August 6, 2017: "Names"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 6, 2017
When I stand in front of you each week, I see more than your faces. I see the person here whose business has gone sour, who is wondering what the future holds. I see the person here who is covered in wounds of grief, facing life without a spouse, or scared of death, or angry that so many obstacles stand in your way. I see the person here whose relationships have turned out to be shallow, false, filled with lies. I see the person here who is wondering how the bills will be paid this month, if the water will be on when you get home from church, whether or not there will be lights on in the morning when you get up. I see the sick person who is told they are incurable, beyond help. I see the person here who is wondering what to do in the later years of life, wondering if there is anything else or if you are just suppose to sit back and wait for the call up yonder. And I see the person here, and it is likely that there are many, who is struggling with faith. I see you. I see all of you.
The good news of God that we hear from the Scriptures today is that not only do I see you, not only do your sisters and brothers in the pews around you see you, God sees you. And God not only sees you, God calls you by name, claims you, and offers you new life that no worldly trial or tribulation can take away. The world may call you a failure, but God has another name for you: beloved. The world may call you broken and wounded and beyond repair, but God has another name for you: redeemed. The world may call you old, elderly, worthless, a burden, but God has another name for you: cherished. The world may call you faithless—you may feel faithless—the world may call you absurd, irrational, unreasonable, but God has another name for you: the apple of God’s eye. The world may not even know your name, but God does. Today. Always. Forever.
Jacob was having some name issues where we find him in the Scriptures today. He came to a place called the River Jabbok and it was there that he faced his hopes and fears, his dreams and nightmares, his past, present, and future all tied up in one. He was not there by accident. Jacob had been a unrelenting scoundrel his whole life and his lifestyle led him to the river that night. As a child, Jacob swindled his twin brother Esau out his inheritance. As a young adult, with his mother’s help, Jacob tricked his blind father into making him the patriarch of the family even though he was the second child. For fifteen years or so as a full-blown adult, Jacob went toe to toe with his uncle Laban over which of Laban’s two daughters he would marry. Wherever Jacob went, he left destruction in his wake and the screams and cries of those he cheated, swindled, conned.
In his middle-aged years, Jacob reopened the wounds that he had caused when he stole his twin brother’s inheritance. Inheritance in ancient Israel was not just about money and property, it was about honor and respect. Jacob stole Esau’s inheritance, and his respect and honor with it. This time, though, Jacob could not sweet talk his way out of it; this time the person he wronged, Esau, was out for blood. Jacob had no choice but to gather the women and children and livestock he had stolen over the course of his life and flee away into the wilderness. Running through that wilderness was the River Jabbok, and in what might have been his only heroic act, Jacob sent his large family across the river ahead of him. At least they might be safe when Esau and his army catch up with Jacob. With everyone across the river, Jacob paces its muddy banks, contemplating whether he will live or die. And then it happens. It is a strange twist in the story—suddenly, out of no where, a man comes and begins to wrestle with Jacob on the banks of the river.
We don’t know the stranger’s name or where he came from. But he and Jacob talked while they were wrestling. After a while, the stranger pleads for Jacob to let him go, but Jacob will not let him go until the stranger blesses him. But Jacob’s opponent won’t bless Jacob until he knows Jacob’s name. Why would the stranger want or need to know Jacob’s name before giving him a blessing? Well, names are never simply names; rather, they are descriptors, indicators of a person’s character. And Jacob’s name is no exception. In Hebrew, Jacob means ‘heel,’ which is ironic considering the Bible says that Jacob was grabbing Esau’s heel as they were born. And Jacob has been grabbing every since. When the stranger, who turns out to be the Lord, demands that Jacob tell him his name, he is actually demanding that Jacob confess his many sins. When Jacob utters his name, he is confessing all his ill-gotten gains, his checkered past, his fears and failures, his shifty arrangements, and impure social interactions. When Jacob tells the stranger his name, he is ‘fessing up to all the wrong he has done since the moment he was born.
Once he does, however, an extraordinary thing happens: the stranger, the Lord, refuses to allow the story to end there. Instead, the Lord gives Jacob a new and more profound name: Israel. Literally it means, ‘the one who has wrestled with God and humans and has prevailed.’ The Lord is generous in giving Jacob this new name. With his new name, Jacob enters into an entirely new reality and a new future awaits. Jacob will pass this name down to many generations, and each will be blessed, so blessed in fact, that from one branch of the family a boy will be born and his parents will name him Jesus.
It is a strange story. But Jacob’s story is so much our own. At one time, as babies or teens or as adults, each of us gathered by some water and were given a new name. I’m speaking, of course, of the sacrament of Baptism. At baptism, God put to rest all that was behind us and we were renamed as those who belong to Jesus Christ. This is where the word Christening comes from—at baptism we are Christ-ended…all that separated us from God and the world is ended in the name and power of Jesus Christ. On the other side of the baptismal waters, there is no name, no condition, no suffering or shame that can claims us. Christ has claimed us. We belong to Christ.
So I return to where I started. I see you today. I see you today and God sees you, and we know the pain and the struggles and the suffering that you carry around with you—we know the names that the world has put on you, that weigh you down, that lead down the path to death. And I want you to know that if God’s generosity of forgiveness and new life can be extended to a scoundrel like Jacob, God’s generosity can and will be extended to you. We carry around in our bodies failures beyond counting, fears beyond recognition, dirty dealing beyond any sense of morality, but at the waters of baptism, God ended their power over us and claimed us as his own. In the very dark night of our souls, when we stand on the bridge over troubled waters, when monsters assail in the dark of night, and we only grow weaker as the sun begins to rise, God is there. God is there to wrestle with us, not against us, with us, until we are ready to ask for a blessing. When we ask, God gives—there are no conditions, there are no requirements, there are no prerequisites—God gives and God gives generously and in abundance. That is the start of new life and that new life starts today if we are willing to take upon ourselves the only name that matters: Christian.
No matter the names you have collected over the years—failure, sick, worthless, no good, dirty, lonely, uncouth, unclean—there is only one name that matters: Christian. You belong to Christ. I belong to Christ. And we don’t just belong to Christ—we are called to go out into the world and act just like he did. So lets all take up that name today, let's leave behind what is behind, and move with confidence into the future God has for us. Let’s be what God has called us: beloved, redeemed, cherished, the apple of God’s eye. Thanks be to God. Amen.