by David Baer, September 27, 2015
Text: Genesis 32:22-30
The world lost a great baseball player and a good man this past week. Yogi Berra took part in the World Series on 14 occasions and helped bring his team victory in 10 of those. Pitchers were scared to face him, because he’d swing at—and hit—any pitch that came anywhere near the plate, whether or not it was in the strike zone. His bat was so fast that he could even hit a pitch that had just passed him. And Yogi’s tongue was just as quick as his bat. Every time he seemed to misspeak, he’d turn a crazy nonsequitur into a saying that made sense, something profound even. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” he said, which sounds like a truism, something so obvious it’s trivial… except for the fact that now everybody says it! Once he was complaining about a certain restaurant, Rigazzi’s in St. Louis, and he said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” We’ll finally get to see if he was right about this last one, which is my favorite: “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
Yogi Berra was born Lawrence Peter Berra, but as a young ball player he got his nickname from a friend who thought he looked like an Indian yogi he had seen in a movie. The name stuck, and it fit a man who had such mastery over his own body and such delightful mental agility too. His sayings are called yogi-isms, and there’s really no other name for them. (On the other hand, he also told us, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”)
Names matter. Whether they are given or chosen, they remind us who we are supposed to be. Pope Francis, who is visiting the U.S. this week, is the first Roman Catholic pontiff to take that name. As a young Jesuit priest, he says, he exercised leadership in an “authoritarian” way, demanding strict obedience. “I am in charge, and you will obey me,” was how he led others as a young man. But after going through a period of personal crisis and uncertainty, he emerged as a leader who had learned the power of humility. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he rode the subway. As pope he has personally washed the feet of juvenile delinquents–two of them Muslim—telling them he is at their service. He decided not to live in the simple but majestic Apostolic Palace at the Vatican, but instead he has his quarters in a dormitory that houses other priests. He explains that it is not good for someone to live apart from others—he needs community, he says. As I watched the news coverage of his visit this week, I noticed a theme: those who met Pope Francis, from a 13-year-old Catholic school student to the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, were astonished that he said to them, “Please pray for me.” As elevated as his position might be, he presents himself as someone who needs the prayers of ordinary people. Given that this is his temperament and given that this is the message he wants to send about how the Christian life is to be lived, it’s no surprise that he chose the name of Francis of Assisi, the son of a merchant who gave away his wealth and lived as a poor beggar, preaching the gospel of Jesus and caring for the sick. This name matters. It communicates identity and purpose.
Our Hebrew Scripture story today is about a man named Jacob. Jacob’s name mattered too. What does this name mean, and how did he get it? You might remember last week we heard the story of how God made good on a promise to Abraham and Sarah, turning their scornful laughter into joyful laughter by giving them a long-awaited son named Isaac. Isaac grew up and married Rebecca, who gave birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau came out first, so he was technically the oldest, the heir—but Jacob came out right behind him, clutching at his heel. They named him “Jacob,” which means heel-grabber. Grabbing the heel, then as now, was seen as an underhanded, sneaky way to fight, and it was a metaphor for seeking advantage through trickery. So “Jacob” also meant trickster. And Jacob lived up to his name. It fit. When it came time for his father Isaac to pass on the family blessing to his son Esau, Jacob impersonated his brother and tricked his father into giving him the blessing instead. Ever since then, Jacob has been on the run from Esau, who has vowed to kill his brother. He stayed for a number of years with his uncle Laban, who was another trickster. In the mean time he’s married twice, has a number of children, and considerable wealth in the form of animals.
God has called him to return home, and he’s not sure what he’s going to find when he gets there. He’s just received word that his brother Esau is approaching him with 400 armed men. That can’t be a good sign! Jacob sends him presents of goats, sheep, camels, cattle, donkeys in order to appease him. Because of the danger, presumably, he sends his family hurrying ahead, while he stays behind by himself to face Esau alone.
And it is while he is alone, late at night, that he finds himself wrestling with a man. Who is this? The story doesn’t directly reveal the identity of this man. His face can’t be seen because of the darkness. For all Jacob knows it could be Esau. But although Jacob doesn’t know with whom he is wrestling, they continue to struggle, bodies pressed together, grappling with one another, their muscles straining to gain an advantage as the night wears on. With daybreak approaching, the stranger knocks his hip out of joint and demands that Jacob let him go. The story doesn’t tell us why the stranger is so eager to leave before sunrise, but it’s a hint that this is no ordinary person. In fact, if it is God that Jacob has been wrestling, then this may be a kindness—no one can see God and live. Who knows what might happen to Jacob if the rising sun shows him God’s face? But if this is God, what a strange story this is! What kind of man can wrestle God to a stalemate?
Jacob, stubborn as ever, hears the stranger’s plea, and he tries to turn the situation to his advantage. He hasn’t been able to overcome his opponent with his strength, so now he tries bargaining. “I will not let you go,” he says, “unless you bless me.” The stranger asks his name, and Jacob answers, a little too quickly, “Jacob.” Giving your name is a risk, because someone could just as easily invoke it in a curse as in a blessing. But the stranger doesn’t curse him. Instead, he gives Jacob a new name, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
A new name! The old name was tied up in trickery and deceit. It spoke to an identity, a character that brought Jacob a broken family. It sent him into exile and still has him fearing his brother. Oh, Jacob knew all too well his old self, and he carried the pain of it with him right up to that very night.
But here’s a new name. You are no longer Jacob, God tells him. You are no longer defined by your old self. You have a new name, Israel, “God struggles.” God came crashing down on you in the night and you held your own, you wrested a blessing from the lips of the Almighty, though not without injury, not without pain.
Jesus too knew what it was to wrestle with God, didn’t he? Today we heard about him praying in Gethsemane, offering God himself—his fears, his doubt, his distress—and yielding himself to the purposes of God. “Not what I want,” he prayed, “but what you want.” Jesus was going to live out the meaning of his name, “Yeshua,” “he saves,” on the cross.
What names do you carry? Some people know me as David. Some people call me pastor and some little people call me daddy. There are also the names I’ve called myself, wrestling late at night with insecurities and fears. Each of the names we carry opens some possibilities for who we can and ought to be, and each name closes off some other possibilities. And some names come from God. Some lead us along a path of purpose and passion as we pursue the things God calls us to chase after. But I can’t think of any one of those names that truly matters to me, I can’t think of any role or identity I truly believe God has called me to, that I haven’t learned and lived into without struggle and tears and prayer.
Where are your struggles today? Maybe you’re struggling with family relationships, the way Jacob was. Maybe you’re aching over the painful but necessary path that’s in front of you, like Jesus was. Maybe you’re living with grief or struggling through a change in your circumstances. When you’re wrestling, it’s hard to think of anything but the struggle. But just maybe God is revealing something new to you about who you are, or who you are going to be. Hold on, don’t let go, because day is breaking, because the struggle has to end, because your new name is waiting to be spoken, if you listen for it.
Something mysterious happens because of Jacob’s encounter with God. He names the place “Peniel,” or “face of God,” because, as he says, he came face to face with God, and yet he lived. I’m not so sure about that. I think the old Jacob died, and a new man, Israel, took his place, bearing his wounds and his blessing. Israel met with his brother Esau, humbly, offering restitution for the blessing he stole. And he said something striking to him too. Straight after coming face to face with God, he begs Esau to accept his gifts because, he says, “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Whatever the conflicts in your life, God is in them. God is there in our families, in our neighbors, in our enemies to be served and honored. Those who are wounded and blessed by God like Jacob was are apt to see God’s face everywhere.
May God use your struggles to bless you, to name you, to give you a new beginning. Amen.