A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 4, 2012.
Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Imagine how things might have been had God done to Mary what God did to Abraham and Sarah. If Mary was like most brides-to-be in her day, she was quite young when she first had an angelic visit announcing that God was giving her a son. If God had required her to wait as long as poor Abraham and Sarah, she would have been middle-aged with graying hair.1
Abraham and Sarah are well past middle age. In fact, their Medicare application was a fading memory. Do the math. It’s not hard. The writer of Genesis is very precise about how old Abraham and Sarah were during this long ordeal. Abram, as he was known then, was seventy-five when he and God first met and God called to him in Haran telling him to start packing. He was eighty-six when, tired of waiting on God, and at the encouragement of an equally impatient Sarai, took matters into his own hands and fathered Ishmael by means of Sarai’s servant Hagar. Now, when we come to this part of the story, he is ninety-nine. And still, God is continuing to tell this old, old man that he’s about to start a family.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that story before. Seems we were first told this some twenty-four years ago and nothing has come from it yet. How can we know that God is ready to fulfill this long-promised hope? Usually, when some kind of covenant is made – between people, and in this case, between Abram and God – a tangible sign of the agreement is exchanged between them. What tangible proof does God bring to Abram that he, God, really means business?
Well, how about a new name? Abram will no longer be known as Abram but as Abraham. Not much difference, to be sure, but enough to get the job done. The only difference, really, is an additional breathing sound added to the name… Abra-hah-m. Perhaps it is an indication that God is going to breath his Spirit into the old man in a way that’s never been done before. And his new name means “father of a multitude.” Well, we’ll see, we’ll see. If the past is any indication, not much will come from this. But we’ll see.
Oh, and there is also that… that circumcision thing, but maybe we’ll talk about that some other time. Right now, we’re talking about name changes.
There’s not a lot of deviation from ninety year-old Sarai’s name either. Just change one letter and now her name means princess. She doesn’t feel like one just now, I would think. How is Sarah feeling? Probably just old and tired and cranky and not entirely sure she would want to go through with this if indeed God did – if you will excuse the pun – deliver on his promise. After all, at her age it’s hard enough to bend over and pick something up off the kitchen floor that’s been dropped. How in the world will she ever care for a little one running around needing a diaper change while her rheumatism’s acting up?
It’s obvious they’re a bit old for starting a family. You’d think the same is true for having to change their names on their Social Security cards and driver’s licenses and passports. Have you changed bank accounts recently? Used to be a snap, but now it seems like it takes an act of congress. But to change one’s name? That would be most difficult and time-consuming.
Still, it happens all the time in our world. Have you ever heard of Ron Artest? Maybe a handful of you at most. He is a professional basketball player in the NBA… labors, if that’s the appropriate word, for the Los Angeles Lakers. Except, he is no longer Ron Artest. Prior to this year’s season he legally changed his name to Metta World Peace. “And it’s a t-h-r-e-e by Metta World Peace!” (spoken like a public address announcer). Who knows, maybe he thinks God told him to do it.
That’s what happened to Abram and Sarai, except in their case it wasn’t their decision. God did it, as a sign of the covenant God had been making with them the last quarter of a century or so. Now, they will be known as Abraham and Sarah, and apparently they don’t have the right of refusal in the matter. God just goes and tells them to do it whether they want to or not. Name changes.
But they’re not the only ones who received new names that day. God did too. Did you know that? This is the very first time in scripture that God is referred to as El Shaddai. You may be familiar with the song that has that title, but did you know it is a name for God? And do you know what it means? It means “God Almighty,” which may be God’s way of letting this old and weary couple know that he, God Almighty, means business. God may take his ever-loving time about fulfilling the promise he made to them long before, but that doesn’t mean God ever forgets his promises. When it comes to promises, not to mention nation-building, God tends to be very, very serious.
“I am El Shaddai; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
Did you notice the grammar, as it is translated from the Hebrew into our modern English? “And I will make my covenant between me and you…” Listen to our kids and you’ll hear them say it all the time, “me and Joe,” “me and Mary,” “me and you.” When we visit with our daughter Emily and her family down in Macon, Georgia we find ourselves correcting our grandsons about this all the time. And we hear it around here on a regular basis. Just Tuesday night, in a public forum, I heard the daughter of a local college president make this grammatical mistake. Proper grammar requires that you put the other person’s name before your own. “Joe and me,” “Mary and me,” “you and me.”
But I suppose, when you’re El Shaddai, God Almighty, grammar doesn’t count… isn’t an issue. If you’re God Almighty, it’s all right to put yourself first. “And I will make my covenant between me and you…” I’m not going to argue about that, are you?
“And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” It is not the first time Abram has heard this, but it is the first time Abraham has heard it.
I would imagine there were plenty of times when Abraham slipped up and called his wife by her first given name… and vice versa. After all, they’ve lived with their birth names almost a century. That would be hard to leave behind, I would think. No doubt, it took some getting used to, even though, as we have said, the changes in their names were not that drastic. It’s not as if they had to go from Ron Artest to Metta World Peace or anything like that. So it would have been easy to slip up, I would think.
But when the obvious signs of being with child became known to them, they knew as they had never known before, that indeed El Shaddai meant business. And in that moment the old names were completely forgotten. For in their laughter, which is what their son Isaac was named, appropriate since this whole thing seems so ludicrous, all the promises of God had come true.
John Claypool speaks of “the awesome challenge of handling responsibly the promises of God.”2 How do we do that, handle responsibly the promises of God? It may not call for a name-change, but it does require that we believe – with all our hearts – that God delivers on that which God promises. We may not necessarily like the terms. We may try to avoid them or go around them or spend a great deal of time wrestling against them. But if God is patient enough to wait as long as he did with Abram, aka Abraham, and Sarai, otherwise known as Sarah, don’t you think God will wait for us as well?
Maybe this is the day for the wait to be over.
Consider some of the crucial stories of this Lenten season that have to do with Jesus’ life and ministry. At his baptism, at his transfiguration, the Voice of the very God who visited with Abraham centuries before comes blaring down from heaven, and says to any who would hear, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
So you see, even Jesus received a new name… Son, Beloved Son. So if you’re looking for a change in your life, perhaps you should let it start right there. No longer do you carry the name that is so familiar to you. From now on, and in all the days to come, your first name will be Son or Daughter, children of El Shaddai, God Almighty. And all it takes is for God to add a breathing sound – God’s very Spirit – to your name.
Change our names, Lord, to reflect who we are, created and redeemed through your holy grace. In the name of the One who pleased you we pray, Amen.
1This idea found in Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 51.
2John Claypool, The Hopeful Heart (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2003), p. 39.