Hi. My name is Emily Yoshihara.

Or it would have been if I had been born a girl. That was the name my parents picked out for me if I turned out to be female instead of male. If I was a boy, there were going to name me “Brent.” So how did I end up being named “Craig?” I asked my mom that very same questions and she told me that they changed it at the very last instant. I don’t know if they liked the sound of “Craig” better or if I just looked like a “Craig” but “Craig” it was. I like my name. A lot. But there are times I wonder what my life would have been like had I been named “Brent.” Would “Brent” have made different friends? Would people have treated me differently? Would I have been able to find more coffee cups with my name on it? Those are the questions that plague me. I guess because of this, I have always been fascinated by name changes in the Bible. How did the names people have affect their lives? Some people had their names changed by other people like Daniel who was changed to Belteshazzar by King Nebudchadnezzer. Some people had their names changed by God like Abram and Sarai who became Abraham and Sarah, the “father and mother of all nations.”[1] Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, changed her own name to Mara because she said the Lord had made her life “very bitter.”[2] Although it didn’t really stick. But one of the most fascinating name changes is in the story we are going to read together today. If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phone, please go to Genesis 32:22-32.

This is the story of Jacob and how he got a new name from God.

You need to know a little back story before getting into the passage though. See, Jacob wasn’t always the most upright kind of guy. When he was younger he had bargained for his brother Esau’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. Technically not illegal, but extortion nonetheless. Then he tricked his father into giving him his brother’s blessing. Back then, blessings were considered to be limited in abundance. You always gave the best blessing to the firstborn and then other minor or lesser blessings to the other children. When Jacob tricked his dad, he received the better blessing and this made his twin brother furious. Esau pledged to kill Jacob and Jacob went on the lamb for his life. He ran away for 22 years.[3] In that time, he settled down, got married, and became quite wealthy. He decided to go back home to his father and to face his brother. He sent out messengers ahead of him to find his brother Esau and tell him that he comes bearing gifts and that he hopes that Esau will look kindly upon him. In response his messengers only tell him that Esau is coming with 400 men, but Jacob does not run away. Instead he sends everything on ahead of him in hopes that it will appease Esau as he spends one final night alone in the camp. This is his story.

Arm wrestling with God
Arm wrestling with God

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

If names are important, Jacob got an interesting one.

“He who struggled with God and with humans and has overcome.” He who struggled with God and with humans and has overcome. His name is a reflection of his character but also the character of his people. The people of Israel would be a people marked by struggle. But despite their struggles, they would persevere. It was that perseverance that God saw in Jacob that night they struggled. God valued Jacob’s tenacity, his willingness to hold on for a blessing and when God added to his pain and touched Jacob’s hip so that it would be wrenched out of its socket, still Jacob held on. “I will not let go unless you bless me,” Jacob declares to God. And God gave him his blessing. Jacob did exactly what God wants us to do in times of difficulty – hold on to our faith and persevere. The Japanese have a word for this. They call it ganbari. It means “persistence” but it’s also more than that. It’s a “steadfastness to a purpose or course of action.”[4] Ganbari means steadfastness to a purpose or course of action. And that’s what Jacob showed to God. He showed his steadfastness to receive God’s blessing. And through that steadfastness he was able to overcome. His own doubts, his own fears, his possibly bleak future – Jacob was able to face all of that with courage because he felt God’s blessing upon him.

But receiving the blessing of God doesn’t mean we will get everything we want.

We’re sometimes confused by that. We’re sometimes confused by what it means to be blessed. People equate a blessed person with a person who receives things. People of good fortune, people of wealth, people of fame. We believe that means they are blessed, but that is not necessarily the case. Those things are how people of the world measure status, but they are not necessarily blessings from God. Those things are how the people of the world measure status, but they are not necessarily blessings from God. People of good fortune can be as unhappy as anyone else. They have struggles with their own inner demons and their own problems we may know nothing about. I think about the recent passing of Robin Williams, and how even his own children are left behind wondering what happened. His daughter, Zelda, said in a quote, “…I’ll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay…”[5] On the other hand there are people with little to no material wealth who just exude the peace and blessing of God. It is that quiet calm in a person who leads a life knowing they are in the hands of God.

In front of First UMC
In front of First UMC

I bring this up because we are a people who struggle.

At this time and in this place, we are a people who struggle. I don’t mean Christians all over the world. I mean us, in our two churches. We are a people who struggle. We have been struggling with death. We have been struggling with failing health. We have struggled with depression. We have struggled to watch loved ones hurting. And right now, we are struggling with the reality of the situation in our church. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. We are a people of God! We aren’t supposed to close the doors. We aren’t supposed to dwindle. We’re supposed to grow and flourish and take over the world in the name of Jesus! And yet….and yet it’s happening to us. The fiscal reality of both churches is grim. It just caught up to First UMC sooner. But both are on the precipice of not being able to support full-time ministry. To that end, both church executive boards have been meeting with me over the past 18 months trying to come up with solutions. Through long discussion, we have determined that if we were to worship together we would have enough money to cover our expenses. But are we willing to do that? Are we willing to accept the changes that are sure to come? Are we willing to compromise “our ways” and “our things” for the greater good?

We need to do what Jesus did in times of struggle. We need to pray.

Look at the example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. When Jesus was about to face the most challenging events of his life, he went and he prayed. When he struggled with what God was asking him to do, he went and he prayed. It’s time we did the same. We don’t know what direction God is taking us. It may be that God still has great things in store for us as a church. It could be that God has brought us together so that we can grow strong once again and be a blessing to our community. Or it could be that we have served our purpose and must pass the torch to other ministries. But no matter what direction God is leading us, I want you to follow Jesus’ example and pray. Next week is a big week for our churches. Next week we take the first big step toward unification as we vote on whether or not we feel it is in the best interests of the church to worship together as one people. Worshipping together means making compromises. For First Church it means letting go of the past. Letting go of the building, the books, the banners, and anything else. It means swallowing our pride and accepting that what we think is essential for ministry may not really be essential for ministry. For Palm, it means welcoming our brothers and sisters in Christ with open arms and loving hearts. It means being willing to change to make our new friends feel loved and welcome, knowing the hardship they are going through. Can we do that? Can each of us accept that our view of the future may not be what will happen? Can we graciously accept the decisions of our joint committee to help us through these issues? This week, I want each and every one of you to pray daily about this decision. I want you to pray for God’s discernment. I want you to search deep in your heart if you are willing to accept the changes that will come from this decision. And I want you to decide now when you will pray each day. If you don’t make a commitment to daily prayer, odds are you will forget or let it slip and you won’t have given it the attention it deserves. So decide now. We have important decisions to make in the days to come. Be a part of it. Together let’s move forward into the future and see what God has in store for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] http://godwords.org/450/name-changes-in-the-bible/

[2] Ruth 1:20

[3] Approximately based on the timeline from Bible Hub: http://biblehub.com/timeline/

[4] Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, Kachikan (Values), 2001.

[5] http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Investigators-Robin-Williams-hanged-himself-5683229.php

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