Genesis 17:1-8, Acts 9:1-20
February 24, 2008
“What is in a name?” Shakespeare asked. “That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet!” Is that true? There’s actually a whole website devoted to that question. I didn’t bother reading far enough to see if anyone answered it! However, I think we would agree that there’s a lot in a name!
Our names are very important to us, aren’t they? I’d like us to think about that today. And I’d like you to consider what it would be like if you were to change your name. I have a little confession to make here. I’ve never really liked the name, George. It’s so formal sounding. And there’s nothing you can shorten it to. There’s no “familiar” form. And Skip does seem too “familiar” in some settings, I know. But those are the only one’s I have to work with, I suppose.
On the other hand, one of the names I’ve always loved for a guy is the name, Paul. That’s why I gave my son that name! It’s familiar, yet it’s formal, all at the same time. And it sounds good! So, What about you? If you were going to change your name, what would it be?
The reason I ask that is that there are a number of places in the Bible where people are given new names. Think about that for a moment. Jacob wrestles with the angel and he’s given the new name, Israel. Simon, the fisherman, is called by Jesus and becomes Peter, the Apostle. Levi, the tax collector becomes Matthew, the Gospel writer. And there are many other examples. In many places in the Bible, when people go through great changes in their lives, or when they are given a new life or a new task, they’re also given a new name.
Remember that the ancient people believed that a person’s whole identity and persona was linked with their name. A name for them was so much more than simply what a person was called. In fact, they were so afraid of using the name of the Lord in vain, that they wouldn’t speak the name of God. In their scriptures, the four letters of God’s name were considered to be sacred. When they were reading along and the came to those letters, they would simply say, “The Lord.” They wouldn’t speak God’s name.
A name to them was something very important. They were given their name in a religious ceremony, and it came to embody their reputation, and their character. We still have a little bit of that understanding in our world. If we were to talk about giving respect to another person, we might say we want to be careful that we don’t harm “their good name.” We still talk about someone “making a name for themselves,” don’t we? In graduation speeches, the speaker will often challenge young people to “go out there” and to “make a name for yourself!” Even in our world, there is a certain sense that a person’s “good name” is sometimes synonymous for reputation and character.
So, just imagine what it would be like to change your name. You wives experienced that when you took on a new name at Marriage. In more recent years, some women have come to feel as though that is a loss of some kind. But I think it has great significance, and it comes straight out of the Biblical tradition – change of life, change of name. In fact, I think we men actually lose out on some of the power of that. Even a woman’s title changes from “Miss” to “Mrs.” My understanding is that unmarried men used to have a different title, too. They were referred to as “Master.” And then at marriage that changed to “mister.” But if that’s true, then we’ve lost even that designation.
I remember how much of an honor it was in 1981 to have my title changed from “Mr.” to “Reverend,” and I still haven’t given up my goal of someday having that changed again to “The Rev. Dr. Brecht”
In some Christian traditions it used to be the practice to give new names at confirmation. I believe some still do. Does anyone here remember getting a confirmation name? Roman Catholics still do, I believe, and so do the Eastern Orthodox. Maybe Lutherans and Episcopalians do too. I’m not sure. The idea was that the change of life was so great, that it is to be marked with the taking on of a new name. And I wonder if we consider our lives changed that much by our relationship with God?
Today we have two stories in the Bible where people’s names are changed. In the New Testament, we read the story of Saul, the persecutor of the Church, who was “knocked off of his Donkey” on the way to Damascus. His life was so totally changed that soon he would become Paul, one of the greatest champions of the Christian faith that ever lived! What a turn around!! And maybe that seems completely “other worldly” to us. Maybe we’re thinking, “I could never have that kind of change in my life.” I wonder if old Saul the Pharisee ever thought the same thing!
In this first story, we’ve gone way back into the book of Genesis. There, in the 17th chapter, we find God making his covenant with Abram. He tells him once again that he is going to be the father of many nations, and that he is going to multiply him “exceedingly.” And at that point, God said, “No longer shall you be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham.” And if we were to read all of this chapter (which would be a good thing for you to do this week!) we would find God also saying to Abraham, “And as for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai any more, but Sarah.” And just think of it! Everything that was happening that day was pretty big news for a man who was ninety-nine years old!
