What’s in a Name?
by Tim Mooney
What’s in a name? Names carry a world of meaning. For example, “Claretta.” In second grade Claretta liked me. I did not like Claretta. She bugged me, she always chased after me. One day on the playground, Claretta jumped me from behind, she put her arms around my neck, and – horror of horrors – she tried to kiss me! I flipped her off my back and body-slammed her to the playground. “Leave me alone!” I shouted. Claretta – the name has a world of meaning for me. I’m sure “Tim” has a world of meaning for Claretta.
Certain names have meaning for us. The name Jodi, West Virginia conjures up the soot-covered, bare-cupboard, bare-footed, son-of-a-coal-miner childhood of my father. From the name of that butterflies-in-the-stomach first love, to the name of our hometowns, to the names of people who have had a great impact on us – names have a world of meaning.
The name “promised land” meant a lot to Abraham and Sarah. Having graduated from the University of Ur, home of the fighting Chaldeans, Abraham and Sarah pursued their dreams of security, social influence, and family in the metropolis of Haran. By the time Abraham was 75 they had accomplished much, but for some reason couldn’t have children. Then came a surprise – a promise from God. “Pack up the U-Haul, go to the land I’ll show you. There I will make of you a great nation.” That name – the Promised Land – meant hope, happiness, adventure, founding of a nation, children! They hadn’t traveled two miles outside of Haran before Sarah began knitting baby clothes.
But, as trips towards the Promised Land often go, hours stretched into days, days into years. The name The Promised Land began to feel different. Belief mixed with unbelief. The promise was mocked by persistent barrenness. 25 years passed. Sarah had long since ceased to be in the way of women, and Abraham had pretty much ceased to be in the way of men. Crippled by their own white lies and failed attempts to take matters into their own hands (see Hagar), trust was crowded out by guilt, doubt, and now resignation. Barrenness – it described their faith, their lives.
What about our promised lands? We, too, know what it’s like for promised lands to yield disappointment. The career track that didn’t bear fruit. The climb up the ladder that didn’t satisfy. The relationship that went south. The dreams that shriveled on the vine. And we’ve not only experienced this with our dreams, but with God’s promises, too. The loss of hope, the wilting of faith, the resignation to barrenness. Have we not all been there at certain times in our lives? We, too, know what it’s like for our promised lands to yield disappointment.
Just when it couldn’t get worse, God seems to add insult to injury. God says, “At this time next year, Sarah will bear a child, and you shall name him Isaac.” At their age, that must have sounded absurd.
The word absurd comes from the French word meaning “not to be heard of,” and is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “something clearly untrue and unreasonable, and therefore laughable and ridiculous.” Good humor depends on the absurd. A few years ago a man was overheard to say that the drought was so bad that after every dog there were six trees giving chase. Quite a mental picture! Six trees ambling thirstily after a scruffy, and very bewildered dog. How untrue, unreasonable – laughable!
Six trees chasing after a dog was about as likely as Sarah giving birth. After all this time, at this age? Laughable! And did they ever. Abraham falls down with laughter, and Sarah denies her laughter. They laugh because it’s too good to be true. They laugh to keep from crying, because more than anything they wish it could be true. The name “Isaac” signified and embodied all they’d ever hoped for. And now Isaac stood for the absurd – all that could not possibly happen.
But God speaks absurdly to us, too. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Ask and you will receive. If you believe you shall say to this mountain, “Get up and move” and it will move. Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you. Neither do I condemn you. I love you. I accept you. I give you my Spirit and my Life. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything make your requests known to God and the peace that passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds. “Oh, those are good ones, God! Your powers of omniscience must be slipping! Don’t you remember how many times we’ve failed, stumbled, lied, been unloving, taken matters into our own hands, our barrenness? Don’t you know about our guilt and shame? Your promises are clearly unreasonable, and therefore laughable.” So we laugh. We laugh because it’s trees chasing dogs, it’s so absurd, it’s too good to be true. We laugh to keep from crying, because we wish it were true.
We live in the tension between promise given, and promise realized.
One day, then the next, and the next, Sarah woke up feeling queasy. Abraham teased her about the extra weight she was putting on. She had odd cravings – dill pickles and mint-chocolate chip ice cream together! When it finally dawned on them, what did they do? They laughed, and remembered God’s words. They were to name him “Isaac.” In Hebrew, “Isaac” means, “he laughs.”
Another promise, to Mary, you will give birth, you will name him Jeshua (Jesus), which means “salvation, deliverance.” Can you hear the laughter behind her words, “How can this be, since I do not know a man??!” The angel explains a bit more, but finally puts it this way: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary says, “Let it be to me according to your word, however absurd.” (That last part I threw in, but you can almost hear Mary saying it herself!)
What’s in a name? In “Isaac,” in “Jesus,” we see the character of God. God answers the question, “Is there anything too hard for the Lord?” with baby’s laughter. “Isaac” was a constant reminder for Abraham and Sarah of God’s absurd faithfulness and grace. In spite of their laughing at the absurdity of it all, God specializes in outrageous, ridiculous grace. In the name “Isaac” God brings life where there was barrenness. “Jesus” is a constant reminder for us that nothing is impossible with God. Not this politically at odds country, not this climate endangered world. In the name “Jesus” God brings life out of death. This is what God does.
The story of Abraham and Sarah, the story of Mary, is over, but our stories continue. We live in the tension between promise given, and promise realized. The delay of God’s promises sometimes makes the good news sound like a bad joke. Each generation must learn it anew.
The descendants of Isaac found themselves in slavery in Egypt. But God came to them through Moses with another absurd promise. Let my people go! The good news of liberation from Egypt for the Hebrew slaves was fantastic! We’re headed to the Promised Land! But they were also afraid of it. They hesitated. So they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. But it was that wandering that taught them to trust and to be true community together.
Jesus died and was raised, the church flowered and faltered, it has ebbed and it has flowed. The church, the world, is in a deep ebb right now. It worries us. But the absurd, the laughable, the impossible seems to be God’s ace in the hole. Pregnant out of barrenness, life out of death, this is what God does. And isn’t that hope?
We long for things to get better, to be vibrant, for the world to be full of God’s life and love. Yet significant challenges stand between us and the Promised Land. Maybe what Abraham and Sarah, the Hebrew people in the wilderness, Mary, and you and I must learn is this: the Promised Land is not coming or a destination to arrive at. The Promised Land is here, now. It is trusting that God’s grace gives birth to “Isaac” – laughter, gives birth to “Jesus” – salvation in our time. Laughter is a sign of deep trust in the most difficult circumstances. A sign of Hope. To be there, and to live from there, is the Promised Land.
The name “Isaac,” the name “Jesus,” remind us that no matter where we are in our ongoing stories, our stories end up with God birthing laughter and salvation. Preposterous! Ludicrous! Ridiculous! Incredulous! Absurd! Precisely. Amen.