Taking God Seriously
We are now in week three of our summer series on what we all grew up calling the Ten Commandments, but which we are reading as Ten Commitments by which covenant partners in relationship with God and one another agree to live. They’re parallel both to Jesus’ Beatitudes and Paul’s Fruit of the Spirit in that they describe normal life for those who are children of God in Christ. One of the things that has struck me as I have re-read these ten words slowly, closely, and carefully this summer, is that they are not ten discrete, unrelated sentences in a list, but related organically one to another. They are not in an accidental order either. The first one concerns commitment to God and the values that this God embodies in divine acts in the world (“No other gods in my face”). The second grows from the first. Covenant partners accept no substitute for God by giving absolute authority to anything or idea in the world. (“No images”). Again, growing from these two, comes a third: “You will not make a wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit any who misuses this name.”
In the second part, the basic word translated “acquit,” means to be “clean” or “innocent” of something, and the form of the verb here means something like to “declare” or “find” innocent. To translate for this context: God does not consider those who misuse this name as taking God seriously. It’s dangerous to “misuse” or “make wrongful use” of God’s name (which, in Hebrew, are the same words).
Some things need clarification. A literal translation is “You will not take up the LORD’s name for nothing.” Many of us memorized it from the King James Version: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.” What might this mean? Many of us learned that we were forbidden by these words to use “bad language,” especially those bits of bad language that had the word “God” or “Jesus” or “Christ” as part of them. In more recent years some preachers have told us that this commandment didn’t really have to do with particular words we say. Now, although, that’s partly right, it’s also partly wrong.
To the ancient Hebrews who both wrote and heard these words, what one said (and didn’t) was not unimportant. The first two commitments have dealt with to whom we will be loyal and to whom we will listen and grant authority in this world. The short answer in both cases is God, and they’re primarily about our actions. In Commitment 3 our words get into the picture. Our words do express a vital part of who we are, don’t they? For the Hebrew, the word dabar meant both “thing” and “word.” A word is just another kind of thing. It made a difference and was effective. For example, Genesis 1 uses the metaphor that God made the world by words (“and God said…”). Israel’s world pretty much shared this view of words. Armies set groups of professional “cursers” out in front. They would speak curses against enemies, for they believed that, if someone cursed you, you were, indeed cursed. Language, words, deeply affected relationships. We are realizing more and more how close to right these ancient folk were. Words can hurt and heal at least as much as actions. Psychologists know this.
What, then, was special about a particular kind of word called a name? A name is that special word that describes you. It was what others called you when they wanted to get a response. Even my cat knows her name. Although, according to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Naming of Cats,” all cats have a secret name that “no human research can discover,” and only they know, our cat has two that I know and that she acknowledges: “Kitty,” and Violet.” She will respond to her name. So do those of us who feature ourselves “of a higher order” than cats (although the jury is out on that one). Many ancients thought that it was possible to control persons by knowing their names, and this even extended to deities. That’s why there were (and still are) elaborate rituals for naming people and deities in many parts of the world. In fact, that we still pray “in Jesus’ name” is a sign of this. To “name” someone invoked that person’s personality, power, and authority.
That’s one reason why our Lesson from Exodus 3 left such an impression on both Judaism and Christianity. This was the revelation of God’s name. The name is usually said to have been pronounced Yahweh. In many ancient societies it was thought that one could control a god or goddess by calling their name in just the right way. Perhaps, that’s in the background of Moses’ curiosity about God’s specific name in our story.
God’s response is one of the most cryptic in all the Bible. From the story itself we can see that the sacred name Yahweh is clearly intended to be related to the similar sounding Hebrew word “I am (being or becoming)” (which is ehyeh). In verse 12 God said to Moses “I am (ehyeh) with you (when you go to Pharaoh).” The LORD is the one who simply and always is and is with us. “Was” and “will be” do not apply to God.” It is not without meaning that in Isaiah and, thence in the Gospels, there is a child named Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” It is also not without significance that the writer of John’s Gospel has Jesus say, “Before Abraham was, I am.”
