Second Sunday of Lent A New Name
February 28, 2021 Genesis 17:1-7
Kathleen and I recently met a couple whose names we didn’t get. I do know they had just begun the second trimester of their first pregnancy. And they had a ton of questions. One being...how we came up with the names of our children. Normally when we are asked that question, we take the opportunity to be a little creative. In this case, however, we told the truth.
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.
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).
As you were probably aware, a massive blanket of snow and ice still covers most of our country. And yet at the same time the latest NASA rover, Perseverance, has landed on Mars looking for snow, ice, or any form of water. I reckon one has to have it to live there. That’s because water is essential for life. Not enough of it and you die. Too much of it, you die. But with just the right amount you can thrive.
Water is also a powerful element in so many different ways. To think, the same thing that froze the power supply in Texas is being harnessed in Japan to generate power. From a simple pond to a wild flowing river water can give life, alter life, and even take life. Be it here on earth or on Mars.
This is the first Sunday in Lent, when the church historically remembers the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan river - a body of water that played in important role in Israel’s story.
But today I want to go a little further back in time, to a different baptism of sorts, that I hope will inspire us as we set out on our Lenten journey. It’s probably the most well-known story of water in the Bible. A story of God, some sinful people, and a great flood.
There are many elements in the story of Noah that make me scratch my head and say, “What?” Like, the unlikeliness that the entire world was completely submerged underwater. Given the heights of the mountain range just around Los Angeles would mean the water level would have to be nearly two miles deep...upward! That’s a lot of water. I’m sure the shear weight of it alone would have knocked the planet off its axis.
I know for a fact it would take longer than 40 days for all that water to evaporate. I’ve watched lakes shrivel up in droughts, but never that quick. So where did the water go? Was there a drain somewhere in the earth with a plug that God pulled?
It’s also hard for me to fathom that every single human, sans Noah, did something so rotten that God felt justified to kill everyone. Heck, we still have a lot of bad people in our world, but we also have a lot of good people doing some really good stuff for others. So why would God kill them all? And why were the animals killed while the fish were allowed to live?
Whether or not this story is true, it’s an amazing allegory that offers our 21st century sensibility a few good things to ponder especially in Lent as we think about our relationship with our Creator and all of creation.
Read: Genesis 9:8-17
... I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Just off the kitchen at my parent’s house is a small half bathroom. It's adorned with all sorts of Noah artwork (or should I say "ark" work). There are drawings, paintings and watercolors of the ark in various states. There are Noah hand towels, bathmats, soap dispenser, and a little statue with animals walking two-by-two up and down the mountain where a wooden ship perched like a nest. In each one, of course, there’s a rainbow in the sky.
Rumor has it that a small child exited this very bathroom one day and asked my mom if she had lived on Noah’s Ark. My mom was quick to reply, “Oh heavens, no.” Without missing a beat, the boy asked, “Then how did you survive the flood?”
It’s a great question, don’t you think? How did you survive the flood? In ancient times floods were often used as metaphors for chaos. So, as we look at this story, we need to keep that in the back of our heads. As we ask ourselves, “How do we survive the chaos in our lives?” I think the answer can be found in my mom’s Noah shrine.
On the wall opposite the toilet hangs a gigantic Noah-themed tapestry. Woven into the top and bottom are the words, “Promises kept.”
As we learned in our reading today, that promise is the one made not just to Noah, but to all of creation. As the story goes, God makes a covenant with us to never, ever let something like this happen again. Again and again, God has kept that promise.
As you move through the challenges of Lent, and struggle with your faith or lack thereof, this story reminds us to lean on God because we can count on God...even if God can’t count on us. God’s word is good, even if we are not. Think about that for a moment.
The flood shows God’s hurt. But the covenant shows God is willing to initiate an intervention. It’s as if God woke up and realized that punishing us isn’t the way to get us to change. Perhaps setting an example might be better. And so, it’s God who decides to change. Despite knowing we will continue to keep doing things that go against God’s will, a heavenly covenant is made.
