Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22
A New Name: Abram and Sarai
What are you waiting for? What events, or situations, or circumstances, right now, are you waiting for to take place? A child or grandchild to be born? A birthday? A retirement? A vacation? And how often, like a child on a road trip, have you wondered, “Are we there yet?” As I child, I attended one of our church camps, Camp Aldersgate, every summer. And I couldn’t wait for my week of camp to come. I’d start packing way in advance. And then finally, we’d head for Aldersgate. The trip seemed to take forever. But when the trees changed into tall skinny pines, I knew we were close, at last. I was shocked, when I got older, to realize Aldersgate was only about an hour from home. Not even. How could that be? But from a child’s point of view, an hour drive may as well be a whole day spent stuck in the car. Perspective is everything.
Today, we continue our series looking at the New Names given in the scriptures, we encounter two people who set out on what seems to them to be the longest of journeys. We meet Abram and Sarai back at the end of Genesis Chapter 11, when they’re listed in a genealogy after the Tower of Babel incident. If you don’t know about the Tower of Babel, check out Chapter 11. Anyway, we know from this that Sarai was considered barren. In ancient times, anytime a couple could not have children, the woman was considered barren, because the intricacies of fertility weren’t understood. It wasn’t known that sometimes men were the ones who could not father a child. However, in Sarai’s case, it seems that she, indeed, is the one struggling with fertility. At the start of Chapter 12, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And the next verse starts out, “And so, Abram went.” Before this scene, we know absolutely nothing about Abram. We have no idea why God would call him for such a task, such a journey, or why God would make him such a promise. All we know is: God calls, God promises, and Abram goes. The text tells us that Abram is 75 when he sets out on this journey.
Throughout the next chapters of Genesis, we see Abram and Sarai travel to Canaan, the land which God promised them, and travel from here to there, living in different places, occasionally getting into scuffles with local leaders. They’d started out in what is now Southern Turkey, and make their way through modern-day Syria and Lebanon to Israel, and then spend time in Egypt and other nearby regions. And occasionally, throughout this time, God reiterates the promise to Abram: I will bless you, and make you a great nation. God says to Abram, “Don’t be afraid, I am your shield, and your reward will be very great.” But Abram is perhaps a bit skeptical. The years are passing. Abram says to God, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless … and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But God says to Abram, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” And Abram believes, and is called righteous.
And more years pass. Sarai is frustrated. She finally decides that since God has prevented her from having children, she’ll offer Hagar, her slave, to Abram to bear children for him. Abram and Hagar have a son together, named Ishmael. Abram is now 86 years old. Unsurprisingly, Sarai, seeing Hagar and Hagar’s child with Sarai’s husband, begins to feel regret over the events she set in motion. She treats Hagar badly, but God promises Hagar that her son, too, is part of the promise. He, too, will be blessed.
And more years pass. And finally, when Abram is 99 years old, and Sarai is 90, God again reiterates the promises to Abram. He gives them new names. Abram, which means Exalted Father, a hard name to bear for one who had no children, will be called Abraham, Father of Many. And Sarai, whose name meant Princess, will be Sarah, Princess of Many. And this time, God offers a timeline: by next year, they’ll have a son. And newly-named Abraham falls on his face laughing. He indicates that God must mean it is through Ishmael that all these blessings will come into fullness. But God says again – yes, Ishmael will be blessed. But the promises I’ve made to you hold true. And Sarah will bear a child. Later, Sarah herself will hear the news from God, and she, too, will laugh. But sure enough, she bears a son. And they name him Isaac, which means “Laughter.”
What a story! What a journey! From the time that God promises Abram that he will become the father of many nations, to the time Sarah gives birth to their son Isaac, 25 years have passed. 25 years! God repeatedly renews the promise, reaffirms that the promise is still going to be fulfilled, but I’m sure none of us are surprised, or unsympathetic that Abram and Sarai seem so often to doubt that the promise is true. This promise of God is a long journey of unfolding. And in fact, it is not truly played out, this blessing, until several generations later, Moses leads the Israelites into the promised land. It is a blessing that unfolds over years, over decades, slowly, piece by piece.
We talked a lot in November about God’s blessings in our lives. It is one thing to count the blessing you see around you in your life. But it is another thing entirely to nurture the promise of blessing that hasn’t yet been delivered. What blessings have you sought from God? What promises to you feel yet unfulfilled in your life? Have you found it easy to wait?
In my first religion class in college, I learned what is still one of my favorite theological concepts: Kairos. There are two common words for time in the scripture: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, for example, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen. Kairos. God’s right time for action. I have no idea why Abram and Sarai needed to wait 25 years for God’s promise to come to fruition. But I believe that at the right time, God acts. Certainly God reminded them again and again that the fulfillment was on the way. And when the time was just right – for God’s plans – Isaac was born. Kairos.
Have you ever tried to pry open the petals of a flower bud? It can be so tempting, when you see a flower that you’ve wanted to bloom, to just “help it along.” But your doing so is most likely simply to damage or destroy the flower altogether. I think Abram and Sarai tried to open some flower buds more than once in this story. Damage was done, especially, for example, to Hagar. They thought that they could find a way to sort of “help” God bless them, help God fulfill promises made. How tempted we are to do this sometimes! We try to offer God good ways to bless us. We try to set it all up, make our plans, and then ask God to add the blessing, make the promise fit to what we’ve put together. We are blessed, because even when we try to force God’s hand, God can work through the mess we make in the process. But waiting for the promises, the blessings, to unfold in our lives in God’s right time, in the unexpected ways that are better than our best plans – it’s the most beautiful bouquet of blessings you can imagine.
I asked you to think of the nicknames by which you’ve been known, and how you got them. One of my nicknames I got in elementary school – it was Bisquik! My basketball coach gave me that name. He was known for giving every player a nickname. And I was so anxious to get my name! He once called me “Pearl” when I made a good series of foul shots, but that nickname eventually stuck on a teammate instead of me, and I was distressed. What would my nickname be? When would I get a nickname? I would even ask him about it, but he insisted I had to wait until something struck him. I had to wait for the right moment. Maybe “Bisquik” isn’t exactly flashy, but when my nickname was finally given, it was worth it for my one-of-a-kind name.
When God names us, when God claims us, makes us new, fulfills promises in us, we find that our own small plans and visions pale in comparison. Instead of Abram, Exalted Father, God gives us Abraham, Father of Many, as countless as the stars. I can’t tell you why God’s plans sometimes unfold so much more slowly than we’d like. Only God knows that. I can only remind you of what most of you know. That looking back over our lives, our way has never turned out better than God’s way. Indeed, things have a marvelous way of bringing us to just the spot where we belong. I can tell you that serving at Apple Valley was never part of my plan. How could it be? I didn’t even know you were here! And yet, in what can only be God’s right time at work, here we are!
God took Abram and Sarai’s laughter and drew from it their child, Laughter brought to life in the child Isaac. A promise fulfilled. The promises are being fulfilled in your life too. And in mine. And in this place. What shape will they take? Surely, only God knows. But that is so much more than enough. Amen.