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God Changed a Name: Jacob December 7, 2011

Posted by sandhandrews in Sermons.
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Genesis 32:22-32

 Advent Midweek 2

December 7, 2011

Focus: God blesses His people through His covenant.

Function: That the hearers find the gospel in the Old Testament.

Structure: Working the text.


God Changed a Name: Jacob

            Last week we looked at the life of Abraham and his wife Sarah.  We saw Yahweh establish a covenant with Abraham, that He would make him into a great nation, with numerous offspring, and that He would give him the entire land of Canaan.  He then changed Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai to Sarah, to remind them of the covenant, and how that would keep the promises of God constantly in their minds.

Sure, the promises of God were great.  But what’s a promise if it isn’t kept?  For many of you, perhaps you thought I lacked a gospel punch at the end of the sermon last Wednesday; that I didn’t tie the covenant into the coming Messiah quite enough.  We’ll get there, trust me.  We’re building up to that this month; we’re preparing for the Messiah; we’re making straight the path for the coming Christ; it is Advent after all.

So today, we take the next step.  We begin to trace the covenant beyond just Abraham.  While many Christians know the more important people and stories of the Old Testament, it often seems like we fail to truly connect the dots.  We don’t really piece together the masterpiece that God’s Word truly is.  So while name changes are a fun thing to look at, well, at least they are for me, that’s not truly what this Advent sermon series is about.  See, the name changes help us paint the bigger picture.  The changes that God makes help us draw the picture of the gospel throughout the history of creation.  That’s why I’m happy to say: it’s back to the drawing board.

When Yahweh promised Abraham the land and all the offspring, He did it through Abraham’s son Isaac.  As time went on, Isaac grew up, became a man, and had children of his own in Esau and Jacob.  Grandpa Abraham died when his two grandsons were just fifteen years old.  A few years later, a harsh famine hit the land.  To survive it, Isaac packed up the family and moved them to Gerar, in the land of the Philistines.  He even began to think about permanently relocating them down to Egypt, to a rich and fertile land.  But just when he seemed to have forgotten, Yahweh appeared to him to remind him of the covenant.

And Yahweh appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. 4I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” Gn 26:2-5


Again, we have absolute gospel in the Old Testament.  God promises to bless His people in all His fullness.  There is even a Messianic promise in there: “in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”  The word for offspring in Hebrew there is singular.  It refers to a one heir, a specific descendant who will come some fifteen hundred years later.  Yahweh is referencing the Christ.  But again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  We’re working at the bigger picture.

The Messianic line traces all the way back to Abraham.  Any time someone had multiple children along the way, the family tree splits.  We know that, when there’s two kids you draw separate lines to each of them, and they start their own trees.  Well in the case of the Messiah, this happens generation after generation when you trace it back.  Isaac’s first two sons, twin boys, were Esau and Jacob.  Esau was born first, with Jacob grasping his heel as he came out.  That’s where Jacob’s name comes from.  It means “he grasps the heel.”  It also carries a connotation of cheating or deception.

In this stage of culture, the firstborn son inherited everything.  All the wealth, the land, the livestock, the servants, everything that was his father’s goes to him.  In Isaac’s case, that also meant the covenant blessing of becoming a great nation, and eventually the Messiah.  That was Esau’s birthright.  A birthright he sold for a bowl of red stew.  Perhaps you remember that part of his life.  He came in from hunting one day claiming that if he didn’t eat something right then, he’d die of starvation.  It just so happened that his brother Jacob had some red stew hot and ready.  Starving to death, Esau bartered away his birthright for that stew.  He gave up the privilege of bearing the Christ.  And then later, when Isaac was on his deathbed, Rebekah helped Jacob trick Isaac into thinking he was Esau.  And so Jacob stole the father’s blessing as well.

Jacob, he who grasps the heel, the cheater, the deceiver, the one who snuck his way into the Messianic line.  But then again, who in that lineage was perfect anyway?  There’s even a prostitute in that family tree.  It’s a miracle that God worked through sinners to bring about salvation in Christ.

So the covenant, the promises, the blessing continued on in Jacob.  And as time passed, Jacob moved in with Laban, a relative of his, married both of Laban’s daughters, and worked for him for fourteen years.  Yahweh prospered Jacob there among the people.  Eventually, Jacob decided it was time to return back to his homeland, and it’s on his way that we pick up our first lesson.

It’s the crazy and befuddling tale of Jacob wrestling with God.  Most people never get past the idea that God couldn’t win a fight with a man.  But let’s put that detail aside and look at the point of the appearance of Yahweh.  Did God have a hidden motive?  Well if He did, it’s still hidden.  But Yahweh did appear to Jacob; He came to meet the heir of the covenant face to face.  After God departs, Jacob realizes this and names the place Peniel, or “face of God,” because He saw God face to face there and lived.

And in terms of the reminders we mentioned last week, God definitely handed Jacob a couple of them.  First, He leaves him a physical ailment, a limp.  And as though that weren’t enough of a reminder, God changes his name.  No longer is he to be Jacob, a deceiver, but now Israel, one who strives or struggles with God.  Yahweh tells him that specifically, and even adds that it’s because he’s striven with God and men and he’s prevailed.

There’s an interesting connection here that’s lost in English.  The Hebrew verb that makes up the root of Israel, that means “to strive,” is Sarah.  It’s the name of Jacob’s grandmother.  Did God rename Sarah that because of His foreknowledge that He would one day wrestle with her grandson, and change his name to Israel?  Just something to think about.

God appears to Jacob again in our second reading.  Again Yahweh blesses Jacob and tells him of the name change to Israel.  But it’s more than that.  God comes specifically to Jacob at this time to remind him of the covenant that He has with him.  God is God.  Nations will come from Jacob.  Kings will be among his descendants.  And the promised land of his fathers would be his also.  The covenant, the promises, the blessing already being fulfilled in him are laid out again for him to see, to know, and to remember.

When Yahweh changed Jacob’s name to Israel, it’s perhaps the most important name change in the Bible.  I say that because Israel becomes more than just a name.  Israel had twelve sons, each of whom had more children of their own.  Indeed, each of them became tribes of their own.  And together they were known as the sons of Israel.  Over time, that phrase was shortened, and they became the nation of Israel.  Jacob’s offspring became a nation as promised.

We know of the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people.  We know them as the ones whom Moses led out of slavery in Egypt.  We know them as the ones who inherited the Promised Land.  But this is their past.  They are Israel because Jacob was Israel.  The play on that name is that while it was Jacob Israel who strived with God, it is now God who strives with Israel the nation.  They are the ones who grumbled about the lack of water and food.  They are the ones who then complained that they had to eat the same thing every day.  They are the ones who erected the golden calf to worship instead of Yahweh.  We could go on and on about the sins and complaints of that nation that God struggled against.

But even through all of that, Israel was still the chosen people of God.  He could have ended His relationship with them at any time because of their failures and their falling away.  But instead, Yahweh chose to remain faithful to His covenant.  He continued to hold on to the promises that He made to them and their fathers before them.  And over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to unfold our history.  We’ll continue to paint the picture of the covenant, of God’s faithfulness.  We’ll see kings come from Israel.  And on Christmas Eve, we’ll see the grand masterpiece, we’ll see our King.  Amen.





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