Think about what comes before this, too. Last week we read from Chapter 12, where God first called Abram and told him he would be the father of many nations. Then he told him he was to go to a new land. “Pack it all up, Abram.” God said. “And then I’ll show you were I want you to go!” Well, at that point Abram was only 75 years old, and so was his wife Sarai. And of course, the upshot of all that for her was that she was going to have a child. So, ladies, how would some of you who are now “Septuagenarians” react if God said you were going to have a child? (Shall we take a moment here and share our feelings?) Remember also that this idea of having children and passing on the family heritage was very important to these people. We have a little big of that understanding ourselves. In our day, we still think of the idea of “continuing the family name.”
Well, things progressed. Years passed, and there was still no child. Then, in chapter 15 God takes Abram out and shows him the night sky and he tells him that his descendants will be just as numerous. And Abram says, “Yeah, God, but you’ve left out one important detail. I have no child – no son!” “And the heir of my household is Eliezer of Damascus.” And God says, “No!” “Your own son shall be your heir!”
Ok. Fast forward again to chapter 16. Here we have the strangest twist of all. This is the story where Sarai decides to take matters into her own hand. It’s been years since the first promise, and still God hasn’t “come across with the goods!” There are still no children. (As if there could be!) So Sarai is going to “force the issue.” She says to Abram, “God has prevented me from bearing children.” And that’s a very interesting choice of words, isn’t it?! Perhaps she was taking just a bit of “liberty” in describing her condition. Or perhaps that was just part of her “argument” to convince Abram, to force his hand. (Or God’s hand, depending on how you look at it?) Or was that just an expression of her frustration?
Whatever it was, she “convinces” her husband to take in Hagar, and have the child with her – which he does. Now without painting that picture to “vividly,” let me just say that sometimes I think we totally miss the humor of the Bible! “Here Abraham, I’m 90 years old. But you can have my nice young pretty hand maiden.” “Oh no, my dear, you’re the only woman for me…” “No really, Abe, I insist!” (I’ll let your imagination finish that story!)
Well, humor or not, this is a bad time for this couple. They’ve stepped out of God’s will, and they’ve tried to take matters into their own hands! And what follows is this whole difficult experience with Hagar and her son, Ishmael. God is none too pleased with Abram and Sarai!
So, now it’s chapter 17, and God is making this his “official covenant” with Abram. He gives him a new name, and his wife, too. And he reconfirms that part of the deal is the promise of many descendants! And still there is no son! And these would be parents are fast closing in on 100! (They’re almost Centenarians!) But of course, as we remember this story, it’s by God’s power that all this would happen. And it becomes totally fun to read the next stage in this story were that “one little detail” would be filled in! In chapter 18, God deals directly with Sarah. And this time, when she’s told the time and details of her having this child, what does she do? She goes off and she laughs! And it’s so wonderful, that when the son is born a chapter or so later, he is named Isaac. And that name means, “Laughter.”
It’s so hard to deal with just one part of this story! It’s all part of such a big, delicious picture! But I’d like us all to think about how we would fit into all of this. We’re all part of the same kingdom of God that included Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Paul, Matthew, John, and the rest of the billions of people since. And I started this year by asking you to consider the changed life to which God calls you. It is the same kind of change that might warrant the giving of a new name? Is it that great a change for you? Should it be?
Certainly God has changed all of our names. We are now to be called “Children of God.” That’s now part of our name, our reputation, our persona. Children of God is part of who we are! It’s not just what we’re called! As we go through this time of Lent, as we approach the celebration of Holy Week, and Easter, may we consider ourselves in that long line of God’s people that goes all the way back to the stories that mark this time of year. We are part of the story that goes back to Paul, and all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. And may we consider how important it is that God has called us and changed us, so much so that it’s as if he changed our name as well.
Eternal God, you have called us. You have made us “new creations.” You have even given us new names, for we are your children. Help us, Lord, to live for you, to seek your will, to be your people. For we pray in your holy name, Amen.