What’s in a name?
Bible Text: Genesis 17:1-7,15-16 | Preacher: Ian Banks | Series: Lent | If you were going to change your name, you’d want it to be a big change wouldn’t you? Like our Reverend Dave Thompson becoming his hero Sir Geoffrey Boycott or our Curate Reverend Gill Barnett becoming Xena Warrior Princess… or Jacob becoming Israel, Simon becoming Peter…Opal Fruits becoming Starburst, Marathon becoming Snickers. Big changes, easy to remember.
But Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah? It’s very subtle isn’t it? Why would you bother? It’s like Jack becoming Jake or June becoming Jane. You have to listen quite hard to even hear it.
It’s so subtle it’s often read incorrectly from this lectern as if Abram and Sarai are spelling mistakes and readers like me auto-correct them without thinking.
I think we miss the significance of the change because we’ve lost the meaning of names now.
June & nomads
You may not know this but June in Lancashire dialect means ‘she who must be obeyed’. She told me to tell you. Only messing… June in Latin means ‘young’; Jane, just one letter different, means ‘god is gracious’. A small change that makes all the difference. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had labels on saying what our names meant? I wonder if we would treat each other any differently? Would you behave differently if you knew your name meant humble or fantastic? Would our parents take more care over naming us if the meaning was better known?
To this day, in some nomadic societies a person’s name may change during their lifetime as their wisdom, skills and creativity increase. So whilst you may be given one name by your parents at birth you may choose to call yourself names meaning ‘hunter’, ‘painter’, ‘story teller’ at different stages of your life…What name might you choose for yourself to reflect who you are now? Tellingly, what name might others chose for you?
You must be joking
Abram means ‘exalted father’, God Almighty ramps that up and renames him Abraham ‘father of many’. That’s almost certainly not the new name that nomadic Abram would have chosen for himself but God promised him both land and descendants.
And you could forgive 99 year old Abram, who had just the one child (and not with his wife, aged 90), for saying to God – you must be joking!!! It’s embarrassing enough being called the ‘exalted father’. Now I’m going to look an even bigger old fool when I tell people my new name is ‘father of many’. Can I pick another one please?
But in verse 17, which comes next, we find Abraham collapsed on the ground in laughter at the news. He didn’t get into trouble for it so presumably it was laughter of relief rather than disbelief that a promise first made many years ago by God would now soon be fulfilled.
Unlike Sarai who was now to be Sarah ‘princess of a nation’. Sometimes ‘Sarai’ is translated as ‘mockery’ or ‘quarrelsome’ and later on her laughter was perhaps more a snort of derision about the ability of herself & her even more elderly husband to produce the goods so to speak.
God heard her and there’s an interlude worthy of any pantomime: ‘you laughed’, ‘oh no I didn’t’, ‘oh yes you did’. Eventually God said: Sarah you laughed and you’ll call the lad Isaac, meaning ‘laughter’.
There was a catch though… Abraham and all the males in the household had to be circumcised… To his credit, Abraham didn’t object, he trusted in God, believed the future that was being mapped out for him, however unlikely or implausible, or, in the short term, painful – and got a knife and just got on with it, there and then.
Contrast this with Simon Peter in the Gospel reading (Mark 8:31-38). Jesus had just fed the crowd of thousands with loaves & fishes and healed a blind man.
In a flash of insight, Simon now called Peter ‘the rock’ inspired by what he had both seen and been a part of, called Jesus ‘the Christ’ meaning ‘saviour and redeemer’.
But moments later he was being told off by Jesus for quarrelling with him.
Why? Because Peter hadn’t believed the difficult future that was being mapped out by Jesus and objected. It didn’t fit with how he saw things working out. It was more than just a doubt. Peter was rebuking Jesus! But Jesus told Peter & the rest of the disciples straight: it’s going to happen. Hear what I say and get on with it – and don’t put obstacles in the way of others.
Stepping stone or Stumbling block?
I once saw a roadside poster outside a church which said ‘a stumbling block is a stepping stone that you tripped over’. In our Gospel reading Peter was a rock tripping up both himself and others.
But so what? What does this mean for us?
Well which are you? Are you a stepping stone for others or a stumbling block? Do you get on and ‘do’ – or do you get in the way with your quarrels & objections? Are you part of the solution or part of the problem?
The choice is yours, it’s mine … and the wonderful thing is it’s never too late to choose.
No matter what our age or what our names mean, if we trust in God & get on with it – like Abraham did – then we could become the kind of people that God always intended us to be. Imagine the impact on those around us and those in the future.
And you never know – like Abraham & Sarah, however unlikely, however implausible, we may even create a little laughter together along the way! Amen.