What’s In a Name

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Lent 2
SCRIPTURE: Mark 8: 31-18 and Genesis 17: 1-8, 15-16
No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.
Genesis 17: 5 (NIV)


What’s in a name? That’s a good question. I remember when Ruth and I started having children. It was really important to us that we select good names for our children. The first criteria for us was that it had to be biblical name. That was to reflect our faith. The second thing was that it had to go with Gilliland – which surprisingly limited us to only certain names. That’s because Gilliland begins with a hard G. That means that if the first name ends with a hard letter, it makes it difficult to say. I have an uncle names Bill and I always found it a bit of a tongue twister. That eliminated names like Mark and Paul. It also eliminated a few other names like Bildad, Ichabod, Habakkuk and Jezebel which is probably a good thing. In any event, you will notice that all of our children have biblical names and all of their first names end with a soft letter: Andrew, John, Stephen and Rebekah.

Ruth and I aren’t the only ones who put thought into our children’s names. When I see a couple about getting a child baptized, I always ask them how they picked the names. Almost always there is a story. Sometimes, it’s a simple as they just happened to like that name and that’s okay. Often they name their children after someone in the family. Sometimes there are family names that are passed on through generations. In our family, Ruth’s mother was named Lillian. You may not know this but Ruth’s first name is actually Lillian as is Rebekah’s. I don’t know what Rebehak will do if she is fortunate enough to have a daughter but she will have to make that decision when the time comes.

The bottom line is that names are important. We choose them with care and we select them for a reason. There is almost always a story to a name and that story is often wrapped up with the hopes and dreams of those who selected them.


That’s the point of today’s reading from Genesis 17. It’s a story all about names and it’s a story about Abram. “Who’s Abram?” you might ask. Good question. Abram first appears in the Bible in genealogies of Genesis 11 where we learn that he is the son of Terah and that he has two brothers Nahor and Haran. We also learn that Abram and his family lived in Ur of the Chaldeans which is located in modern day Iraq.  In Genesis 12 God calls Abram to move along with his wife Sarai and some other family members to what is modern day Israel. That’s where today’s story begins.

Genesis 17:1 (NIV) says this: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.’” I guess the first question we might want to ask is what did God want with a ninety-nine year old man? If God wants someone, why not pick someone a bit younger? That’s a great question and the answer is that we don’t always know why God chooses whom God chooses. Sometimes the things that make sense to us aren’t exactly what God has in mind. In fact, God has a way of choosing the most unlikely people to do his work.

You may remember that a few weeks ago, we talked about the first disciples whom Jesus called. They weren’t exactly the upper crust of society. The first four, Andrew, Peter, James and John, were fishermen. It is believed that Philip, James the son of Alphaeus and Thaddaeus were tradesmen of some sort. Matthew, we know, was a tax collector, one of the most despised professions in that day. We can’t be sure about all of the Twelve disciples but we’re pretty sure that none of there were from the upper class of society. They were just simple everyday folk like you me. And yet Jesus chose them to go out and change the world. And that’s exactly what they did.

There is a long tradition of God calling the most unlikely people to do his will and so when God called Abram at ninety-nine years old, we should not be too surprised because that seems to be God’s pattern.

What that means for us is that we need to ready for God’s call on our lives. You might think, for example, that you’re too young to be on the Church Board. But did you know that we have a variety of ages on our new Board which is meeting of the first time on Wednesday. The oldest person is in their seventies and you youngest in their twenties. There is no age requirement for leadership and ideas in God’s kingdom.

