A New Name

Based on: Genesis 32:22-31

“I am between a rock and a hard place – there’s no way out.”  Have you ever heard someone say those words? Have you ever felt trapped – you cannot move forward and you cannot move back?  Yes, even Christians feel this way sometimes.  Paul said he was "hard pressed on every side."  In the psalms King David talks about his enemies encircling him. 

We just read about Jacob.  He grew up in Canaan, but for the past twenty years he lived in Haran.  Now he was moving back to Canaan.  He was in a tight spot with no way out that he could see.  His uncle Laban didn’t want him back in Haran and 20 years ago his brother Esau in Canaan had promised to kill Jacob.  Now he has found out that the brother Esau, the one who wanted to kill him, is coming with 400 men to meet him. 

Yet Jacob cannot pretend to be the innocent victim.  Jacob’s own sin had caused his problem.  He knew it too.  He knew he had lived up to his own name "Jacob" which literally means "heel grabber" and in a figurative sense – "deceiver."  He used his own skill and cunning to grab people by the heel and trip them up so that he could have the advantage.  Now he is paying the price.

Let’s look at Jacob.  You know, he is probably not much different than many of us.  Let’s follow Jacob down into the ravine and across the Jabbok, a stream that flows into the Jordan River.  What was going through his mind that night as he moved his family and possessions across the river?  He certainly had plenty of time to think about all he had done to cause his own problems.

Perhaps he remembered the time he cheated his brother out of his birthright – that special inheritance that belonged to Esau as the firstborn.  Jacob certainly lived up to his name, “heel grabber”, and deceiver.  Esau was tired and hungry and Jacob saw his opportunity.  He told Esau, “I’ll give you a meal if you give me the birthright.”  It wasn’t a fair trade.  Jacob took advantage of his brother, Esau.  At the time it seemed like a good deal to him.

Jacob would soon meet his brother again, but for now he had to get his family across the Jabbok River.  As he saw his sons cross the river could he help but think about what kind of son he had been? Twenty years earlier Jacob lied to his father so he could get the blessing his father intended to give to Esau.  Of course this is the blessing that God said Jacob should get so Jacob thought he was helping God out.  But Esau was devastated and vowed to kill his brother Jacob.  Jacob immediately fled to Haran, where his uncle Laban lived.  Now that Jacob is on his way back to Canaan, I wonder if his own conscience troubled him with the thought, “What a horrible son I was.  I am rightly named Jacob – a “heel grabber”, a deceiver – even to my own father.”

When he left Canaan Jacob had nothing.  Now he was a wealthy man.  All of his flocks had to cross this river – flocks that he earned by working for his uncle Laban.  Actually he wasn’t a completely honest employee for Laban, and maybe at the time he tried to justify himself by thinking about how Laban wasn’t really fair with him either.  Now Laban didn’t want him around and Jacob had to admit God blessed him in spite of it all – in spite of the fact that he was Jacob, a “heel grabber” and a deceiver.

Jacob finishes moving his family and all his wealth to the other side of the Jabbok, but he stays alone to pray.  As he is praying a man pushes him to the ground and starts wrestling with him.  What is going on!  Doesn’t Jacob have enough stress already?  Does he need one more problem in his life?  These two men roll around on the ground – the dust getting in their hair and on their clothes. 

Then Jacob realizes this is no ordinary stranger.  God himself is wrestling with him!  God even dislocates Jacob’s hip, wrenches it out of its socket.  Jacob is certainly no match for God.  Why, God, why?  Why are you doing this? 

What would you tell Jacob if you were God?  Maybe something like this, “Jacob, you never came to me with your problems.  You tried to solve them yourself – and you did it in your own sinful way.  I should just destroy you right here and be done with you.”  Isn’t that what he deserves?  Jacob knows, as do we, that God would be perfectly just in laying all of us flat on the ground in the dust of eternal death.  We know what Jacob deserves.  Will God now pin Jacob to the ground and give this “heel grabber” the same punishment we deserve for our lies and our deceit?

No! Jacob knows that God must keep his promises.  He remembers the time when God gave him a vision of stairs going up to heaven and angels going up and down those stairs.  God promised to bless Jacob.

As the wrestling ends, God says, “Let me go!  The sun is coming up, let me go!”  But Jacob holds on tight to God and says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  Jacob is telling God, “You promised to bless me, and I will hold you to your promise.  I will not let go!”  I can just see the smile grow on the face of God.  Yes, Jacob you understand!  You see, God wants Jacob and all his children to hold on to him tight and say “Keep your promises, Lord!  I will not let go until you do!”  He loves to wrestle with his children this way.

Jacob won!  God does bless him, but first God asks for his name.  Of course, God already knows Jacob’s name, but Jacob is forced to say it and forced to think about what it means, “My name is Jacob. . . my name is heel grabber . . . my name is deceiver, and oh how shamefully I have lived up to that name!”  God immediately replies, “Not heel grabber . . . your name is no longer Jacob but Israel.”  Israel means he has struggled with God and with men and has overcome.  This man understands how to wrestle with God – to hold God to his promises.

God didn’t at this point sit down with Jacob and say, “These are the steps I am going to take to get you out of this mess you are in . . . .”  Jacob doesn’t know how God will solve his problem, but he does know that God will solve his problem and so he can go with confidence to meet his brother.  When these two brothers finally meet after twenty years, this is what happens, “But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept” (Genesis 33:4).  Esau did not kill Jacob. God did keep his promise to this man now called Israel . . . this man who wrestled with God.

God brought Jacob to the point where he could no longer depend on himself.  Jacob had no tricks he could use to get himself out of this situation.  Jacob had to realize that if he continued to trust in himself there was no hope – no choice but despair.  Has God brought you to that point?  Has he brought trouble or tragedy into your lives so that you realize you must rely on his promises?

You also understand how to wrestle with God.  You also received a new name that gives you the right to hold God to his promises.  That new name is “Child of God.”  You received it at your Baptism, when the Holy Spirit entered your heart and created faith in our Lord Jesus.  Now you can hold on to God and say, “You promised, Lord!  You promised!” 

Of course, the promise we hold on to the tightest is the promise of forgiveness.  God promises to remove our sins for Jesus’ sake.  All of the little lies and deceptions, all of the times we try to get ahead in a sinful way – they are all forgiven.  Even Jacob’s sins of cheating his brother, lying to his father, and trying to take advantage of his uncle Laban, are all wiped away because of Jesus.  You see, one of the promises Jacob was holding on to was the promise of the coming Savior. 

When our Savior, Jesus, did come, he wrestled with temptation and overcame temptation for us.  Then our Savior, Jesus, allowed himself to be overcome by death on the cross so we could have the victory over death.  Finally our Savior, Jesus was raised to life on Easter morning as the guarantee that our sins are forgiven and as the assurance that we will also be raised to life one day to live with him forever in heaven.  And we will live there in heaven with all other believers, including this man called Israel.

All sin causes problems, and sometimes, whether by our own sins or not, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.  Even at these times we know God will protect us.  King David said he was surrounded by enemies but also calls God his shield and fortress.  The apostle Paul said, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed.”  We may not know how God will protect us or eventually lead us out of these difficult places, but we know that he will.  Trusting in this we continue on, perhaps with tears on our cheek from our painful experiences, but also with joy, excited by God’s promises.  We are just waiting to see how he fulfills them!

So, put your arms around God and say, “You promised, Lord!  I will not let go!”  God loves to have you wrestle with him in this way.  In fact, as proof, he has given you a new name – “Child of God.”  

Amen.

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