In early August the lectionary will have us wrestle with this text from Genesis 32. In preparation, let’s wrangle with it now! After a sleepless night in which Jacob battles all night with a man who attacked him, we learn that Jacob believes grasping this uninvited and dangerous visitor is like seeing God face to face. In real life with his night terrors behind him, Jacob will need to face his angry, threatening brother Esau and so this overnight battle prepares him for that upcoming challenge.
What does Jacob get out of it? He doesn’t get the visitor’s name, but he does get the man’s blessing. In this way, perhaps, he gets courage to face his brother. Jacob gets a serious hip injury that will be with him the rest of his life. Such is the danger or cost of “seeing God face to face.” Jacob gets one more thing from this unsettling slumber—a new name, a new identity. The man says to him “your name will now be Isr-a-el because you have struggled with God and with men and you have prevailed.” In the Hebrew, “El” is the word for God. Israel means “those who have striven with God.” In response, Jacob renames the place Pen-i-el, which means face of God.
Who are we as children of the covenant, as those graciously adopted into the family of Abraham? We are those who with our ancestors in faith struggle every day in our relationship with God and human beings. We are those injured by the striving. We are those who are changed by every encounter with God, however odd, surprising, mundane or mysterious. Be alert, be ready and keep your eyes open so you can see. Then with awe we can say, “this place is the very gate of heaven.” With humility we can say “I have seen God face to face and still I live!” With gratitude for every significant experience we say, “I am no longer who I once was, but have a new identity that is grounded in God.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “You are not your own, you have been bought with a price.” At great price Jacob became Israel. At great sacrifice, Christ made us his own. In baptism we took on the name of him who died, rose and reigns in power.