“What is Your Name?” Genesis 32:22-31 Rev. Jeff Allen February 12, 2012

“What is Your Name?”
Genesis 32:22-31
Rev. Jeff Allen
February 12, 2012
I want to start by thanking the Wittenberg Choir for being with us in worship this morning.
When I realized that they were going to be with us this weekend, I had a sneaking suspicion
that we might be looking at the same scripture passage this morning as we did last March – the
last time they were with us. When I looked it up, sure enough, it was the same scripture
I want the choir to know that we do look at different passages of scripture. This isn’t the only
story from the Bible that we read. We may be slow learners, but we don’t spend 11 months on
the same scripture passage!
For the past several weeks, we’ve been looking at the questions that God asks in the Bible.
Questions like: What are you looking for? Where is your brother? Who do you say that I am? Do
you want to get well?
This morning, our focus is on the question, “What is your name?”
Names are incredibly important. It has been said that the most beautiful sound in any language
is the sound of your own name. We all know how much more meaningful it is when someone is
able to call you by name when they speak to you, and we know how frustrating it can be when
someone calls us by the wrong name.
Think about the extent to which expectant parents debate when trying to choose the name for
their child. We want to get it just right. We want the name to sound good, to represent
something about our child or to connect them with someone by giving them a family name.
Writers throughout history have understood the power of a name. In the Harry Potter series,
the most villainous of all villains is often referred to as "he who must not be named." Even
saying the name of Lord Voldemort meant that something bad might befall the speaker.
William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” is focused around the difficulty lovers face
when their family names prevent their romance. It is in this play when we hear Juliet offer that
famous line, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as
Even children know the power of names and name-calling. Maybe that’s why we came up with
the reminder that “sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us.” It’s a
hopeful reminder, but not really that true. I’ve seen too many people who are broken because
of the names they’ve been called in their life.
In biblical times, names were incredibly important. Especially throughout the Old Testament,
we find biblical characters whose names had particular meanings in Hebrew. They were given
to describe the essence of a person’s character and to symbolize the hopes, expectations, and
dreams that the parents had for their children. Your name described who you were and what
you were meant to become.
In the same way that we understand the meaning of their names when people in our day are
named Faith, Grace, Hope, Joy or Christian, Old Testament characters like Adam, Abraham,
Isaac, Ishmael, had names that meant something in the Hebrew language. The word “Adam” in
Hebrew sounds a lot like the Hebrew word “Adamah” which means “ground” which connects
Adam to the ground from which he was created. “Abraham” in Hebrew means “exalted father”
which connects Abraham to God’s promise to make him the father of many nations. “Isaac”
means “he laughs.” Ishmael means “God hears.” The list could go on and on. Just pay attention
to the text notes in your Bibles and you will see a note about many of the Old Testament
character’s names.
Today we’re looking at the story of Jacob, another character whose name had a significant
meaning. In order to fully understand the relevance of Jacob’s name, we need to spend some
time remembering the full life-story of Jacob.
His story literally begins with his birth. Jacob was a twin. His twin brother Esau was the first one
born, and we should remember that being the first-born son had privileges in those times. As
the story goes, when Jacob came out of his mother’s womb, he was gripping the heel of his
brother Esau, almost as if he was trying to pull Esau back into the womb so that Jacob could be
the first-born. In Hebrew, the name Jacob literally means “he takes by the heel” or “he
deceives.” From the very beginning, Jacob was trying to get one over on his brother. So much
so that his very name came from that identity.
Throughout his life, Jacob lives up to, or lives into, his name. The very next episode in his life
that we read about in the scriptures is a scene where Esau came in from the fields and was
famished. Jacob was cooking a stew and Esau asked him for some of it. You might think Jacob
would say something like, “Sure, brother! No problem!” If so, you would think wrong. Jacob’s
response to his starving brother’s request for food was this: “First, sell me your birthright.” Not
a lot of compassion there, but it worked for Jacob because Esau sold him his birthright.
The next time we come across Jacob and Esau in the scriptures, their father Isaac was near
death. Their mother Rebekah overheard Isaac telling Esau to prepare for him to receive his
father’s blessing. Now Rebekah loved Jacob more than Esau, so Rebekah hatched a plan to trick
Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. Oh, the lengths they had to go to pull it
off! Since Isaac was blind and Esau was so hairy, Jacob had to put some goat skin on his hands
and neck so that if Isaac asked to feel him he would feel as hairy as Esau.
Sure enough, when the time came, Isaac said, “You sound like Jacob. Are you sure you are
Esau? Come here and let me feel you to make sure.” The goat skin worked, and Jacob, the
deceiver, got his way and received Isaac’s blessing. Esau came back shortly thereafter to receive
his blessing, only to find out that Jacob had stolen it.
