New Covenant, New Name, New Journey
Text: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Rev. Garry E. McCaffery
What names did people call you as you were growing up? What nicknames did your parents or grandparents give you that you wish they hadn’t? I hope most of the names were ones that made you feel loved and accepted. But, were others nasty and hurtful? Were you given a nickname because of how you looked or how you talked? Because of where you lived or what you wore? Did anyone ever give you a name because they felt they knew what your future would hold? If so, did that spur you on in your destiny or did it hold you back and discourage you? Did they nickname you in honor of what they believed you would become?
I had several nicknames in my youth, and perhaps some now that I may or may not know about. My brother had a variety of nicknames for me, none of which I shall repeat, but they were the kind you would expect from an older sibling. I also had a nickname in high school that may have spurred me on to my current vocation. Every day in homeroom, before the official school day would start, I could be found reading a pocket-sized Bible that I brought with me. Sometimes, in the midst of my reading, a friend or two that was sitting near me, would ask me some questions and we’d get involved with conversation. This eventually led to some of my classmates calling me, “preacher.”
Many years later, while working at Hoselton, that nickname returned as one of the guys in the wholesale parts department, every time he saw me would say, “How’s it going, preacher?” I should have realized then, God wasn’t going to let me get out of this.
In one of the last churches I served in North Carolina, a new nickname given to me was “Big Daddy G.” I kind of liked that one, as did the Sunday School kids!
Our names and nicknames identify us and follow us throughout our life. It is how we are known, and it is the basis upon which we build our reputation. This can be good or bad. Both in terms of how other people know us, and in terms of how God knows us. Yes, God knows us, and He knows each of us by name.
As I mentioned last Sunday, we are now in the season of Lent. Lent is a time for serious self-reflection, repentance, and renewal. On Ash Wednesday we were called to change our ways. We have been called to remember God’s unchanging ways. Today we are called to receive a new name which God gives to us when we are redeemed. First, we needed to repent, and then we needed to be reminded of God’s faithfulness, and today we are reminded of our new purpose and our new name.
Here, in Genesis chapter 17, we again meet with Abram, who has been faithfully walking with God for many years. To briefly recall some of Abram’s history, way back in Genesis chapter 12, God called Abram to leave his homeland, family, and father’s house, in order to go to a land that God would “show” him. Abram did so and began his journey with his wife Sarai, nephew Lot, and his family.
In chapter 15 God appears to Abram and promises him many descendants, along with his descendants inheriting and possessing a great land. Abram believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness. Mind you, Abram and Sarai attempted to help God in fulfilling this promise of children through Sarai’s servant, Hagar, to which a son was born. His name was Ishmael. Ishmael, however, was not the child of promise that God had told Abram about.
Now, 13 years later, when Abram was 99 years old, God again appears to him. This appearance is not just in a vision, no, it is in person. This signifies a new relationship with Abram. God begins by reminding Abram about who He is. He says to Abram, “I am El-Shaddai”, meaning, God Almighty! God all sufficient. “Abram, the God of all creation, the God who needs no one in order to be complete, the God of the universe, is talking to you. Walk before me and be blameless.” In some ways it could be said here, “Abram, keep doing what you’ve been doing. Keep walking faithfully, trusting in the Lord to fulfill His promises.” “And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly” (Genesis 17:2). In these words, God is affirming the covenant, the agreement, He had made with Abram several years before. God is reiterating that He will bless Abram by giving him many descendants. God is also reaffirming this new covenant and reminding Abram that it is God who has established the covenant. This covenant God made with Abram was one that would be a covenant of grace, an everlasting covenant, that would bless generations to come.
Abram, of course, responded in the way we would likely respond to God in these circumstances, he fell on his face while God talked to him. Abram humbled himself before God as God continued to speak, picking up in verse 4, “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations.” Again, I cannot emphasis this enough, God is the one who initiates the covenant. God is the one who has sought out a relationship with humanity. God is the one who initiates and establishes the covenant, then calls us to be a part of the covenant and gives us a new name.
This is what He does for Abram. God tells him what the covenant is and how he will be blessed and, as he’s doing so, invites Abram into the covenant. He then tells Abram that his name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham. This is huge. The name change is huge. The name change is a big deal because it signifies a change in relationship with God. It signifies a change in a person’s character. It signifies a new role. For Abram, it redefined the meaning of his name. Abram means: high father. Abraham means: the father of a multitude. This stretched far beyond his having many biological descendants, as we find in the book of Romans, as Paul talks about it, Abraham is now the spiritual father of all who believe. The change in name had dramatic repercussions for all of us.
The same is true for Abraham’s wife, Sarai. As we saw in Genesis 17:15-16, Sarai’s name was also changed. Her name was no longer to be Sarai, but Sarah. Sarai which means, my princess. Sarah, which means, a princess of multitudes. Her name change means for her what Abraham’s name change meant for him, that is, a new relationship with God. God brought them into His covenant and, through them, blessed generations to come.
One other point of significance for the name change; in one of the commentary’s I was reading while studying this passage, the commentator stated it was the letter “H” that had been added to both names. This letter “H” that had been added came from the “H” in God’s name, El Shaddai. In other words, God placed himself in the relationship with Abraham and Sarah, and by so doing, had started them on a new journey. God’s presence in their lives brought life where there was thought to be barrenness and death. Even though Abraham and Sarah were waaaaaayyy past childbearing years, God made it so. As they struggled to fully comprehend, they walked in faith, and God began fulfilling His promise to give offspring to Abraham and Sarah.
God has continued fulfilling His covenant promise regarding the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Jesus was born as a result of that covenant promise as we find in the genealogies of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In the letter to the Romans, the portion we heard read this morning, Paul writes about the faith of Abraham and those who share that faith. “(for he, Abraham, is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’) (Romans 4:16-17). We, too, are spiritual children of Abraham if we have faith in God and we receive the grace offered to us through His Son Jesus Christ.
Just like God created a covenant that he shared with Abraham and invited Abraham to be a part of, God has created a covenant through Christ that He is inviting us to be a part of. Again, God makes the first move. God, through His prevenient grace makes the first move toward a relationship with us. He does so by making a covenant, an agreement, a promise that will benefit us if we will receive it. He calls us and encourages us; He invites us to be a part of the covenant. He invites us into a relationship with His Son. All we have to do is receive the invitation and have faith and enjoy the justifying grace He pours out upon us. Part of that justification is receiving a new name. Yes, just like Abraham and Sarah, we too receive a new name as a mark of a change of relationship with God. Just like with Abraham and Sarah, God places himself within us. We go from the name “sinner”, a person who is in bondage and trapped and separated from God, to the name, “Christian”, a person who is freed from sin and made whole by the grace of God.
With our new name and status as Christian, we embark on a new journey under God’s sanctifying grace, wherein we grow in our relationship and understanding of who God is. We learn to love Jesus in deeper ways, and we learn to love others in the way He has loved us. We learn to love Him by walking in obedience to His commands. We learn to love Him by sharing the good news of this covenant with others.
By sharing this good news, we, too, produce spiritual offspring. We continue the legacy of which we are a part through our relationship to Jesus.
During this Lenten season it is our joy to celebrate and worship God Almighty, who has made a covenant with us through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ. It is our joy to celebrate and worship God Almighty who calls us to be a part of the covenant and, as a result of placing our faith in Him, gives us a new name and makes us heirs of the covenant of His grace.
Through faith we have embarked on a new journey. A journey wherein we have left the old things behind us and focused on the life God is calling us to.
We walk under a new covenant, with a new name, on a new and exciting journey with Christ our Lord. Amen.