22 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. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then the man* said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans,* and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel,* saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
When I was in elementary school, several of my friends would call me, “Dill Pickle.” I’m not sure why, besides the fact that “Jill” rhymes with “Dill,” and the “pickle” was just a funny addition. I know they called me that out of love and friendship, but sometimes it drove me crazy. I also remember a time when I was trying to convince my parents to let people call me by my middle name, which was Lindsey. Jill was just not a good name, I thought. It sounded silly. But in spite of my efforts, they wouldn’t let me change what people called me. It wasn’t until later in life, maybe high school, that I really embraced the name that my parents gave me, and I am now convinced that this happened because this is when I began my journey of getting to know myself and who I am, and who I am meant to be.
Another meaningful name I received in my life was not from my parents, but from my Rabbi when I received my Hebrew name. I was called to the Torah to read on one of the high holy days, and since I came into Judaism later in life, I had never received a Hebrew name. The Rabbi called me into her office right away, blessed me, and gave me my Hebrew name: Gili Lilach, which means, “You are my joy.” I still carry this name in my heart as a reminder of my past and how my Jewish faith has shaped me into who I have become today. Names are important, because our names are more than sounds or words or what people call us. Names are more than what is on our birth certificates. Our name is who we are- our identity. And in the ancient world, your name was your identity- your family line, your history, a description of who you are. There’s a reason why God changes people’s names so many times in scripture- God is working within us to transform, to become, to live into what our name is.
In our story this morning, Jacob wrestles with a man by a river for an entire night- a man, an angel, God himself, we are not totally sure. At the end of their wrestling match, Jacob asks for a blessing, and then the question is asked of him: “What is your name?” What is your name? Such a loaded question! I’m not just talking about the name your parents gave you or the name your friends call you or what your title is- but your name- your very identity- who are you? Jacob answers, “I am Jacob…” and with that answer comes a history- a story of past struggles, mistakes, guilt, and shame. Because do you remember the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau? The name, Jacob, literally means, “holder of the heel” because he came out of the womb holding onto his brother’s heel. They had been wrestling from birth, and Jacob had reason to be running from his brother and from his own identity. (Ask: do you remember what Jacob did to Esau?- tricked his father Isaac into thinking he was Esau so that he would get his birth rite and inheritance!) So, Jacob was on the run, fearful of the pending meeting with his brother who we imagine might want to end his life. Instead of spending the night in prayer, Jacob wrestles with God, and also with himself. This time, after the wrestling, instead of lying and answering that his name was Esau, he fessed up to who he actually was- Jacob, holder of the heel, father of many, maker of mistakes, betrayer of his own flesh and blood.
And because he had wrestled, because he had fought and prevailed, he asks for a blessing, and our mystery being gives him a new name- a new identity- Israel- which means, “he who strives with God,” or some translations, “one who prevails with God.” But he does not leave without first being broken- struck on the hip socket- a sign that Jacob/Israel will carry with him for the rest of his life that he came face to face with God, was given a new name, and will forever carry the effects of this mysterious encounter.
Before Jacob receives a blessing and eventually a new name from God, he must answer and wrestle with the question, “What is my name?” In other words, “Who am I?” How would you answer this question for yourself? Would you know the answer? Really? I think that a huge source of pain in our lives comes from not knowing the answer to the central question, “Who am I?” Because if we cannot fully name ourselves and name who we are, then it is difficult to navigate the complexities of life, to have good relationships, and to love ourselves. If we cannot fully answer the question, “Who am I?”, we risk living our lives without direction or purpose. And we tend to forget that it is God who names us before anyone else.
Let’s watch what happens when a young woman in search of her own identity is asked this same question at an important job interview:
(View clip HERE)
We all wrestle with this question, “Who am I?”, and we also, like Jacob, wrestle with God from time to time. I wrestled with God constantly when I was struggling with my Jewish faith and understanding Jesus in light of it. I wrestled with God constantly throughout my journey to ordination as I wondered, “God, am I really called to this? Are you sure you are wanting to give me the name “pastor”?” I wrestle with God when I feel God is calling me to do something that I am not comfortable doing. We all wrestle with God many times in our lives, whether it’s over the tough questions, the illness or loss of a loved one, the “whys?” of life. We also wrestle with our own life stories, our pasts, our personal histories, our mistakes, our sins. Jacob reminds us that it’s probable, and necessary that we will wrestle with God, because it is then that we allow God to enter in and work through us, to teach us, to make such an impact on our lives that we do not walk away the same person. Wrestling with Jacob through the night was God’s way of saying, “you need to wake up and pay attention, to claim your past mistakes, and to be set on a new path of righteousness and faith, and finally, that you need to name and claim your identity unashamed, the old and the new.”