And what about Sunday School. Most of us know Ruby Archer. Ruby is 102 now and living in at Country Village. I can also tell you that her mind is a sharp as a whip and she is always quick to regale me by asking how a nice woman like Ruth could get stuck with someone like me. One of the people that comes up often in conversations with Ruby is her late husband Borden. I never met Borden since he died before we came to Cottam but because of Ruby’s stories I almost feel like I know him. One thing that was clear about Borden was his strong faith and his desire to pass that faith along. To do that, he taught Sunday School for many years at the old Albuna Church. He also supported the local boys hockey team, drove the boys around and even purchased uniforms for them one year. But Borden was quite clear in letting those boys know that if they wanted to play hockey, it would be after church and not during because he would have none of that. The amazing thing about Borden and Ruby is that they never had any children of their own and yet they felt this deep connection with the children in the community around them. That’s why to this day so many people still call her Aunt Ruby. You don’t need to be parents to have a ministry to children. Sometimes all you need is a call from God.

That’s what happened with Abram. He did not fit the mold of what we might consider to be reasonable candidates for God’s call but it’s good that God is wiser than we are.


We learn in verse 2 the reason for God’s call to Abram. It was to confirm the covenant that God had made with him thirteen years earlier in Genesis 15 that he would make Abram and his descendants into a great nation. That’s what it says in Genesis 17:2 (NIV) where we read, “I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Then it goes on in Genesis 17:3-6 (NIV) to say, “Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, ‘As for me this is my covenant with you; You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will Abraham, for I have made you the father of many nations.’” God is telling Abram that he is going to change his name from Abram to Abraham. Those names may sound similar but, in fact, they are quite different.

That’s important because names are important. Just a few minutes ago, we talked about the importance of naming our children. This is kind of like that except even more important. That’s because names in the Bible are not just personal identifiers, they also are meant to say something about the person’s character and purpose.

Abram was not just the man’s name, it also was descriptive of who he was. Abram means “exalted father.” Abram was that. He was a father. He had a son named Ishmael who was born when Abram was eighty-six years old. The odd thing from our standpoint, however, is that while Ishmael was Abram’s son, he was not the son of Abram’s wife Sarai. He was actually the son of Sarai’s servant Hagar. That happened because Sarai could not have children and both she and Abram were getting older. So Sarai gave her servant to Abram so that he could have a child through her. I know that seems odd to us but that’s the way things were done back then. It was extremely important for Abram to have a heir and if his wife could not provide that heir than they had to look at other options. So, Abram is a father to Ishmael who is now thirteen years old.

God says to Abram that he is going to change his name from Abram to Abraham. Abraham is similar but different from Abram. Abram means “exalted father” and Abraham means “father of many.” Right now Abram is the father to exactly one child but God wants to change his name to “father of many” which means that somehow he has to become the father of more children.

I’m looking at this and thinking that it seems pretty unlikely. Remember that Abram is ninety-nine years old. How likely does that seem that at ninety-nine years old Abram would become a father again? And yet, remember how God has a habit of choosing the most unexpected people to do his work? So here we go again. God is giving Abram something to do and, in the process, is changing his name to suit his new role as the father of many.

And that’s not the end of it because we learn a bit later in this chapter that there’s another name change in the works. Genesis 17:15-16 (NIV) says this: “God also said to Abraham, ‘As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of people’s will come from her.’”

This just gets weirder and weirder. Remember that Abram is ninety-nine years old. And it tells us in Genesis 17:17 that Sarai is eighty-nine. So when this child is born, Abraham will be one hundred and Sarah will be ninety. And we’re wondering, “God what are you think here. This is nuts.” And if we’re thinking that, just imagine what must have been going through Abraham’s and Sarah’s minds. But then again, this is yet another example of God picking the most unexpected people to do his work.

But now comes Sarai’s name change. Her name is being changed to Sarah because Sarah means princess. Why this name change? Because from her will come princes and kings who will rule many nations.

