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Facing God, Facing Self ~ Genesis 32: 9-31

I think it’s safe for me to say that nearly once a week someone has asked me some form of the question, “Is Clover your real name?”  It’s usually followed by the question, “How did you get the name?”  I’ve always wished I could answer, “My parents were flower children… hippies…they followed the Grateful Dead.”   But no; not that interesting. My mom was raised on a farm in Saskatchewan where she decided as a young girl that she would name a daughter, Clover.”

Because Clover was my name, I was not attuned to how strange of a name it is. In fact, I remember the moment the epiphany came.

I was 17 and I met another girl named… Meadow. We were introduced to each other and it was as if simultaneously we shared the aha! moment—OH…that’s how strange my name is! We shared a huge laugh.

What’s in a name? A name can shape your life. It’s no wonder that rock stars and actors change their names to give the most impact. Bob Dylan had a bit more punch than Robert Zimmerman; Marilyn Monroe more than Norma Jeane Mortenson; Cher more than Cherilyn Sarkasian LePier.

Some people grow into their names. Michael Luther King was so taken by the story of the great 16th century Reformer, Martin Luther, that Michael returned from Germany and changed his name to Martin Luther King.  And, of course, he named his young son, Martin Luther King Jr.  And we know that child grew into his name, and became a great Reformer himself.

Currently we are witnessing the impact and the weight the name Barak Hussein Obama carries. It’s not a name Americans are familiar with and it has caused a stir in some quarters.

Our story of the patriarch Jacob is a story about the weight of a name. How a name brought transformation to a man and a nation.

I like to imagine that for centuries Jewish children have asked their parents, “How did we get the name Israel?”

Well, let me tell you…they would answer. And would launch into a spectacular tale of their great, great, great grandfather, Jacob, who earned his name, Israel.

Let me give you a bit of the story of Jacob so that we have some context for our story this morning.     Our third Patriarch was a person whose life was best illustrated by conflict. Jacob had been a wrestler, a grabber, a narcissist since birth. It all started when he grabbed the ankle of his twin brother, Esau, as they struggled to come forth from Rebekah’s womb. Esau however emerged first, and rightfully was given the birthright of his father, Isaac; Esau was to carry on the promise God gave to Esau’s grandfather, Abraham.

However, his mother Rebekah favored Jacob. She worked with Jacob conniving to help him steal the birthright from his brother. Jacob was a trickster and willingly cooperated with his mother’s devious scheme, successfully supplanting Esau as the receiver of the birthright and blessing. When he discovered what had transpired, Esau was so enraged that he swore to kill his brother as soon as their father died.

Jacob instead fled the country in order that he might find sanctuary in his mother’s brother’s house. The house of Laban.

After 20 years, through the most crazy family machinations and conflicts, Jacob was called by God to return home to the land of his father. He set out with two daughters of Laban, now his wives, 11 children, and the tremendous wealth he built.

And true to his history, he left an enraged father in law behind him; and a potentially  enraged twin brother ahead of him. Bookends of strife.

Jacob expected Esau’s anger to be smoldering.  He strategized how he would appease his brother’s wrath, even if his appeasement strategy risked his own family’s demise.

After coming to the place of rest before the deep River Jabbok, Jacob gathered all the animals and servants and put them into groups to become gifts for Esau. He decided to send them ahead to Esau—drove by drove by drove,  hoping that even if Esau destroyed the first group, he would not destroy the subsequent parties.

Jacob waited by the river with his closest kin—wives, children, and servants—until it was time.  And he sent ahead of him all he had.
Verse 24, I believe, is the fulcrum in the story: Jacob was left alone.

Jacob was alone, stripped of all that had made him who he was. His wives, his eleven sons; his wealth; his possessions; the identity he had attained. He was left alone to face head-on his own terror, distress, regrets, and most certainly his fear for the future.

All alone.  It’s no surprise that it was at that point that
Jacob engaged in the most important wrestling match of his life.

Jacob discovered as many of us do, that when we are left alone, there might arise a show-down between the warring selves within us.

Was the wrestling partner a man, an angel, or God?  It seems that the narrator leaves it intentionally ambiguous.  The wrestling scene has been captured by countless artists. Rembrandt’s painting is of Jacob with a lovely angel. The two of them together communicate more of a dance, or a lover’s embrace, than a scrappy brawl. Rembrandt seems to capture the intimacy between the human and the divine.

Sometimes it can look a like a struggle; another time it is appears to be a dance.

Solitude brings us to a place where we can see what we’re really made of.

