(Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Rom 4:13, 18-22)
L2, Sun, Feb 25, 2018 – UBC Digby – J G White
Do some of you have days when you feel old? Older than you’d like to be? Past the prime; on the downhill slide? And how does that affect your thoughts about your future?
On Wednesday, we had a service here, and later the burial, for a 71 year-old, Bruce. That day I also took part in the burial of a 101 year-old, almost 102, Minnie. Both were prepared and ready for the end; one did wish for more time among us, one did not.
Today’s story of a covenant or agreement from the Old Testament is of Abram and Sarai, a couple senior citizens in the ancient Middle East. You think you feel old? Try these two people. We have in the Bible a whole cycle of stories about them, in Genesis 11-25, not to mention all the later comments about them in the rest of the Book.
The moment we read today, when Abram is 99 years old, is not the first time God make a great promise to these folks. Let’s review.
Its ancient Babylonia in the Near East. A man named Terah takes his family, including son Abram, and migrate west, to the land of Canaan, but they ended up stopping and settling in a place about half way, called Haran.
When Abram is about 75 years old, and Sarai, his wife, is about 65, God tells them, “Go to a land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make you a blessing to others.” Abram and Sarai have no children. They go.
They get to the Negeb, they get to Bethel, they settle in. God tells them, “your descendants will be so many they will be like the dust, like the sand!” A while later, God tells them, “Your reward shall be great,” and God makes an official covenant with them, including a religious ceremony with a bunch of sacrificial animals cut in half. By the time Abram is 86 years old and Sarai is 76, they still do not have a child, but Abram has a child with his wife’s maid, Hagar.
Years later. Abram is 99 years old, Sarai 89. “Your names will be changed: Abraham and Sarah.” God again makes a covenant with them, including the sign of the covenant: male circumcision. “Next year you will have a son, named Isaac.” Later, they have an angel visitor to confirm the plan, and they also flee a little city called Sodom.
Finally, recorded in Genesis 21, Sara conceives, and has her son, Isaac. Abraham is 100 years old.
Well, the adventures continue. Abraham dies at age 175, old enough to see his sons and grandsons. Sarah had died young, at age 127.
Amid this – in today’s reading – a new name at 99. Abraham. At 90. Sarah. A promise for their future.
There are a number of other name changes in the stories of the Bible. Do you know some? Abraham and Sara’s grandson, Jacob, gets a new name: Israel. (Genesis 32:28) In the story of Ruth and Naomi, Naomi calls herself Mara, which means bitter. (Ruth 1:20) A prophet by the name of Isaiah speaks at one point to the whole people of Jerusalem with this word from the LORD: (Isaiah 62:3-4)
You shall no longer be named Forsaken,
and you land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called ‘My Delight Is in Her,’
and your land, ‘Married.’ (Beulah)
There’s the inspiration for the song we learned earlier. I Will Change Your Name.
In the New Testament, the time of Jesus, we find the Messiah renaming one of his twelve chosen disciples. Simon becomes known as Peter, which means ‘rock.’ And in the Revelation of John, in a visionary letter from Jesus to a church congregation, the people are told, To everyone who conquers… I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17)
So individuals get new names with hope in them, as do whole nations and peoples.
There can be a lot of hope in a new name. Hope for the people. We are coming to the end of African Heritage month. If I listen, I can hear stories of the challenges and the victories of our sisters and brothers of African descent. The horrors and the hopes are still strong in our day and age. A no wonder the name we call a people matters. ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me?’ No. Names matter. Respect matters. Hopes matter. A direction for the future matters.
So it is with a Christian fellowship, a congregation. This past week I was thinking of Windsor, NS, four years ago. It was four years ago I announced my resignation as the Pastor of the Baptist Church there. This was amid quite a time of transition. We’d had a church consultant working with us on our vision and mission. We were trying to decide if we would keep our 115 year old building that seats 600 people for another 50 years or only another 5 years. We were in a search process for our next assistant pastor of young families. We were having conflict too – especially the deacons and a student pastor with one of the other pastors. He ended up resigning the same Sunday I resigned.
Amid the turmoil – and it sometimes felt like turmoil – some of my folks latched onto a new song, by the group Casting Crowns. It became a theme song for a while in the church; I remember the video playing and people singing along, seeking hope and health. It is called Thrive.
Verse 1 Here in this worn and weary land
Where many a dream has died
Like a tree planted by the water
We never will run dry
Pre-Ch So living water flowing through
God we thirst for more of You
Fill our hearts and flood our souls
With one desire
Chorus Just to know You and to make You known
We lift Your name on high
Shine like the sun make darkness run & hide
We know we were made for so much more
Than ordinary lives
It’s time for us to more than just survive
We were made to thrive
Mark Hall | Matthew West © 2014 Atlas Holdings (Admin. by Atlas Music Publishing) CCLI License # 701212
It is believed by some that “raising the [self] esteem of small congregations will top the church’s agenda for the next few decades.” (Burt & Roper, Inside the Small Church, 2002, p. 85) Like Abram and Sarai of old, we can feel worn out and past our prime. Even feel desperate, have a survival mentality. But does God have a plan? Maybe even a new name for us? A new name or reputation usually goes with a new life – new place, new purpose, or new activities. And some things get left behind.
Speaking of leaving things behind, we here are thinking about some perfect strangers in Lebanon, today. Amid the war and destruction, they left their life in Syria behind, and now are ready to leave it all behind and come here. They are Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Family members of Rima Kenaan. Her mother and brothers and sister and so forth – she’d love to get these seven loved ones here to Canada.
Perhaps this is our calling now, or in the near future. To take the lead and help make this happen next year. We’ll explore this some more in just a few minutes.
And you. Your own pilgrimage through this life has taken you to planned and unexpected places. Perhaps you are at a point of wanting, needing, the next chapter. Some better hope for the future. A new name to call yourself in the mirror.
Christian composer and hymn-writer, Janet Lindeblad Janzen tells of the birth of her daughter, and how her husband took the baby in his arms and named her “my Darling Precious Angel Princess.” It was a name too long for the birth certificate, Janet says, so we settled for “Annie.” But the appellation has remained—her own, special name from her father.
Much more than any earthly father cherishes his precious child, so does God cherish you.
Janet concludes: Think of it–God has his own, special name for you, the apple of his eye.
(Songs for Renewal, 1995, p. 111)
Today, does God say to you
I will change your name
your new name will be
Confidence, Joyfulness, Overcoming One,
Faithfulness, Friend of God,
One who seeks My face ?