Text: Genesis 17:1-16 (Romans 5:1-11) Reminiscere (2nd Sunday in Lent)
A New Identity
In the name of him who loved us and gave himself for us, dear friends in Christ: What’s in a name? These days, not very much. Most parents give their children names that they simply like the sound of. That or they name them after relatives they mean to honor. Parents sometimes also consider the meaning of the names they choose; but it’s not usually the main factor in making the decision. But just for fun, let’s take a little straw poll here. How many of you know the meaning of your first name? Second name? How about all your children’s names? How many know the meaning of your family name – the one nobody got to choose?
Well, anyway, it’s helpful to know that in the Holy Scripture the meaning of a person’s name is often very significant. In some cases it describes a dominant trait of an individual. For others, their names have certain prophetic qualities that tell us something about what they will do later in life. Just for example, on the positive side we’ve got Moses which means “[taken] from the water”. You may remember that he was so named by the Pharaoh’s daughter when she found him floating in a basket in the Nile River – which basket he’d been placed in by his mother to hide him from the princess’s father who had ordered all the Israelite boys to be killed – not coincidentally, by casting them in the Nile to drown or be eaten by crocodiles. So Moses was rescued by the princess who took him out of the water that spelled death to so many others, and he was adopted into the family of the king who had ordered his death. His name Moses spoke of his new life and rescue. Interestingly enough, it was he who would later lead all the Israelites out of Egypt by taking them through the water of the Red Sea that would spell death to the sons of Egypt. There’s some wonderful baptismal imagery in both of those stories; but I’ll save it for another time. The point for today is that Moses’ name has favorable meaning on several levels.
On the negative side we have such biblical characters as Aachen, whose name means “Trouble”, and Nabal, whose name means “Fool”. Without going into the details of their stories, suffice it to say that they lived up to their names. Aachen did indeed cause trouble for others, and ultimately for himself. And Nabal, well, he was a fool. And just a side note here: I know that parents sometimes choose biblical names for their children. I wouldn’t recommend either of these latter two.
But let’s suppose for a moment that you were a biblical character who had a name that was less than complimentary, or that counted against you somehow, and you knew that it was more than just a meaningless label—that there was something descriptive or even prophetic about your name, and it wasn’t good. Then what? I mean, you could change your name to something nicer and insist that other people call you that – but that wouldn’t change your fundamental identity. Your name was given to you, and with it came a destiny that you can’t avoid. It seems that you’d be stuck. Unless … unless you could get a whole new identity; that is, actually become someone different – someone with an entirely different (and hopefully better) destiny.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the witness protection program. When someone comes forward who has important testimony he can give against a suspect who is part of a dangerous and powerful criminal organization, the Justice Department may decide that the evidence is good enough to warrant bringing the potential witness into protective custody. Then, depending on the case and how much threat there may be to the witness after the trial, they may decide to go ahead and give the person a new identity. They create documentation out of thin air: new birth certificate, school records, passport – you name it. They move the person and their family to a different town, get them a new home, get them started in a new career, the whole shebang. The person becomes someone else. The idea is to make them untraceable so that the bad guys can never find them. And what I want to highlight is that there’s no way that the witness could do all these things for himself. It takes the “higher powers” of the legal authorities to make it all happen. And when they’re done, as far as the law and everyone else is concerned, that person is indeed somebody else.
So, going back to our hypothetical problem of being someone with a name that somehow spelled trouble (with a prophetic future to match it), one way to escape your less than desirable fate would be for you to enter something similar to the witness protection program; that is, have the Lord himself give you a new name and identity. After all, he’s the one who’s in charge of what happens in the future, and there is no higher legal authority. So, if the Lord gives you a new identity, that’s who you really become.
All of which brings us to today’s Old Testament reading in which we heard about Abram and Sarai. You remember Abram. He’s the guy the Lord called from the land beyond the Euphrates to go to the land the Lord promised to give to him and to the multitude of descendant the Lord promised he would have. And trusting in the Lord’s promises, Abram left the land of his fathers and stepped forward in faith toward the unseen goal, taking his wife, Sarai, along with him.