Being left alone can bring forth what’s deep inside…who we are.

Being left alone can also reveal our deep desire to change, and our helplessness to do so on our own.

So the wrestling we do in solitude becomes an encounter with both our deepest selves and the presence of God.

It’s no wonder that as a culture we are terrified of being alone. We do nearly anything to fill the empty space: music, ipods, cell phones, television, computer. Endless chatter that keeps us from facing our selves, from facing God.

The Desert Fathers from the earliest centuries did not go into the desert to escape from world. They went into the desert ultimately to face themselves and to find God in the midst of that struggle. St. Anthony from the third century lived in complete solitude in the desert for 20 years. During those years, the Bishop Athanasius, wrote that Anthony experienced a terrible trial. “The shell of his superficial securities was cracked and the abyss of iniquity was opened to him. After the battle with himself, he came out victoriously because he unconditionally surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He emerged from solitude a changed man. A healthy man, in body, mind and soul. People flocked to him for his wisdom and healing.”   Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

In the film, The Apostle, Robert Duvall, who played a Pentecostal preacher, kills a man and then flees to save his skin. The most memorable scene for me is when this ambivalent character, Sonny, has his own wrestling match. He argues fiercely with God through the night. Still confident that God had called him to the preach the gospel, Sonny believes without a doubt that God’s hand is still upon him—despite his criminal behavior.   During the long night, Sonny argues and screams, demanding God’s blessing. “I am mad at you Lord. Mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad! I have been your servant, albeit not a great one. But you owe me a blessing. Give me peace!” Before dawn, Sonny wrestled a blessing out of God.    God granted him a new vocation

Isn’t it interesting that wrestling often happens during the night. In the dark. In private. In our hearts and souls.  When we are totally alone, facing ourselves, is when the battle ensues.

Honest tussling with self and God is so deeply human that the writers of these ancient narratives made sure they were included in the scriptures.  These stories are true in so far as they communicate the truth of human experience. Truthful experience right here for us in this sanctuary.

What are you wrestling with in your life?
Your conflicting values, secret keeping, desires, addictions, truth telling, faith, doubt, or plain and simply the pressures of life that demand so much?

Are there wrestling matches you have been avoiding? Truth you’ve been running from?

It’s essential that we have time and space and solitude to take our wrestling seriously. As painful as it can be, we need to be left alone at times to explore those parts of our selves where we’ve been wounded, or where we are perplexed.    As one writer said, “Faithful as we may be, few of us escape long, dark nights of questioning, doubting, and arguing with the Holy One.”  (Bruce Epperly)

In the midst of the struggle with Jacob, God says, I must go for dawn is coming.  And it is again Jacob’s boldness which drives him to insist from his opponent,
“You must not leave until I receive a blessing.”

I imagine a slight smile on God’s face. So the match is a draw. God gives Jacob a weighty blessing, a new name, and a new identity.  ISRAEL. v. 28: for “you have striven with God.”

Jacob’s life has been one struggle after another, from birth on. And now in the midst of the most important one of all–
he saw God face to face and lived to tell about it.
But he went away with a mean limp that always served as a reminder of the night of transfiguration.
As one scholar put it: “This new name, Israel, will be a sign of a new era in Jacob’s life; it gives meaning to his future life; he now has a mission. Jacob is no longer just cunning; he is now divinely commissioned, Israel: father of God’s chosen people. Just as he struggled with God, so does the nation.”
We get a glimpse of things to come for God’s people.
Are you ready for a new name? Have you grown weary of the old self?
I heard an interview of a high school girl who grew up taking classes geared for kids who were academically challenged. In high school however a teacher told her that she was bright and should be in an honors class. The girl said, “I had never been called smart. And when she told me I was smart, and that I could be in honors, I became smart. I grew into that new name.”
“Who names you?  Who tells you who you are?
Is it God?  or is it the myriad of competing voices from the world:  money, wealth, power, the media, your past mistakes and regrets, your enemies, your boss, or your insecurities and fears?
The story of Jacob leaves each of us wrestling with our answers to the most personal questions.
Are you in your own wrestling match right now?
Will you dare not to let go until the struggle produces a blessing?
What name do you really desire?
When you wrestle honestly with God—when your heart and soul are in it—there is no loser.
God promises that when the struggle is over, you’ll be given a name—the only name that ever really matters…God’s Beloved Child.
To the Holy One who is able and willing to do far more—to believe far more in us — than we can think or even imagine,  be glory and honor forever. Amen.