A New Identity

Feb. 28th 2021 Homily on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8:31-38 by Pastor Galen

The Folk Artist

In the neighborhood where I grew up there was a gentleman by the name of Clarence. Clarence was seen as sort of an odd character in the neighborhood because he would spend hours of every day scouring the neighborhood looking for scraps of wood or metal, or discarded pieces of furniture. He’d haul his findings back to his small 15×20 ft. yard and spend the rest of the day hammering, sawing, painting, often turning whatever he had found into something else altogether, before adding it to the growing collection of artifacts that filled his yard.

With some of the materials he found he would create wind-powered whirlygigs — wooden birds or other animals that would spin in the breeze like windmills. Other times he might take a piece of plywood or scrap metal that someone had discarded and add it onto his fence, which was already made up of a conglomeration of different types of building materials.  

One day, Clarence acquired an assortment of partially used paint cans, and the next day he started painting every brick on his house a different color. Clarence probably would have fit in just right here in Hampden!

Although Clarence seemed to find joy in what he did, it was obvious that he never really thought of himself as someone who was very important. He quietly went about his business, walking around the neighborhood with his head down and his shoulders sort of hunched over. You got the impression that he didn’t think he had a whole lot to contribute to society.

That is, until one day when a published author came to the neighborhood and asked Clarence if she could interview him for a book she was writing about local “Folk Artists.” Now, prior to that point, Clarence had never thought of himself as an artist, let alone a folk artist — he was just someone who liked to collect things and put them together in interesting ways.

But that author gave Clarence new terminology to describe himself and his contributions to the world. From that point forward, he began to walk with his shoulders back and his head held high, and if you looked closely you might have even detected a little bit of a swagger when he walked. He started to talk more about his work, and loved telling people that he was going to be featured in a forthcoming book. 

The author gave Clarence a new identity, a new name for himself. He was no longer Clarence the junk collector. He was now Clarence: the Folk Artist.

A Promise Not Yet Fulfilled

In Genesis chapter 17, God gives Abram and Sarai new names. Abram was 99 years old at the time, and Sarai was 89. They had been known as Abram and Sarai all of their lives up until this point! The name “Abram” means “exalted father” which isn’t a bad name. The problem was that he and Sarai had no children. Sarai means “princess” which again is not a bad name to have! But what was she a princess of?

Now I have no idea what other people thought of Abram and Sarai and their names. Abram’s closest friends most likely tried to reassure that he was indeed an exalted father — someone that they greatly looked up to and admired — in the spiritual sense. And I’m sure Abram assured Sarai that she was a princess to him!

The thing is that God had actually made a promise to Abram and Sarai quite some time before this (25 years in fact) that God would make Abram’s descendents into a great nation (Gen. 12:2) and that God would give the land of Canaan to their offspring (Gen. 12:7). God had called Abram and Sarai to leave their homeland, and to go to a land that God would show them (Gen. 12:1). And Abram and Sarai had obeyed God’s command. They picked up everything, moved their household and followed God’s call. 

Many years had passed since that initial call, and yet God’s promise had not yet been fulfilled. Sarai was now well beyond child-bearing years, and Abram and Sarai must have thought that God had forgotten the promise God made to them all those years before. It was tempting to give up hope. 

God had spoken another time to Abram in the intervening years, promising him that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And on that occasion, Genesis tells us that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).

New Names

Now, here in Genesis 17, God is speaking to Abram again, promising to give him numerous descendents — and telling him that not just one nation will come from Abram, but a “multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:4).

And then, as a visible tangible symbol of that promise, God gave Abram and Sarai new names. God told them:

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you…God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her. (Gen. 17:5-7, 15-16).

The name Abraham means “father of many” and Sarah means “my princess.” Abraham and Sarah would be the ancestors of many nations – a princess and a prince — God’s princess and prince! Even at the ages of 89 and 99.

In giving them new names, God was giving Abraham and Sarah more specificity, more precise language to describe who they were, and what their unique contributions would be to the world.  Abraham, “Father of many nations,” and Sarah, “my princess.” Although the promise that they would have a son had not yet been fulfilled, God wanted them to start living into the new identity God had for them. He wanted them to start walking around with their heads held high, their shoulders back, and maybe even walk with a little bit of a swagger.

Walking Blameless

In return, or perhaps in preparation for this new role and new identity, all God asked from Abraham was that he “walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). 

I know, easier said than done, right? Walking before God is one thing, but being “blameless”? (some translations say “perfect”). That’s impossible, right?

But the word translated “blameless” or “perfect” here is the same word that’s often translated “without blemish” when used to describe the animals that were to be offered as sacrifices in the temple. There’s an element here of being whole, complete, nothing lacking. 

You see it would have been tempting for the people to select the lambs from their flocks that that were lame, or sheep that just didn’t look quite right to give as sacrifices in the temple. You know — give God the sheep that they would have trouble selling in the marketplace, and keep the best for themselves. But God wanted them to bring the best that they had, not to hold anything back. God wanted lambs that were without blemish — whole, complete.

In the same way, God was saying to Abraham, “I have great things in store for you! But I want you to be all in! I want you to bring your best self. Don’t hold anything back. I want you to be completely and utterly devoted to me.”

God wants us to give our whole selves to God. When we do that, when we come to God is faith and trust, then God sees us as blameless because of the work that Jesus did for us on the cross! Just as Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6), so too when we give our whole selves to God, the righteousness of Christ is given to us.. 

In the book of Romans chapter 4, verses 13 – 25, the Apostle Paul said it this way:

For the promise that he [Abraham] would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith…Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.”…No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what [God] had promised.Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:13, 18, 20-22).

And then the Apostle Paul goes on to say, 

Now the words, “It was reckoned to him,” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:23-24).

This is what Jesus was talking about when he told Peter and the other disciples,  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

Holy and Blameless In Love

This is what it looks like to walk before God and to be blameless. Or, as the Apostle Paul says in the book of Ephesians, “holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4).

It’s not that we’ll never stumble or fall. From time to time we’ll trip up and make mistakes. But it’s about giving our whole selves to God — our best selves, being wholly devoted to God. Willing to pick up our crosses and follow Christ, willing to go where God calls us to go. It’s about acting justly and loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, as we read in Micah 6:8. Being willing to obey Christ’s commands, willing to work for good in this world.  Being willing to believe in faith the promises God has for us. 

Perhaps when you look back over your life, you regret those times you ran from your calling, or neglected to do what God called you to do. But we see in the story of Abraham and Sarai that it’s never too late! We’re never too old, never too far gone to give Jesus our all and to walk before God, standing on the promises God has given to us, and living into our calling and identity.

Friends, God has offered us a new name. A new identity. It’s not because of anything special that we have done, but because of the work that Jesus did for us on the cross. The things we used to do, the names we were once called, they don’t have to define us any more! In Christ we have been made new. 

So let us live into our new identity and into our new calling. Let us pick up our crosses and follow wherever God leads! Let’s be the people God has called us to be. Let us walk before God, “holy and blameless in love.”

Let us pray:

God of Sarah and Abraham,
long ago you embraced your people in covenant
and promised them your blessing.
Strengthen us in faith,
that, with your disciples of every age,
we may proclaim your deliverance in Jesus Christ
to generations yet unborn. Amen.

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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