They were a rather unlikely couple to choose for this task. Abram, whose name means “Exalted Father”, was already seventy-five years old. And Sarai, whose name means “Contentious” or “Argumentative” or to put it a bit more bluntly, “Harping Nag” – she too was well past the flower of her youth at sixty-five years of age. Now, at first glance, you might think that Abram had the better deal concerning his name. “Exalted Father” sounds better to us than “Harping Nag”. And we can well imagine that he was so named by his parents as a kind of a blessing for his future. The idea being that they hoped one day he would be the honored head of an immense family. And that’s nice, I suppose; but there’s also something … (what?) rather pretentious and bombastic about it, don’t you think? “Exalted Father”: the name sounds like a prideful boast. Especially in that culture that valued fertility so highly, the name suggests a man who is extraordinarily potent, if you catch my drift. But as you probably know, Abram and Sarai had been married for three or four decades and they were childless. So this name that sounded so full of grand promise would have backfired on him. I mean, how’d you like to be him and have to introduce yourself as “Exalted Father”? The person you‘re meeting would be looking around saying, “Wow, you must have a huge family. Where is it?” And you’d have to explain, “Well, there isn’t one. In fact, I don’t have any children. Not a single one.” And then the person would give you that knowing look that says, “Oh, I see. You’re all bark and no bite.” So what I’m saying is that Abram’s name, especially as he grew older, would have mocked him. It would have been a satirical reminder of exactly what he wasn’t and apparently couldn’t become. And too, it would have made him the target of many jokes and wise cracks. Then, on top of it all, factor in that he’s married to “the old nag” … and let’s just say that they both must have suffered endless humiliation on account of their names.
They were, nevertheless, the couple the Lord chose to become the parents of a vast nation. And they believed it. At least, they did at first. But ten long years passed after they arrived in the Promised Land, and still they had no offspring. And somewhere near the end of that decade of waiting, Sarai underwent that change of life which signaled she was no longer in her childbearing years. It appeared to them that the Lord had failed. And so they decided to take matters into their own hands. It was actually Sarai’s idea. She happened to be the owner of an Egyptian slave girl named Hagar. Sarai reasoned that since the Lord had deprived her of her own biological children, she could resort to the “surrogate mother” approach according to a custom of that time which allowed a childless couple to legally adopt as their heir the child of the husband and one of the wife’s servants. It seemed the only way to make the Lord’s promise come true. “Why don’t you sleep with my pretty young slave girl?” Sarai suggested to Abram. “I can become a mother – and we both can become parents and fulfill the Lord’s promises through her.” I’m not sure that it speaks very highly of his character that Abram doesn’t seem to have required any arm twisting to comply with his wife’s request. Men really can be pigs …
Anyway, as it happened, nature took its course and Hagar was soon with child. For his part, Abram must have been pretty pleased with himself. At last, it seemed, he was going to live up to his name—at least to some degree. But things didn’t work out so well for Sarai. As soon as Hagar knew she had conceived, she began taking on airs. After all, she succeeded where her mistress failed. She was bearing the master’s child. So why should she take any orders from that mean old shrew anymore? Hagar begins to show disrespect for Sarai. She holds her in open contempt. And this is where Sarai really begins to live up to her name. She goes back to Abram and accuses him of being the cause of all her woes. “You did this to me!” she says to him, “It’s your fault that Hagar has turned on me.” Abram wisely refrains from reminding his wife that it was actually her idea. Even more wisely, he decides not to step in between two women who are fighting. “She’s your slave”, he tells Sarai, “deal with her however you see fit.” Sarai does. She attempts to beat Hagar back into submission. It doesn’t work so well. Instead, Hagar runs away – taking with her the baby in her womb upon whom Abram and Sarai have set all their hopes.
It takes the Lord’s intervention to restore some order to the situation. He sends Hagar back to Sarai and commands her to show due obedience and respect. But understanding the history, you know it’s got to be a rather uneasy sort of truce that exists between the two women.
In due course Hagar gives birth to a son who, according to the Lord’s instructions, is named Ishmael, which can mean either “God hears” or “He hears God”. By nature, he is the son of Abram and Hagar. By a sort of legal fiction, he is the son of Abram and Sarai. And we learn that he’s destined to be something of a live wire. The Lord prophesies that he will be a stubborn mule of a man, and that his hand will be in constant conflict against all his relatives. So he is in that sense a true son of “Contention”.
