Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”
Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”
It is not an easy season in the life of the church.
In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.
Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.
I was born 30 years and 3 days ago, and my parents named me Taylor Christian Mertins. They, like a lot of parents during the late 80’s, refused to find out my gender ahead of time and decided to live into the mystery of those months not quite knowing what they were about to receive. And it was during those months of mystery that they started debating baby names.
They could have gone the popular girl route with Jessica, Ashley, Amanda, Sarah, or Jennifer. Or they could have stuck with the equally popular boy side of Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, and Andrew.
They wondered about giving me a family name. In fact, my father once said that if I was a boy, he really wanted to name me Wolf Detlef Mertins after his brother who did not survive childbirth. And my mother, apparently, said, “That’s fine, but I won’t be your wife anymore.”
So they talk and talked, my mother’s womb grew and grew, and they finally picked a name. If I was a boy I would become Taylor Christian Mertins, and if I was a girl I would be Taylor Christiana Mertins.
Years later, when I was old enough and mature enough to actually think about the name given to me, I asked my parents why they picked Taylor Christian. My mom said that they liked Taylor because it could be used for a boy or girl, and my dad said they liked Christian because they wanted me to act like one.
And look where that got me.
Names are important, more important in fact than we often give them credit for. Of course, today, some of us are more inclined to name our children after a character on a television show than with some kind of theological intent. However, in scripture, names reflect character, purpose, and identity.
Lent is the perfect time to read about Abram and Sarai. We find them here in Genesis 17 during the twilight of their lives, they are reflecting on all the have seen and done, what went well, where they screwed up; its basically what we do every Lenten season.
And in this particular covenantal moment, it’s been 24 years since God promised Abram a son and Abram was still waiting for the promise to come true. (Though he had Ishmael during those years, but that’s a whole different story). 24 years of hoping against hope that God would make good on the covenant. Abram is 99 years old, after waiting for a quarter of his life, when God says, “walk before me and be blameless, and I will make my covenant with you and you will become exceedingly numerous.”
We could, of course, talk about how God always makes good on God’s promises. I could preach a half-decent sermon on patience in waiting for God to reveal God’s will. We could even spend the next ten minutes reflecting on Abram’s faithfulness being reckoned as righteousness.
But, it’s important to remember that these two soon-to-be-elderly parents were deeply flawed. They had plenty of opportunities to practice their faith in the covenant established 24 years prior. They went to a strange land without knowing what would happen. They saw grim hope for the family God promised them. They agreed (to some degree) to let Sarai lie (to and with) Pharaoh in order to protect Abram. They even plotted to let Abram sleep with Hagar in order to bring about God’s promise on their own time.
And nevertheless, we serve a great God of “nevertheless,” God chose these two to make the covenant possibility possible. “In you,” says the Lord, “will I make a multitude of nations.” God uses the flawed and fatigued couple as the seeds that become the people Israel. Where we see failure, God sees possibility. Where we see problems, God sees solutions. Where we see an end, God sees a beginning.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”
“And you shall no longer be called Abram, but you shall be called Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of many nations.”
“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”
Everyone in the story receives a new name – The Lord becomes God Almighty, Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.
The name changes are subtle, but their theological implications are profound. Abraham means the father of a multitude and Sarah means princess. These two have been changed by God’s promise, God will do with them the impossible, and who they are called by God is important.
Today, as I said before, we usually use names as nothing more that titles, something to be flung around without a lot of thought. But in scripture, there’s a lot in a name. And for Abraham and Sarah, they have no say so in the matter! They do not choose their new names, only God does.
They have been called by God to do something for God. In spite of their identities as flawed and somewhat forgotten people, God uses them to inaugurate a new reality in which the world would be forever transformed.
This covenant, a promise made to Abram and Sarai, its nothing short of hope. It’s saying to a people with no future that they will be given a future. It is a promise that is reflected through God’s relationship with all of Israel, and through Israel to the church, and through the church to each one of us.
In their new names they discovered the new call and covenant placed on their lives.
Names are so important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost anything else. There is a huge difference between saying, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you.” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.
Our names are so integral to whom we are that sometimes we neglect to realize how vital they are. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major hurricane are far more likely to donate money than others. Kims and Karls were more likely to donate money after hurricane Katrina than Taylors and well Taylors.
The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the cocktail party effect. The idea is that if you’re at a party, even when hundreds of people are in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room, you’ll hear it. Somehow your name with rise above the fury of the room, it will float along, until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else quite can.
I experience this every week during the passing of the peace. I will stand right here and motion for you all to engage with one another, and while standing by the choir loft I can hear one of my back row ladies start talking about Taylor’s choice in sermon title. Or I’ll be off to the side of the room shaking hands with a visitor and I’ll hear a youth on the other side of the sanctuary lament the fact that Taylor picked the same hymn again.
My name is so much a part of who I am, that I can pick it out of a crowd, and you can too.
A couple weeks ago I was working on a sermon at Wegman’s on a Thursday morning. I was sitting at a table by myself, with my bible opened in front of me, a hot cup of coffee in my hand, and I was trying to figure out how to tie all my thoughts together.
Wegman’s provides what I think is the ideal environment for my creativity, there’s always a low drum of sound that keeps me focused, but it’s not so loud that its distracting. I can sit by myself, and no one from the church bothers me while I’m writing.
So a few weeks ago I was sitting there, working hard, when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “PASTOR!”
I almost fell out of my chair.
“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he was giving a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “I saw your bible, and I figured you were a pastor, and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your attention for a minute and every time I said, ‘Pastor’ you didn’t even move. Are you sure you’re a pastor?”
He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, for over a minute and I didn’t hear him at all. But when I’m here in church, when I can worry about what all of you are thinking and saying about me, I can hear it all.
Our parents gave us our names, the ones that draw our attention. But God has given each of us new names, just as powerful and as vibrant as Abraham and Sarah. God has sealed our hearts with these names, names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all, or we’ve forgotten who we really are: children of God.
The Lord is calling us to the covenant, to a promise of hope, that is not contingent on our faithfulness. We are no better than Abraham or Sarah. We will fall and fail. But the covenant remains because God is faithful! God sees our potential even when we’ve grown blind to the future. God makes something of our nothing. Our God is the God of nevertheless.
God is calling us by our names.
The question is: “Can we hear it?” Amen.