What's in a Name?

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, August 2, 2020
Genesis 32:22-31
    As we’ve explored our ancestors in faith through the book of Genesis this summer, you’ve probably noticed that names are important. Their meanings carry significance, whether it’s a name of a place, like Bethel, which means “house of God,” or a person’s name, like Isaac meaning “he will laugh.”  In our passage from Genesis this morning, God gives Jacob a new name, “Israel.”  Jacob’s name, which means “supplants” or “grabbing by the heel,” really does describe who he is.  Jacob seems to constantly be chasing after something or someone:  his brother’s blessing, his beloved Rachel, his father-in-law Laban’s livestock.  Even in this passage we read today, Jacob wrestles with God for a blessing. “I will not let you go until you bless me,” he audaciously tells God.  In his struggle with God, God renames Jacob, “Israel,” which means “one who strives with God.”  Jacob’s name and identity changes from one who is always wanting more, a step behind, struggling to be first instead of second, to one who strives with God and prevails, Genesis tells us.  With this new name, God gives Jacob the confidence he needs to meet his brother Esau again, to reconcile with him, to return to the land of Canaan and build a family and a nation for himself apart from his father and mother’s family.  The name Israel still today is the identity of a nation and a people that seeks to strive with God and know that God is present with them in the struggle.  Whatever our name, as Christians we believe, too, that we can wrestle with God in a dynamic faith. We don’t have to be afraid to come to God with our honest questions.  And at the end of the day, we trust like Jacob that God will be with us in the ups and downs of our faith journey.
    So, I wonder, do you know what your name means?  Do you know why you have the name you have –first, middle, or last?  How do the stories of how you came to have your name shape how you see yourself?  Sometimes the stories about our names aren’t that exciting, it basically boils down to “mom liked the name and dad could tolerate it.” But sometimes, like Jacob, our names carry great significance.
You might guess that as pastors, Rich and I were pretty particular about names for our children.   It’s a hard decision to first find names you both like, include some family names if possible, and then also consider their original meaning.  Erin was pretty easy, because of course “Sheridan” is Irish, and we had been looking specifically at Irish names. Erin is also a form of Irene, which was my grandma’s middle name.  And the Greek version of Erin means “peace.”  Our daughter Grace is a little bit more self-explanatory for Lutheran pastors.  Grace is obviously important to us for our faith, but the name also completes Paul’s traditional greeting in his letters when he says, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” And so we have our daughters, Grace and Peace.  Yes, we are pastor nerds.  At times, it does not seem like our rambunctious preschoolers have much grace or peace in them, but we hope and pray they live into the meaning of their names.  I encourage you if you don’t know, to look up the meaning of your name. You might be surprised at what it means and how it reflects who you are (or not!).  More important even than your particular name, whether you like it or don’t or have learned to grow into it, is that just like Jacob, God has called you by name, and you are his.  In baptism, we remember especially that we have “put on Christ.” We are given a new name, “Christian,” and so all of us can share in that name above all names as a part of who we are. Christ lives in us!  We are God’s!  That’s how important names are.
    After God gives Jacob the new name, “Israel,” Jacob wants to know God’s name, but God doesn’t tell him.  Jacob calls the place “Peniel,” which means “the face of God,” because Jacob knows he has seen God’s face.  However, it is interesting that Jacob is left without a full answer of how God would like to be called by Jacob.  If we look through the Bible, of course, there are many names for God and even more for Christ.  As you may be aware, though, in Jewish tradition, out of respect for the first commandment, God’s name is never fully written or said aloud.  The Lord’s name, which our English translation usually writes as LORD in all capital letters, is in Hebrew “Yahweh,” which is God’s fullest name. Sometimes faithful Jews will simply say “Hashem,” instead of reading “Yahweh” which means, “the name.”  In English, they will write G-D to not fully complete God’s name.  From this story in Genesis, we learn that God is a God of many names, whom we can call upon in prayer when we are struggling.  This God is always with us, just as God appears to Jacob in the dream of the ladder and again today to wrestle with him face to face.  As Christians we believe we have seen God fully face to face in Jesus the Christ.  And yet there is also a mystery about who God is, too, that Jacob and we realize is also true.  Often at times we wrestle with God because we don’t fully know who God is, and we can’t fully wrap our brain around the amazing vastness and mystery of who God is completely.  In our wrestling with God and with our faith, we recognize that God cannot be fully grasped.  Like Jacob, may we rest with God who knows each of us fully by name, and be sustained in our struggle by the awesome wonder of our great and almighty God.  Amen.