September 16, 2018: "What Is Your Name?"
What is Your Name?
Rev. Rhonda Blevins
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the 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 is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
Have you ever tried to wrestle with God? If so, you’re not alone.
On September 14, 2007, Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers walked into the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha and filed a lawsuit. The defendant he named: God Almighty. The suit asked for a “permanent injunction ordering Defendant to cease certain harmful activities and the making of terroristic threats.” Senator Chambers claimed that God, the Defendant, “directly and proximately has caused, [among other things], fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornados, pestilential plagues . . .” 1 The list went on. The lawsuit was real, though it was an attempt by Senator Chambers to make a statement about frivolous lawsuits. I’m not sure how the suit turned out, but it made me stop and wonder about God’s liability insurance. I don’t think the cattle on even a thousand hills could pay for all the lawsuits that folks would want to file.
Speaking of cattle, who hasn’t had a beef with God at some point or another? C’mon, you know you’ve shaken your fist in the air when raindrops start falling on your tee time. How dare God! Or your team (which is somehow ALWAYS God’s team) can’t quite pull off that win. Or maybe you’ve had a complaint or two against God for something a little more serious than tee times and touchdowns. Perhaps you would like to take God to court. Maybe we should all take God to court!
In the book of Genesis we learn about Jacob, a guy who bypasses the legal system and takes the Lord into his own hands. He has a wrestling match with God. It takes more than a little moxie to step into the ring with Yahweh, the Lord God of the Universe, doesn’t it? Now, this wasn’t one of those World Wrestling Federation events with grown men prancing around in underwear—this was a knock-down, drag-out brawl lasting all night long with dirt and blood. I love this story, because it is so raw yet so full of mystery. Much like life . . . so raw and so full of mystery.
What we know from the surrounding passages is that Jacob is at a critical juncture in his journey. He is running from a less-than-stellar past and facing an uncertain and scary future. Jacob’s name gives us a hint into his personality. The name “Jacob” meant “trickster” or “deceiver.” So in this story we catch Jacob the trickster fleeing from a father-in-law whom he tricked out of a lot of money, and he is about to face his brother, Esau, whom he tricked out of their father’s blessing and inheritance. Jacob hasn’t seen Esau in twenty years—the last time Jacob saw his Esau, Esau was threatening to kill him. So Jacob left town.
Now it’s 20 years later. Jacob is on a journey back home, and about to see his brother for the first time since he snookered him. Jacob receives word that his big brother, Esau, is there to welcome him home . . . with 400 other sword-wielding men. This is either going to be the biggest homecoming party in history, or a battle of epic proportions. True to form, Jacob sends ahead his entire family, all of his possessions, and a whole lot of presents, hoping to appease Esau before seeing him again face to face. After he sends ahead everything and everyone, he finds himself alone. His unsettling past and worrisome future were his only companions.
Alone. Alone is the place where we often find God, isn’t it? When the distractions are gone and the noise has settled God often comes calling, sometimes whether we’ve issued an invitation or not. Sometimes the still, small voice of God booms like thunder in the silence of our aloneness. Jacob issued no invitation that we know of, and when God showed up, God didn’t have too much interest in sipping tea and talking about the weather. God wanted to wrestle.
I have to admit there are some things about this story that make me uneasy. Some things I have to twist around in order to make them fit into the pretty little boxes I’ve constructed for God. It’s a mysterious passage.
· For instance, Jacob seems unsure until the end whether his battle is against man or God.
· And, it seems to be God that initiates the wrestling match. My God of peace and love and flowers and puppies?
· Then it seems that Jacob gains the advantage in this story? My super-hero God of omnipotence?
· But what troubles me perhaps more than anything from this passage is that Jacob ends up permanently wounded. I don’t know about you, but when I pray for the touch of God I’m not thinking hip dislocation. But that’s just what Jacob received.
Jacob prayed for protection against his brother, Esau. What he received was a midnight warrior who left him crippled. What can we learn about God from that?
Stories like this remind us that the God of History cannot be reduced to peace and love and flowers and puppies. Nor can God be likened to our cartoon-book fantasies of Superman or Mighty Mouse always pulling us frail mortals out of harm’s way. Maybe Robert Owens has it right when he wrote: “[God] is on no one’s leash. [God] establishes governments and overthrows them. [God] builds, and [God] tears down. There are times when God answers our prayers with a parting of the seas, with an almost miraculous easing of the way. But there are other times when [God] answers us with toughness and hard, hard challenges.”2
Fortunately for us, however, that’s not the end of the story. That toughness and those hard challenges are followed by the blessing of God.
Finally the dawn begins to break for our boy, Jacob, and the wrestling match is drawing to a close. “Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’
Jacob has been after blessings his whole life, hasn’t he? He tricked his father for a blessing. He tricked his father-in-law for a blessing. But now, it seems, he’s got no more tricks up his tunic. And then a telling exchange: “The man asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob,’ he answered.”
The last time in the scriptures someone asks Jacob his name, he flat-out lies. He tells his father that he is Esau. But in this story, he comes clean. “I am Jacob. The trickster. The deceiver.”
The mysterious stranger does not immediately give Jacob what he has requested, the blessing. Instead, “the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.’” When Jacob asked God for protection from Esau, what he got was a midnight wrestling match. Now when Jacob asks for a blessing, he gets a new name. And where Jacob came from, the name made the man. In that instant, Jacob not only received a new name, but a new identity. From “trickster” to “wrestles with God.”
Jacob left his wrestling match with God crippled, but a new man. There’s a great irony to this story. I’m left wondering if struggle is sometimes a gift from God.
Like the mama eagle helping her babies grow up. She builds her nest using first thorns, broken branches, and sharp rocks, lining it with a cozy padding of wool, feathers, and fur. Then when it’s time for the little birds to leave the comfort of her nest, she pulls up the fluff, exposing the sharp rocks and branches. Ouch! The nest becomes painful, prompting the fledglings to leave and move on to maturity.
The blessing inherent in struggle is usually hidden. It’s difficult to see the blessing in the midst of the battle. That kind of vision is only in retrospect. But most of us, when we think about times in our lives when we’ve really struggled, we can think of a blessing or two that followed. And our boy Jacob? Well, he became a little weaker on the outside, but so much stronger within. Then, almost as an afterthought, the mystery man gave Jacob the blessing he requested. And even later, when Jacob finally saw Esau along with 400 of his closest friends, “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” An old liar had a new limp. And Jacob was no longer alone.
There are lots of folks out there who like to keep God in cute, simple little boxes with very neatly tied ribbons. And if that kind of faith works for you, great! It’s much simpler when everything can be labeled black or white and faith isn’t messy. But for the rest of us . . . for those of us who want more than the fancy packaging . . . to the rest of us God says, “Let’s get ready to rumble! Step into the ring. I can handle it. And so can you.” Like Jacob, we may walk away from wrestling divinity with a bit of a limp. But like Jacob, we may receive a new name and a restored identity; we may just find our new and deeper life as a result of our struggle with The Divine. “The Trickster” became “Israel.” Who might you become if you find the courage to step into the ring with God? To challenge notions of who God is, ideas passed along from those who haven’t done the work of wrestling with God themselves? It’s easier, safer perhaps to go with the status quo and avoid the struggle. It’s also shallower. Finding your new identity in God demands we step into the ring at some point along the way. There is faith and peace on the other side. I know this. I’ve lived it. I invite you to live it too.
Oh, by the way, I didn’t finish the story about the lawsuit filed against God in Nebraska. I understand they had a heck of a time serving the subpoena.