STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH March 1, 2015
THE POWER OF A NAME
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
As, I was thinking about the story of Abram and the significance of names, my childhood memories of the TV show Romper Room kept coming to mind. I can still remember the host as she ended every show looking through a mirror saying the rhyme “Romper, bomper, stomper boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, have all my friends had fun at play?” She’d then list off a number of names of children out in television land. Growing up, I would sit glued to the TV waiting and hoping to hear my name.
There’s something very special about our names, something powerful; names give us an identity, they make us unique, they define who we are. When we meet somebody for the first time, our name is one of the initial things we share about ourselves. Our last or surnames, are also important. They show which family we belong too, and may even give some history of our ancestors’ occupation, such as Butler, Smith, Brewer, Carpenter, or Thatcher. In society, legal and financial documents rely on the use of our names. Even if your name is common, there is still something special about your name that identifies who you are.
Receiving and giving a name is a special event. Parents devote a lot of time and care in choosing a name. Many soon to be parents find out the gender of their unborn child, and share this with family and friends before the birth; however, most parents still only share the name of the child after the baby is born. There’s just something in a name, something that makes naming a child exciting. Parents want to give their child a name that is special, but there are many factors to be considered, like gender, spelling, what short forms the name might take, etc. In some cases, family traditions weigh heavily on the process. I know this was a factor for my parents. On the Griffiths side, the first-born male in each generation has historically been named Frederick, although most have gone by their middle name.
Dad was his generation’s Frederick. However, dad found that going by his middle name caused endless problems with legal documents, etc. and he didn’t want to put his children through the same issues; therefore, mom and dad bucked the Griffiths’ trend and put an end to that tradition, much to the disappointment of my grandparents. Alas, not all was lost as my uncle continued the tradition with his first-born son, so Frederick Griffiths lives on for another generation, just thankfully not through me.
Despite humanities focus on names, over the centuries, names have lost some of their meaning. In some ways, they have become labels. Some people go for interesting or unique names, others use names from popular culture, while like Frederick, some are nostalgic or a link to the past. Biblically however, many names held weight, meaning, and significance over and above the sound they made or the family lineage attached to them. The importance of names can be seen from the very beginning. In Genesis 1, God names each thing as it is made, from the sky, to the earth, to the seas. Creation is not complete until everything is named. In Genesis 2, God names his human creation, Adam, which signifies that humanity has come “from the earth”. The importance of names is emphasized throughout the scriptures. God knows the names of God’s people. In Isaiah 43:1, it says, “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” We can see from the biblical examples that there truly is power and significance in a name.
In the few verses about Abram and Sarai we read from Genesis this morning, we see how the future of Israel, and consequently the Church is changed forever, and it all begins with the simple act of receiving a new name. In this passage, we learn of a new name for God. The LORD appears to Abram and says, “I am God Almighty”. In Hebrew, God Almighty is translated as El Shaddai, or “God of the Mountains” which refers to God as the Creator, as seen in Genesis 1. The God who created the heavens and the earth, the highest mountains and the lowest valleys, is the same God who is coming to Abram to make a covenant with him. God comes as God Almighty, El Shaddai; a new name, but the same God. Through this new name, we are reminded of the power and authority of God.
Before discussing God’s re-naming of Abram and Sarai, it is important to understand why God changes their names. Their new names are linked to the new covenant God is making with Abram. Last Sunday, Sabrina spoke about rainbows and God’s promise to Noah. The rainbow was a covenant, or a promise that God made with Noah, stating God would never send such a flood again. This was, and is an everlasting promise.
Again, this morning we have God creating an everlasting covenant, but this time with Abram. It is not the first time that God has created a covenant with him. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to leave his homeland and go to a new place, and promises him a great nation. In Genesis 15, God again repeats this promise, while emphasizing that Abram will have a son. In Genesis 17, God comes to Abram and makes this covenant, that Abram with “be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Through this covenant, Israel will interpret all aspects of their lives, guiding them in how to live faithfully with God, the land, and others. Like the covenant with Noah, this promise is everlasting and unconditional. God’s promise holds true and the covenant remains, it is only up to Abraham and his descendants whether they choose to accept God’s promise.
Which brings us to the re-naming of Abram and his wife Sarai; God does not simply change their names because God did not like them; their new names signify what God is doing through them and with them. These names are divinely given and have theological implications. Abram becomes Abraham, which means “ancestor of a multitude”. Through the covenant that God makes with Abraham, God promises that his descendants will be of one nation under God. God then re-names Sarai, Sarah, which means “princess”. This may foreshadow the line of kings that will be descended from Abraham and Sarah. God’s renaming of these two is consistent with the emphasis the Bible places on names, where a name reflects the character and destiny of the individual. Through this renaming, God blesses Abraham and Sarah and marks a change in relationship with them. There is power in their names; an everlasting covenant that lives on to this day. Their names are a witness to this covenant, which we recognize today, as we know them by their God given names.
So what does this mean for us as Christians today? At first glance, this story appears only to apply to the Israelites. However, the covenant and the re-naming of Abraham, connects Abraham’s lineage to King David, and as we read in the gospels, through this ancestry comes Jesus. This exemplifies the destiny of Abraham and the everlasting promise of God. We are connected, because the covenant is brought to fullness through Jesus Christ. As Christians, we too are re-named just as Abraham and Sarah were. When we are baptized, it is a physical sign of the covenant we have with God. In our baptism are legal names are stated. We are presented as an individual, seeking God’s blessing, and through the act of baptism, we are transformed and re-named. Our destiny is recorded through the grace of God. Through baptism we are re-named “Disciple of Jesus”. How wonderful and powerful is that!
In naming us, “Disciples of Jesus”, God calls us into discipleship. We are called to live out God’s name for us. In Mark, Jesus calls the crowd and says to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Metaphorically, we are called by God to to deny our old names and selves and take up our new name of “Disciple of Jesus”. We are to follow in faith as Abraham did, and in reward we are blessed by God.
There is definitely power in a name. I have learned this first hand. As a teacher, and especially as a supply teacher, you gain much more respect and authority when you can use a student’s name. Using someone’s name creates a connection, and creates more of a relationship. A name is about identity, it’s about who we are. The same is true with our relationship with God. Isaiah 49:1 states: “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” How amazing, how wonderful, how marvelous, that God loves us so much, that God cares for us, that our Heavenly Father names us, before our earthly parents do! We know Abraham and Sarah by their changed names, because our God Almighty, El Shaddai, made a covenant, a promise with Abram long ago, and through this promise, he redefined their identities as well as our relationship with God. It is through this everlasting promise that we are here today, all we have to do is accept God’s covenant with us. Through baptism, we are re-named as Disciples of Jesus, so let us go forth from here and share our new name with all those we meet. Let us be Disciples of Christ in all we say and do. Amen.