More Than Just a List of Names
December 10, 2017
On February 2, 2002, millions of Americans watched the Saint Louis Rams play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. It was a great and exciting game. But perhaps the best moment of the night was the halftime show - considered by many as the greatest and most meaningful in Super Bowl history.
The halftime show was performed by U2. And they played three songs. The first one was a happy song called “Beautiful Day.” The stadium rocked. The lights flashed. And at the end of the song, the crowds cheered.
The second song was a quiet one called “MLK.” As the band began to play, a huge white sheet came down from the ceiling, as if it were falling from the sky. And then words appeared on it. It took a moment for everyone to know what was going on. But once they knew, the show became more than just a show.
On the sheet were the words “September 11, 2001.” It began to scroll up. And then there were more words. There were names. Three columns of names. Dianne Snyder. Joseph Agnello. Terrance Aiken. Siew-Nya Ang. The names of the people who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
As the names continued to scroll up, as if they were rising to the sky, and as the band played their third and final song called “Where The Streets Have No Name,” millions of Americans remembered a thing or two that night. On that night, many families cried. A nation found healing and strength to move forward. And viewers sitting in their couches at home experienced a powerful, bittersweet and transcendent moment. All because of a list of names.
Today’s Scripture text is also a list of names. It is a list of all the descendants and nations that came from the three sons of Noah after the flood.
From Japheth came those who would settle in Asia Minor and Europe. Madai, for example, would be the progenitor of the Medes and the Median Empire. Javan would be associated with the region of what is now modern-day Greece. These names came from Japheth.
From Ham came those who would settle in Mesopotamia and Africa and the Arabian Pennisula. Cush, for example, would be tied with Ethiopia. Sheba would be associated with the region of what is now modern-day Yemen. These names came from Ham.
And then there was Shem. From Shem came those who would actually settle in seemingly random places all over Mesopotamia and the Arabian Pennisula.
And that is all I want to say about Shem… for now.
And there you have it. Genesis 10. A list of about seventy names.
Genesis 10 may not seem important to us. We do not know any of these people personally. We may have a hard time pronouncing their names. We could think that this is just a list of names. And we can be tempted to just skip over this part of the Bible.
But let’s not do that. It might take a moment for us to know what is going on. But once we know, this list of names will be more than just a list of names.
When Israel of old heard these names, they would have remembered a thing or two. When they heard the name of the Jebusites, they would have remembered how King David conquered the Jebusite city of Jebus, and how that city would become the city of Jerusalem (1 Chr 11:4). When they heard the name of Havilah, they would have remembered it as the place where Ishmael and his descendants would dwell (Gen 25:18). When they heard the name of Egypt, they would have remembered slavery. When they heart the name of Tarshish, they would have remembered the story of Jonah. And the list goes on and on.
When Israel of old heard these names, they would have remembered history. Real history about real people and real places that were involved in real promises of a real God.
I love the scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens when Rey goes from myth to reality. Rey always wondered if Luke and the Force and the Jedi were real.
But after meeting Han Solo, she’s on the Millenium Falcon. And Han tells her, “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil - the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is… it’s true. The Force, the Jedi… all of it. It’s all true.”
I love that scene because that’s the moment when Rey begins to really believe in the bigger picture. And Rey’s life was forever changed after that.
Israel needed to know the real history of the world. The earth was not ruled by the sun or the moon. The nations surrounding them were not random. And God’s promise of ultimate salvation in the one who would crush the head of the serpent was not forgotten.
This promise may have seemed lost. Just look at how so many of the names in this list represented the enemies of Israel and the wicked worldwide rejection of God’s promise of salvation. If you can picture in your mind the scene from Lord of the Rings when Sauron’s massive army gathered and marched against the city of Minas Tirith, then you can begin to understand the essence of what is going on in this text. After the flood, the rebellion against God continued. Columns and columns of names would line up to make a name for themselves. And the seed of the serpent and the kingdom of the Enemy marched against the seed of the woman and the kingdom of God.
But God’s kingdom wins.
Nimrod was a mighty man and hunter who founded the great city of Babel and the powerful kingdom of Babylon. But he is nothing compared to God. God dealt with the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Nobody today exactly knows for sure who Nimrod was. And last time I checked, this Nimrod, whoever he was, is dead. So I guess he wasn’t much of a mighty man after all. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. But God’s kingdom “shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end” (Daniel 6:26).
God’s kingdom wins.
Shem was Noah’s first son. So one would expect his name and his list of descendants to be first on this list. But instead, Shem comes after Japheth and Ham. Shem is at the end. Why? The reason is simple. This list is arranged this way in order to built up to the drama of the climax of the one who will come out of Shem’s family tree.
For buried deep within this list is a fragile thread of names that would carry on the hope of the promise of the glory of God. Shem would have Arpachshad. Arpachshad would have Shelah. Shelah would have Eber. And Eber would have Peleg and Joktan. The text would go on to tell us about Joktan’s sons. Joktan had thirteen sons! But the dramatic question is: What about Peleg? There is nothing about his sons here! We are left hanging with Peleg! We are left holding a seemingly unfinished, fragile thread of names. The names stop with Peleg. And all we are told is that his name means “division” and that the world was divided. What happened to Peleg?