Let’s look at Abraham’s response to all this. It says in verse 17 that he fell facedown on the ground and started to laugh. Who can really blame him? I suspect that many of us would have the same reaction if God called us to do something so seemingly bizarre. “God, you want me to do what? Sure, I’ll get right at that.” Abraham thought this was pretty funny. As a matter of fact, so did Sarah because, In Genesis 18, when she eventually learned that she was going to have son at the age of ninety guess what she did? She laughed. Again it was like, “Are you kidding my God? This is so bizarre.” Abraham laughed. Sarah laughed

But God gets the last laugh and he who laughs last laughs best. Let’s look at Genesis 17:19 (NIV) where God explains what is going to happen. This is what it says: “Then 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 and Sarah are going to have a son and God tells them to name his Isaac. Can you guess what Isaac means? It means “he laughs.” But God’s laugh is not one of disbelief. Rather it is one of joy and delight.


The point is this and this is what Abraham had to learn. God is not restricted by what we think we want to do or think we should do. God’s plans and purposes for our lives don’t  always fit into the neat little packages that we’d like to carve out for ourselves. You might have some great ideas about what you want to do with your life. You may think that you have it all figured out. You may have a road map set before you that tells you exactly what you think you are going to accomplish in the next year or the next five years or the next ten years. There it is before you, plain as day. All you have to do walk the road. But then reality hits and life happens and you discover that what you had planned isn’t anything like what God has planned for your life.

Listen to what it says in James 4:13-15 (NIV): “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you don’t even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If it the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”

I want to say three of things about these verses. First of all, they affirm that while you may make plans, you haven’t a clue what is going to happen tomorrow let alone ten years from now. Everything can change on a moment’s notice. Some of those changes are joyful: a marriage proposal, a positive pregnancy test, the offer of a new job. But some of those changes are difficult: a pink slip, a cancer diagnosis or the death of a loved one. Any of those things can happen and they can unfold very quickly throwing your plans all out the window. You haven’t a clue what is going to happen tomorrow.

The second thing that these verses tell us is that you are nothing but a mist that is here today and gone tomorrow. But the amazing thing about that is that even though we are like mist compared to our eternal God, he still loves us, cares for us and wants the very best for us. You might be mist but you are more precious than gold to God who is your creator, redeemer and friend.

The third thing that I want to emphasize is that just because you may not know what’s going to happen tomorrow, that does not mean that you don’t make plans. After all, if you are listening to what the Spirit is saying to you, your plans might just be the same as God’s plans and there is nothing wrong with being prepared. But your plans may not be God’s plans and, if they are not, then you need to be prepared to change direction and change your plans on a moment’s notice to fit into what God wants you to do with your life, just like Abraham and Sarah.


Sometimes God picks the most unlikely people to do his work. Sometimes that person is you and sometimes what God wants you to do doesn’t make a lot of sense from your standpoint. And yet you’re still called to follow because while things may not make sense now, they eventually will and you will understand why things unfolded as they did.

While God may not change your name, as he did with Abraham and Sarah, God can still change you. He can also change what he want you to accomplish. We don’t always understand that. Sometimes we get the impression that we just need to keep doing what we have been doing because that’s the way we’ve always done things. But life changes and situations change.

We’re going through that in our family right now. For the longest time Ruth and I were Mom and Dad. Those were strong parts of our identity and purpose. That’s because four children can take over your life. Heck, one child can take over your life. But as the children got older and more independent, our roles changed. Within just a few short years, all the boys left home. There were no more baseball and soccer games to attend. There was no competing for the TV because no one was playing X-Box. The dinner table, which was always sacred in our home and filled with discussions about the day’s events, became quieter and more subdued. Just last year, Ruth and I were blessed with the new names of Nana and Papa; another huge change. In just a few months things will change again when Rebekah goes off to school and we get new names again – empty-nesters. I remember turning sixty which meant that I’m not considered by many to be a senior. When I became a senior, I discovered that I was looking at life a little differently. I began to wonder how I would spend the last third of my life, not knowing of course if even have a third left – for we are like mist that is here today and gone tomorrow. There are no guarantees as we all know. But you as get older you see those things in ways that you didn’t see then when you were thirty or forty. New names.