This sent Esau into a rage. The only thing that could console him was the thought of killing
Jacob once the period of mourning for his father had passed. So Jacob fled the country for fear
of his life. He spent the next twenty years of his life estranged from his family, afraid to return
because of what Esau might do to him when he returned.
This is where we are in the story when we get to today’s scripture reading. Jacob is preparing to
return to Esau and he is worried. He is scared. He thinks Esau will kill him as soon as he sees
him. After all, it would be fitting revenge for all that Jacob did to Esau throughout his life. So
Jacob spends the night alone, camping by a stream. Throughout that night, until daybreak,
Jacob wrestled with God.
In the midst of their wrestling match, God asks Jacob, “What is your name?” As God is so able
to do, God gets directly to the heart of the matter and names the issue. Jacob had been
wrestling all night with his hopes and fears, his dreams and nightmares, his past, present, and
future, and they were all tied up in his name. God knew this, so God asks Jacob, “What is your
It was an invitation to Jacob to come clean about his life. It was an invitation to name the reality
of his life and face up to who he was, the deceiver. If Jacob’s life was ever going to get any
different, he needed to become brutally honest with himself and with God about who he really
In this moment when God asks Jacob, “What is your name?” Jacob comes clean and says, “My
name is Jacob.” He acknowledged who he was and what he had become. He was being honest
with himself and with God for the very first time. He was becoming real. Before God, he was
acknowledging who he had been and what he had done. It was a moment of radical selfhonesty that opened up the way for God to give him a new name.
Pastor and author Trevor Hudson wrote, “Jacob reminds us that if we want to experience inner
change, we must tell God who we truly are, willingly revealing all of ourselves. We need to
acknowledge in God’s presence those parts of our lives that need transformation – our angers
and fears, our critical and gossipy sides, our prejudices, our dishonesty and deception, our
lustful desires and addictions. God never gate-crashes our lives with the Spirit’s transforming
power. God confronts us with a question that challenges us to become totally honest and real.
God asks us, ‘What is your name?’
“When we face up to ourselves, we experience God’s blessing. The God of the Bible loves to
bless, and these blessings come in different and surprising ways. Often they are connected to
what we need most. Sometimes God blesses us with the gift of forgiveness or with a deep
affirmation of our worth or with a new infilling of divine power or with a renewed sense of
belonging or with a fresh awareness of God’s Spirit. All these blessings contribute to the miracle
of inner change. However, before we can receive them, we need to share with God who we are
and what we have done. We need to tell God our name.”1
When he was willing to get honest about himself, Jacob received a new name. God said to him,
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel.” In that moment, God was saying, “You are no
longer the deceiver. From now on you are Israel, the one in whom God rules, the one whose life
is now tied up with God’s purposes, the one who is able to face hard things head-on.” Jacob
lived into that new name. He became Israel, the father of a nation. His life was never the same
This morning, God is asking us, “What is your name?” God is inviting us to be honest with
ourselves, to get real with ourselves. When we do, we can be confident that God will not stand
in judgment of us. We can know that God stands ready to give a blessing, to give us the power
to change our lives, to live into a new day. Are you willing to be honest with yourself and with
Yesterday, a group of about 50 of us gathered here at the church and took an honest look at
ourselves as a church family. In the presence of God and of one another, we named some hard
realities about our life together as a church. We had some powerful and challenging
conversations. Yesterday was an important first step as we begin to discern God’s call upon us
in our next chapter as a congregation. If you were not able to make it yesterday, I encourage
you to come next week to watch the video synopsis during the Sunday school hour or after
church. Ask anyone who was here yesterday. I think you’ll find that they’ll say it will be worth
your time. If you can’t make it next Sunday, copies of the video will be available for you to take
home and watch at your convenience.
Let me close with some final words from Trevor Hudson. “What is your name? As we have seen,
God’s question invites us to face up to ourselves. This is seldom easy. It usually takes a great
deal of rigorous self-examination, a radical self-honesty, and much reflection on the way we
have been living. Telling the truth about ourselves to God can be one of the hardest things we
ever do. If it sounds too difficult, may I offer a simple word of encouragement. Becoming
honest with ourselves and wrestling with these things with God opens our lives, like few other
things can, to the incredible depths of God’s grace and acceptance and power. We actually
begin to experience in a deeper way our belovedness.”2
Instead of a closing hymn today, the Wittenberg Choir is going to offer a song. I invite you to
use this time to reflect on God’s question to you this morning. What is your name? Do you long
for a new one? Do you long for a new pattern of life? Are you willing to risk being honest
enough with yourself and with God that you might receive a new name? The good news,
friends, is that if we are willing to do so, we will find God’s blessing on the other side.
Trevor Hudson, “Questions God Asks Us” (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2008) p. 53.
Ibid, p. 58.