Our names are very important to many of us. We might even argue that they come close as close as anything to identifying who we really are. We are, at least in some ways, our names.
Names have throughout measured time had meaning. God asks Adam to name each creature as God creates it, so that creatures aren’t, in one sense, complete until they have a name. God also gives our first father a name that reflects his origins in the soil. On top of that, the Scriptures repeatedly insist God knows people’s names. What’s more, God even sometimes changes people’s names to signal their transformation.
For the first half of their story, we know Abram and Sarai by the names their parents gave them. It’s Abram and Sarai who may have gone out and bought a crib when God promised them a son. It’s Abram and Sarai who perhaps set up a nursery and started discussing names for their son. It’s Sarai who may have begun to make some baby clothes.
But all of that happened 24 years before Genesis 17 opens. If you don’t think that’s a long time to wait, think back 24 years. In 1994 South Africans elected Nelson Mandela to be their president. OJ Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her acquaintance. 24 years ago a number of people to whom we proclaim Genesis 17 weren’t even born yet.
For Abram and Sarai, 24 years have also been a long time. During those years Abram tried to pass off his wife as his sister. Abram’s relatives separated, resulting in his nephew needing Abram to rescue him. Now for the third time in 24 years God has appeared to Abraham and Sarah to promise them a son.
However, Genesis 17’s 89 year-old Sarai is now a veritable spring chicken compared to her 99 year-old husband, Abram. Their dream of having one child, much less a world full of children has been slowly dying for nearly a quarter century.
And what happens our when dreams for our family, work, or the difference we’ll make die? Most of us, as Craig Barnes notes, pack those dreams away and get on with our lives. We settle for the making the best of it.
Abram and Sarai have done that. Abram fathered a child who is now 13 years old by their slavegirl. It certainly wasn’t what Sarai and he had hoped for. But they’d made the best of their infertility. Yet as Sarai and he are getting on with their lives, God again appears to Abram.
Do you wonder if the old man says to himself, “Well, here we go again. I know just what God’s going to say”? And when God again promises to make Abram what verse 4 calls a “father of many nations,” he perhaps thinks to himself, “Well, duh! Just look at my strapping teenaged son, Ishmael. I hear he’s going to have too many descendants to even count.”
Because that’s what we do when God’s promises just seem too extravagant. We tailor our expectations to reality. We begin to assume, says Barnes, that our busy but sometimes slightly empty lives are the extent of the blessing God promises us.
Yet our perception of blessing and compromises don’t cause God to compromise. As if to show Abram that, God changes his name. No longer will he just be “exalted father.” Now people will know Abram as Abraham, the “father of many” or “ancestor of multitudes.”
Yet this father of many still doesn’t have any children with his wife. Very little but his name has changed. Abraham’s wife’s arms are still empty. He still struggles to trust God’s promise to give Sarai and him a son. And they’re certainly not getting any younger.
But God isn’t done yet. In fact, God isn’t even yet finished changing names yet. “Oh, by the way,” it’s as if God goes on. “I’m also changing your wife’s name. Stop calling her ‘Sarai.’ That just means she’s a princess. Start calling her ‘Sarah.’ Because she’s going to parent a son with you.”
Yet if we’d wondered if Abraham’s character has changed with his name, we no longer have to. After all, it’s as if the strangeness of it all finally catches up with him. Abraham falls on his face again, this time not in worship, but laughter. Perhaps his giggle turns into a chuckle. Old Abe may even end up rolling around in the dust in laughter.
He may even think to himself, “God’s asking me to operate on the most sensitive part of my body just because God claims God’s going to finally turn our geriatric ward into a maternity ward?” “Can’t we just meet half-way?” it’s as if Abraham asks God in verse 18. “Save me the physical pain and emotional heartache and just keep your promises through my son Ishmael.”
But God is persistent. So in verse 19 God again promises Abraham he’ll have a son with his wife Sarai. What’s more, God reminds him, Abraham’s son Ishmael too will have countless descendants.