And in the midst of all of that there is God. In all the changes of your life, God still has things for you to do for his kingdom. You may think you’re getting too old or too tired to be very useful anymore. You may think that you have done your bit and that it’s time to step aside and let someone else take over. And maybe that’s true to a point. But when you step aside remember that you are stepping aside, not stepping out. When you step aside, it simply means that you are in a place where God has something different for you to do. If God can call a ninety-nine year old man and his eighty-nine year old wife to have a child and many descendants, he may just have something unique and unusual for you.

Be open for that call. Be open to what God wants to call you. And like Abraham and Sarah, respond in faith. That’s what’s in a name.


God of Life and Awesome mystery, we come to you our Creator on this second Sunday in Lent. The reality of life surrounds us. We see our sin and we experience the pain of the world. Yet, in the midst of suffering, there is your great mercy for all people. Remind us, once more of the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus Christ. Thank you for giving yourself to us and for us that we may have the great gift of eternal life. We acknowledge your greatness and your grace.

Lent is here, a time to remember, to reflect and to think about how we can better follow your holy way. Keep us aware of our shortcomings but help us also to celebrate the times when we listen to your voice and do your bidding with gusto and enthusiasm.

We continue to pray for the people of Africa, who are experiencing famine and starvation due to draught and civil war. In the midst of potential hostilities, we would ask that relief be made available to those who need it and the international community can respond in positive and helpful ways.

We lift up in prayer those who are sick at home or in hospital, remembering especially Paul Mayville, Helen Upcott, Millicent Wormald, Don Raymont, Jacqui Sequin and Alex Archer and pray your Healing Spirit upon them.

Holy God, it is our desire to use wisdom in everything that we do and say. We know that in some situations, the greater wisdom is in what we do not do and do not say. Enable us to reach out to you and to others in all of our actions. Keep us patient for we are tempted to be headstrong and to charge ahead.

Heavenly Father, when we begin to feel overwhelmed help us to remember the struggles of those who have gone before us. We are part of a great parade of Saints who have lived faithfully throughout the generations. Because of their faith, courage and persistence, we have the opportunity to know you today. Give us such strength and wisdom that future generations may look back and call us faithful. We are grateful for the assurance that you are with us and that your promises never fail. We lift these prayers to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.


March 12, 2017 / Lent 2


Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17


We come as sinful people, seeking our Merciful God.

We come to seek forgiveness, from the God of All Compassion.
Come, let us worship God, our Creator and Redeemer.


Creator God, we offer our sincere thanks for the life you’ve given us. In return we promise that we will not die as lives un-lived. We will not live in fear of falling or of catching afire with the Spirit. We consciously choose to inhabit all of our days, to allow our living to open us, to make us less afraid. We choose to be more accessible, to loosen our hearts until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise. We choose to risk our significance; to live so that which came to us as seed, goes to the next person as blossom; and that which came to us as blossom, goes on as fruit – fully alive! Amen.


Even though we know that your mercy is great, we come before you with uncertainty and fear. We are deeply aware of our sins. We say that we are willing to follow Jesus but part of us would rather just live comfortable, secure lives. We say that we want a stronger connection with you yet we so easily settle for surface-level living. Enable us to resist the temptation to be less than you have created us to be. Forgive us and open our hearts to your compassionate Spirit.


Hear the Good News; God’s desire is to be compassionate with us. Be assured that God forgives us, believes in us and trust us to grow in wisdom and faith. We can give thanks that we live in the presence of Christ Jesus our Saviour and Lord .


We are surrounded by your many gifts, O God. You bless us in so many wonderful ways. As a recognition of your generousity, we give back to you a portion of our wealth. Keep us mindful that all that we have comes from you and enable us to use all of our resources for your glory. Amen.


We are a new creation in Jesus Christ. Let us go forth in the strength of God’s love to live and serve in newness of life. May the peace of Jesus be with us always.

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