As we wrestle with who we are, to claim ourselves, our histories, our pasts and present, it is God who wrestles with us, nudging us along, and shaping our new identities. When God asks Jacob for his name, he’s not just asking for his actual name, but asking him, “Who are you?” “Are you ready to be you?”
This past week at the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program, our focus was on health care and well-being. One of the discussion we had was answering the question, “Are you fully, really alive?” or “what does it mean to really be alive and well?” It’s more than your vital signs, your numbers, your weight, your cholesterol, or blood pressure. Being alive- being fully you- means that you are living up to your full potential and purpose in your life. What brings you the most joy? When do you feel most alive? What is your divine purpose? When Jacob is given a new name as one who strives with God, he is given his divine purpose to fulfill in his lifetime. And Jacob goes on to become a father to the nations, a man of God who we count as one of the forefathers of our faith. And this all started with the question, “What is your name?”
What will be your answer when God asks, “what is your name?” Will you wrestle with the question? Will you come out broken, but with a new name? A new identity? Or are you ready to answer the question at all? Are you struggling with your name, your identity, what your purpose might be? In wrestling with the divine, Jacob is being challenged to discover and claim his true self. In the same way, Jesus calls each of us to find our identity and name along the path of discipleship. When we are called to follow Jesus, when we are baptized, when we give our lives to Christ, we are given a new name. We are being called to claim our true selves in him.
When Jesus tells us as his disciples, “come and follow me,” he is inviting us to discover and claim our true selves. It is Jesus who calls us to be our true selves and saves us from the times we try to be someone else. It is Jesus who calls us to be comfortable in our own skin.
It is God, through our baptisms, through our confession of our need of God, who calls us and names us. What will that name be for you?
For Jacob, it was Israel- “one that strives or struggles with God.” Israel, which became generations upon generations of people who struggled with God, who loved God, who worked to understand their identity as a nation and people under a covenant of promise, law, worship, the prophets, and finally, were given the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Interesting how Israel, a name that means “one who struggles with God” is still a nation and people with so much conflict, struggling to find a united identity under God, regardless of what faith one professes. Interesting how Israel, “God’s chosen people,” by the very name means they struggle with God, yet God still calls, names, blesses. Jacob is given a powerful new name. Whenever we see God give someone a new name in Scripture, we see evidence of a change, of a new covenant, a new beginning, a fresh start, a new purpose and mission. So it is for Jacob. So it is for us.
Jacob is proof that regardless of what we have done, what our past has been, what our history is, that God still calls us and names us, wrestles with us until we come to terms with our very selves. Sometimes we need to wrestle with God because it’s the struggle that gets us to the place God can change us and use us. For Jacob, it was a lifelong reminder of a limp, the hip being taken out of socket, that symbolizes the time that he struggled with God and came out alive, limping, but a changed and new man. This also reminds us that when we are called, touched, and named by God, we are to accept the implications and the responsibility of the identity in God that we carry. After all, every broken limb, every scar, every traumatic time has a story behind it that has shaped and changed us. Hopefully we have come out stronger and ready to face the world, knowing that we have been broken, yet at the same time, strengthened by God’s grace.
So think about the names you carry- the good and the bad. We are all in a constant state of searching for our true selves, and hoping for someone to accept us for who we are. The good news is that in the end, it is God who names us and meets us face to face. It is no wonder that Jacob names the place where he struggles with God, Peniel, which means, “the face of God.” It is no wonder that in the story of the Prodigal Son for example, that the Father tells the son “I name you my son now, as you always have been.”
So it is with God- who calls us home, who calls us to wrestle with our questions, with our fears and doubts, and ultimately, with ourselves, to discover that we are in the end, blessed and named by God. When we truly come to terms with who we are, with our many names, with our many paths in life, when we embrace and live in to our divine purpose- what we are called to do, what gives us life, then we are prepared and ready to go out into the world and be a blessing to others in Jesus’ name.
Jesus calls us to be comfortable in our own skin, to wrestle with who we are, to wrestle with God about those tough questions and situations, and finally, we are called to be blessed and named by God, even through the longest of nights, regardless of what our paths in life have been. What will your answer be when God asks, “What is your name?” Will you answer with confidence? Will you answer with your voice shaking? Will you be ready to be shaped into something new? Will you be ready to accept a new name? May you be ready to wrestle with yourself, may you be comfortable wrestling with God, knowing in the end, that God gives you a name, blesses you, and sends you out into the world to be a blessing to others. Amen.