The blessing and promise that God gives Abraham, are the same God has given to us so that we can be what we’re destined to be - God’s beloved children.
When our first child was due, whimsy storybook names like Ruby and Daisy were trending. But we wanted something that meant something, and that spoke to our heritage. In Gaelic, Fiona means “fair” – not as judicial but pail, like skin. And when she was born, we had no idea about the movie Shrek that had just come out. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have named her after an ogre.
For Colleen, we thought it through a little better. We wanted a strong name that would endure time. We knew we were having a girl so we named her Colleen which is an Irish name that means “girl.” It’s a great name in my opinion, but little did I realize it’s only a few letters different than her mother’s name; adding to the growing list of things that mess me up in life.
When Sean was born, we already had a long list of names we agreed on. But once we met him, none seem to fit. In a rush to get the paperwork filled out before leaving the hospital, we agreed to call him Sean – a Celtic variation of John, like Ian is in Gaelic. John mean’s God’s great gift. Enough said.
Our birth names aren’t the only names that define us. Sometimes we go by our relationships and titles. I’ve been called son, husband, padre, and of course reverend.
Since names are given to us at our birth, we don’t really have a say in the matter. So, it’s not uncommon for people to change their names. Some actors take a new stage name for practical reasons - it’s too long, or too hard to say, or someone else already has it. For others it’s to give them a new persona, like going from Norma Jean to Marilyn Monroe.
I had a friend Darrell who change his name. I have no idea why. He’s not a celebrity or famous for anything. All I know is one day everyone just starting calling him Rick. This might have made more sense if he was the pope or someone entering a religious order where it’s commonplace to take a new name to signify their new status and new purpose.
Which takes us to our reading today from Genesis 17:1-7.
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This is just one of many stories in Genesis that describe the covenant between God and Abram. In each one the terms are graciously lopsided. Like we learned last week with Noah, God is the giver. All Abram has to do is be himself. After all, God’s covenants do not rely on our faithfulness, only God’s.
Now, the gist of this story is simple. God has big plans for reconciling the world. Plans that include some unlikely characters. Like the aging Abram who God promises to make the father of many nations.
When Abram hears this he doesn’t run away or come up with some excuses as to why he’s unsuitable for the task. I suspect there’s some snickering and eye-rolling though. Who could blame him? He and his wife are in their nineties. Not the ideal time to be having babies.
This year my dad will turn 90. The idea of having a new brother or sister seems highly unlikely. But then again, what we think is a handicap God sees as an opportunity to show off what God can do.
To me, the most interesting aspect of this story is how everyone gets a new name; starting with God who is now called El Shaddai, which is often translated from the Hebrew as “God Almighty.” It’s not so much a name but a definition of God’s character. In using this word to describe God, the author speaks of God as the ultimate Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things. This is what God does.
Next is Abram, whose name means “exalted ancestor.” He becomes Abraham, “ancestor of a multitude.” It’s a subtle difference with huge implications. He will not just bear a son to carry on his name, but his name will be the DNA of God’s graciousness among the nations.
His wife, Sarai, is also the recipient of God’s blessing. She becomes Sarah, which means “princess.” She is the one who will carry the promise of this royal covenant to life. These changes sound subtle, but they are profound in the way they define God’s promise as their stories play out.
My dear friend Dowan taught me that when a baby is born in Korea, he or she is given a name that reflects not only the child’s character but destiny as well. This seems to be the case when God names Abraham and Sarah. Blessed by God in this naming, their destiny is guaranteed. Tied to God in this covenant, they are recipients of God’s steadfast love and grace. A promise which God passes down to their heirs who will be more numerous than the stars in the sky.
Just the other day I saw one of the first images taken on Mars by the rover Perseverance. While it was fascinating to see what the landscape was like, my attention was drawn to the vastness of the heavens and countless number of stars that surrounded the Red planet. Let’s just say there were too many to count. And that’s just in our galaxy. There are dozens if not hundreds more galaxies out there.
I imagine Abraham and Sarah looking up in the sky and just trying to imagine the possibility of giving birth to such a large clan. But with every silvery glimmer, each twinkling light, God’s promise is remembered as they cling to hope knowing God’s word is good. And God delivers.
They become the grandparents of a new generation blessed by God. From their lineal offspring will arise the Suffering Servant who will “bring forth justice to the nations” (Is 42:1). From this new family, Jesus will be born. He will be given a new name – a name above all others. Through him the covenant continues to bless us today.
Which brings us to why this is an important story to read during Lent as we walk with Jesus from the wilderness to the cross. Whether or not he knew of the great Easter promise, Jesus knew of this covenant. He lived and ministered with faithfulness knowing the power of God’s word, just as his ancestor Abraham had thousands of years before.
It was knowing God’s word is good that allowed the people of Israel to cling to hope when all seemed hopeless.
It was knowing God’s word is good that the new church was able to survive the brutality of the Roman Empire.
It was knowing God’s word is good that has allowed countless saints before us stand firm in their faith in the one who remains faithful no matter what humans try to do to change that.
It’s knowing God’s word is good that allows us today to get through the challenges we face in life. What God said then, God means now. God’s word is good, even when we aren’t.
As we walk with Christ, let us remember that he too received a new name. And with it, his destiny was set. You might remember that when he arose from the waters of his baptism, the spirit of God declared: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
No longer was he Jesus of Nazareth, no longer was he the carpenter’s kid, he was now named and claimed by his God to be the Beloved. It was more than a name change, it was a calling, a direction by which Jesus’ entire ministry would be founded on. Being the Beloved. With his new name and new purpose, Jesus would become the visible presence of God’s heart in the world.
Which brings me to you and me, and anyone who takes the name Christian. Our mission is to continue Jesus’ mission - to go out into the world to teach and heal and welcome others into the family of God.
No matter what name is written on your birth certificate, at your baptism God has named and claimed you for this purpose.
We are beloved children of God, heirs to divine glory and everlasting life. Because of our faith in Christ, we share his name. And we share his glory.
Through Jesus, God calls us to be the Beloved. More than a name, it’s our destiny. This is what it means to make God our God, and to be God’s beloved people.
It is our job now to be little Christ in the world so that others may come to understand God’s glory in the way we live into our love for one another; sharing our gifts, building bridges and creating communities of peace in God’s name.
For most of us, faith is a hard journey. One that often causes us to stumble. But remember what God is able to do with people like us. The blessing and promise that God gives Abraham, are the same God has given to us so that we can be what we’re destined to be - God’s beloved children.
We are heirs to the covenant of God’s grace which has been passed down through the ages, never altered or voided. God remains faithful to God’s own promise. It’s impossible for God to do anything less.
As we move through Lent, I would like to share the words of Barbara Brown Taylor who reminds us that “We don’t just move to Easter from the shopping malls and spa. We are given a gift of time, 40 days to be exact, to examine who we are in our own covenant with God.”
Lent is an invitation to take an honest look at what that relationship looks like, and what purpose it might signify as you move to bring God’s righteousness into a world hungry for love and justice. It’s a time to remember that God is calling you by your name – beloved.
As Jesus illustrated in all the ways he cared for people, this name is not just a personal noun. It’s a call to action. So as you leave here today, I invite you to go and be the love of God that was made known to us in Jesus.
Remembering always, that his name is your name. His purpose is your purpose. His glory is yours too, if you want it.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”