Yet God doesn’t repeat God’s promise to give Abraham countless descendants because he’s such a nice guy. God doesn’t change Abraham’s name because he’s become a model of faithful trust. God makes God’s promises simply and solely because God is gracious.
We see that mercy at work in Sarah’s life as well. After all, she too has doubted the promise. She gave her slave to Abram so he’d have a child by her. Even her name-change doesn’t change Sarah’s character any more than it changed her husband’s. After all, just as Abraham laughs at the renewed promise to have a child, Sarah too will laugh at the utter absurdity of it all.
In fact, Abraham’s whole family is caught up in laughter. But, at least initially, not happy laughter. Abraham and Sarah’s first laughter is that of doubt. Only their son’s miraculous birth will turn their laughter from incredulity into joy, from doubt into trust.
Yet in a story in which names play such a key part, we also note its names by which God identifies himself. The name by which Genesis’ narrator first identifies God is “Yahweh,” a designation that was familiar to Abraham and some of us. God next identifies himself to Abraham, as we already noted, as “El Shaddai,” “God Almighty.”
But when in verse 7 God speaks of himself as Abraham’s God, God uses the name “Elohim.” While that may not seem like a big deal, it is the first time God speaks of himself that way to Abraham. “Elohim” certainly isn’t a new name. It doesn’t reflect a change in God’s character. Yet as scholars note, it does present a new kind of reality for Abraham and Sarah. “Elohim” means, after all, “ruler of the nations.”
That name reminds Abraham, Sarah and us that while nations may make plans, God rules over them. While nations and families may think they grow simply by human reproduction, God is sovereign over them. So neither Abraham and Sarah’s home nor the nations will be filled with their descendants because they’re so fertile. No, their offspring will fill the nations because God rules over those nations and their people.
Of course, only some of those who proclaim and hear Genesis 17 have changed names. Many of us still have the names our parents gave us. And while some of us changed last names when we got married, our names are precious to us.
Yet when we were baptized, we were given another name. We were called “child of God.” What’s more, when we receive God’s grace with our faith, we receive yet another new name: “Christian.” Reformed Christians profess that means we’re members of Christ whom God has anointed to profess God’s name, present ourselves as living sacrifices and resist the devil’s temptations.
Yet even those who now bear Jesus’ name still much like Abraham and Sarah. While God has given us new names, our character hasn’t yet changed to fully match those new names. We don’t always act, talk and even think like God’s adopted children. You and I aren’t always very Christ-like in things like our prayers for and forgiveness of our enemies.
Yet God graciously gives us the Holy Spirit to help us to live up to our new names anyway. God graciously grants God’s adopted sons and daughters the grace to grow into the new names God graciously gives us.
Abraham can both live in renewed hope and circumcise the males in his family because God isn’t yet finished with him. God’s people too can live in similar hope. We also can let the Spirit put to death our own sinful ways. Our name “Christian” signals we can be patient with God, each other and even ourselves. God, after all, isn’t yet graciously done with you and me either.
Those who proclaim Genesis 17 might choose to share a bit about the genesis of their own names. I, for example, once asked my parents why they gave me the name “Douglas.” Did they perhaps name me for a military hero of the Second World and Korean Wars? Or did we perhaps live near some dark stream, as the meaning of my name suggests? “No,” my parents sighed. My name was a compromise. In fact, my mom and dad couldn’t even remember one of the names between which they’d chosen.
My wife and I vowed to be different with our own children’s names. They’d mean something we could later tell them. So Diane and I named our eldest “Jonathan” because he was, indeed, a gift from God. We named our second son “Timothy” because we hoped he’d live for God’s honor.
But by the time we were ready to name our youngest son, we’d run out of noble, biblical names that sounded okay with “Bratt.” So we decided to name him “Ryan,” at least if he was a boy. I no longer even remember what that name means.
But it’s okay in some ways. After all, we saddled our sons with the last name of “Bratt.” They weren’t even able to change that name by getting married. So no matter how noble their first names are, they’re always going to share their last name with a nickname for naughty children.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 25, 2018
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Commentary