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The God Who Changes Names

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 6, 2014

Genesis 17 The God Who Changes Names

Larry Osborne, a pastor in California, likes to say that before he had kids, he might have entitled a sermon on parenting with “Ten Rules for Raising Godly Kids.” But birth by birth, and as his kids got older, the sermon titles would have changed. His progression went something like this:
• “Ten Rules for Raising Godly Kids”
• “Ten Guidelines for Raising Good Kids”
• “Five Principles for Raising Kids”
• “Three Suggestions for Surviving Parenthood” (“10 Dumb Things…, p. 49)

I can relate.

This isn’t a sermon on parenting, I’m not even sure I’d dare to preach a sermon on parenting right now. But I tell you that as a way of saying parenting can be hard. Launching kids from the teen years into adulthood can be painful. Right now Beth and I have some big questions as parents.

Or, again. A while back I learned about an acquaintance—another pastor—whose wife told him she wanted a divorce Nothing scandalous. No affairs or abuse or anything like that. They just haven’t been getting along that well, she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore, she wants to be single. That’s about as much as I know, but I can guess how he feels right now. His life has been turned upside down, he doesn’t know what to do next, or where to turn.

Or, again. I think about Joyce Heiller. She and Paul were married about three years ago. They had such a neat relationship, and a shared ministry. And then: an accident. Almost two weeks in the hospital, without a good prognosis. And now Paul has been called home to heaven.

I don’t know what you’re going through right now—but it is probably something. Joyce is preparing for a funeral. My pastor friend is trying to save his marriage. Beth and I are trying to be good parents. You face your own questions, your own worries, your own fears.

The world in which we live is filled with uncertainties:
Will my kids grow up to be okay?
Will our marriage stay together?
Will we have enough money at the end of the month to pay the bills?
Will I have to go to a nursing home?
Will I be alone?
Will I ever feel happy?

The pace of our culture paired with the problems we face can lead us to be frantic and obsessed or paralyzed with fear. It is the very nature of our existence that we don’t know the future, and so we worry about what the future will bring.

What we need is some deep, quiet, unshakeable truth from God’s Word to give us our bearings, to provide ballast in the ship as we travel through the rough seas of life. We need solid insight into the character of God to anchor us in the storms of doubt, worry, and despair.

That’s what we find in Genesis 17 as God reconfirms His covenant with Abram. We find a God who is in control, and on our side.

Let’s read the text, Genesis 17:

1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers."

3Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4"As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God."

9Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner-those who are not your offspring. 13Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

15God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."

17Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" 18And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!"

19Then God said, "Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year." 22When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

23On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that same day. 27And every male in Abraham's household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

The thing that stands out to me in this passage is the names. There really isn’t a story here—it’s more of a long speech by God—and the main feature of the speech is that God changes the names of Abram and Sarai. It’s here that they become Abraham and Sarah.

In the Bible, names are very significant. More than just a label to distinguish one person from another—“Hi, my name is Russell”—names in the Bible often reflect a person’s character or destiny. When God changes someone’s name, then, it often means that God is changing a person’s destiny. It’s a statement about what God plans to do.

So, rather than go verse by verse through Genesis 17, I’d like us to look at the different names in this passage—and the verses surrounding them—to see what we can learn about how God relates to us. There are three significant names for us to consider.

El Shaddai
I. The first name is not the name of a person, but a name of God. Look with me at the first verse:

1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”

The passage starts with God giving a name to Himself.

It’s not just the names of people that are significant in the Bible. The names given to God also tell us a lot about what He is like. Remember a few weeks ago? Hagar gave God the name El Roi—“the God who sees me”—and we learned that God is a God who is concerned about the helpless and hopeless. Altogether, there are 211 different names given to God in the Bible. Each name and title tells us something about His nature and His character. Each name helps us to know Him better.

And now, God appears to Abram and He says: “I am God Almighty.” He names Himself “Almighty God”.

Actually, the Hebrew name God uses here is one that is probably familiar to most of you—it’s El Shaddai, like the song by Amy Grant. It’s a name that God uses 3 other times in the book of Genesis, and each time it is in the context of His promise to make someone’s descendents numerous and prosperous (Gen. 28:3; 35:11; 48:3). The idea behind this name seems to be that God is powerful and strong. That He is sufficient to keep His promises to men. In other words, as our Bibles say, to call God El Shaddai is to call Him “God Almighty.” He is the Almighty God.

