‘Say my name; say my name…’
After a quick ‘Only Connect’ game about names, we thought about Abraham, his son Isaac, and his son Jacob…So Jacob had a bit of an inauspicious start as he was born grabbing at his brother’s ankle and so was called ‘Jacob’ or ‘Grabber’. Growing up, he encountered a few identity issues as his older brother Esau was big, hairy, a hunter and met all the gender stereotypes that existed at the time (many still do today) whilst Jacob was smooth, slight, and a bit of a mummy’s boy. Literally. He was his mum’s favourite. In fact, Jacob and his mum, Rebecca, would often plot to get Jacob special treatment, like when they tricked his brother and Dad to get the special firstborn blessing – a bit like writing yourself into a will. So, Isaac is getting old and deaf, calls Esau for the blessing but Jacob puts on his brother’s clothes, sticks some goat hair on his skin, and pretends to be his brother! When his brother finds out about this, he vows to one day kill Jacob!
Anyway, a few episodes on from that – Jacob is on the run after tricking another family member – his uncle – and he’s about to meet his brother again. This time, he goes for flattery over trickery and decides to try and bribe his brother’s forgiveness by sending him loads of presents – goats, donkeys, camels – your typical ‘I’m sorry’ present…but before he meets him, he has one night on his own…
Reading: Genesis 32:22-32
Okay – so Jacob – ‘the grabber’ becomes Israel ‘he who wrestles with God’. We’re going to think a little bit about what that means in a minute but first – I wonder what your name says about you. Perhaps you know the meaning of your first name. Perhaps not. Perhaps your surname speaks of your heritage, your family identity, or your ancestors’ profession. Perhaps you’ve been given a nickname that says something about who you are or perhaps, like Jacob in the Bible or our friends in the trans community, or – as we heard just this week – Mo Farrah, your given name might say something of the journey you’ve been on…the heartache or the joys which have come your way over the years.
Well, whatever it might or might not say about you, The Bible tells us that God knows each of our names. In fact – we’re told that our names our written on the palms of God’s hands. Not literally, of course – but it gives us a picture of God as a proud parent who has the names of all their children tattooed on their wrists. We’re going to sing a song about that name so I invite you to remain seated as we declare that your name and my name are written on the palm of God’s hands…
Hymn: Written on the palm of God’s hand
So…back to the ultimate wrestling match! And it’s not every day that you get into a tussle with God but there Jacob is – alone and by the river at night when this guy comes along – which most readers believe to be God – and wrestles with Jacob until daybreak once he has given him a new name and a blessing. Let’s be honest – it’s a bit of an odd story, isn’t it?! From the sudden appearance of the wrestler to his need to be done by daybreak, as if he was some kind of vampire who couldn’t be in sunlight – it is rather unusual which is partly why some people think it’s a metaphor – that this didn’t happen literally – blow by blow, if you will – but is rather an image for someone wrestling with their demons in the darkness of night. Given what awaited Jacob the next day – seeing the big brother who had wanted to kill him and who is coming with 400 men to boot – the image of him wrestling with God, or his own conscience, through the long night is quite relatable. How many of us have woken at 3am wrestling with anxiety or guilt, thinking through what we might say to a family member or someone else we have wronged?!
And – whether literal or metaphorical – I imagine that we can all relate to one aspect or another of Jacob’s story. Perhaps some of us here relate to the tension in his childhood home where Jacob’s pushing beyond gender norms caused him and others a little discomfort. Perhaps others of us can relate to the pain of broken relationships within a family where parents playing favourites or sibling jealousies have led to pain, trauma, and the tendency to rely on no one other than yourself. Or perhaps you can relate to being called, labelled, condemned by a single name or label. For Jacob, that name was ‘grabber’ and he lived into it by relying on his wits and duping everyone – even loved ones – out of everything he could. And that name stuck. Before the days of PR, Instagram, and Facebook, your name in the ancient world said something of your identity – it told or warned people who you were and how you might behave. And Jacob was a grabber. Someone who couldn’t share, trust, or be trusted. Someone to avoid.
I wonder what names you have been labelled with. I wonder what past behaviour is brought up time and time again to define and demean you in the eyes of others. Liar, perhaps. Adulterer or addict. Unwanted, disappointment, weird. I wonder how that’s shaped your life journey.
Well, ours, like Jacob’s, is far from over. By that River Jabbok, Jacob spent the night in turmoil, grappling with the God who had been with him from the start. The God who gives Jacob a new name and blesses him.
So what is this strange interlude in Jacob’s life all about? I think it tells us that the names the world gives us is not the name God knows us by. I think it tells us that we might often deceive others and even ourselves, encouraging others to avoid us but that God never will. I think it tells us that we while we are so often be labelled by the behaviour of our past; we might be untrusting or untrustworthy, anxious or guilt-ridden, God instead blesses us with a new name, a new path, a new start. I think it tells us that no one is irredeemable, no situation hopeless, no people forgotten. I think it tells us that whilst our Earthly family will sometimes fall into games, jealousies, and favourites – the deeper truth is that there is nothing we can do to make God love us anymore; that there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less.
And there’s a word for this. It’s grace. A word that theologians have tried to capture in hundreds of thousands of books but essentially it means that God loves us because God loves us because God loves us. It means that we are eternally and extravagantly loved, not because of who we are, what we own, what our name is, or how we behave, but because God looks upon us with the loving eyes of a parent who has our names written on their skin. It means that a trickster like Jacob can be given a new name, a blessing, and a transformed identity. It means taking seriously the brokenness of our world but saying that it doesn’t end there for love will win; broken relationships will be healed; families will be reconciled.
For Jacob and his brother Esau, that happened pretty soon after that night, when Esau ran out to his brother, not to hit him but to hug him. For us, we might still have some road to travel. But grace tells us we do so in the presence of the God, who we often seem to wrestle with, who sometimes even gives us a bit of a limp, but who always soaks us wonderful, world-changing love.
We’re going to sing about this now as we sing the famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. It is a hymn that was written by the former slave-trader John Newton, who had much in common with Jacob for he, too, had a difficult childhood, had a reputation for being an untrustworthy guy, indulged in some very unethical behaviour before, one night by water, he had an encounter with God which changed his life for good. We hear something of this journey in his words…