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The Name of God: Putting a Name and a Face Together

October 9, 2011


Sermon:  The Name of God:  Putting a Name and a Face Together
Text:  Genesis 32:22-30; Exodus 3:1-15

Hardly any anthem would be more appropriate for today than the one sung by our choir, “A Vision of You.”  The words “May they see a vision of You” are especially fitting for me this morning.  This past week, I dropped my glasses on a concrete ramp.  They slid down the ramp, scratching the lenses so badly that I cannot see out of them.  The glasses I am wearing right now are ones with a 2005 prescription.  I honestly cannot see well at all.  If you have poor eyesight, you understand my problem.  I am very dependent on glasses.  I have been wearing them since I was four years old.  I must say, though, that you in the congregation have never looked better in your life.

I usually have some notes that I have written in preparation for my sermon, but I do not have note one today.  They would not help a bit because of my impaired vision.  I have printed the Scripture in a very large font.  I can read it if I get my head tilted just right.

We begin a new sermon series today:  The Name of God.  God is presented to us in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, in numerous ways.

I read a book when I was in seminary by Dr. J.B. Phillips: Your God Is too Small.  Dr. Phillips asserts that most of us put God in a box, treating Him as if He were a divine bell boy.  We ring Him up and tell Him what we want, what we need.  We do not understand, Phillips says, the majesty of God.  In essence we create God in our image rather than understand that a part of His majesty is to create us in His image.

As we continue through this sermon series, my hope is that our view of God will expand, that we will begin to see God differently, that we will come to understand God so much better. Of course, no sermon series can ever accomplish all of that; but if we want to grow as Christian people, growing in our relationship to God is absolutely essential.

With that in mind, I want to read two accounts from the Old Testament, one from Genesis 32 and the other from Exodus 3.  I could preach an entire sermon on either one of these passages and have done that on occasion, but I link these two passages together today for a particular reason.  Hear now the Word of God.  Genesis 32:22-32:

22That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

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

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

“Jacob,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

31The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32Therefore 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.

Exodus 3:1-15:

1Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

4When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

5“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

7The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

11But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

13Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

15God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

These two texts – stories that you have read often, stories that you have heard in my sermons – are remarkable.  Today I want to refresh your memory just a bit and help you see the connection between these two narratives.

First, we have Jacob, a man who stands out as perhaps the greatest con-artist of all in the history of the Old Testament.  His very name indicates something of his character.  He is the grabber, the supplanter, the manipulator, the one who maneuvers to get his own way.  He is a real scoundrel who will take advantage of any situation.  Think about his relationship with his brother, Esau.  First, Jacob takes his sibling’s birthright.  Then in collusion with his own mother, he tricks his blind father, Isaac, and steals the blessing.  At the ripe young age of forty-five, Jacob flees into the wilderness to escape the anger of his family.

Jacob has no way of knowing that the place where he spends the night is the very location where his grandfather Abraham had built an altar.  That structure had already been torn down, but Jacob selects one of the rocks there to use as a pillow.  I am not sure how well a person can sleep with a rock as a pillow, but I do know that Jacob has a dream that night that absolutely changes his life – not immediately but eventually.  Jacob dreams of heaven, with angels ascending and descending a ladder or staircase.  When Jacob wakes up, he realizes this place is special and names it Beth-el because, he says, it is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven.

Jacob continues his journey, returning to the homeland of his mother.  There he encounters his mother’s brother, his uncle, a fellow named Laban.  Laban also becomes his father-in-law, twice over because Jacob marries Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel.  These two men are cut from the same cloth.  Both are manipulators.  For the next twenty years, they compete with each other, back and forth, back and forth.  They challenge each other over cattle and these two women.

When Jacob tells Laban that he would like to marry Rachel, Laban tells him, “You will have to work for seven years.”  Jacob complies with that condition.  After seven years, arrangements are made for the couple’s wedding.