(Now, I have to go down a side road for a minute. This reminds me of one of the first jokes I ever learned: “If you drink poison, make sure to take the antidote. Do you know why? El Shaddai.” When I was 8, and when Amy Grant was a big star, that joke was really funny.)

This name is one of the most significant names given to God in the Bible.

Let’s think for a few minutes about it means to call God “Almighty”.

Almighty means all-powerful. In a lot of ways, it’s the very essence of what it means for God to be God. It means that God knows all, sees all, controls all. It means that everything that exists, everything that happens, everything that will happen, is under His power.

When I see that phrase: “God Almighty” I can’t help but think of the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty. I was surprised to find out this week that that movie is already 11 years old.

The plot of the movie was that a man named Bruce (played by Jim Carrey) questioned God to such an extent that God (played by Morgan Freeman) decided to teach him a lesson by transferring His (God’s) powers to Bruce. In other words, the movie tried to portray what would happen if someone really were able to “play God.”

The message of the movie is that being God is not such an easy thing. Bruce fairs poorly as deity, and learns that he really doesn’t have the wisdom, the knowledge, or the goodness to be in control of the universe. The viewer is reminded that it is good that God is God and we’re not.

But the thing the movie does really poorly is that it reduces the power of God to a series of parlor tricks. For Bruce, being almighty means being able to housetrain his dog or play a trick on a coworker. But for God, to be Almighty—to be El Shaddai—means so much more than being able to get ahead at work. The “Almighty-ness” of God means that He can do anything because He is never lacking in knowledge, ability, resources or power. Nothing is too hard for Him.

And so the first thing we learn here is that God is capable. He is able to do what He wants to do. He is sufficient to accomplish what He sets out to do.

II. That’s the first name we find here in Genesis 17: El Shaddai. God is the Almighty. The second name is a name God gives to Abram. He changes the name of His covenant partner to Abraham.

The name Abram means “exalted father.” It’s probably a name that was given him to indicate that his father—Terah—was a man of high social standing. As the years went by, and Abram remained childless, this name probably became a source of some embarrassment for him. His name meant “exalted father”, but he wasn’t a father at all.

Now, in verse 5, God comes along and tells him he will no longer be known as Abram, but as “Abraham.” A subtle change in his name that shifts the meaning from “exalted father” to “father of many.” It must have seemed somewhat ironic—even cruel—to Abraham that now—when He is 99 years old and has only one son, the somewhat illegitimate Ishmael—God would come and tell him that he will be the Father of many nations.

But, really, if you read through what God is saying here, you see that He is simply reiterating the promises He has been making to Abraham all along. From the beginning God has been telling Abram that he would be a great nation (12:2, 17:6). From the beginning God has been telling Abram that he would receive the land of Canaan (12:7; 17:8). The change of names here is really a reconfirmation of those promises.

Still, if we look closely, we see that there is something new here. In verse 7 God says:

I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.

Then, again, at the end of verse 8, He says: “I will be their God.”

This is the new thing. God is now agreeing to be the God of Abraham and his descendants. He’s signing on for exclusive distribution rights, as it were. He changes Abram’s name and says—in effect—“I will be God for you.”

Now, this is important, don’t miss this. The New Testament teaches that if you believe in Jesus, then you are a descendant of Abraham (Gal 3:29). You are a member of the many nations that God promises to Abraham here in Genesis 17. And that means, then, that the covenant God makes here with Abraham He has also made with you. He has promised to be God to us. He will be our God.

That’s a deceptively simple truth. You say to yourself: “Of course He will be our God—He’s the only God, He’s the God of everything and everyone.” But the more you think about this promise the more spectacular it becomes.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us what this promise means by quoting God:

"They shall be my people and I will be their God … I will not turn away from doing good to them … I will rejoice in doing good to them … with all my heart
and with all my soul" (32:38-41).

When God agrees to be our God He is saying that He will be God “for us.” He will take up our cause and make a point of doing good to us. He will commit all that He is to our benefit.

Says one preacher:

It boggles the mind to try to imagine what it must mean if the God who made the planets and stars and galaxies and molecules and protons and neutrons and electrons rejoices to do you good with all his heart and with all his soul. If God is God for you then all his omnipotence and all his omniscience are engaged all the time to do good for you in all the circumstances of your life. (Piper, Dec. 4, 1983)

Think about that. The Almighty God—for whom nothing is too hard or difficult or complicated—enters into a covenant to be God for us. He commits Himself to us.

