At the beginning of last week there was a flurry of emails with weddings being re-booked. I’m looking forward to meeting the couples again. One of my favourite ways of starting the talk in a wedding is to say Congratulations Mrs… Smith (or whatever it is) … how does that feel? Once though the bride said she wasn’t changing her name! Now I try to remember to check beforehand.
It can take a while to get used to a new name. I don’t think twice now about being Mrs Jones. It’s Mrs Fairless that sounds odd now….. who is she? I like the way that Terry prefers to call me Elizabeth as well, instead of Liz.
Names are important. Mrs Jones is a mark of my relationship with Terry. When we married we entered into a covenant relationship. Marriage isn’t a contract or an agreement along the lines of I’ll do this IF you’ll do that…. we promise unconditional love.
Today’s Old Testament reading (from Genesis 17) is the important moment in Israel’s history when God made the 2nd of the covenants with people. The first was the promise never again to flood the earth with the rainbow as the sign of that covenant.
A covenant is a promise made on the part of a powerful person to a weaker one and may be either unconditional or with some conditions. Either way the person to whom the covenant is made is free to accept or reject, but there isn’t room for negotiation over the terms, as there is with a contract.
The covenant with Noah was entirely one-sided: nothing was required of Noah or of the people and animals that came after him. We can’t even reject the offer! But many people are ungrateful.
Today we have the covenant made with Abram. At first glance it might seem that this is also an unconditional covenant. However, there are actually two conditions on Abram’s part.
(1) He must walk before God faithfully and be blameless
Or as the Good News version says: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the Almighty God. Obey me and always do what is right. 2 I will make my covenant with you and give you many descendants.” (GNV)
There’s a link here with the story of Noah. We’re told that “Noah had no faults and was the only good man of his time. He lived in fellowship with God,” Gen 6:9, (GNV)
So God’s conditions are set in terms of relationship. It isn’t that Abraham, if he ever did anything wrong, then that would blow the relationship for good. In fact, Abram did plenty wrong – he lied about his wife, passed her off as his sister, deceiving people to save his own skin. It is more about continuing faithfully in a relationship, not about being well behaved. That’s something we need to remember. God doesn’t love us any more for being good – he won’t desert us if we’re bad.
Indeed in the Old Testament God describes Israel, which is one of the names for the Jews, in terms of an unfaithful wife when they go off after other gods. We read about that when we looked at Ezekiel.
God never goes back on his promises. If he makes a promise, he keeps it. That’s why he kept on trying to persuade Israel to come back to him.
2nd condition for Abram – He is to be circumcised and make sure that future generations are also circumcised (v11)
Circumcision can be seen as equivalent to a wedding ring as a sign of a marriage.
My wedding ring shows the world, and reminds me, of the vows I made in church. The rainbow reminds God of his covenant to us through Noah. God puts a mark on the created world to remind him of the special relationship he has with its inhabitants now that the reality of human sin has been acknowledged.
Now he tells Abram to mark male human bodies as the ‘sign of the covenant’. Like the rainbow, this is to be an eternal sign, although of course St Paul has to explain later that, once someone has become a Christian, physical circumcision doesn’t mean anything. The covenant relationship with God and Jesus is through the cross. The cross is the sign or symbol of our relationship.
All the signs or symbols though, mean nothing without the relationship they signify, just like a wedding ring on it’s own doesn’t mean anything without the relationship that it signifies. My change of name to Mrs Jones means nothing without the relationship it signifies.
Perhaps the most significant thing in this passage is the changing of their names. Abram becomes Abraham. Abram means ‘exalted father’ which is a good meaning to have for your name. However, because of the covenant promise of him becoming the father of many, his name is changed to one that means ‘father of many’.
We still refer to Abraham as the founding father of the Jews, Christians and of course Muslims. We can all trace our religion back to him. Much of Christian understanding of God and faith is based on Old Testament, and that includes Abraham. It is through Abraham that God promised to bless people of many nations, not just the nation that became known as the Jews.
We have much to thank the Jews for. Jesus was a Jew, our bible and the Church are both rooted in the Jewish faith. God chose the Jews to bless all peoples of the world. Some people are puzzled by that – but I have an example to illustrate.