Jacob would certainly understand the marriage ceremony if he walked into Morningside and saw a bride, a groom, and pastor, standing here.  He would not, however, understand a Baptist reception.  He would be more familiar with one in an Episcopalian church.  The reception for this couple lasts for seven days with fasting and much drinking.  At the end of the week, Jacob and his new bride go into a tent and consummate their marriage.  The next morning, Jacob wakes up and thinks he has broken his glasses.  He looks at his wife and says, “Honey, that ain’t you!”  He has mistakenly married Leah, not Rachel.

When Jacob complains to his father-in-law about the substitution, Laban answers, “Didn’t you know that you had to marry the older daughter?  If you want to marry my younger daughter, you must work seven more years.”

Jacob answers, “Hand me the shovel.”  He works seven more years so that he can take Rachel as his wife.

The feuding between the men continues, even when Jacob finally leaves with his wives, children, and servants.  Laban follows the group, thinking that Jacob has been stolen an idol, a household god from him.

When Jacob returns to the land of his birth, his parents have already died.  Now he knows that he has to meet Esau, the brother he had tricked, duped.  Jacob sends lavish gifts to Esau, hoping to appease his brother’s anger.

That night Jacob separates himself from the entire group traveling with him and lies down by the River Jabbok.  Again, his sleep is disturbed, not by a vision this time but by a stranger, an adversary, who comes out of the darkness and grabs the grabber.  A mighty wrestling match ensues, a competition that would put anything you have ever seen on television to shame.  These two grapple all night long, with no one seeming to have the upper hand.

It is difficult to know the identity of this adversary.  Is it an angel?  Is it another man?  Is it God Himself?  The Bible suggests all three options.  By daybreak, the adversary makes his escape by wounding Jacob, by dislocating Jacob’s hip joint.

When the adversary asks for Jacob’s name, Jacob basically acknowledges the power of the adversary over him.  Jacob’s revealing his name is a sign of giving up, waving a white flag, surrendering, crying uncle.  It is almost like confessing, “I am the grabber.  I am the supplanter.  I am the undoer.  I am the saboteur.”

When Jacob says to his adversary, “I want your name,” the opponent answers, “No, you do not need my name.  Your name has been Jacob, but it is Jacob no longer.  Now your name will be Israel because you have wrestled with God.”

From that day to this, the Jewish people have been wrestling with God.  Their descendents, the Christians, have also been wrestling with God.

The Bible says that as the sun was rising, Jacob limps away from that place he calls Peniel.  He states, “I have seen the face of God.”  You will notice that his name has changed.  His walk has changed.  Anybody who sees him after that experience can tell something has happened to him.  For the first time in his life, Jacob has been defeated.  He had always gotten the upper hand, but he gets his comeuppance, his defeat, here by the River Jabbok.  It is a magnificent defeat.

Fast forward more than 400 years.  I am not sure exactly how long.  The people of Israel were captive in Egypt for 400 years.  Now we have Moses, who grows up with a silver spoon in his mouth.  Adopted by Pharaoh’s family, he lives in the lap of luxury for the first forty years of his life.  Then in the heat of anger, he kills an Egyptian and flees, a fugitive from justice.

Moses goes into the wilderness where he meets a man who is absolutely key to Moses’ transformation.  Jethro, his father-in-law and mentor, gives Moses wise counsel.  He also gives Moses something he desperately needs:  the hard job of doing the menial work of following the flocks of sheep and goats all over the wilderness as they graze.  Can you see Moses’ role as shepherd for forty years as on-the-job-training for his future responsibility?  In the very next chapter of Moses’ life, he will lead an entire nation through that same wilderness for another forty years.

One day, the Bible says, on the far side of the wilderness, Moses witnesses a sight he has never seen before – a bush that is burning, but not consumed.  Curious, he turns aside to see this mystery.  I imagine it was an experience like a sailor seeing St. Elmo’s fire or maybe walking in the woods at night and seeing fox-fire, as I have done. Maybe it is like seeing the Brown Mountain lights.

