Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
I have a birthday coming up—so it’s got me thinking about birthdays, and birth, and naming, and all of those things related to coming into the world.
On one’s birthday it is also natural to think about one’s life to date, or to wonder about our future. My guess is that most of us don’t do both, however – I guess that, depending on our own personality and our tendencies, as well as where we are chronologically, we choose either looking back or looking forward.
At my age, I really feel like I could go either way. On a recent significant birthday (one of those that ended with a “5” or a “0”) I spoke to my parents, and I asked them to look back for me to my coming into the world.
I am the third of three boys, and my parents really wanted a girl, “to balance out the family,” as my mother said. They had a name all picked out for a girl – I would have been named Tolly. But they had no name for another boy. Apparently it was a full day before I had a name.
My mother said she cried because I was not a girl – she had really longed for a little more feminine energy in the house. But a few hours after my birth she resolved that I would be a special child.
She decided that she and I would have a special friendship, and we have exactly that. To signify that special relationship, they chose for me the name Samuel, because, they said, it means “Given by God.” Well, that’s not exactly what it means, but that’s what it meant to them.
All of our names have meaning. And they can shape who we are, and who we become. For example, some of you may have been named after a particular person, perhaps even one of your parents.
Or maybe, like me, you were given a name with a particular meaning. The provenance, or origin, of our name can influence us. Names have power.
Naming is an important part of today’s Old Testament lesson. This is another story of covenant – the Old Testament lessons for the first three Sundays in Lent are about God’s promises. I’ve enjoyed reflecting on these stories as I once again travel the road of penitence and reflection that is Lent, and as I ponder again what it means to be God’s beloved and to accept God’s grace-filled promises to us.
God makes a promise to Abram and Sarai, and, as a sign of that promise, he renames them. The name Abram meant something like, “exalted father”; his new name, Abraham, means “Father of a multitude.” God promises to Abraham so much more than he could ever dream. He will be the father of many nations! He will live into his new name.
Likewise Sarai is changed to Sarah. Scholars suggest that her first name, Sarai, meant “my princess;” her subsequent, God-given name is simply “Princess.” She goes from belonging specifically to one person and becomes the princess of a nation. She also receives the promise of a new identity, and a new name to live into.
And God is not immune to the name change thing. In the first verse, God says, “I am God Almighty.” This phrase “God Almighty” is a translation of the Hebrew El Shaddai. This passage marks the first time in the Torah that the name El Shaddai is used for God. Some scholars translate it “God of the Mountains,” which makes it clear that this is the same God that has spoken previously from the high holy place.
Both the people and God make commitments. God promises that Abraham and Sarah will become the ancestors of a multitude of nations. God chooses them. And what are they asked to do in return? Well, interestingly, our lectionary leaves that part out. God asks that, as a mark of the covenant, every male descendent be circumcised. Most of the left-out verses detail this part of the bargain.
There’s something else left out of this reading today. In verse 17, right after what we read, it says, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’”
I have to say that I miss that passage. It points out the absurdity of this promise made by God. Again and again we see that God picks the most unlikely people to become his instruments in the world. Here he chooses old people to do young people’s business. He expects this old couple, long past their prime child-bearing years, and in fact beyond child-bearing all together, at least by regular human standards, to birth a family—to be the forebears of God’s people.
Of course Abraham laughed. And in Chapter 18, when Sarah hears what God has told Abraham, she laughs too—even more. They know that this is impossible. But God reminds them, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” God promises to do what we know is impossible.
So God promises great things to Abraham and Sarah, and everyone gets a new name. Abraham and Sarah have to do two things in return: They have to agree to be marked as God’s people—to physically take on the mantle as God’s own; and they have to believe that God can do what they know should be impossible. Oh, and one more thing: They have to live into the new identities that God has given them. They have to accept that they are meant to be the ancestors of a multitude of nations.
In today’s Gospel passage, we also see Jesus accepting the identity with which God has marked him. Remember that it was understood that the coming Messiah would deliver his people, the Jews, from the oppression of Roman rule. He was to be a mighty savior, and undoubtedly they understood that he would be a warrior, overthrowing the occupier through physical might. But God had other plans. God had given to the earth a Messiah who would suffer and die for his people.
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus testing out his understanding of this unlikely scenario that God has put before him. He is living into this unique identity as the suffering and dying Messiah.
And, of course, the disciples don’t get it. What Jesus is saying is so foreign to what they all expect—what they all KNOW God will do, that Peter actually takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for what he says! The Messiah is supposed to be one of power and might—Not one who will submit to humiliation and death! Don’t you see, Jesus, you’ve got it all wrong! Don’t talk like that!
But Jesus turns the tables on Peter, and sternly tells Peter that he is seeing things through the lens of humans—of what we see as possible—and not through the lens of God, with whom there is infinite possibility. And Jesus then calls everyone within the sound of his voice to accept that God has plans for them far beyond what they might ever think is possible. He calls on them all to take on a new identity, just as he is taking on something new. They are all called to become disciples of this upside-down God.
What new name might God have for you? What impossible thing is God calling you to?
Perhaps the way to know what improbable identity God sees for you is your reaction to it. Is God calling you to something that is so absurd that all you can do is laugh at its impossibility?
Is God calling us here at St. Paul’s to inconceivable tasks? My guess is that we don’t know, because we probably can’t even hear those calls without drowning them out with either our laughter or our own rebuke. Part of our task in these days of Lent is to open ourselves up to the voice of God—even when what God says is absurd. We must embrace the unimaginable with confidence, because the story of our people tells us that God is found especially in the most unlikely places, helping God’s people accomplish the impossible.
God calls us into covenant again and again. We may laugh at the tasks God calls us to, and that’s OK. But in the end we should also accept the new identity that God puts before us, knowing that as God’s own, and as God’s agents in the world, all things are possible. Amen.