What’s in a Name

Primary Text Genesis 32:22-30

Jacob, in case you wondered, was one of Isaac’s boys, so we haven’t fast-forwarded too far from last week.Which isn’t to say that we haven’t move along in time…

After all, Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born, and Sarah was 99. Sarah lived to be 127, seeing Isaac to manhood, but not long enough to see him married. Abraham lived to be 175, long enough to see Isaac marry Rebekah at 40,  and long enough to trust that God’s promise was indeed being fulfilled. This story takes place well after Abraham’s death.

Rebekah was not quick to have children, like Sarah before her, so Isaac sought God’s help. In answer to prayer, Rebekah found herself pregnant with twins. Twins that were quite active… In fact the scriptures describe them as violent within her womb. To the point that Rebekah said, “If it is going to be like this, I’m not so sure I want to be pregnant!”

She prayed and sought the Lord, who responded: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be separated from within you. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”  (Gen 25:23)

They fought in the womb, right up until time for delivery. And even as Esau emerged, Jacob was clinging to his heel.  In fact, that is how he got his name – Jacob calls to mind the word for heel, which also can mean “to protect” from the rearguard, like “dogging the heel.”

These two sons were different from the beginning

Esau was quite ruddy, reddish and hairy. He loved to be out in the fields, hunting, Which his father also loved.  Isaac especially liked when Esau would bring home the game he hunted and prepared it as a meal. Jacob had smoother skin, and he was more clever than Esau. He was favored by Rebekah, so you can imagine the conflict this sets up.

When they were young men, Jacob tricked Esau into giving away his birthright for a meal of soup. When they were older, as Isaac was nearing death, Rebekah helped Jacob fool Isaac and get the blessing that was meant for Esau. As you might expect, this did nothing to improve the brothers’ relationship.

Esau was livid. He exclaimed to any who would listen: “‘Jacob’ is the right name for him! He has tripped me up two times! He took away my birthright, and now, look, he has taken away my blessing!”  (Gen 27:36)

With that outburst, Esau shifted the meaning of Jacob’s name from “one who protects” to “one who cheats.”

Isaac was unable to console Esau, as the first blessing had indeed gone to Jacob. And in his blessing for Esau, Isaac made clear that Esau would serve his younger brother – just as the Lord had shown Rebekah while they were still in the womb.

It didn’t take long for his volcanic anger to harden into hatred and resolve to kill his brother. Rebekah feared for Jacob’s life and sent him to Laban, her own brother, far away, to start over and to give Esau’s anger time to cool. To make room for reconciliation.

After 20 years of working for Laban, finding ways to prosper in spite of getting a taste of being cheated and tricked, it is time to leave. Time to return home.  Time to face his brother.  Jacob sets off with his wives, their children and servants, camels, livestock and all the other possessions with which God has blessed them.

Feeling unsure about how bringing such a large group of people will be perceived. And more than a little nervous about how his brother will react, Jacob sends servants ahead, each with gifts and the message that he is coming, in hopes that Esau will accept a peace offering,so to speak…

They return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him, along with 400 men. Jacob’s fears only increase…
What if Esau’s anger hasn’t calmed? What if his hatred remains as strong as ever?
Are my wives in danger?
Have I placed my children, the descendants promised to my grandfather Abraham, in harms way?   

He split everyone into two camps, hoping that if one camp were attacked, the others might escape with their lives. The next morning, he sent still more servants ahead, again hoping to show he would share his blessing, the riches he brings home, with his brother, perhaps gaining favor for himself, his wives and children.

And this is where we came in with our reading this morning.

It’s a strange night there on the banks of the Jabbock. Jacob is alone, afraid for himself and for all those he loves. He is hopeful, and yet, having been tricked by Laban, he knows – perhaps even empathizes with – the hurt and anger that his conniving caused when he was younger.

I wish we could read these stories together in Hebrew.  I know, it’s crazy, but there’s a lot we lose in the translation. Not in terms of accuracy… it’s hard to find the right words to capture the nuances of any language and its sounds.

I remember getting to upper level Spanish classes in both high school and college. It was so frustrating to be able to translate the basics using the dictionary and the rules of grammar… But then the poetry sounded too wooden, and the jokes were never funny, puns were completely lost on me.

The entire Isaac, Jacob and Esau story cycle provides great examples of Hebrew wordplay,  especially in the names and descriptions of the people and places. The words used to describe Esau not only mean red and hairy, they sound like the nation that will come from his line, the Edomites.

The word we translate as wrestle sounds a lot like Jacob and Jabbock, so that as the words are repeated in the telling of the story, you get a sense of the striing and the crashing of all those j’s and b’s and k’s.

When Jacob and the man finish wrestling at dawn, Jacob gets a limp and a new name: Israel, which literally means “God fights.”

Not only is Jacob the one God fought that night, but God will continue to fight for him, and for Jacob’s twelve children, who become twelve tribes. God will fight for the generations of Jacob’s descendants who live through enslavement and deliverance, exile and rebuilding, for the generations who waited for the messiah, for the ones who first called upon Jesus’ name. And God will fight for all those who trust in him today.

Jacob’s new name is a name of recognition.  And it is a name of promise, of dreams, of aspirations.