It’s the same thing that the Apostle Paul says in that great passage in Romans 8:

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?...Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Rom. 8:31, 32, 35, & 37)

And so, in a sea of uncertain futures and difficult questions, in a stormy world of deep fears and aching anxieties, this truth provides us with an anchor: The Almighty God is for us. The God of the universe is on our side. Let this truth pierce your souls and it will bring a peace and assurance to your lives as calm as the safest harbor in the world.

Sarah and Isaac
III. So, in the names El Shaddai and Abraham we are reminded of who God is, and we see that He places Himself on our side.

And yet, it doesn’t always seem like God is on our side. The problems we face are very real. The difficulties we deal with are quite painful. There’s one more name in this passage for us to look at, and it’s found in the verses that talk about Abraham’s wife Sarai.

Actually, Sarai’s name change isn’t all that significant. Linguists tell us that both Sarai and Sarah most likely mean “princess.” More important than any change of meaning in the name is the fact that God sees Sarah as part of His plans. God’s decision to change her name is meaningful because He still intends to build Abraham’s family through her. Verse 16:

I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.

When Abraham hears this, he is incredulous. He falls down in laughter. He’s 99, she’s 89, clearly they aren’t about to have a child. Abraham wants God to do it his way. He’s got a son, Ishmael. Maybe God could just overlook his questionable beginnings and pour out his blessings on him.

But God has His own plans. He’s going to do what He has promised, and He’s going to do it His own way. Yes, Ishmael will be blessed and he will be the father of 12 rulers. But look at verse 19:

19Then God said, "Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”

Abraham’s wife Sarah will bear him a son, and God is going to establish His covenant with Him, and all of the promises are going to be fulfilled in his descendants. And the name of this son, God says, will be Isaac, which means “laughter.”

Here’s the third name for us to take notice of. God tells Abraham to name this coming son “laughter”, so that every time he calls him to dinner; every time he tucks him into bed at night; indeed, every time he thinks about him, he will be reminded that God promised and he laughed. He’ll be reminded that God did things His way. He’ll be reminded that God had a plan that no one could ever have imagined.

There’s something else I need to point out in this passage, along these same lines. Besides the name changes, the other big feature of Genesis 17 is the introduction of circumcision. It’s the sign of the covenant, introduced back in verse 10:

10This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.

Circumcision is not such an easy thing to talk about in public. If you know what it is, you know why. And if you don’t know what it is, let me just say it was physical marking that took place on the body of men. It was an intentional, and painful wound.

And God introduces circumcision as an outward sign of inclusion in His covenant community. We might say it was supposed to be an outward sign of an inward reality, much like our sacrament of baptism today. Circumcision is a big theme throughout the rest of the Bible, it becomes a symbol for the heart change we are supposed to have in relation to God.

The ironic thing about this, though, is that God asks Abraham to be circumcised right after changing his name to “father of many.” God reiterates His promise of a child, and then asks Abraham to injure himself in a way that makes keeping that promise suspect. By the end of the chapter Abraham is being circumcised at the age of 99, even as God assures Him that Sarah will bear him a son within the year.

Do you see the irony? Do you see the laughter? God the Almighty is on Abraham’s side--He’s committed Himself to Abraham—but He’s still going to do things His way. He’s going to exercise His all sufficient power in His way, in His time, and according to His purposes. Abraham still gets blessed, but it is on God’s timetable.

And, you see, this message is for us as well. We are being bolstered today by the rock-solid truth that God is for us, but we need to remember He is conducting things according to His plan. So, at times things may not appear to be going our way, but we can be confident that God knows what He is doing.

And that’s the message I want you to soak up this morning: Our God is the Almighty God, He is on our side, and He knows what He is doing. The God of the Universe is for us, and He is in control. We can trust Him, we can give ourselves to Him, and He won’t let us down.

So…who needs to hear this?

Parents who are hopeful and anxious about their kids need to hear this. They need to know that God is capable of doing what He promises.

Married couples who are struggling to hold their marriage together need to hear this. They need to know that God is for them.

Folks who are ill and facing long roads to recovery need to hear this. They need to know that God is in control.

We all need to hear this. We need to know that our God is the Almighty God, He’s on our side, and He knows what He is doing.