February 25, 2018

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B

This second Sunday in Lent we hear the story of how Abram became Abraham and the significance of God giving you a new name as a sign of God’s covenant. There once was a man named Terah whose wife gave birth to a son. Terah named his son Abram. Evidently, Terah had high hopes for his son because the name Abram means “exalted father.”

By all accounts, Abram was perfectly content to be named Abram, and he carried that name for ninety-nine years. He looked like an Abram, acted like an Abram, and filled out his name quite well, thank you very much. He was perfectly satisfied for things to stay just the way they were. Except for one thing. If there was one thing Abram was not, it was a father, exalted or otherwise. Abram and his wife Sarai were childless.

God first introduces himself to Abram when Abram is seventy-five years old. At least, as far as we know that is when God first speaks to Abram. He tells him to leave the land of his father Terah and to start traveling. Wherever God leads, that is where Abram and Sarai are to go.

Abram gladly becomes a nomad because that is what his God commands. But surely there was another reason. It had to do with the promise. If he followed God’s comand, perhaps he could finally fulfill his name. He would truly become Abram, “exalted father.” It was not unheard of for a man his age to sire a son. Sarai, now, she was getting on up there in regard to child-bearing, but if they are patient maybe things will work out for them. Something positive, in regard to having a son, better happen soon, however. They’re quickly running out of time and opportunity.

God's grand promise of an everlasting covenant with Abraham's multitudinous offspring is called into the most serious question by the terrible and painful fact that Abraham's wife, Sarah, cannot have any children. God may make pronouncements about it in all manner of grandly divine ways, but Abraham and Sarah have no kids; that does tend to throw a serious crimp in the Godly plan, does it not?

At least Abraham thinks it does, and here the story has some very serious fun. God first says, "I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous" (Gen. 17:2), at which point Abram "falls on his face." Such an action could be seen as an act of genuine worship of the God who has made to him such a marvelous promise, the act of a man prostrating himself before his God in reverence and awe. However, the usual Hebrew verb for such an action is rather different; when people prostrate themselves before God they literally "fall on their noses."

I am suspicious of Abraham's action here, and my suspicions are compounded by what the patriarch does a few verses later (Genesis 17:17). After God has demanded circumcision (Gen. 17:9-14) and after God has changed Sarai's name to Sarah and has claimed that "she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her" (Gen. 17:16), Abraham once again "falls on his face," but this time the narrator adds "and he laughed." Here is no act of reverence, no sign of awe; here we see genuine skepticism in the face of the promise of God, a skepticism born out of human reality; Sarah is barren. Abraham is 99 and Sarah not much younger; no kings will emerge from her dead womb, because nothing will come from there at all.

But, as usual in these great tales, more is afoot than at first meets the eye. 

Abraham's cynical chortle uses a verb from which the name "Isaac" is made. Abraham's guffaw of disbelief itself announces the child who will, quite miraculously, emerge from the aged womb of Sarah who will see the entire event as "laughable" indeed (Gen. 21:6). But before she finds the humor in the birth of the child, she too will join her husband in a laugh of doubt (Gen. 18:12), once again using that same lovely and prophetic verb.

The larger question of Genesis 17 reminds all of us that God is not confined in any ideology and God is not some mere subject of the propaganda of the powerful or the traditionally religious. Lurking in the wiles of this story, one can find the God of the possible impossibility, one who can bring life even out of the places of the dead, can bring a child from the womb of a woman well past her day. With a God like this, none of us is past our day; this sort of God still has something for each of us, in spite of our doubts and cynicism, despite our biting laughter of despair. God desires for all of us to join in the work of the covenant of peace and justice.

God wants a tangible way of sealing the deal with Abraham. He is making a covenant with Abram. And to show Abram how serious he is about it, God says in essence, “Let’s find a way to symbolize what we’re doing today. Let’s do it this way: let’s change your name.” God would also come up with an additional, and more painful, way of symbolizing the covenant made with Abraham, but for our purposes today we will stick with the name-changing.

This is not the only time God chose to do this - Jacob became Israel, Simon becomes Peter, Saul became Paul. God just has this thing about changing names, it seems the obvious question is, why?

Well, first of all, God uses the name change as an opportunity to let Abraham know just how serious he really is about all this, as strange as it may seem to be. By changing his name from Abram to Abraham, God simply adds a breathing sound. So he goes from Abram to Abramhuh. It is God’s way of letting him know he is breathing his Spirit into him. No longer would he be simply Abram, “exalted father,” and no longer would he be entirely his own. Now, he would be Abraham (huh!), “father of a multitude,” and the very breath he carries within himself would be the breath – the spirit, the presence, the guidance – of God. God is making covenant with this old man, and changing his name is a way of sealing the deal.

In writing to the Romans, Paul says specifically that the covenant made between God and Abraham was “not for his sake alone, but for ours also.”

When you are baptized, the priest makes the sign of the cross on your forehead with holy oil that has been blessed by the Bishop and says your name, “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” Your new name is Christian and you are marked as God’s beloved. That same breath of God that made a covenant with Abraham has claimed you as God’s own.