We can see that words and names matter from the beginning, really. When the first human is formed, God used adamah, the most fertile type of soil. The adam made from adamah wasn’t called a man ( ‘ish in Hebrew) until the moment the second human was made.

When God determines the man needed something or someone that would complete him, God was looking for a being that would be an indispensable helper, an ezer kenegdo. One that would match everything that God had invested in making the man.

The man had named the other beings God created, and when he saw this companion, he knew she was as close to being just like him as anything would be…  after all she was bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh.
I am ‘ish… man.
She is ‘ishah… woman

When they had sinned and were required by God to leave the garden, they left with names. The adam was now Adam.  And he named the woman Eve…  which is not meant to connote evil, or shame, as many have attempted to teach over the years.

Eve which means Life Giver, or the mother all of things living, Her name is a promise that life may be hard now they have been exiled from the garden, but the woman remains part of the plan. She still bears the image of her creator, who breathed life into her partner and all that surrounded them.  

You’ll recall that Abraham and Sarah are also given new names when God reiterates his promises to them. These names require faith, trusting that God will make them descriptors and not just aspirations  

Abram, whose name described him as the exalted or respected father, is now to be Abraham, the father of multitudes. Sarai, whose name means princess, becomes Sarah, still royalty, but now a mother of Kings. A mother to the nations that will rise out of Abraham’s multitudes. Then there is their son Isaac, whose name reminds them of doubt that is redeemed and turned to joy and laughter.

Names are important… many cultures have naming rituals as children are first presented to a community and as they move into adulthood. Families retain their identity as names are passed from one generation to the next. Our family even names our cars… yes, our cars and our bikes. Because they are part of the family…

Names can influence our identities or flow out of them…

I remember wondering whether Dean Corrigan, the Dean of Liberal Arts at my college aspired to that role after learning what his first name meant.  Perhaps it was his destiny to become Dean Dean Corrigan.

Children respond to the names they are called, and I don’t mean answering to their given name…

When called stupid or useless, lazy or worthless- even in jest – they begin to understand those names as descriptive… who they truly are. Over a long enough period, those names can become aspirational… who they expect to be in the future… because they can’t imagine being otherwise

On the other hand, a child who is called by her name,  who is told  – and overhears – that she is loved, treasured, responsible, trying hard, clever, appreciated… has a totally different view of herself, both now and going forward.

Who we were in the past – as children, as teens, as young adults, middle age or older adults, shapes our understanding of who we are today.

Words matter. Names matter.

Coaches, teachers, bosses, neighbors, team-mates, elders, friends, committee members, pastors….  Anyone who can say our names and connect them with words that build up or words that tear down… They have the power to shape not only our reputation but the way we understand our own identity.

This is also the power of the gospel…
The power of the good news of grace…
The power of the redeeming work of God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Through grace by faith, we are no longer children of darkness, but children of light. We are adopted into God’s family, brothers and sisters, co-heirs with Christ.
Our names are no longer the sins that we carry.
Our names are no longer the lies we were told.

Your name, my name, our names are now written in the book of life. And they are spoken with more affection than all our hearts combined could ever hope to hold.

God speaks your name and says, “You are worthy; you are beloved; you are mine.”

Would you look at the people nearest you?  Take just a moment to look…
Look at their eyes, and see this truth. They need to hear those words out loud once in a while. Just like you do. Just like I do.   

Now, I’m not going to make you say something right this instant… God knows there is enough awkwardness in the world without my adding any more to  it…

But I want you to do this…
Sometime in the next week, would you text, call or email, or write an actual letter, or maybe walk up and talk  to at least one person sitting near you? Let them know that you see them, that you see Christ in them, and that God loves them. Bonus if your interaction includes a hug.  

Because here’s what I  know to be true.

Some people in the church and outside the church have experienced this congregation as mean, as hurtful, as rude and uncaring. Not all the time, certainly. And not every person, for sure. But often enough that our identity in the community is less associated with love than we would like.

The only hope we have to change that perception… The only hope we have to change our name, is to practice love.  Within these walls, in the kitchen, in the choir loft, in my study, in the parking lot, and under those beautiful trees.

We practice love by spending time seeking God, by being in the presence of God’s love, learning more about God’s faithfulness through the stories of our spiritual ancestors, experiencing the music of the gospel. and the beauty of the psalms.

The analogy of putting on your oxygen mask before helping someone else has been done to death. But it’s absolutely correct here. If we are not connecting to the God of love, the source of all love, we cannot hope to have sufficient love and grace to offer any to the world.

We also practice love by loving ourselves, by learning to trust in the forgiveness God offers so that we walk away from shame and leave the past in the past.  By taking care of our physical and emotional needs, by making space for spiritual growth through service that is inspired by and inspires our passions.

And we practice love by loving others as ourselves…Offering grace and pointing to God’s grace, so that they too might walk without shame and leave their past in the past. Speaking to and treating each person the way you would hope to be treated on your most fragile days… Setting aside judgment for acceptance and choosing to listen rather than simply wait for the next chance to jump in and argue.

We practice love here, where we know or can at least expect to experience grace, so that we might love well wherever God leads us. We practice love here, so that love becomes a part of the name by which we are known.

First Presbyterian Church, where love is freely given.

Might be a little long for a card, but it’s a name to live up to.


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