Well then thirteen more years pass. Young Ishmael is on the cusp of entering his manhood. Though a difficult, strong willed child, he is the joy of Abram’s life. And he is still what both Abram and Sarai hold to be the living proof that the Lord is keeping his promise to them. More than that, he’s a source of pride for his parents. Sarai can congratulate herself that it was her cleverness and her willingness to turn over her slave for her husband’s use that made him possible; and Abram can boast to himself, “That’s my boy. Though I just managed to make it before I got too old for such things, I am an exalted father after all.”
And it’s then that the Lord returns and appears to the ninety-nine year old Abram, as we heard in today’s lesson. He starts with an introduction and a command: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” Names, I said earlier, are important. And this is the first time the Lord refers to himself as “Almighty”, so there must be a reason for it – and there is. He’s telling Abram that there is nothing beyond his power to do. That’s what it means to be all mighty. He’s saying to Abram, “I’m the All Mighty One. If I say something is going to happen, you’d better believe it’s going to happen.” And his command for Abram to walk blamelessly doesn’t mean that he expects Abram to behave perfectly and never sin. Abram learned earlier in his life that a man is reckoned blameless before God by trusting his promises, and not by perfect obedience to the law – which no sinner can achieve anyway. The problem is that Abram hasn’t been blameless. He hasn’t been trusting the Lord. He hasn’t been trusting that the Lord can do what’s humanly impossible. Instead he’s been trusting in his own natural effort and ability. And with no small measure of pride he thinks he’s lived up to his boastful name “Exalted Father”.
So at this point the Lord reiterates his promise to multiply the offspring of Abram exceedingly. And he ups the ante significantly. “No longer will it be just one nation that comes from you; but I will bring forth from you a whole multitude of nations”. There’s an implied rebuke here. Abram deceived himself into thinking that he’d earned the name “Exalted Father” by having just one son. And after eight decades of being mocked by his name, I suppose it’s understandable. But it’s like the Lord is saying, “You silly man. We’ve seen what you can do for yourself – and sure it isn’t very much. But now stand back and watch what I will do for you.” It’s then that the Lord gives him his new name. And if the old one picked by his parents sounded a bit over the top, this new name that the Lord gives him is clear off the charts. “You are now Abraham, ‘the Father of Many Nations’. I’m vastly increasing what I promised to you before. And Sarai, your wife, will now be called Sarah, which means “Princess”, because I’m going to bless her. She is going to have a son of her own. And she will become the mother of nations and of royal dynasties.”
So both Abraham and Sarah received much better names than they had to begin with; but more importantly, the Lord changed who they were. He gave them new identities and a future much greater than he had promised them at first. And despite their initial lack of faith, the Lord empowered them to do what was humanly impossible. Sarah, the princess, conceived and gave birth to the child through whom the Lord would fulfill all his promises – including the promise to bring the Savior and King into the world through whom all nations on earth would be blessed.
But maybe you’re wondering what any of this has to do with you. The answer is everything. Because what the Lord did for this aging couple is the same thing he does for you and me. We come into this world full of ourselves and what we can do (self proclaimed exalted fathers), and also full of rebellion and strife (that is, contention). That’s who we are by nature. And nothing we produce by our own efforts is ever going to be acceptable to the Lord. When it comes to producing spiritual fruit, we’re sterile. Oh, we often delude ourselves into thinking we’re doing something worthwhile for the Lord; but we’re not. And of course the end of all this is an unhappy destiny indeed: namely an eternity in the fiery deluge of hell.
But when we were powerless, the Lord Almighty acted. He performed mighty miracles for us. Most importantly, he sent his Son to become a man – Jesus Christ, a descendant of Abraham and Sarah – in order to keep the covenant of law that we couldn’t. And he further sent him to the cross to pay the debt we couldn’t pay. And then he raised him up to lead us into righteousness and life through trust in him. And now it’s through Jesus that he gives us a new identity. He changes who we are. Through Baptism and the gift of faith, he makes us the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah, members with them of his royal family and coheirs with them of his heavenly Promised Land. And he gives to each of us a new name: the name of Christian, which means “little christ”. He does this so that we may bear his name before the world and show his love in what we say and do. You might say that we are in the divine witness protection program: because he’s changed who are in order to give us life and cause us to bear witness of him to the world. So, what’s in a name? If the name is “Christian”, absolutely everything. May God in his mercy give us the grace to bear it boldly and faithfully. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!