Sometimes I think my mother should have named me Larry. Evidently, I look more like a Larry than I do a Randy because all my life people have wanted to call me Larry. Allow me to cite just one example…
I prefer to play golf with family or friends, but have been known to go to the golf course by myself if I’m unsuccessful in finding someone to come along. I remember the time, a few years ago, when the starter put me with a couple of really nice fellows from Conway. Both were named Jim. One was a professor at the University of Central Arkansas and the other was a businessman who owns a manufactured housing company.
By the time we finished our round I had come to know that Jim, the professor, had a Ph. D. from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. As I recall, he was a bit impressed that I knew the school’s mascot was the Salukis, not common knowledge round these parts, I would think. Jim, the businessman, is originally from Harrisburg and knows Debbie Tillery.
How did I come to know all this? Well, you don’t spend four hours with people – even strangers – without getting to know a little about them, and they about you.
As is customary, when we finished the eighteenth hole we shook hands. I told them how much I had enjoyed playing golf with them, and Jim the professor said, “It was great playing with you too, Larry.”
See, I told you. My mother should have named me Larry.
There once was a man named Terah whose wife gave birth to a son. Terah named his son Abram. For that time, and in that place, it was a perfectly good name. There were other names Terah could have chosen for his son, but more than likely he gave it great thought and settled on the name Abram. Evidently, Terah had high hopes for his son because the name Abram means “exalted father.”
By all accounts, Abram was perfectly content to be named Abram, and he carried that name for ninety-nine years. He looked like an Abram, acted like an Abram, and filled out his name quite well, thank you very much. He was perfectly satisfied for things to stay just the way they were. Except for one thing. If there was one thing Abram was not, it was a father, exalted or otherwise. Abram and his wife Sarai were childless.
God first introduces himself to Abram when Abram is seventy-five years old. At least, as far as we know that is when God first speaks to Abram. He tells him to leave the land of his father Terah and to start traveling. Wherever God leads, that is where Abram and Sarai are to go. They are to follow the available water and grass wherever it would take them, and to travel wherever they found hospitality.
Abram gladly becomes a nomad because that is what his God demands of him, for one thing. But surely there was another reason. It had to do with the promise. If he followed God’s demand, perhaps he could finally fulfill his name. He would truly become Abram, “exalted father.” It was not unheard of for a man his age to sire a son. Sarai, now, she was getting on up there in regard to child-bearing, but if they are patient maybe things will work out for them. Something positive, in regard to having a son, better happen soon, however. They’re quickly running out of time and opportunity.
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As it turns out, patience was the name of the game. Abram and Sarai live out of a tent for the next twenty-four years, during which time, I would imagine, a lot of conversations take place between Abram and God, topics of discussion that perhaps haven’t made it into the Bible.
One day, when Abram is ninety-nine years old, the Lord appears to him again and repeats what he had told him back in his younger days when he was only seventy-five. “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” And even though Abram has this personal relationship with God, it doesn’t mean he takes it for granted or considers it to be casual in any way. Nosirree, Abram hears the voice of God, who identifies himself as El Shaddai — even the name sounds ominous, doesn’t it? — and does what anyone would do under the circumstances. He falls on his face… flat on his face.
“No longer shall your name be Abram,” he hears the Voice saying to him.
“What, Abram isn’t good enough a name? What’s wrong with Abram? I like Abram. It’s the name my daddy gave me. I know I haven’t exactly lived up to what it means, but…”
“Your name shall be Abraham…”
Let’s do what we often do when reading a novel. Let’s jump to the last page of Abraham’s story. He is now 175 years old. You think that’s a long time, don’t you? Well, his daddy – remember Terah? – lived to 205. Great genes, huh? Think about it. More than half his life he was Abram. He had gotten used to being Abram. In his ninety-ninth year, God comes along and changes the picture. And because of it, he has been known by his second name, Abraham, ever since. That’s the way God wanted it, so that’s the way it was.
I wonder how many times Sarai — excuse me, Sarah (her name was changed too) — instinctively calls out to her husband, “Abram… I mean, uh, Abraham…” After all, it’s hard enough to get it right when names haven’t been changed. I grew up hearing my mother call me “Hugh, uh, Ste…, uh, Randy.” Being the youngest, she finally got my name right on the third call. Good thing I wasn’t the youngest of ten… and at least she didn’t call me Larry.