Moses, like a moth lured to a candle, is drawn to this bush.  As he approaches, a voice speaks to him out of the bush, “Moses, the ground on which you are standing is holy.  Take off your sandals.”  Moses immediately removes his shoes.  Moses, who has a speech impediment, stands there before this bush that is burning but not consumed, bare-footed and stuttering.  He is called a man of halting speech.

God speaks to him, saying, “Moses, I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  I have chosen you to go to Egypt and tell the pharaoh to let my people go.”

During this conversation, Moses is afraid to look at the bush.  He knows he should not view the face of God.  At one point, he even covers himself with his cloak.  Moses asks, “What do you want me to do?  Do you want me to go down there and tell them that I have been talking to a bush out in the desert?  Do you think they will buy that?  Is that what you want me to say?  What should I say?  Who shall I say sent me?”

God does something for Moses that He would not do for Jacob.  He gives Moses His name:  “I am the God – Elohim – of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  When Moses presses him, God answers in what sounds like a riddle in our English translation:  “Go tell them that I AM THAT I AM.”  That answer is difficult for us to understand unless we consider the existence of the divine name of four consonants and no vowels, sometimes called a Tetragrammaton.  The Jewish people thought it was the great unutterable name of God, too holy to be pronounced.  They added vowels and pronounced it Adonai.

A German scholar added other vowels with it, and the name became Jehovah in some of our translations.  Probably the name should be pronounced something like Yahweh.  It is a form of the verb to be.  Paul Tillich, in his theology, calls God “the ground of being,” the very essence of our life. “Tell them I am Yahweh.”  This mysterious name of God (Yahweh) is written in our English translation as LORD in all capital letters.

By Verse 15, God says to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, the LORD, the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…”  He adds that personal name of God.

Why include these two stories as the first of our series?  After Jacob wrestles with God by the Jabbok, he calls the place Peniel.  He says, “I have seen the face of God.”  God would not give Jacob His name.  Standing before the burning bush, Moses does not see the face of God, but he does get the name Yahweh.  Later on, God will pass by and say to Moses, “I am going to hide you in the cleft of a rock.  You can have a glimpse of me from behind, but you cannot see my face.”  It is somewhat like the choir looking at me.  About all they ever see is my backside.

Jacob sees God face-to-face, and Moses learns the name of God.  It is so important to put a face and a name together.  That is the reason we have a church directory.  Throughout the Old Testament, we see this ambiguity about God’s face and His name.  The psalmist says that we are “to seek the face of God” (Psalm 105:4).  The chronicler says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will seek my face…” (2 Chronicles 7:14).  We are constantly told that we should seek the face of God.

Where do we see this face and name come together?  We have to fast-forward to the ministry of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.  I say that because Paul wrote his letters before any of the Gospels were written.  We could say that we fast-forward all the way to the little town of Bethlehem.  We approach the manger and see there a baby that is in the spitting image of his Father.  Paul puts it this way in Philippians 2:8-11:

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus, the man of Nazareth born in Bethlehem out back, grew up in the hills of the Galilee.  John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River before Jesus carried out a three-year ministry of teaching and healing.  Jesus is the Christ, the one prophesied about in the Old Testament, came as the suffering servant.  Those servant poems in Isaiah describe him so well.  The word Christ means the anointed.    It was by his stripes that we are healed.  He was wounded for our transgressions.

So we see in this Old Testament, a foretelling of the Christ who was to come.  Jesus is the Christ.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate.  He was scourged by the Romans, convicted in a kangaroo court before the Sanhedrin, and nailed to a Roman cross.  That cross looks like defeat, but the victory is in the great reversal.  Victory is in the power of his resurrection, in fact that he conquered sin and death.  That reversal is more of a reversal than Jacob’s defeat at the River Jabbok.

Jesus Christ is Lord.  He is Yahweh, God incarnate.  It is hard for our human minds to understand.  We ask how anything can be 100 percent human and 100 percent divine.  Christianity affirms that fact.  Jesus Christ is Lord.  It is in that affirmation that the name and the face come together.

Do you know Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life?  Have you acknowledged him as your Savior?  If you have never accepted Christ as your Savior, today is the day.

Kirk H. Neely
© October 2011

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