Imagine you are a father with sweets for several children. You can either give all the sweets to one child who can then share them out – a risky strategy – or give equal amounts in little bags to each child. God chose the first method. He gave all his blessings to the Jews, so that they could share them out to other nations.
This covenant with Abraham, like the rainbow one, lasts for ever. Why did God make this covenant? He did it to have a channel to communicate to the world and to demonstrate to the world how blessed people can be when they live God’s way.
He set his people in the Promised Land – and said they’d be blessed if they live his way, and cursed if they don’t.
I can’t remember who said it but “there has been no nation in history more blessed than the Jews, and there has been no nation in history more cursed than the Jews.”
Sarai (the argumentative one) becomes Sarah (the princess, the mother of kings). Thirteen years earlier, in response to God’s promise that Abram would have a son and heir, he had slept with Sarai’s servant who produced Ishmael. They had assumed that because of Sarai’s infertility Ishmael was the fulfilment of God’s promise. But here God specifically names and renames Sarai, and spells it out to Abram that he will give him a son by her – an infertile woman who was well past the normal child bearing years anyway.
Amazing and miraculous though that seems, this story speaks of a God for whom nothing is impossible. Thirteen years is a long wait, indeed it is twenty-five years since the promise of a son was first made. But God is faithful, and to hold on to his promises, and to remain faithful to him, will eventually bring its rewards.
Indeed Abraham is remembered as being right with God because he was faithful, not because he was especially good. He hung on to the promises of God.
There’s one last point I’d like to make. The way that God gave Abram and Sarai new names is a deeply symbolic reminder of our becoming new in Christ. Many people change their names when they become Christian, to symbolise that becoming a new person, which is why our first name is our Christian name.
These days our names are not descriptions of us in the way that Abraham and Sarah were. Nevertheless, people like to think about the meaning of names, if naming a child. Or if wasting a bit of time on Facebook.
I clicked on a link – I knew it would be a load of rubbish, but hey….why not join in? Elizabeth = blessing from above NO! Another try had something about an Angel. NO. Elizabeth is a biblical name and it means God is my oath – or Oath or Fulness of God.
The game also had characteristics like strong and passionate, loving your kids, hating fake people – things that are common with just about everyone. Silly – rubbish… Your name doesn’t make you a particular type of person.
But within the bible there are several places where names are descriptive and when we remember that, then we can read those passages and put ourselves within them, allowing God to speak to our hearts.
My favourite is Isaiah 43 where God calls to Jacob and to Isaac – not the individuals, but the nations. Put your own name in their place and hear God say he has called you by name, you are his…. He loves you.
When you respond to his invitation to come to him through Jesus you can say YES to being in a covenant relationship with him. Born again, you become his son or daughter.
Picking up your cross (linking to the gospel for today: Mark 8:31-end) is a bit like saying Yes to giving your whole self to Jesus, whatever the cost.
The cross is the outward symbol of being a Christian like a ring is for being married and the words that go with giving the ring are applicable to us as Christians in our relationship with Jesus.
“All that I am I give to you.”
And when you do that, all that Christ is becomes yours. He says to you “All that I am I give to you.”
Your characteristics can and frequently do change – more loving, confident and joyful, no longer afraid, wounded or outcast.
There’s a song that I’d like us to listen to now, loosely based on words from Isaiah 62 where God is promising Israel a new start – that new start came through Jesus, in the new covenant which is the one through which we come to God.
I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid
I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks my face
In case you haven’t already guessed, the above blog was my sermon this morning. There was a wonderful serendipity moment at the end of the service when I enquired about what the youth group were doing in their zoom meeting. Apparently packets of sweets had been dropped off at the youths’ houses with instructions not to eat them until they got their instructions during the meeting. And the topic was covenant….. how timely!!!
And when I looked at my email for the #Live Lent for today, this is the image I saw. The theme is thinking about transformed lives through coming to faith in Christ. Just what I’d ended my sermon with.
No art from me today. I hope you have had a good weekend and a blessed Sunday.