Sermon for August 25th, 2013

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Luke 10:25-28

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

Deuteronomy 5:6-11

6 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7you shall have no other gods before me. 8 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Ten Laws, One Love: The Name of the Lord

The three wise men visit Joseph and Mary in the stable to see the newborn son. One extremely tall wise man hits his head on the door frame and exclaims, "Jesus Christ!" Mary looks at Joseph and says, "Write that down -- that's better than Clyde."

Some of you might be thinking right now that in telling that joke, I've broken the third commandment--you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God...or in the more traditional language, you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. If so, I hope I can convince you today that this commandment is about so much more than simply "watching one's mouth" or avoiding certain words and names for God in casual conversation.

Leading up to this week's sermon, I did a little bit of an informal survey--I asked several people what exactly they understood the third commandment to mean. I got one or two interesting and thoughtful responses, but most answers were something along the lines of "don't use the word 'god' when you cuss, or as an expression of surprise." That's it. That's the popular essence of the third commandment. I suspect you're all familiar with the two phrases most frequently used that way, but just in case, I'm referring to the curse "god damn it!" and to the exclamation "Oh my god!"

Now before you get too offended that I used those expressions in a worship service, please know that I do not use them lightly or casually--I'm using them to illustrate a point, and I'm also using them very intentionally because I think sometimes our prim and proper shock and taboo against those expressions borders on its own kind of superstition and idolatry--which would be a violation of the second commandment: not to confuse anything made by man, whether a graven image or three simple letters of the alphabet, with the God of the universe who cannot be captured or contained by our words and by our speech.

I have to say I've always found it humorous that we think we can just change around a few of the letters: "Gosh darn it" or "Oh my goodness!" and think we've somehow fooled God into thinking we're talking about someone else. And incidentally, God's name isn't "god" any more than my name is Dad, or Pastor--even though I am both of these things to different people, neither of them is my name.

So if God's name isn't god...what is it? If we are to understand the third commandment, it seems like it would be an important thing to know. Unfortunately, like many things in the Bible, the answer is actually a little bit more complicated than it might seem.

God is called many things in the Bible, but most of them are titles. Two of them, however, are not. Two are proper names that God uses to introduce or identify himself to people in the scriptures. The two names also represent two different time periods and geographical regions or cultures, which reminds us that the oldest part of the scriptures comes from the ancient stories of two different people groups, and when they were first written down around the 7th Century BCE, the two sets of stories were spliced together, sometimes duplicating each other--and the name that is used for God is how we tell which people group wrote which part.

The older name for God, which comes from what we would now call northern Israel, is אֱלֹהִ֔ים (Elohim), or simply "El." You see this in a lot of place and people names in the Bible -- Samu-el (God has heard), Micha-el (who is like God?) or even Isra-el (struggled with God). This is the name that God uses when he introduces himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The later name for God, which comes from southern Israel, specifically from Jerusalem, is a little bit harder to explain. It is the name God uses to introduce himself to Moses, and to the children of Israel when they receive the ten commandments. This name consists of four letters--see if you can pronounce it: יהוה - The letters correspond more or less to our letters YHWH. Or possibly JHVH. In English, some people pronounce it Yahweh, and some pronounce it Jehovah. The problem is that there were no vowels in the early Hebrew alphabet, so we're really not sure how it was pronounced.

To make things even more complicated, when Jews (both ancient and modern) would come across this name in reading the scriptures out loud, they interpreted the commandment to prohibit saying the name at all for any reason, so they would read the word "YHWH" but say the word אֲדֹנָי (Adonai) which means, "my Lord." So if you've ever seen in your Bible the word LORD in all capital letters, that's because we've kept the tradition, and used the word LORD where the text says YHWH. Wherever it really is "Lord" (Adonai) the letters are not in capital letters.

Incidentally, since the southern stream of ancient Israel, centered in Jerusalem, eventually became the dominant group, the name El or Elohim eventually just became a generic word for "god" while YHWH came to be considered the proper, personal, and unspeakable name for God.

Before we go back to the third commandment, there's one more interesting thing about God's name, YHWH. It means something. In Exodus 3:13, God has appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and has just told him to gather the Israelites together and bring them out of Egypt. Moses says to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM' has sent me to you." God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD (YHWH), the God of all your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations."

I am who I am. God's name, YHWH, in ancient Hebrew, means "he is" or "the one who is."

Alright. Now that we have a (somewhat) better understanding of what God's name is, let's look at the rest of the third commandment. The NRSV translation reads, "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name." The word "acquit" is a legal word, a courtroom word, and it should remind us that, as we have seen over the last two weeks, the Ten Commandments are intended to be a covenant, a treaty binding together God and God's people.

So don't misuse God's name. But the problem is, we're never told (here or anywhere else in the Bible) what exactly constitutes "misusing" God's name. Actually, I think the NRSV translation here, "don't misuse God's name" is a pretty loose translation. The King James gets a little bit closer: "You shall not take the name of the LORD in vain." To take something is quite different than just to use it. The word in question here, תִשָּׂ֛א (tisah) doesn't just mean "use." It means to pick up, to take up, to carry something. Later in the sentence, the word לַשָּׁ֑וְא (l'shua) doesn't quite mean "wrongly." Again, the King James is closer with the translation "in vain." The literal meaning of the word is empty or hollow. So putting it all together, a very literal translation of the third commandment would read like this: "Don't pick up and carry the name of YHWH in an empty, hollow way."

I think this, finally, will get us to a closer understanding of what the third commandment is all about. But first, one more digression:

Most of you know me by the name Neal Locke. But that's not the name that I was born with. On my birth certificate reads the name, "Ira Cornelius Ruthven." And for the first thirteen years of my life, that was my name. What happened? Well, when I was thirteen, my step-father Michael W. Locke, adopted me (he had actually been filling the role of "father" in my life since I was three years old; this just made it official). When my father adopted me, the first thing that changed was this: I took up his name, Locke, and have been proudly carrying it ever since. (I also shortened Cornelius to Neal, so in case you're curious, my full name is now Ira Neal Locke). Sadly, my father passed away in 1998, but ever since then I have been even more conscious of the fact that wherever I go, whomever I meet...I carry his name. My words, my actions, my entire life, reflect back on his name, his fatherhood, his relationship with me. I like to think that he would be proud of the way I have carried his name, his reputation.

And so it is with God. We read in Ephesians 1 that God "destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ," and that as adopted children "in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance" and have been "marked with the seal of the promised Holy God’s own people, to the praise of his glory."

When God adopted us through Christ, we picked up his name, we called ourselves "Christians" for all the world to see and know, just as the ancient Israelites, in recieving the Ten Commandments, took up the name of YHWH and carried it through the desert, into the promised land, and into their hearts, their lives, their actions, their homes, and their places of work and worship.

The third commandment is about so much more than a small set of forbidden words escaping our lips--it is about all of our words, all of our thoughts, all of our actions and reactions and relationships with others. As God's people, we carry upon us the name of God; we carry within us the image of God, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year. We cannot, we must not, carry it in an empty, hollow, or shallow way, but fully, completely, as if the very name and reputation of God hinges on each one of us alone...because it does. Remember this when you leave here today: The Jesus reflected in your eyes, shining through your words and your actions, may be the only Jesus someone sees this week, this month, this year, this life.

Not only are we called to take up and carry the name of God fully in our own lives, we are called to take that name into the world and share it with others. Our great commission is to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

May God's name dwell in you always, may you carry it with joy and with pride, and like the best things in life, may you always be ready to give it away.