4-15-18 “Open: Into the Light”
I don’t know about you, but when I’m ready to go to sleep I like it to be dark - really dark. I don’t want any kind of night light anywhere. I don’t want the glow from a phone, a tablet, a computer, or the TV. I resent the red light on the phone beside the bed that indicates that the handset is charged. I snarl at the ambient light that comes in through the window on even the darkest night, because I want it pitch black. I recently got rid of the digital clock radio on my bedside stand because of its irritating blue LED numbers. When it’s time to sleep, I crave darkness. In fact, I have a sleep mask close at hand so that on the nights Lynn wants to read before going to sleep, or when the moonlight reflects like Times Square off the snow that just keeps on coming this spring, I can immerse myself in darkness.
And we all do that in one way or another, immersing ourselves in darkness. As if there isn’t enough darkness in the world for us already, we seek out more, personal darkness. We do that by way of choices we make, what we watch on TV, what we read, how we think about what’s going on in our country or the world, how we think about other people - often times those things lead us into a dark place, literally or metaphorically.
Sometimes though, darkness is foisted upon us when the events of life take their course in unexpected and sometimes tragic ways. And while we know that darkness, in and of itself, is not a thing - it is the absence of light - when we are mired in it it often feels very real, as though it has tentacles that grasp at us and hold us in its grip even as we struggle to escape into the light. Sometimes darkness takes the form of tragedy, a death, a diagnosis, a disaster. Other times darkness assumes the role of an outlook, a point of view, or a mindset.
That’s where we find Abram and Sarai in the beginning of our story today.
The darkness that encompasses them, not in an incapacitating way but in a humbling or even diminishing way nonetheless, is their childlessness, their barrenness. Abram is one hundred years old, Sarai is ninety. Years before they had received a promise from God that they would be the ancestors of a great nation, yet here they were, growing older with each passing day with no children of their own. Oh, there was Ishmael, conceived out of desperation and manipulation through Sarai’s handmaiden, but they suspected that their attempts to control God’s plan would come to no good end. No, they were in a darkness from which they could see no light.
There is an obstacle to the promise—barrenness; not simply the inability to conceive, but the inability to hope. That’s the kind of barrenness Genesis describes. Barrenness is not simply the absence of children but the absence of hope, the absence of a future, the absence of promise. Abraham and Sarah are barren, without hope. The die was cast as far as they were concerned. Being without heirs, if their future followed the trajectory of the present, Abram and Sarai could only brace themselves for a childless future and no lasting legacy. Their wealth would be divided among household servants, and there their story would end.
But God changes all that. God comes to Abram and declares God’s name as El Shaddai, God Almighty. And God gives to Abram, and to Sarai, a renewed promise, a renewed covenant. “Walk with me,” God says, “and be trustworthy, and I will give you many, many descendants.”
At this Abram fell on his face before God. And God continued, “my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham. I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant.
I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you.”
Abram could hardly believe what he was hearing, this was all too good to be true! But then, like a late-night informercial for the Popeil Pocket Descendent Maker, God suggests “But wait, there’s more!”
“As for your wife, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah.
I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.”
And at that, Abraham fell on his face laughing. Surely, God realized how ridiculous this entire notion was. Can a 100-year-old man become a father, or Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, have a child? We can imagine him doing the math in his head - “By the time this kid is old enough to drive a camel I’ll be 116, when he graduates college I’ll be 122. Oy!”
Abraham pleads to God, “If only you would accept Ishmael,” but to no avail.
“No, your wife Sarah will give birth to a son for you, and you will name him Isaac. I will set up my covenant with him and with his descendants after him as an enduring covenant.” I’m not sure Abraham saw this turn of events as an emergence from the darkness so much as he saw it as going from the frying pan into the fire. But that’s where things stood as God ascended and the newly renamed Abraham and Sarah waited in anticipation.
Naming, if you haven’t noticed, is an important thing in Scripture. God endows Adam in the Garden with the power to name all of the animals of creation. After Jacob, who had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright and whose name means “supplanter,” wrestles with God all night he is given a new name, Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” When Moses is told by God in a burning bush to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the people, the descendants of the aforementioned Israel, Moses asks for God’s name and is told “I Am Who I Am,” or in Ancient Hebrew, YHWH.
And as writer Jill Johnson suggests, “while, when we are asked to identify ourselves, after our name we usually provide a noun or adjective of some kind, parent, caregiver, son, daughter, etc., God does not respond with a noun, but rather a verb, a form of “to be.” Writer Thomas Cahill says we can interpret God’s response in three different ways: (1) “I am the One who causes (things) to be”; (2) “None of your business”; or (3) “I will be-there with you . . . which emphasizes God’s continuing presence in God’s creation.”
This YHWH is an ongoing powerful presence and a creative force, refusing to be limited by a simple, or single name.
In John’s gospel the writer suggests that Jesus knew his absolute identity, even in the first half of his life. He knew his purpose and who sent him.
The writer records a number of “I am” statements that Jesus makes during his ministry: “I am the bread of life... the light of the world... the gate... the good shepherd... the resurrection and the life... the way, the truth, and the life... the vine.” And in John 8:58, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I Am.”
The power of naming is not something to be trifled with. When we choose a name for a child many different things go into consideration. For example, family history. Is this a name that has historically been used in the family? Remember this was the question raised when Zechariah and Elizabeth named their son John. How does the given name fit with the surname?
Do the initials create an issue? If I had had a son I wanted to name him after my father, Ralph. Ralph was a popular name in my father’s era but not so much in mine, so we thought we’d make that his middle name, his first name being Benjamin, a name we both liked. But Benjamin Ralph Anderson resulted in initials - B.R.A. - that would have set the kid up for years of teasing.
