There’s a small city about 25 miles north of Manhattan that you’ve probably never heard of before. This city is named New Rochelle — and it’s about the same size as Bowling Green. But New Rochelle’s claim to fame isn’t that they make Corvettes…or any other car for that matter.
Chances are that if you’ve ever heard of New Rochelle before it’s because of the famous people who have called this small city home. New Rochelle is the hometown of a couple of sitcom stars from the 60s and 70s. Bob Denver who played Gilligan on Gilligan’s Island was born in New Rochelle. And Rob Reiner, who played Archie Bunker’s son-in-law on All In The Family, grew up there. New Rochelle is also where baseball’s greatest closer, Mariano Rivera, played college baseball. But unquestionably the most famous person to grow up in New Rochelle, New York is the former host of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno.
But even though New Rochelle has been home to a slew of celebrities, that’s far from the most interesting thing about this city. The most interesting thing about New Rochelle, New York has to do with how this city was founded.
New Rochelle was founded back in 1688 by 33 families who were seeking religious freedom. They were a group of Protestants from France known as the Huguenots. Like many other Huguenots, this group was forced to flee from France after nearly a century of persecution that culminated when King Louis XIV revoked all rights for Protestants in 1685. So this group of persecuted Christians eventually found their way 25 miles north of New York City and founded the city of New Rochelle.
But that’s not the most interesting part about how New Rochelle was founded. The most interesting part of how New Rochelle was founded has to do with the contract the Huguenots entered into with the original owner of the land. In 1688, the original owner of the land — a guy named John Pell — reached an agreement to sell 6,100 acres of his property to the Huguenots for £1,675. That’s the equivalent of over half a million dollars today.
But the contract didn’t end there. The contract went on to say that the Huguenots and their heirs were to continue to pay John Pell and his heirs one fat calf every year if Pell or his heirs asked for it. Now, obviously, when you have a contract that is almost 350 years old people can easily forget about it. But every few generations this clause in the contract is rediscovered by one of John Pell’s heirs and they will ask the city of New Rochelle to pay them one fat calf.
And that makes the contract between John Pell and the Huguenots that was signed way back in 1688 one of the oldest active and ongoing legal agreements in history. So to this day, the citizens of New Rochelle, New York continue to keep a promise that their founders agreed to almost 350 years ago.
Now, even if you had never heard of the city of New Rochelle before today, we all know how rare it is for someone to keep their promises. People break their promises. Politicians break their promises. Even major corporations break their promises. Like the electronics giant Samsung.
Back in the early 2000s, Samsung offered their customers rebates of up to $150 cash back on a variety of the electronics that they sold. But in the fine print Samsung stipulated that the rebate was limited to one per address. Now, that requirement doesn’t sound too unreasonable until you realize it also applied to apartment complexes. So more than 4,000 customers were lured to buy Samsung’s products by these rebates only to have them denied because of the fine print that Samsung specifically included to make sure their company didn’t have to keep its promises.
And in the scripture passage that we’re going to be reading today, it looks like God is going to be more like Samsung and less like New Rochelle. In the scripture passage we’re reading today, it looks like God isn’t going to keep his promises.
So, if you’ve got a Bible close by go ahead and grab it and turn with me to Genesis 17. And, as you’re turning there, let me kind of set the scene for you. Back in Genesis 12, God makes a promise to a man named Abram that he would become the father of a great nation. Of course, that implies that Abram would have at least one child that his descendants would come from…but Abram was already 75 years old. So both Abram and his wife, who was named Sarai, are well past childbearing years. So, in order for God to keep his promise that Abram will become the father of a great nation, God is going to have to give Abram and Sarai a child.
Now, fast forward to Genesis 15. Abram and Sarai haven’t gotten any younger…but they still don’t have any children. So in Genesis 15, Abram is starting to doubt that God will keep his promise. And instead, Abram has resigned himself to the reality that one of his slaves would inherit his estate — which was the custom back then when a man died without having any children. But once again, God promises Abram, “Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” But God still doesn’t give Abram and Sarai a baby.
Well, one chapter later, in Genesis 16 Abram and Sarai are getting desperate. They believe that God wants to make Abram the father of a great nation…but they still don’t have any children. And Abram is now 86 years old and Sarai is 76. So Sarai makes a suggestion. She suggests that Abram try to father a child with Sarai’s maid, a woman named Hagar.
So now, Abram has an heir that is his own biological child. But God had promised a child to Abram and Sarai…not to Abram and his wife’s maid. So God still hasn’t given Abram and Sarai the baby God promised.
So like I said a minute ago, by the time we get to Genesis 17, it’s starting to look like God might not keep his promise. So with all of this in mind, let’s take a look at Genesis 17 together. We’ll start reading in verse 1. It says:
1 When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. 2 I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants.” 3 Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, 4 “But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. 5 And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham. 6 I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you. 8 I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession. And I will be their God.”
15 God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell on his face and laughed. He said to himself, Can a 100-year-old man become a father, or Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, have a child?