You get used to calling someone by his given name and now the rules have been changed in mid-stream. It just goes to show that being chosen by God isn’t a simple thing! Nor is it easy. The Bible is quite clear on that. Not only does God make some pretty strong demands, but he goes around changing names! Write this down: life with God in charge doesn’t necessarily get any easier or simpler. In fact, it’s usually the other way around. Don’t you imagine Abraham got a bit tang-tongueled a few times in speaking to his wife as well? I mean, why go changing names this late in the ball game?
Well, evidently God has this thing about wanting a tangible way of sealing the deal with Abraham. He is making a covenant with Abram. Not with his brother Nahor. Not with somebody down the street. With Abram and Abram alone. And to show Abram how serious he is about it, God says in essence, “Let’s find a way to symbolize what we’re doing today. Let’s do it this way: let’s change your name.”
(God would also come up with an additional, and more painful, way of symbolizing the covenant made with Abraham, but for our purposes today we will stick with the name-changing thing.)
It’s not the only time God chose to do this, is it? Jacob became Israel, Peter became Rock, Saul became Paul. God just has this thing about changing names, doesn’t he? The obvious question is, why?
Well, first of all, God uses the name change as an opportunity to let Abraham know just how serious he really is about all this, as strange as it may seem to be. By changing his name from Abram to Abraham, God simply adds a breathing sound. So he goes from Abram to Abramhuh. It is God’s way of letting him know he is breathing his Spirit into him. No longer would he be simply Abram, “exalted father,” and no longer would he be entirely his own. Now, he would be Abraham (huh!), “father of a multitude,” and the very breath he carries within himself would be the breath – the spirit, the presence, the guidance – of God. God is making covenant with this old man, and changing his name is a way of sealing the deal.
You see, God had his mind made up, and when God has his mind made up there’s no room for bargaining. Even if God finds us unwilling to do what he wants, he can afford to be very patient with us. God will wait as long as it takes for us to come around. The Lord won’t coerce us outside the realm of our freewill, but God also knows what he wants and is loathe to change the plan. What God wants of us is to get on board, to make covenant with him.
And that is exactly what Abraham has done. First, he left his native land and his family without a promise that he would ever have the opportunity again to live in a home, a real honest-to-goodness house. Instead, his tent became his shelter. Second, his name was changed to reflect what God was doing in him. What God was doing, I will remind you, has yet to come to pass. So far, all Abraham has to go on is a promise that seems, even in those days, to be impossible.
For him to think that at the age of ninety-nine, together with his ninety-year-old wife, he could become a father is most laughable. In fact, that is exactly what he does. God or no God, flat on his face in the dust – and in the presence of El Shaddai – he begins to laugh. Can’t you just see it. He laughs so hard the dust gets sucked in his lungs and causes a coughing fit. For all his troubles, all he has to show for it is a tent, a new name, a face full of dirt, and his laughter. But even as he’s laughing he gets the definite feeling that it’s no joke.
Abraham’s God — this El Shaddai — is serious about this! He has his mind made up. The deal is done.
If you are tempted to think that such deals — such covenants — are reserved for 3000 years ago with nomads named Abraham, you best think again. With Abraham, God was just getting started. Now, on this very day in this Lenten season, in your heart and in mine, God continues to make covenant with his people, with you and me.
Do you believe this?
Saul — I mean, Paul — did. In writing to the Romans, he says specifically that the covenant made between God and Abraham was “not for his sake alone, but for ours also” (4:24). He uses a good old southern word “reckon.” “It will be reckoned to us,” he says, “who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead…”
The physical circumstances have changed since the days of Abraham. We are blessed with homes and enough food to eat. We don’t have to wander from place to place, carrying our tents, looking for the next available source of water, wondering if we will find hospitality or hatred around the corner. But life, as we all know, is a journey. God has his mind made up as to what he wants us to do. The only question remaining is whether we will be willing to do what God asks of us.
If that leaves you with a sense of trepidation, I would encourage you to consider this: Abraham’s story reveals that God never asks anything of us that is not thoroughly surrounded by his love and upheld by his divine presence.
Jesus knew this, which is why he was able, on that fateful night while on his knees in prayer, to say to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” Maybe, just maybe, he first learned that lesson from father Abraham. If so, do you think you and I might ever learn it too?
O Lord, you are the Father of Abraham and our Father as well. Find us as willing to follow you as did your servant so many years ago. Your mind is made up about us, now find us willing to make up ours as well. In Jesus’ name, Amen.