“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7)
“What’s in a name?”
That’s the question that Juliet asks, bemoaning the fact that Romeo comes from the Montague family and she comes from the Capulet one. She says we could call a rose anything we wanted but it would still have a beautiful smell. But the truth is, that Romeo and Juliet die because of their names; where they come from matters.
I remember, not exactly when but only that I was still young, that my uncle thought it was funny to call me “Jake,” instead of Jacob. That ended when my mother threatened to hurt him (I actually believe she offered to “wrap him around a tree” if he called me that again). It mattered to my mom that she and Dad had named me Jacob– that was my name. Who gave us the name matters.
[My favorite Christian metaphor for this is one told by a bunch of Weird Al Yankovic types. The guy says that when he has a kid, he’s going to name the boy “Bill” but call it “Steve.” Because our names are really sinful and corrupt and broken but by the blood of Jesus we are called forgiven and redeemed.]
A friend of mine told me a story recently about a period from his childhood when he was acting out. He would get to school, get in trouble, and find himself cooling his heels in the principal’s office. None of that really bothered him, but when his mother, a widow, showed up, well, that’s when it “got real.”
“What’s your name?” she would ask, leading him by the ear out to the car.
“William Browning Johnson.” [The names have been changed to protect… the innocent.]
“No,” she would say, “that’s not your name. William Browning is your name, Johnson is my name that you’re dragging through the mud.”
What we do with the name matters.
Think about the power in a name. Some incite excitement, some incite terror. In my house, we talk about Leroy Jethro Gibbs like he’s a family member (you either get that or you don’t.) But these folks are on first name basis in most of our minds: Hitler. Eastwood. Katniss. Stalin. Bogart. Voldemort. Pele. Popeye. Magic. Lincoln. Dahmer. Lennon. Yoda.
Think about the people you know by name who need no introduction.
Your mother. Your father. Your spouse. Your children. Most of the time, you don’t even need to have them be identified on the phone, because you know their voice! You can call them, and conversation resumes as it was the last time you talked.
You are known by them and they are known by you. You are in relationship.
The context of the name matters.
In Exodus 3:14, we saw that God told Moses that his name was “I AM who I AM.” It’s God’s name, like discovering what the first name of your parent is for the first time. (My youngest has taken to calling me “Daddy Jacob” lately, as he gets used to my ‘real name’ in his mind.)
There’s a sense that God wants his people to understand who he is, so that they can be in relationship. He knows who they are but he also wants them to know who he is.
We see in our Scripture today in Exodus 5:22-6:8 that Moses, who at the time has moved from staring into a burning bush that is miraculously unconsumed by fire to being God’s spokesperson to the people and their slave master Pharaoh, still struggles with God’s identity and what it means to represent God.
“Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all,” Moses whines.
But God’s answer is swift and decisive: God will not let his name be fruitless and weak. Instead, he says he will cause Pharaoh to be so upset that he will drive the Israelites out of Egypt. He won’t just let them go but he will force them out!
But God realizes that if Moses is to really “get” God’s name, if he’s really going to be in relationship with God, he has to be able to put it all together. They are getting to know each other, not in a speed dating relationship where people flit around the room but in a committed covenantal relationship where they will become known to each other.
God revisits his ‘business card’ of sorts. He begins and ends with “I am the Lord.” He reminds Moses that God first appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as “God Almighty” but that he wasn’t fully known to them. He reminds Moses of the covenant that will bring the Israelites into the good land of Canaan, and he reminds Moses that he is the Slave Freer. He is the liberator. He is the covenant keeper.
With this introduction, like a royal party being introduced before the court or the bride and groom at the wedding reception, God tells Moses to say to his people: “‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.'”
I, God, will free you. I will take you as mine, you will know me, and I will fulfill the covenant.
It’s amazing to me that we can divorce the Old and New Testaments, and see only the differences in situation and language. God is working toward a real relationship with his people. He established it in the Garden of Eden and it was broken; he set them up to succeed and they failed; he continues to work on it over and over again, even sending his son.
Now, there’s something in a name. How many names can you come up with for God’s son?
Consider these: Christ, or anointed; Lamb of God, echoing the Passover in Exodus when the Israelites are freed; Messiah, or savior; Son of God and Son of David, connecting Jesus to both his heavenly father and the kingly line of King David; Immanuel, or God with us.
All of those add something to the building and deepening of the relationship, in the same way that we develop an understanding of who someone is and what they mean to us. But that makes it even more powerful when we use the name… or misuse it.
Many of you probably have been taught since childhood not to “use the Lord’s name in vain.” It’s akin to ‘don’t swear’ or use profanity. No adding middle names to Jesus’ name. No invoking a prayer when you smack your thumb with the hammer. But what if the Third Word is so much more?
What if ‘not swearing’ is just the minimum? What if God was trying to help the Israelites recognize that in community with him and with each other that they had to represent The Name well?
Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-10 (which you can also read in our bulletins). He tells them to call God “Our Father,” another name implying intimacy, with the spoken thought “hallowed be your name” or “may your name be kept holy,” coupled right there with “your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Is Jesus teaching that his disciples should pray to remind God to keep his name holy? Does God really need to be reminded who he is and what he is?
I hardly think so.
Instead, Jesus is building on Third Word and reminding the disciples that they must keep the name holy, that they must honor their end of the covenant in the way that they live their lives by “hallowing” God’s name.
Jesus tells them that they should have a healthy fear, respect, love, etc. for God and God’s authority. As Bishop Cho says, “God is not your waiter.”