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 (Common English Bible)
So in this passage, God once again promises Abram and Sarai that God will give them a son of their own. But, if you were in Abram and Sarai’s shoes, would you believe God’s promise? I mean, God first promised Abram that he would make him a father when Abram was 75 years old…and Abram is now 99. Abram has been waiting for God to fulfill his promise for 24 years.
So can you blame Abram for falling on his face and laughing when God tells him that he will still have a child? I can’t. If I were in Abram’s shoes, I probably would’ve felt the exact same way he did. If I had been waiting for God to do something for 24 years, I would’ve wondered if God would actually keep his promise.
The truth is, I’ve wondered if God was going to keep his promises when I didn’t have to wait 24 years. From early in my senior year of high school, I knew that God was calling me into the ministry. And I spent a couple of years in college working as a youth minister. But, when I graduated college, I knew that God was going to keep his promise to me and that I would be called to pastor a church in no time.
Well, no time turned into 3 1/2 years. And during that 3 1/2 years, I wondered if God was going to keep his promise. And there were times during that 3 1/2 years that I almost gave up on becoming a pastor altogether. So, believe me, I get where Abram is coming from.
But there’s something else in this passage that I need to point out to you that makes God’s promise in Genesis 17 different. Because in Genesis 17, God doesn’t just promise Abram and Sarai that he will give them a son. God also changes their names to show them that even though they’re not holding that baby in their arms yet, that this promise will happen.
God changes Abram’s name from Abram — which means “exalted father” — to Abraham — which means “father of a multitude”. And God does the same thing for Sarai. God changes her name from Sarai — which means “princess” — to Sarah — which relates to God’s promise to make Sarah the mother of kings.
Now, all of this is interesting stuff. It’s interesting to talk about how Abraham and Sarah got their names. But that’s not what we’re talking about during this sermon series. We’re not talking about the names of biblical characters. We’re talking about the name above all names. We’re talking about the names of God.
So what does all this talk about God changing Abraham’s and Sarah’s names in Genesis 17 have to do with the names of God? Well, God doesn’t just change Abraham’s name and Sarah’s name in Genesis 17…God also changes his name.
Now, if you remember what we talked about last Sunday, then you remember that the very first name that the Bible uses to identify God is the name Elohim. This name appears in the very first verse of the Bible when we’re told, "In the beginning, God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth." This name appears more than 2,500 times in the Old Testament and it’s always translated into English simply as "God."
But here in Genesis 17, God gives himself a new name. In Genesis 17:1, God tells Abram, “I am El Shaddai.”
Now, the name El Shaddai appears far fewer times than the name Elohim. But when it does, it's almost always during extremely important moments. And that’s definitely the case in Genesis 17. This is the final time that God promises that he will give Abraham and Sarah a child before God fulfills that promise…so this is an important moment.
But why is the name El Shaddai used in these important moments? First, we need to remember that when God reveals his name, God is revealing who he is.
When God reveals his name, God is revealing who he is.
So what does the name El Shaddai reveal to us about who God is? Well, the El part of El Shaddai is the shortened form of the name Elohim and it means “God." So there isn’t anything new there. But that’s not the case when it comes to the word Shaddai.
But the precise meaning of the word Shaddai is uncertain. Now, the most common translation for the word Shaddai is “Almighty.” So the name El Shaddai could mean “God Almighty,” but Bible scholars say that translating it as "Almighty" is only a reasonable guess at its meaning.
It's also possible that the word Shaddai is related to the ancient term, shadu, which means mountain. So the name El Shaddai could mean "God of the mountains." But it's also possible that the word Shaddai derives from the Hebrew word shad, which refers to a woman nursing her child. So when it comes to God, the name El Shaddai could be used to tell us that God cares for us the way a mother cares for her child.
But I prefer the way that Will Willimon — who is a retired pastor and the current director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Duke University — suggests that we should understand the name El Shaddai. Willimon says that the name El Shaddai shows us that God makes a way where there is no way.
God makes a way where there is no way.
That’s exactly what God does for Abraham and Sarah. God made a way where there was no way. There was no way that Abraham and Sarah should’ve had a child. Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 89. Now, we’ve got some folks worshiping with us right now that are about the same age as Abraham and Sarah. Could any of you imagine having a child now that you’re in your eighties or nineties?
Abraham couldn’t. Did you notice how Abraham responded when God told him that he and Sarah were going to have a child? Abraham flat-out laughed in God’s face. Because there was no way that Abraham and Sarah could become parents.
But God made a way. God let Sarah get pregnant in spite of her age. God allowed her child to be born without any complications. And God used this child — named Isaac, which appropriately enough means “laughter” — to fulfill the promise God made to Abraham.
So whether the name El Shaddai means “Almighty God” or “The God who makes a way where there is no way” or something else entirely, there’s no doubt that God shows us part of who he is in Genesis 17. And God shows us that he is a God that always keeps his promises.
God is a God who always keeps his promises.
So, in a world where it feels like no one lives up to what they tell you, in a world where everyone seems to go back on their word, don’t forget that God always keeps his promises. Because our God is a God who can make a way where there is no way. Our God is truly the Almighty God. And our God will never let you down. That is who God is.