The answer is in the next chapter of the Bible. And the fact that we are left hanging with Peleg is so poetic and so appropriate. After Genesis 10 and this list of names, we are given Genesis 11 and the story of the Tower of Babel. We are shown how the world was divided into two types of people. One side of people would decide to have a blast and build a tower to make a name for themselves.
But the other side of people would quietly move forward without much fanfare. The fragile thread of promise would continue.
Peleg would have a son named Reu. Reu would have a son named Serug. Serug would have Nahor. Nahor would have Terah. And Terah would have Abram, who would later be renamed Abraham. And God would make a gigantic promise to the newly named Abraham about his offspring. Basically, God told Abraham that he is going to give him a list of names - a list of names so numerous that it will be like the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And yet at the same time, God told Abraham that the list of names that he will give him will also be a list of only one name: the name of Jesus Christ. For it is written in Galatians 3:16, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ (#christmas).
Thousands of years after Genesis 10 and the story of Abraham, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ appointed seventy-two people and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” He also said to them, “Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.”
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” And then Jesus said to them, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Why did Jesus send seventy-two people to declare that the kingdom of God has come near? That’s a pretty interesting number. It kind of reminds me of the number of names and nations on this list in Genesis 10.
And why did Jesus say to the seventy-two to rejoice because their names were are written in heaven? That must be a pretty interesting document in heaven. Because it is a better list of names, one that supercedes the list of names and nations here in Genesis 10. Perhaps it is like a huge white sheet that came from one fragile thread of promise. Perhaps it is like a huge white sheet with three columns of names scrolling up to heaven.
When Israel of old heard these names, they would have remembered history. Real history about real people and real places that were involved in real promises of a real God. They could have cried. They might have wondered if they had the strength to move forward. They should have experienced a powerful, bittersweet and, I dare say, transcendent moment. All because of a list of names.
When we the church today hear these names, we do the same.
Dianne Snyder worked her way through college as a waitress. She wanted to become a teacher for disabled children. But she ran out of money a few credits short of a degree. So she became a flight attendant instead. Joseph Agnello was a firefighter who was also into boogie boarding with his wife and skiing and snowboarding with his friends. Terrance Aiken wanted to work with computers. He got things going at a young age when he dismantled an old IBM computer that he picked up at the local Salvation Army. Siew-Nya Ang was a working mom who always made sure that her daughters were good to go for their piano or ice skating lessons.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
Therefore, Jesus said, “…Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Brothers and sisters, let us praise the Lord. God’s kingdom wins. It’s about real history about real people and real places. And the amazing thing is… it’s true. The promise, the Messiah… all of it. It’s all true. May we begin to really believe in the bigger picture. May we be forever changed.
Brothers and sisters, let us praise the Lord. God’s kingdom is personal. Our God is a God is names. Our names our written in heaven. And his spelling is perfect. Therefore, in the words of John 10:3, let us be comforted by the fact that the sheep hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, and that he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Jesus does not forget your name. He calls you by your name. And his pronunciation is perfect.
Brothers and sisters, let us praise the Lord. God’s kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end. Therefore, we can trust in him. God’s promises are yes and amen. His love and faithfulness never ends.
Brothers and sisters, let us praise the Lord. For it is written in Acts 2:21, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Brothers and sisters, let us praise the Lord. For God’s kingdom is near. Soon and very soon, the Lord will return. When that day comes, we will cheer and sing a new song on the streets of the New Jerusalem to our Majestic Lord and King. Soon and very soon, it will be a beautiful day. There will be no more crying. All bittersweetness will turn into sweetness. Soon and very soon, you will see the Lord face to face. He will call you by your name. And he will pronounce your name perfect.
Summary of Sermon
Genesis 10 is more than just a list of names. For Israel of old, it was a reminder of real history, real people, real promises and a real God.
God promise may have seemed lost. After the flood, the seed of the serpent and the kingdom of the Enemy continued to march against the seed of the woman and the kingdom of God.
But God’s kingdom wins. For buried deep within this list is a thread of names that would carry on the hope of the promise of the glory of God. From Shem came Peleg. From Peleg came Abraham. And from Abraham came the promise of a greater list of names - the list of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let us rejoice that our names are written in heaven. Let us today be reminded of real history, real people, real promises and our real God. May we believe in the bigger picture. And may we be changed by the gospel of our God who is a God of names.
Questions for Discussion & Sharing
God’s kingdom wins. God is a God of names. God and his promises are real. How does this portion of God’s Word encourage us in our personal lives when the grace and love and promises of God seem to hang on a thread?
Christ commands his church to rejoice that our names are written in heaven. What are some ways in which this simple but amazing gospel truth is obscured by our sin, our worldliness or our forgetfulness as we wait as pilgrims and exiles for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ?
What names do you wish to be written in heaven? Take a moment to share about people that you hope would have repentance and faith in Jesus, and pray for them by name.