Genesis 17:1-8, 15-21, Ephesians 3:14-21
September 22, 2013
Today we’re moving ahead again in the book of Genesis. We’re looking at another story from the early days of God’s relationship with his people – the pinnacle of his creation! At this point we find ourselves in the middle of the story of Abram and Sarai. And this is the time when they received their new names from God. They would now be Abraham and Sarah!
As we look at this story, the first thing I want us to consider is the significance of names. In the Bible, names were very important. Think about it. They didn’t have Social Security numbers, credit scores, or photo ID’s. They simply had their names. And they received their names in a religious ceremony, sort of like we do when we baptize a baby. In fact, the tradition of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters is that they give a child a new name at baptism. Does anybody here have a baptism name?
Well, to the ancient Hebrews (and even to the modern Hebrews) names were even more significant than just a person’s label. They believed that a person’s name was somehow connected to their identity. To use someone’s name was like evoking something of their character or even their very presence. That’s one of the reasons they were so careful to avoid using the name of God. It was like calling on God’s presence, and you didn’t want to make a mistake doing that! If their names were that important, God’s name was even more important!
If you think about it, we still think of names that way, but to a lesser extent. Sometimes we talk about someone’s “good name.” That means more than just what we call them, doesn’t it? It’s as though their name was synonymous with their personality or even their reputation. We can also talk about “defaming” or even “besmirching” someone’s “good name,” can’t we? (That’s a great word isn’t it? Besmirching!)
Well, in this story, these people were given new names from God. And that’s something God did in a number of places in the Bible. Think about it. Jacob became Israel and Saul became Paul. Jesus changed peoples names, too. Simon became Peter, and Levi became Matthew. When something very significant happened to someone, sometimes they were given a new name. Just think about the power of that. What kind of significance would it have for you if you changed your name? And how does that feel for you ladies who have shared in that tradition of changing your last name when you got married?
So that’s the first thing in this story. These people got new names. Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. Now the second thing to keep in mind here is the covenant that God was making with this couple. That was the significant thing that was happening here, the thing that caused the changing of their names. That change emphasize the importance of that covenant. And if you remember, this was not the first covenant God made with Abram. Earlier, in chapter 12 of Genesis, God called Abram and told him to leave his country and go to a new land. And he made a covenant with him at that time, too.
Oh, and by the way, just a word on that name, Abram. I’ve sometimes heard it pronounced “Ay-brum.” Anybody ever heard that? Well, my Old Testament professor Bernhard Anderson always pronounced it “Ah-brahm.” And we always figured Bernie knew what he was talking about. (After all, he was one of the leading Old Testament scholars in the world at the time!)
So, God came back to Ah-brahm, (or Ay-brum, or whoever!) and he said to him, “Hey! Youse guys are gonna have a kid!” (What, dont you think God is from Philadelphia?) He said, “You’re gonna have a kid!” “In fact, you’re gonna have a lot of kids!” “You’re going to be the father of a whole nation!” Now, that was a heck of a thing to say to a man who was a hundred years old! And in one of those wonderful places in the Bible, where the characters become deliciously real, Abram laughs! Isn’t that great? In fact, it says “He fell on his face and laughed!” (Genesis 17:17) Sometimes I think we remember Sarah’s laughter even more in this story. And maybe a woman would be more prone to laughter when told such a thing. (We men tend to be a little more detached when it comes to women’s things like that.) But here in this first part, we have Abram himself laughing at God. “Are you kidding, Lord?” (That would sound even better if I could do a good Jewish accent!) Abram laughed!
What a wonderful story! This reminds me of the time I went to my new doctor shortly after moving here. I told him how Patty and I had just gotten married, and he asked me, “Are you going to have children together?” Well, I was kind of stunned by the question. But then I laughed! And I said, “Are you kidding? Were 50! Hows that gonna happen!” I felt a little bit like Abram must have felt. And all I could think of at that moment was the sweet little octogenarian woman in my last congregation, who once said, “We old people don’t have the babies because we would put them down and forget where we left them!” Sometimes I take that a little further with Patty and I say how one of us would ask, “Do you remember where we left the baby?” And the other would say, “We have a baby??”
So, what we have here is a story of God telling how he was about to do the seemingly impossible. And the human reaction was laughter! And I wonder. Do we ever do that? Do we ever have that reaction? Do we ever think something is so impossible for God that we react with sarcasm, or even laughter? When it really comes down to it, it’s hard for us to believe the power of God, isn’t it? For Abram, this was too much. Sure leaving his country and being given a new and promised land was one thing. But to have a child at 100? That was laughable! And in a way, this is wonderfully refreshing, isn’t it?
The other thing I have to wonder here is, what about God? Does God laugh? He certainly has a great sense of humor! Just think about the way he did things in the Bible. Can you see him saying, “Let me see, who should I get to speak to the Pharaoh of Egypt? I know! How about Moses, that guy with the speech impediment!” Then later he was thinking, “How about a king for Israel? Who should I get? I know! How about that shepherd boy, David!” And in this case, you can almost see him smiling and saying, “I think Ill go tell those hundred year old people theyre going to have a baby! This should kill them!”
Do you get the picture? I have no doubt that God has a wonderful sense of humor! In fact, I think laughter is one of his best creations! And there’s no doubt in my mind that God has to laugh, too! After all, he has to deal with the likes of us! And I’m sure as he does, he knows what we know, that sometimes reality in peoples lives is much funnier than fiction! Isn’t that true? Sometimes I hear stories about what people do, and I think “You can’t write stuff funnier than this!”
So here, God tells Abraham and Sarah they are going to have a baby, and they both laugh. And of course, we learn then that the name Isaac actually means “laughter.” And were ok with that, aren’t we? In fact, God doesn’t rebuke them for laughing. We can even see God laughing right along with them! That’s part of the joy of this moment, isn’t it! And I think you’ll agree with me that laughter is akin to joy joy that God wants for his people! If you know me, you know I believe that, thanks to the writings of one of my favorite authors, John Eldredge! Well, laughter is part of that joy of life! A wise man once said “You have to laugh every day. Because a day without laughter is like a day without sunshine. And a day without sunshine is like night!”
I also remember the words of one of my other favorite writers, C. S. Lewis. And Lewis used to say that Joy and Sorrow are not all that far apart. And if you think that, it’s true. We can cry at the happiest times of our lives, and we can laugh at the saddest! Sometimes I like to say that at funerals. Because funerals are times when we have those kinds of feelings all mixed together. We are sad for our loss, but that sadness is mixed with the joy of having shared this life with the one we have lost. Sometimes some pretty funny stories are told at funerals!
Well, just as joy is not that far apart from sorrow, let me suggest that we are not that far apart from Abraham and Sarah. Like them, we receive our name, our identity, from God. For we are made in his image. And like them, God has brought us into covenant relationship. Our covenant is in Jesus Christ. And because of that, we like them, are also called to the seemingly impossible. We are called to be like Jesus! If you think about it, that ought to make us laugh, just like them! For that’s just as impossible as what they were told. Yet, like them, it’s what God wants for us!
So as we go from here today, I hope well keep in mind the laughter of Abraham and Sarah. And I hope you’ll think about who’s laughing now? I hope we are all laughing at the way God calls even the likes of us into his kingdom! And I hope you think about God laughing right along with us!
Eternal God, we thank you for the joy of this life, joy that you share with us. Help us to choose to see that joy, rather than focusing on the limitations and disappointments of this life. Help us to see things through your eyes, so that we might have a better perspective about what is possible, and what is not. For all this, we give you thanks and praise this day and always. These things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.