we have to give both of these up. In our wrestling and struggling with God we come to our true identity. Indeed, God will not let our false pretensions or our self loathing go unchecked.No, God will give us our identity. God and God alone will define who we are.
So as we stand before God we realize that we are not in control, that God is not to be mastered or contained. He will be what he will be. Yet, It is in this moment of complete humility, we remember who it is that God is on account of Christ; A God of abundant grace and compassion. By his gracious will, You are given a blessing, You are given a new name. Indeed because of Christ you are no longer called ugly, rejected, or shameful and instead you are made beautiful, accepted and honored. You are a new creation in Christ. THIS is your new name. THIS is your blessing. You are claimed as God’s child.
And as Martin Luther reminds us in his explanation to the Lord’s Prayer, as beloved children of God we can come to Him with our plea, like the plea of the widow in today’s gospel. We are allowed and indeed encouraged to struggle with God the judge, petitioning him ceaselessly. Demanding justice, mercy, and compassion; for his kingdom come, his will be done. Indeed, we read today that the Son of Man will come again, and so we pray to God with confidence, in faith, knowing that one day all things will work for the good and all creation will be made new. We pray with persistence not to annoy an indifferent judge but rather because we find hope in the loving arms of God our creator.
Moreover, it is in our persistence that we find ourselves exactly where we were intended to be. Not looking out at what we can grab but looking up, to where our help comes from. Amen.