“New Names for Everyone”



March 1, 2015



 



Genesis

17:1-7, 15-16



Romans

4:13-25



 



God said: “No longer shall your name be

Abram, but your name shall be Abraham . . . As for . . . your wife, you shall

not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.”



Our names say something about who we are

and in some sense, even shape who we are and how others see us. I remember a

conversation that took place—I think at a Council meeting—early after I arrived

here, seven and a half years ago. Someone asked: “What should we call you?” And

I replied, as I have every time I’ve been asked that question: “You can simply

call me Bill. That’s what I like. And if there is occasion to speak more

formally, ‘Reverend Lovin’ will work.”



People nodded and smiled. And then I

added: “Just please don’t call me ‘Pastor Bill.’”



I knew I had come to the right church

when one member quickly replied: “Oh, thank goodness!”



Here and there in scripture we encounter

stories of people whose names change when they encounter God in a significant

way:



Jesus tells the

impetuous Simon, who would later deny that he even knew Jesus:   “You will be called ‘Peter,’” the Greek for rock .



The Hebrew name of Saul becomes the Greek “Paul” when God calls him to

bring the good news of Jesus to Gentiles.



This morning we heard of the new names

given when God chooses Abram and Sarai.



Why Abram? Why Sarai? The question is

neither asked nor answered in the story from Genesis. When Paul later turned

his thoughts to this event, he understood that God’s call was in no way

connected to any good works they might have done or to anything else that might

have earned God’s favor. The choice speaks of grace.



God calls us as we are.



And because this is God’s call, it means that we are not left as we are. The call of

God means change in our lives, change in who we are.



In the case of Abram and Sarai, the call

of God is a radical one.



The childless Abram, whose name carries

the ironic meaning of exalted ancestor

now becomes Abraham, the ancestor of a

multitude . Sari is to be called Sarah, that is, princess . When someone receives a new name it is as though the old

one is no longer sufficient to describe who they are becoming, what they will

do. The new name speaks of the new possibility in their life.



It’s been said that Sarah’s name change

is particularly significant. While several men in the Bible are given new names

by God in recognition of their spiritual transformation Sarah is the only woman

accorded this honor. Her change of name reflects her elevated status after God

declares that she alone will be the matriarch of this clan, and that God’s

covenant will be with her son.



These new identities are part of the

covenant that God makes. And it would be passed on to each succeeding

generation. Whether slaves in Egypt or inhabitants of a great nation, they will

be those people bound by a covenant with the God of Abraham and Sarah.



There’s one curious part of the story of God speaking to Abram. God

says, “I am God almighty.” Old words to us, but they were new—unheard of—to

Abram. As Abram and Sari become Abraham and Sarah, the very name of God changes

as well. “I am El Shaddai ,” God says—not,

as many Bibles translate it “God almighty” but literally “God, the One of the

Mountains.” This new name does not come with an easy interpretation, but it

suggests at least grandeur, strength, endurance.



The God who gives new names is also the God who will be known by

different names, the God whom no name will completely encompass. The God who

gives new names will continue to be known in many new and previously unheard of

ways.



God’s covenant

with Abraham and Sarah is a covenant with all humankind as well, for God

promises to bless all the families of the earth through them.



In many ways, the whole story of

scripture is the story of blessing—of God looking upon creation and calling it

good; of God giving human beings all good things so that we might care for

creation; of Abraham being blessed and through him all people, including, by

God’s grace in Christ, even you and me.



Naomi Rosenblatt says that blessing is

the unconditional love that a parent confers upon a child that makes that child

feel protected, whole, and connected—able to go out into the world with a sense

of purpose and responsibility. Those who have experienced such love and those

who seek to give it to their own children would probably agree that this is

indeed what makes for well-being, peace, and success in individuals.



When Paul tells the Christians in

Rome—and through them tells us: “Love one another with mutual affection,” he is

speaking of the blessing we give to one another,   commending the loving respect that is found

in families at their best—and often even in families not at their best. John

Calvin had the sense that Paul was grasping for words here, unable to find a

sufficient way to “express the ardor of affection with which we are to embrace

one another.” Created in God’s image, we are called to live up to our high

human potential. And part of our humanity is the active desire to build a world

in which all people might live in peace and enjoy their days.



We are called to lives that show mercy,

lives that are engaged in the struggle for justice in the world.



We are called to live as though this

world is the creation of a loving God and that we are stewards of that

creation, called to care for the land and water and air.



We are called to seek and work toward

the peace and wholeness that God offers—not just in our hearts, but in our

community, in our nation, and especially now, in our world.



Being a part of a congregation helps

with this. As a church we have a long memory and we can look toward the distant

future. What we are doing together here is not simply about the coming month or

even the coming year. We dare to keep moving into an unknown future because we

remember that God has been with us through all the prosperity and all the

adversity of the past. This community helps us to take the long view needed in

uncertain times.  



We’re moving through times when the road ahead is not clear, sometimes

it seems as if the road isn’t even there. Old names no longer seem to fit. Old

possibilities seem to have vanished.



We are becoming something different. We are being called to new ways of

living. What the future will look like, no one knows.



This is a time to listen carefully ,

for God is still speaking to us, calling us by new names. This is a time to look closely , for God is still working

in our lives and in the world, opening up new opportunities and challenges.



The first followers of Jesus were

Jewish, as was Jesus. They were children of God’s covenant with Abraham and

Sarah. As the good news spread to Gentiles, those who followed Jesus claimed

that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus had expanded the covenant

of God to allow all nations, all people to participate in it.



So it was that one Jewish follower of

Jesus, Saul—or Paul—could write: “This is why it depends on faith, in order

that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all the descendants of

Abraham and Sarah—not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who

share the faith of Abraham and Sarah, the ancestors of us all.”



That God would bring into a covenant

relationship not only those who were the physical children but also those who

were the “spiritual” children of Abraham and Sarah was a mystery to

Paul—something wonderful, but not completely understood.



It did not and does not mean that Christians

have replaced the Jewish people, as if God would break a promise once made. On

the contrary, the covenant that God made was not broken. But now those who were

once aliens and strangers to the covenant promise—you and me—are, as Paul put

it, “engrafted” into the people of God through the life, death, and

resurrection of Jesus.



When we respond to the love of God that

comes to us, we become new people. We are part of a new creation. We change,

not only by the work that we do, but also by God working in us.



Why would God choose you? Why would God

choose me? Maybe we shouldn’t even bother with such questions. Certainly no

answer is given. At some point, however, we, too, received a new name. At some

point the name “Christian” came to be the name given to us.



Now, I confess some discomfort with that

name at times. I often find myself hesitant to use it because for so many

people “Christian” has become a label for a restricting, excluding approach to

life and faith. Others in this congregation have expressed a similar uneasiness

with our name—as though we have to say with apology: “I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian.”



“Christian” originally might have been a

term of reproach. It meant something like “little Christ” or “Christ-person.” My

dictionary tells me that colloquially “Christian” has come to mean a “decent,

respectable person.” I hope we can do better than that.



Maybe we can reclaim some of the goodness of that word as we love one

another—not just those in this room or in this congregation—but as we seek to

bring more life— blessing —to the

larger world.  



By the grace of God we are called Christian.



By that same grace

we move into the unknown, knowing that God always fills the future with new

possibility.







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