Have you seen any of those obnoxious TV commercial for attorneys? The ones that give themselves nicknames, like “The Bulldog” and “The Strong Arm.” They had to have given themselves those nicknames . And that just doesn’t work. You can’t give yourself a nickname. If you could, then I would have all of you call me “Pastor-Always-Right.” . . . See? You just can’t give yourself a nickname. It has to be given to you based on something others actually recognize about you.
Anyone have a nickname that you’ve been given? I don’t mean your name is Robert and people call you Rob. I mean a nickname that people started calling you because of something you did or some personality trait you have. Sometimes a nickname can be complimentary, from something people like about you. Sometimes they can be hurtful based on a mistake you made once or something others find peculiar about you. But regardless, once people give you a nickname, it tends to stick.
That’s close to the idea of names in the Bible. Someone’s name means something significant about who they are, what they are like. If you know someone’s name in the Bible, you know something deep and authentic about them.
Keep that in mind, the significance of names, as we quickly review this story in Genesis.
The main character here is Jacob, whose name meant in his day, “cheater.” He was actually born a cheater, conning his twin brother Esau out of his inheritance. He cheated his father, Isaac, out of the family birthright. Just before this story, he had–yet again–cheated his uncle Laban out of a huge amount of money and livestock.
So now he’s on the run. He can’t go back home because he’s afraid of Laban and he just got word that his brother Esau is coming after him with an army of 400 men. So Jacob, the cheater, hides half of his stolen goods so he’ll have something left if he survives. He prays the prayer so many of us pray when we’re stuck: Oh, God, I’ll be good if you get me out of this!
Now he’s walking around by the river at night, nervous, pacing, trying to see if there’s some way to con his way out of this predicament. He crosses the river by himself, figuring he could think better without the distractions of his wives, children, and livestock. In the night he is approached by what appears to be a man, but not a man. They end up fighting all night, with neither one winning. Jacob realizes that he’s wrestling with either an angel or a demon, who proceeds to whack him in the leg, dislocating his hip.
Have you experienced that moment when all your work, all your effort, all your planning, all your experience can’t help you? That moment when you become desperate? When you’ve run out of options and have no idea which way to turn? When it feels like God has even turned on you?
That’s Jacob right here. Not only has he run out of options to save his life, but God himself is fighting with him. It seems that God not only hasn’t come to help him, but is making his situation worse.
All Jacob can do is hang on. He can’t win, so he clings with desperation to this man, this God, who seems intent on doing him harm.
Then comes the final blow. This angel/demon/God/man demands to know Jacob’s name. If Jacob gives up his name, it will be like a confession of a life of lying, cheating, usurping, taking advantage of everyone around him. And if this angel/demon actually is God–which Jacob is thinking is the case by now–then God will have every right to him what he deserves: at best, throw him to Esau and his army; at worst kill him here and now.
But he’s got no choice. He is powerless in the grasp of this supreme being. He has no choice. He has to surrender. Even his desperation has run out. He has nothing. No strength, no plan, no options.
“Jacob,” he confesses. Then he waits for the sentencing.
Then the man opens his mouth and says to him, “Maybe you have been Jacob all your life. Maybe you have been a liar and a cheat up until now. But as of this moment you are a new person. You shall now be named Israel, which means someone who has fought God and people, and lived to tell about it.”
It doesn’t matter what his parents had named him. It doesn’t matter what everyone had called him every day of his life. It doesn’t even matter that he actually was a liar and a cheat all his life. The only thing that matters is that God calls him by his new name–giving him a new life. He is Israel, one who has fought with God and with people, and lived to tell about it. He is a new person–Israel.
We’re talking about money this month. When you look at your attitude toward money, what would people be calling you? When you consider how you use your finances, what would your name be? Tight? Pincher? Grubber? Perhaps Careless? Loose? Irresponsible?
It doesn’t matter today. God is giving you a new name. From now on, you will be called “Child of God,” “Forgiven,” “Loved.” Now the question is: What will you do with your new identity?