This past weekend I had the joy of preaching from a genre of text that I don’t usually – Hebrew narrative. I think it was the famous preacher, Fred Craddock, who said that it’s a tragedy to take a good Bible story and preach it like a Pauline letter. The sermon should fit the genre. That’s why I love preaching from Hebrew narrative. I love telling the story as well as to point out the subtle narrative devices used to make a theological point. Storytelling is an art, and it’s beautiful how God’s Word employs that art to change our lives.
I tried to tell Jacob’s story from Gen 25-27. (One of the challenges of preaching from Hebrew narrative is that a story is often told over large chunks of text. Thus, the sermon could go really long if not deliberately handled.) Jacob’s name means “heel grabber” – it’s a Hebrew idiom for someone who is a cheater, and Jacob indeed lived out his name.
Now there’s a wide cultural gap between our world and the Ancient Near East. We don’t give as much formal significance to names as the Bible does. For example, in 1 Sam 25:3f. David has a run-in with Nabal which means ‘fool’. He definitely plays the part. Sometimes names in the Bible hint at a more subtle motivation. Like in the case of Gideon, who refused to be crowned king after his victory over the Midianites, but named his son Abimelech which means ‘my father is king’. Hmmm…I wonder what he was really thinking?
Even though we don’t give such formal significance to names, we certainly live out names that we’ve been given. Maybe it’s not the name on your birth certificate, but it’s the name that people labeled you with. Cheater. Jock. Slut. Never-amount-to-anything. Put-together. Perfect. The Good One. Insert your own.
Jacob lives out his name, cheating his brother out of his birthright, and his father out of a blessing. He spends much of his life trying to get what he wants and using deceptive manipulative means to get it. Just ask Laban about his two daughters and his goats (Gen 28-31). But then something radical happens, Jacob has two encounters with God, and God dramatically changes his name. He’s no longer going to be called cheater, but Israel – one who wrestles with God. And Israel’s sons are going to be the heads of the tribes that will go as a nation into the world and bless it.
God can change your name. In fact, Jesus, who has the name above every name, came into the world, giving up his birthright and foregoing the blessing he deserved to take the curse that we deserved, and when we put our trust in him, he gives us a new name.
In fact, Jesus says to the churches in the book of Revelation:
To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it. – Rev. 2:17
The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. – Rev. 3:12
What this means is that the name Jesus gives us the potential to live differently from the name we’ve been given by peers and parents. It also means that the name Jesus gives us shows the world that we belong to him, that our lives are now part of the new creation work that God has begun through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Put your trust in Jesus. Get a new name, and live to be a blessing. That’s the promise that is fulfilled through Jesus, a promise that Jacob received, and we can live out.