Like William Allen said, it’s like “God places a restraining order against God’s self” and then sets a sign in the sky so God will always be held accountable the vow. Again and again, God continues to remain loyal to the disloyal. Promises kept.
Whether or not you believe the world was once a giant ball of water, God loves you. No matter what. As my old friend Tom Richard used to say, “No matter how far we stray from doing what God has called us to do, we are never beyond the boundaries of God’s love.” I can’t think of a better mantra to cling to as you move through the chaos of life, especially during Lent.
The story of this covenant also reveals something else about God. You see, God is more than our creator, God is also our protector, committed to never punish or destroy the world again. This tells me that God is inherently invested in our fate. God cannot simply sit back or check out. But must always be present and willing to act on our behalf.
“This investment introduces a new and distinct facet into the character of God. Along with power, justice, patience, and love, the ancient Hebrews also perceived that God was inherently self-giving, willing to enter into a relationship that puts limits on even God’s priorities.”
Again and again, Israel tested God’s covenant. And again and again God remained faithful. Promises kept.
To think God’s love for us was so great that God was willing to make a unilateral covenant - one that God was bound by it personally knowing humanity was not. That’s what makes this still relevant to us.
When this flood story was first written, God’s people yet again found themselves in a state of suffering. They had watched their powerful kingdom crumble, their beloved Temple pulverized, and their loved ones scattered like dust as they were sent into exile. When all seemed lost, they had hope. Because God’s promises are never broken. They knew that no matter what challenges they faced, they could rely on God because they knew God’s word is good.
We too can rely on God. No matter how much we put God to the test, promises kept. Today we face our own challenges – COVID, political turmoil, economic crisis that have left more people falling behind than lifted up. Yet, promises kept.
Maybe you are suffering a great loss from death, estrangement, or divorce. Maybe you are crumbling under the weight of resentment, anger, and pride. Maybe something has happened to you that has left you feeling hopeless.
Lent is a time to give in to our faith, to let go of fear knowing we can always rely on God, even if God cannot always rely on us. Promises kept.
As the ancient psalmist wrote, because God keeps his promise made to our ancestors, we can cry out in our pain and suffering, knowing God will hear our cries. When it feels like the world is ganging up us, we can turn to God knowing we will find refuge. When we find ourselves on shaky ground, we can stand on God, the rock of our foundation...knowing we are protected. Promises kept – no matter what.
As you struggle in the wilderness of faith, realizing what God is asking you to do, this passage reminds you of what God is willing to sacrifice for you, in order to save you from yourself. This is a divine act that will climax with Jesus on the cross. But as we will discover, death can’t stop God’s promise from being fulfilled.
Through Christ, God takes this risk because God's heart is touched by creation’s suffering. In him we see that God is willing to become one of us; fully embracing all of our human experiences, including death. Through the resurrection of Christ, we see just how much God wants to be in a relationship with us.
Christ is God’s greatest promise made and promised kept. He is proof that God’s unconditional love is faithful to the bitter end, and beyond to greater glory. This covenant of divine grace is the distinguishing mark of Christianity. It’s what Jesus was all about.
It requires nothing from us but our desire to be a recipient of this blessed gift. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love or to cause God to withhold it. I guess that’s why they call it the Good News. Promises kept.
As Jesus himself demonstrated, we are given this gift so that we might live it – fully and faithfully – in a way that showcases God’s glory and the loving relationship between Creator and all of creation.
During this season of Lent, I hope that you will set your heart upon this covenant of God’s grace knowing that God will never deny you, never turn away, reject or hurt you. God only wants to love you, protect you, and redeem you back to your rightful place in God’s heart.
Like a rainbow in the heavens, God’s love is made visible to all who choose to move towards God’s open heart. Christ has shown us the way.
From the baptismal font to the cross of chaos. Promises kept.
But don’t take my word for it. You have God’s word.
A word of promise God made just for you. And a promise God has kept just for you.
*based on a sermon Promises Kept originally given on January 3, 2016. https://www.jesusnotjesus.org/be-kind/sermon-promises-kept
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
With a single act of compassion, Jesus imitates and initiates God’s loving grace
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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