So now that we know the name, can we control God by “naming”? Most Jews today will not utter the sacred name to avoid the thought. However, there have always been “magicians” who seem to think so, and even today there are those who think if we get our words just right, we can control God. Well, those who have read and thought carefully about the first and second commitments ought to know better than even raising the “control thing.” In short, No! We cannot! Exodus 3:15 says “This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.”
But, although this is The Name, it is clear that both the Bible and human experience have brought dozens of names for God that describe actions and characteristics that people experience. That’s why I wanted us to sing “Bring Many Names” earlier, which, although, it’s a little over the top and we won’t sing it all the time, reminds us of what I said at the beginning of this series, that God is, in the words of the last stanza, “Never fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home.” God is mystery we cannot control.
Now, the Bible itself frequently interprets our third commitment as not taking oaths about which we are not sincere in God’s name. This is one “wrongful use” of God’s name, and is found throughout the Old Testament, and extends into the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, where he took it farther and said, “Don’t swear at all, just tell the truth,” which teaching passed into the early church in James 5:12 that uses Jesus’ words. This has led some folks to debate whether Christians ought to refuse to take oaths in court, etc. We can always make the Bible into rules that divide us into “true believers” and “others.” This allows us to marginalize one another in God’s name. It also takes this statement as a command that means one thing. When we figure it out, when we name it, we have control of it. “My sect doesn’t take oaths.”
I have suggested, rather, that these ten words are ten interlocking Principles that give us parameters for normal life in relationship to God and others. The negative gives us the outer border. Living within the covenant boundaries requires thought, reflection, study, and prayer about positive ways to “lift up” the “name” of God “for something,” or for good, rather than “for nothing.” It means, in a word, striving to take God seriously.
In other words, “lifting up the LORD’s name for nothing” is sufficiently ambiguous to include the kind of matters about truth-telling, etc., that are part of the tradition of both Judaism and Christianity, but also go beyond them. This commitment, also means striving to understand what God’s values are, and not trying to twist schemes that are alien to those values, so as to make them sound godly.
We have sometimes been taught (even in church) that God really does love us more than God loves them. Indeed, there were folk who claimed that in the Bible, too. “God means us to have more because we’re more godly.” Such misunderstanding usually grows out of giving absolute status to something that isn’t, like an economic or political theory of one kind or another, clearly outside of Commitment 2 (as well as 1). Wednesday’s tragedy in South Carolina is an extreme example, granted, of one who thought of himself as doing the work of God by purifying the church and the world from certain individuals. Hitler thought he was purifying the world of Jews. Afrikaner proponents of apartheid quoted the Bible frequently, as did American slaveholders before the Civil War. As does the Klan. These, as I say are easy to see, but it ought always to worry us when people try to co-opt God into projects that end up impoverishing those who are already poor, since the Bible makes it abundantly clear that, God has the greatest concern for the well-being of those who are unwell, underfed, unloved, and un-cared-for. God is on the side of liberation and grace, not on the side of rewards for the hardest working among us. If we attempt to coopt God for values of making ourselves great at the expense of others, then we’re not taking God and God’s values seriously, and we’re not living the outcomes of commitment three. Good fodder for missional thinking would be some positive ways in which we can, then, take God seriously, by living, loving, giving, hoping, embracing, nurturing, and caring for our neighbours and loving our enemies. These are the things by which we may live ourselves into the covenant relationship with God and the discipleship relationship with Jesus.
That wonderful hymn from Philippians that we read (and sang about) earlier, can help us understand what it means to take God’s name seriously. The words were addressed to a small congregation that was seeking to unify itself for mission. The way to do that was to imitate Jesus, who though he was equal to God, did not exploit his status, but rather took the lowest place possible by submitting to the worst death a Jew could die on behalf of others. By that very act of self-emptying Jesus showed this elevated status most clearly, so that “God highly exalted him giving him the name that is above every name (here we are with the name again). That at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…everywhere.” That’s the pattern, that’s the power, that’s taking God seriously as no other has done. And that is why, we say “in Jesus’ name” in our prayers. It is not an empty repeating of words, but an action that enfleshes in our words and deeds what it means to take God seriously.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.