Pastor's letter

“Wrestling for a New Name”

The following is taken from a sermon by Rev. Thysan Sam, Cambodian Chaplain for Eliot Church. This sermon was part of Eliot's worship on Aug. 3; it is based on Genesis 32:22-31.

A new name in this passage refers to a person’s different personality, attitude, thought, heart and habit. Most of all, it refers to a new life in Christ and a process of healing. Do you need a new name?

In the Old Testament, a name stands for a person’s reputation, their fame, their glory, and their personality.

For example, Abraham means “father of multitudes.”

David means “beloved.”

But Jacob means “deceiver,” “trickster” or “supplanter.”

For Jacob, his name represents who he is. He gets what he wants by cheating, deceiving and tricking other people.

Jacob was a jealous, selfish and cunning person. He knew what he wanted and he would do anything to get it. He exploited his brother so that his brother sold his birth rights to him. With his mother’s help, he deceived his blind father to steal blessings from Esau.

The consequences of Jacob’s deceit were serious: His brother wanted to kill him; he became a lonely exile; and he never saw his mother again

At the beginning of Genesis 32, Jacob has heard that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob is in a panic. The last time he saw his brother, 20 years ago, his brother was trying to kill him. Now, it seems to him that his brother is coming to make a war.

Our text begins with Jacob sending his wives and children across the river Jabbok. And now he is stuck, unable to cross over toward his brother who is on another side of the river. Instead, Jacob spends the night wrestling with a strange “man.” He is by himself, wresting for his life.

Jacob refuses to submit, to give up, to give in to his opponent, but the struggle brings a severe pain and injury. Jacob’s hip is dislocated by the man’s touch. It is a waking call for him. He seems to know that he has been in conflict with a heavenly messenger. Some scholars believe that it was Christ “the Angle of the covenant and the Second person in Godhead” who had revealed Himself to Jacob.

Then God, or the Angel, said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking up.” The danger is not that God would not be harmed by the daylight, but that Jacob would. If Jacob holds on until daybreak, he is a dead man, for sinners cannot see God. But Jacob does not want to let go until he has a blessing. It seems that Jacob is willing to die if he would not receive a blessing.

Instead of a blessing, a conversation about names comes up. In Genesis 32:27, the Angel says, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answers. This does not mean that God does not know his name, but God is reminding Jacob about his sin, because the name Jacob means “supplanter,” “deceiver,” “trickster.” His name stands for who he is. Here Jacob confesses his weakness and sins.

Then God then gives him a new name, “Israel.” Israel means “he struggles with God,” but it is better translated as “God struggles” or “God rules.” For longer than 20 years, Jacob has struggled with other people to get ahead of them. God also has struggled with him to change his life. Now, when he has a limp or wound, he recognizes his own weakness and sin. He submits his life to God, and God steps in to give him a new name, which stands for his new life, new attitude, new personality.

The next morning a man with new name and a new limp crosses the river, finally, to meet and face his brother, Esau. He may have still been afraid that either the arrow would pierce his heart or the sword would lop off his head. But he is limping forward. Now what happens? We read in Genesis 33:4, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

This is the power of the new name, new life and new attitude that God gives to Jacob, which turns a heart from anger to love, from a desire for vengeance to a desire for a family reunion. There is no war. People on both sides, including children, are safe. Both sides have been blessed with prosperity and increasing in numbers. It is the power of a new name with God’s grace.

Friends, does God give you new names? I believe all of us here have new names. God changes our name from “Sinners” to “Saints.” According to Galatians 3:27, at the moment we accept Christ as our personal Savor and are baptized, God dresses us up with Christ. Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness. This means that God changes our attitude, hearts, our thoughts, and our habits.

But don’t forget the wrestling part before our names are changed. Like Jacob, at some points of our life journey, we hit a low place. We get painful limps and painful wounds. We then realize that we cannot deal with these things ourselves. We admit that we are sinners, weak and unworthy. Then we turn to God for help. At those moments we get our names changed from Sinner to Saint and we become closer to God.

Some of us are still limping daily. These limps or scars are our reminders how God struggles with us and how he changes our life.

Friends, as we come to church to receive God’s blessing and nourishment for our lives, we come limping; we come realizing that we have been broken. Let our pains and disappointments, our pride, our self-centeredness, and our sin be broken apart, but in the breaking there is also a touch of healing.

We come together knowing that we are limping but blessed. We come to be fed. We come to be healed.