Wrestling for a New Name and a New Life, A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob Wrestling by Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865 (source)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Do you remember that one? Or how about this one? “I’m rubber you’re glue whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”

Maybe you said those things to yourself growing up. Maybe you shouted them back at someone else. Maybe you taught them to your child as you looked at the pain on his face or the tears in her eyes. Here’s the irony. The fact that we know these sayings, use them, and teach them to our kids doesn’t negate but only highlights and points to the power of names and name calling.

Think about the many names you carry, whether good or bad, desired or unwanted, accurate or not. For some I am Fr. Marsh, Fr. Mike, or just plain Mike. I am Dad. I am Son. A dear friend calls me Brother and another, Mikey. And for one particular lady I am Baby Doll! Those aren’t, however, my only names. There are others. Sometimes I am Loser or Idiot. Other times I am known by names that should not be said here (or anywhere else for that matter).

Names are more than just a label. They have the power to create and the power to destroy. That’s why names and name changes are so significant. They can describe relationships, one’s qualities or characteristics, a destiny, or a change in direction.

We see that today when a woman and sometimes a man take the name of the one they are marrying. It signifies a change in status and relationship. Monks and nuns receive a new name when they take vows. Adopted children often take the last name of the parents, showing that they now belong and have a place in the family. All those signify becoming a different person and entering a new life.

Name changes are found throughout scripture and they are always significant. Abram is changed to Abraham. Sarai is changed to Sarah. These changes represent a new relationship with God and a calling to be the parents through whom the nations will be blessed. Simon became Peter, the rock on whom Christ will build his church. Saul, the persecutor of the church, became Paul, the apostle to the gentiles.

Jacob Wrestling by Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865 (source)
Jacob Wrestling by Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865 (source)

Despite all the names we carry and live with there is for each one of us another name. It is a secret name given and known only by God (Is. 62:2; Rev. 2:17). We discover and learn that name in the night of wrestling with all our other names. That’s what Jacob is doing (Genesis 32:22-31; Proper 24C). He is wrestling with himself, his demons, and ultimately with God.

The name “Jacob” means the supplanter, the usurper, heel grabber, trickster, or the deceiver. He has certainly lived up to his name. He came out of his mother’s womb grabbing at his twin brother’s heel. He finagled his brother Esau’s birthright for a bowl of soup. He deceived his blind father and stole the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau as the firstborn. Now he is a man on the run. He is running from an angry brother who wants to kill him. He is running from his past. Mostly though he is running from himself.

Maybe you know what that’s like. Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe that’s where you are today. At some time or another we all spend the night wrestling with our past, our words and actions, our identity, and the names that have shaped and defined us. Jacob’s name fits him well but God knows that is not his true name.

The man with whom Jacob is wrestling asks, “What is your name?” The man is not asking for information but for a confession. Jacob will never know who he can become until he first acknowledges who he is. In confessing his name Jacob offers himself into the hands of God. He cannot finagle, deceive, or steal his way this time. His confessing becomes his prevailing.

The Lord gives Jacob a new name, a new identity, and a new life. He is now Israel, the one who has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed. He is a new person. He is more authentically himself, the one God has always known him to be.

We all live with multiple names. Some names have been given us by others. Other names we have given ourselves. Some are life giving and nurturing. Others cut deep, leaving us wounded or dying. Names define us in the eyes of others and ourselves. But what about that other name? What about the name that defines us in the eyes of God? That is our truest name. It is the name we long to hear and to be called. It is the name God longs to tell us and to call us. It is the name that comes in the night wrestling.

Who are you? What is your name? What names do others call you? What names do you call yourself? What names do you cringe at hearing or can barely say? Unfaithful, unworthy, unloveable? Fraud, hypocrite, cheater? Alcoholic or addict? Divorced, widow, orphan, unwanted? Failure, lazy, stupid? Coward, weakling? Crazy, worthless, ugly? Abused or abuser? Defective, deficient, disappointing? Every one us could add to that list. We know our names well, too well, and we have trusted them for too long.

In the nighttime of wrestling God asks each one of us, “What is your name?” He does so with the promise to change our name, to make us a new person, and give us a new life. It’s a hard question we might rather avoid. It can leave us feeling scared, ashamed, and vulnerable. Dare to answer his question. Don’t keep quiet. Don’t back down. Don’t walk away. Hold on for the blessing. Speak the names you carry. Confess them. Shout them. Whisper them. Then listen and prevail. Listen for God to say, “You shall no longer be called that. That’s not who you are. You are Beloved Son. You are Beloved Daughter. You are Forgiven and Redeemed. You are Beautiful, Holy, Precious.” Then God speaks that one name that is known only to him, the name that is for your ears only, and says, “This is who you are. Become what you have heard.”


  1. Excellent thoughts here. I would add to this the new name that is given in baptism, i.e. “Name this child”; and also the instances where Jesus calls the name of the demon that has inhabited someone and therefore the demon leaves that person. Names are powerful indeed.


    1. Indeed. I often think what a big responsibility we had as parents, when naming our daughter. She has recently asked us what ‘Anna’ meant and we could see how she immediately wanted to ‘become’ her name. She is turning five soon.


  2. Thank you for another thought-provoking post.

    I would add ‘bullying’ at school which is mainly about calling names, isn’t it? Here in the UK, the anti-bullying policy is working very well. Our daughter has just started Reception Year at a Church of England school and we are very happy with their preventative measures.

    And one more thought, if I may. I come from a country in Eastern Europe where gypsies used to be (maybe still are) doomed from birth. ‘Gypsies are lazy, pickpockets, smelly, deceiving, shrewed, unreleiable.’ Any many other names along those lines. I remember listening to a radio programme once where anthropologists and psychologists were discussing how you become what you are called. The panelists believed the gypsies in our country (Romania) came to indentify themselves with the names we’d been calling them for many many generations. I must say this explanation was an eye-opener for me and made a lot of sense as, indeed, the gypsies in my country live up to the names we gave them. I wish I could remember how long it would take to wipe false identities off and create new ones, the one gypsies do want to become. I hope that, with new EU legislation in place and God as the ultimate law-giver, they get there.


  3. Hi Mike, this is such a rich and stimulating post. In the last five years, I’ve looked head on at various names I’ve given myself. Each time, I think to myself, “Right. That’s it then. No more to get”, and then other names that were obscured by the previous ones reveal themselves 🙂

    A few weeks ago, I looked at one I cringed to hear or say: “bully”. I talked to a good friend about it, and she listened with me as I heard it. After she heard it with me, she recreated me as whole, perfect and complete in every way I am, and in every way I am not. And that was that. She was God for me on that occasion. xx


    1. Narelle, you know the night of wrestling. I really appreciate the honesty in your comment. Layer after layer, name after name; there is always more to discover about ourselves isn’t there? Some stuff we like, other stuff not so much. All of it, I think, is just information that tells us something about ourselves, our fears, our wounds, our hopes and dreams. In the presence of a friend like yours they become the words of our re-creation. Thanks be to God for you and those friends.



  4. Enjoyed this very much..great writing..
    John 15:15 says “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you”

    Imagine that the Creator, the King of Kings calls us His friends…hard to believe when we look at all our inadequacies and imperfections and failures…but none the less He says He calls us His friend…What a great and mighty Lord we serve!


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