The Power and the Insight of Names in Scripture
The Readings today Genesis 17:3-9 and John 8:51-end
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Something all people around the world share is a name. Our names are ways of identification, ways that we can be recognised and called and dare I say, talked about. Names are important although you may not know that in our culture. Our culture has largely lost the importance of names whereas in much of the rest of the world, it remains. When I lived in Nigeria, the people there often named their children after the first thing they felt when the child arrived or what they hoped for the child in the future. There were names like Bright, Blessings, Happy. Other really popular names for the less imaginative parents were the day of the week they were born, so it wasn’t that rare to have every day of the week represented in a gathering.
A friend of mine who is Kenyan, explained to me that Godparents and relatives are invited to give middle names that convey something about the person or some hope for them. This friend had about 28 middle names, one of which meant ‘enjoys to bounce on the bed’, given at his christening. In most of the rest of the world, a name isn’t simply a fashion statement or meant to sound nice, its meant to mean something profound for that person.
The Bible is no different in this regard and when we hear someone’s name, it is always worth finding out what it means, as peoples names are often linked in someway to their role in scripture or tell you something important about who they are. For example, take the story of Jacob. He was called Jacob, which in Hebrew means Heel as he was born holding on to the heel of his elder twin brother, Esau. Later, after struggling with the angel of God overnight, he is renamed Israel, which means he who struggles. So an easy way to get to know scripture better and the heart of God better is to pay attention to names.
In both our readings names are central. In the first reading we see Abram having his name changed to Abraham, as God makes that wonderful covenant promise of many descendants. So why change the name? Abram means ‘exalted Father’ given to him in the hope he would become exactly that, a name that must have stung someone who was childless until very late in life. Abraham however sounds like the Hebrew for ‘father of a multitude of nations’, directly linking Abraham to the promise of the covenant that God makes with him. By changing Abrams name to Abraham, God is signing and signalling, once again that He will keep His promise. We of course know that God kept His promise and Abraham is the direct ancestor of many people, not least of course the chosen people of God, the Israelites. This of course is no doubt what Abraham would have believed – his descendants would be nations. What he almost certainly didn’t understand was that it was much more than simple biology, but that through Jesus, Abraham would be the spiritual father of all Christians also. As is often the case, the blessings that God gives go beyond the human imagination.
In our Gospel reading, names again are important. As a side note the name Jesus or Jeshua means ‘He saves’. Jesus is arguing with the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. He makes this extraordinary claim that Abraham was glad to see Jesus and of course the crowd are incensed, how could someone, less than 50 years old, have know Abraham from a few thousand years ago. Now you can tell in the text that they are getting cheesed off with Jesus, but they hardly sound murdery. Yet after the next sentence they prepare to stone Jesus. The reason all lies in a name, a very important name. Jesus says ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ Jesus doesn’t say before Abraham I was or before Abraham I was alive. No, He says before Abraham was, I am. The name that caused the audience to immediately reach for stones was not the name of Abraham, the name that caused such offense was the name ‘I am’, the name God gives for Himself when He speaks to Moses in the burning bush and the audience know that here Jesus is claiming to be God. They reach for stones, because Jesus, in their eyes has committed the worst kind of blasphemy possible. As you read the gospel of John particularly, always pick up your ears whenever Jesus says ‘I am’ because He is almost certainly making a claim to be divine. Through the man named father of a multitude of nations arose this Son of God, named He saves, who identifies with the great I am who I am, Jehovah, God.
None of this is accident, all of this is linked and by looking at the names of those in the narrative of scripture we can learn something new about God.
As we enter Holy Week, can I encourage you to pick up the Bible? To have a look at what different names mean? To see what God wants to reveal to you about His salvation won at such a cost that we commemorate today?
Also, can I encourage you to think about the name God is asking you to carry. It may not be a multitude of nations, but it may to be called one who is prayerful, or generous or kind. What name would God give you? Because when we live up to the names God has for us, we see the world blessed more than we can possibly imagine. Amen.