When one is faced with a milestone in life…say a milestone birthday, it is common to become rather reflective, even nostalgic about how they got to where they are today.
Did you know that nostalgia comes from two Greek words, algia meaning pain, like fibromyalgia and nostos which means homecoming. So nostalgia literally means homecoming pain. It used to be believed that nostalgia was a symptom of depression. But recent studies have actually shown that there are benefits to nostalgia. In Seniors nostalgia is a way of knowing that the life lived has had meaning. And fascinatingly if you are cold nostalgic feelings actually make you feel warmer. I also think in milestone moments we begin to think about our origin stories, maybe even get nostalgic about our origins. Most of us don’t have prequel movie-esque plots but we can look back and see how our origin stories made us who we are. Today- we essentially hear the origin story of the entire Judeo-Christian faith. And you know, this story makes me nostalgic for my former Sunday school teacher, Mr. Millar, because I can remember him telling and unfolding this very story, a story about a promise, much like last week’s, but also a story about lineage, new beginnings and origins.
To be fair, this isn’t really the origin story of Abram. The story of Abram has dominated Genesis since chapter 12. Last week we talked about how Noah’s story involves a bit of controversy. Well, let me tell you, Abram’s does too. Like the time he pretended Sarai was his sister so that she could become part of Pharaoh’s harem and Pharaoh would treat Abram well as a result, which causes Pharaoh’s house to become afflicted and they send Abram and Sarai on their way. Also, Abram is 99 years old at this point in the story, not exactly a spring chicken. Although, I will point out that at this stage in Genesis we are dealing with people who live very very long lives. Abram’s father Terah lived until his was 205. So in that context, at 99, Abram is middle aged. It’s not even the origin story of the covenant God makes with Abram. God has already declared that a covenant will be made with Abram back in chapter 15. However, in our reading we hear the terms of this covenant. That Abram shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations and that from this point forward Abram will be named Abraham. So, this is the origin story of Abraham.
I began to wonder what the significance was- why was it important that Abram get this ever so slight name change? You know, it’s strange, for all the years I have heard this story I never once questioned the name change. It seemed like a natural step- like changing one’s name marks the beginning of a new chapter in their life. Makes sense to me. But there is actual significance to the meaning of the names. In Hebrew, Abram means exalted father. Abram is vital to the story of God and God’s people. The name Abraham means father of a multitude. As an aside, Sarai means princess while Sarah is the arabic word for joy or delight. These name changes hit at the root of who Abraham and Sarah will become in history. Their name changes foreshadow what is about to happen for the rest of their lives.
Covenants are also part of these origin stories. According to John Gibson’s commentary on Genesis, the word covenant appears 396 times in the Bible. And most often it does refer to promises given and received between God and individuals. These individuals often serve as representatives for others. In every single case of covenant making, God is the one who makes the first move. It is always God who initiates it. Reminds me of grace, that it is unwarranted- it is not because of our own doing but entirely based on God’s doing. In fact, with regards to this covenant between Abraham and God, Abraham was ready to pack it in and abandon his faith since he had no “legitimate” heir. God intervenes and makes this covenant. Now, last week, we heard the story of the very first covenant that God made- that never again would all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood- and it was marked with a rainbow. This covenant with Abraham, promises that this is the beginning of an incredible history for Abraham’s descendants and it is marked by this name change. There are numerous other covenants predominantly throughout Old Testament, as the people of Israel establish their identity as God’s people. The last covenant, is given to us by Jesus, when he says, “This cup is the new covenant poured out for you for the forgiveness of sin.” Here both the act of covenant making and grace are intertwined. This is the origin story of the church- of how we fit into this story of God and God’s people.
Later on in Genesis, in chapter 22 the covenant with Abraham will be expanded, following Abraham’s sign of deep devotion when he almost sacrifices his own son. At that moment God says, “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven…and by your offspring shall all nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves.” Here we get a hint, that this story isn’t just about one group of people but all people. God’s blessing and grace is not limited to one nation let alone one family.
It might be prudent to suggest that we all think about our own origin stories. How is it that we have ended up, here at this time and this place. There is a slight chance that the origin story of how you ended up watching this on YouTube is because the algorithm put it in your playlist…wouldn’t that be providential. Where does your story of a life with God begin? And then the follow up question is, how might you help someone begin their life with God? I know, it sounds a little evangelical for our Presbyterian bones but I have indeed become very reflective, even nostalgic, these last few days and in that reflecting time people who have been integral to my origin story have come to mind. People who left their mark, some did it through action and teaching while others may not even know the impact they had. But this is part of this covenant living, actively engaging with the world as one who has been blessed with grace. Amen