In seminary, I had a friend who was known as JJ. He was the youngest student at our seminary, having only very recently graduated from college. We all knew him as JJ and this moniker seemed to fit. But it was a peculiar name for him since his real name was Gerald with a G. The source of the two Js were a mystery. Still, we called him JJ.
During his senior year, as he prepared for ordination and the real world, it became apparent to him that, as a very young man, his name was not as professional sounding as it could be. A young, green priest introducing himself as JJ would not garner much respect.
Word got out among the students that he was pondering a change to his name and seminaries being the home of peculiar wit and folly, a grass roots contest arose to pick JJ’s new name. He reviewed all the entries. Some were good, some not; and some were whimsical. He told me that he opened one entry and read the words on the paper: “Mitzi, just plain Mitzi!” He confessed that was his favorite of all the entries but, in the end, he settled for his own first name.
He is now known as Gerald. As a priest, I have known several people who have changed their names. Certainly women often change their names to take their husband’s surname. But I have known quite a few who have changed or altered their first name.
These changes are often based on a religious experience and subsequent commitment. This is highly biblical. This week we read from the 18th chapter of Genesis of a gentleman named Abraham. Yet that wasn’t his original name. We first hear of him in the 11th chapter where his name is Abram.
His name changed because his stature and purpose has changed. The name Abram means exalted father. Abram was called from his home to follow God. He left behind his family, his heritage and his identity. He was promised that he would be the progenitor of a great number of descendants.
Abram had many encounters with God along the way. In one encounter God changed Abram’s name to Abraham which means father of a multitude. In changing his name, God delivers this promise to the former Abram: As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations. “No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. In this moment, Abraham became one of the most pivotal people of the Bible, and arguably, in the history of the world; More than 4 billion people across the globe claim a spiritual heritage from Abraham.
His story covers all or part of 13 chapters of Genesis, with no less than twenty-two distinct episodes. We will read about him or hear his name in our Old Testament readings from now until the end of July.
But who is this man? What can we learn about him from these stories? First he was a man of great faith. He gave up his identity, world view and sense of self to follow God. He left behind his family and homeland to be faithful. He held steadfastly to God’s promise of a son. As an aged man with an aged wife, he waited for twenty years for God to fulfill the promise of a son.
Abraham was known as a gentle man, a diplomat, a man of great wealth and dignity. Just before his name was changed by God, God challenged him with these words, “I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless.” In other words God says, “Take your direction from me and be wholly and entirely sincere and without blemish.”
Abraham is remembered as a great patriarch. He is second only to Moses in the New Testament’s recollections of Old Testament heroes. The book of Hebrews, for instance, cites him as a paragon of faith and faithfulness. Yet, as we read through the story of Abraham, he appears not to be blameless at all. Twice he denies that Sarah is his wife, saying she is his sister, to avoid endangering himself as he travels through foreign lands. He bargains with God unsuccessfully over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He fathers a child by his concubine at his wife’s urging, so that she may have a child. He refuses to intercede between the two jealous women, placing the child in jeopardy. Once his promised son is born through Sarah, he nearly sacrifices it to God. Not surprisingly, the two sons grow up at odds with each other, beginning a cascading line of dysfunction among the first generations of Abraham’s descendants.
This is the man whom God called? This is the man who was challenged to be blameless? Could not God have found someone better, someone more suited to the tasks set before him, someone more heroic? Probably, yes. But God didn’t. Abraham was not a perfect man but he was God’s man. Abraham was not perfect in character but apparently he had just the character God needed to accomplish great things.
This, with even a cursory reading of our Scriptures, should not be surprising. There are very few paragons of virtue in our Scripture. It is easier to name the rogues among the Bible’s heroes than to name the pure, chaste and righteous ones. But, as Paul wrote, no one is righteous, no not one of us. Jesus Christ is the righteous alone and it is through him that we are accounted as righteous.
What does all this mean to us in our lives of faith? Perfection is a nuisance. It is one thing to strive for righteousness, to seek to be faithful. But it is another to know that we are broken and injured and that God seeks us as his ministers, his presence in the world anyway.
The story of Abraham is a long one. It covers several decades. We are told of the momentous occasions of victory. But thankfully we are also to of his great failures as well. But we are not told of the thousands and thousands of mornings when he woke up to discover yet another day to hold fast to God’s promises and God’s expectation of him. On those mundane mornings Abraham simply arose and walked through his day, doing what he thought was best, stumbling along the way, and occasionally rising to great heights of faithfulness.
I am thankful that our father in our faith is someone like Abraham. I am thankful that our Scriptures tell us that a man with foibles was the beginning of our relationship with God. Because of this we can see that God did not create perfect human beings, free from troubles and troubling actions. We can also see that God uses these motley persons as his servants.
What makes Abraham so special that he is the father of our faith? He was willing to follow God. He did not do so perfectly. He was, in the end, not blameless and neither shall we be. Yet we can follow his lead in this: we can seek to follow God and when we stumble we can seek to follow God again.
© 2020, Tom Thoeni