The Israelites took using a name for God seriously; they didn’t say what they considered the name to be, Yahweh, out loud. But how they acted toward God mattered even more than what they called him. Their behavior mattered.
So, wait, this commandment is not just about the things we call God or when we blurt out his name? There’s something more we need to do proactively?
Flip open your Bible to John 3. Look at verses 16-18:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
John 3:17 is still one of my favorite verses of all time, but look at 18 again. John writes that everyone who believes in Jesus is not condemned but that those who have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son are.
What does it mean to believe in Jesus’s name, and therefore God’s name?
There are things we like, that we believe, but we’re not saved by them. I believe that chocolate is the best flavor on the planet. I believe that Coke is better than Pepsi. I believe that the Red Sox are the most maddening team in baseball to watch. I believe Krispy Kreme are better than Dunkin Donuts!
I believe those things are true, but I wouldn’t sell my soul for them. I don’t believe in those things enough to make them my identity.
But if I believe in God, then something has to change, right? I can’t say I believe and give lip service to it, and then not actually be changed in the way I behave… or I have not really believed.
I asked on Easter why some folks come on Christmas Eve and Easter but not the rest of the time in between. What power do Christmas and Easter hold that make people come, when they don’t believe church is important otherwise? Because if Christmas and Easter have the power that I believe they do, then I have to follow through on the rest of the covenant by being present to worship God, learn more about God, and fellowship with other believers.
It’s what Jesus said those who believed in his name should do.
If I don’t do those things, I might as well not come on Christmas and Easter. Not just for me but for the way that my witness or my “anti-witness” speaks to what it is that I say is important.
In Romans 2:23-24, Paul wrote, “You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” That’s the first century equivalent of Brennan Manning’s “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle.” (I’ve used it before, but it’s a great quote.)
We misuse God’s name when we fail to be like God in the way we act.
Consider the deceased Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church for a second. In the name of God, they have picketed the military, bashed gays, and proposed that God used people to kill pro-abortion doctors.
In the name of God.
I remember being on campus at the University of Richmond, and periodically a group would slip onto campus and start “telling people about Jesus.” There weren’t always signs but it usually involved shouting and a bullhorn, sharing age-old messages that made my life as a Christian harder and as a campus minister who wanted to share God’s love ten times more difficult.
“God hates you” (or “your sin”).
“Turn or burn.” “You all are going to hell because of your [piercings, short skirts, lack of faith, color of skin, etc.]”
“If you’re not baptized (like this) or don’t go to (this church) you’re not good enough.”
That’s a pretty sharp contrast to what we’d put on our church t-shirts and go do, right? (But that opens up another hole can of worms: what can you or can’t you do in a church t-shirt? I digress…) It still seems that if we want to represent God’s name well, if we want to “not take the Lord’s name in vain” to promote our relationship with God and each other, we need to think about how we represent him.
With our spouses, with our kids, with our parents, with our coworkers.
With our driving, with our spending, with our voting, with what we watch, with what we talk about, with how we talk.
With the way we treat each other in church, in the church parking lot, in the way we talk about each other on the drive home, in the way we tell or don’t tell others about church.
We need to recognize that it’s not just enough to not do them harm, our friends and our enemies, but if we’re covered in the name of God, if we’re representing God on earth because we claim to love him, then we have to want what is best for everyone.
We have to be a blessing to them and not a curse. We have to recognize that we might be what they think of when they think about God, or Jesus, or the church.
The theologian Joan Chittister wrote, “When we use the name of God to demean or diminish any other human being it is not they whose merits we measure. It is our own. And in public.” But I’ll take it a step further: when we demean someone or diminish them and they know we’re a follower of Jesus, we fail to keep God’s name holy.
There are countless examples of failing to keep God’s name holy that we could discuss.
There’s the concept that seems prevalent in our area to advertise that you are a “Christian so-and-so.” ‘I’m a Christian real estate agent.’ ‘I’m a Christian painter.’ Or more universally, “I’m a Christian author” or “we’re a Christian band.”
What happens if you’re terrible at your job? Are you giving God credit that you’re lazy and not good at spreading out the drip cloth? When you make music and it’s terrible, do you think God wants to be known for your inability to carry a tune?
We need to remember that there’s a fine line there. We’re following Jesus but we’re not God. God doesn’t want all of the credit for what we do or how we perform if we’re not going to be willing to fully follow. If we’re not willing to take the good with the bad, then maybe the first way we keep God’s name holy, is to not glue it on over all of our mistakes.
I’ll admit it: my language has improved greatly since my eldest learned how to talk! You want to know what you sound like, or look like, or act like, spend significant time with a kid!
Are you a follower of Christ? A kid will let you know!
Are you full of it? A kid will let you know!
Are you leading well…?
To paraphrase Manning, we can either make disciples or make atheists.
Because we’re all making something.
There’s one last name for God I want to highlight today, from Revelation 1:8. It’s not because I read Revelations about the way we’re headed or where we’re going but because I think it reminds us of the truth about who has the Final Word.
God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
To quote Highlander of the Clan McCloud: “there can only be one!”
That’s God. He’s awesome, and perfect, and forever. It’s I AM’s name, and we shouldn’t wear it out in idle or unholy behavior. We should use it and ourselves to build others up, to build the kingdom up, to “make the kingdom of God on Earth.” We should use it to proclaim God’s love and the salvation that only one name, Jesus Christ, can provide.
With our witness.
With our message.
With our words.
With our lives.
Let’s wear God’s name out.
For more on The Ten Commandments, check out Sean Gladding’s book, Ten.