God gave us girls instead. Whether or not you like your name, understand that things could be worse.
In light of names we encounter, being renamed from Abram to Abraham, or from Sarai to Sarah, seems inconsequential. But that is not the case at all.
Because not only do they have new names, they have new identities.
God names them Abraham (“ancestor of a multitude”) and Sarah (“Princess”)—names that signify their God-determined destiny, beyond all merely human calculation or possibility. As Johnson puts it, “An encounter with the living God always results in an identity shift, a change that brings us closer to our true selves.”
In our society, though, circumstances change our identities, sometimes rather quickly: the person who self-identifies by their job is suddenly unemployed, “busy parents become empty nesters, the healthy person becomes chronically ill, the confident woman becomes a divorcee, and the happily married man becomes a widower. In his book “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains the difference between relative and absolute identity. In the first half of our lives, we need a strong “container,” or relative identity, that includes relationships, community, success, and security. But our task in the second half of our lives is to find the identity that this container is meant to hold, our true selves. This absolute identity is defined by God, and it ‘can be neither gained nor lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality or formula whatsoever,’ Rohr states. He further explains that our absolute identity, while possibly hidden, is actually ‘the pearl of great price’ that we are to find, and sometimes that involves suffering.
This is a very full weekend for our family, in more ways than might clearly be seen. On Saturday morning we hosted a wedding shower for our nephew Brian’s fiancé Katie, whose wedding I am honored to perform next month. Brian is the oldest son of Lynn’s brother Bob, who along with his wife Louann, you’ll remember, died in an automobile accident nearly four years ago. And in that wedding, Katie will take on a new name that carries with it meaning and tradition, history and memories.
On Saturday afternoon we attended a baby shower for our daughter Kelsey and her husband Tony, whose baby who is due in June. They don’t know the gender of the baby yet, so a name has not yet been given to this child, but whatever name is chosen will be done with love and a vision and hope for the baby’s future.
Today in this service I am blessed to be asked to baptize Alan Darius Hassanzadeh, our great nephew, whom we know and love affectionately as “Ace.” Ace is the first grandchild for Lynn’s sister Lori and her husband John, by their oldest daughter Kelly and her husband Arash, whose marriage I performed nearly three years ago. I mentioned earlier that this is a full weekend in more ways than one, and here is what I meant by that. On Friday, our family, in various ways, remembered both the birthday and the passing of Ace’s namesake, Alan, Kelly and Amy’s older brother, Lori and John’s son, who died on his 21st birthday 15 years ago, on April 13th. Alan was the firstborn of all the cousins on that side of the family. So Ace’s given name of Alan honors his late uncle. His middle name, Darius, reflects the Persian heritage of Arash’s family, who are from Iran. Darius was the Great King of Persia five centuries before Christ, the father of Xerxes, so to be named after such a great figure in one’s family’s heritage carries both great honor and pride. So, when we baptize Alan Darius Hassanzadeh in a little while, publicly naming and proclaiming his identity as a beloved child of God, we do so understanding that naming is not something we take lightly. And we do so noting that the events we remembered as a family on Friday, together with those we celebrate today - not unlike our understanding of the emergence that took place between Holy Friday and Easter Sunday - frame the hopefulness that the events of Saturday represent for all our family.
Claiming a new identity or a new name, is a way of emerging from whatever kind of darkness might be present in our lives into the light of a new way of
being and proclaiming that emergence. It’s a kind of transformation, not unlike repentance, turning our lives in a new direction as we lay claim to our new identity in the light of God’s love in Christ. As children of God, we too can be assured that our true identity is beyond what this world has to offer and is, as Paul wrote in Colossians, “hidden with Christ in God.”By claiming our identity, not through the norms of this world, but through the hope that is offered in the Kingdom of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we shed the skins of our old lives. Or in keeping with the butterfly-from-the-cocoon symbolism of our worship series, we begin to emerge from the cocoon into the light, creating a fissure in the cocoon that, like the open tomb on Easter morning, can never be resealed and through which God invites us out of the darkness and into the light of new life and new hope.
Earlier, we invited you to write your name or how you identify, on the top half of the name tag you were given. But perhaps there is another name, another state of being, another identity that, upon closer consideration, more closely reflects who you are in the eyes of God. Take a moment, think about who you are, or how you are, to God, and write that name on the bottom half of your name tag and put it back on.
(PAUSE WHILE WE DO THIS)
Our hope as Christians is not some kind of whistling in the dark to scare away whatever threatens us. At the same time, it is not a blustering, “Pollyanna-ish” overconfidence that God will grant us every wish, that we will be exempt from tragedy, or that we are immune to loss or frustration. Christian hope is the assurance that when we claim our identity, our true selves, and live our lives as people of God’s kingdom, dedicated to God’s work, then nothing is wasted. God endows our lives with direction and lasting value. As Paul put it, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God…”
Hope is not fleeting, and hope does not disappoint. In fact, to live in hope means to live with the assurance of God’s presence in our lives, knowing that, as Paul wrote, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
And he continues, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
One of the most difficult aspects of the Christian life, then, is not so much the call to sacrifice as to hope—to continue to hope through the authentic trials of life—to hope against hope. By its very texture we realize that hope is a gift of God. It is the gift of God’s covenant love with Israel and the church, the gift of God’s grace when Jesus dies on the cross and when despair seems to have the upper hand. That’s the paradox of hope: It is the power God gives of eternal life in the face of sin and death.
Sound unthinkable? Given the evidence, yes, it is unthinkable, even laughable. Who can imagine such hope? But given the one who makes the promise, no, it is not unimaginable. Given the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is not unthinkable. It is the power of God in salvation, the gift that doesn’t disappoint—and never will.
Thanks be to God! Amen.