Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Sermon July 26, 2015
7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
“MISUSING GOD’S NAME”
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Let me begin with another translation of the third commandment – which we just finished hearing from the New Revised Standard Version the Bible translation we use most of the time at our beloved church. Listen please to how this verse would come out if it was translated literally, word for word, from the Hebrew: “Not you shall take up name of Yahweh Elohim of you for futility that not he shall hold innocent Yawheh who he is taking up name of him for futility.”
As we might well wonder – what in the name of God is that? Well, this points out some of the problems translating ancient Hebrew into modern-day English. Let me use another translation from the “Names of God” Bible: “Never use the name of Yahweh your Elohim carelessly. Yahweh will make sure that anyone who carelessly uses his name will be punished.” (Exodus 20:7)
Sisters and brothers, our third commandment is somewhat mystifying because while it clearly states that we should not take the name of God in vain – meaning to bring God’s name to nothing – what name are we talking about? Does the third commandment proscribe us from using the term “God” in vain – or is it more specific? In other words, how might we break this third commandment – if we really wanted to?
This leads us into some unusual territory. Let me say that the term “God” is not a very personal term. It is certainly not the name of God revealed in the Bible. The name of God in the Bible is clearly Yahweh – or at least this is how it is normally translated. The name of God given to Moses at the burning bush is YHWH – known as the sacred tetragrammaton – meaning in Greek, four letters. Recall that ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. So it is anyone’s guess which vowels are supposed to be inserted between the sacred four letters. s name of God, by the way, should never be translated as “Jehovah.” Jehovah is a poor and possibly blasphemous rendition of the sacred name – apologies to all the Jehovah Witnesses that come calling at our doors.
YHWH is the name used more than 6,500 times in the Old Testament to name God. Another name widely used for God in the Old Testament is the name Elohim. This name is used more than 2600 times in the Bible.
The interesting thing about the name, Elohim, is that this word is plural. Thus we hear in the first chapter of Genesis, “Then God (Elohim) said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness … (Genesis 1:26). Of course, in our Christian understanding – God is a plural entity – whom we call the Trinity. So, of course, we speak of God in plural terms.
Now, brothers and sisters, I’m not trying to get us caught up in all kinds of linguistic folderol and foolishness. But I’m trying to make a point here. And what’s the point, you may well ask? The point is that we need to speak of the Almighty in more personal terms than merely speaking of God as God. We know from the New Testament that Jesus spoke of God as his “Abba” – Father. This personal name has been used in Christianity ever since the first Gospel was completed.
But we must also be careful here because while we may say that God “fathers” us – it is equally true that God “mothers” us. God “brothers us” - God “sisters us” - God “befriends” us. It is understandable to use masculine terms – but it is also understandable to use feminine terms. Sisters and brothers, whoever God is – God is primarily about relationships. And when we speak about the Almighty – I believe it is best to use language which highlights the relationships we have with the Almighty.
To speak about God only as God – does a great disservice to God. Yet the problem of “naming” God remains. As the theologian Brian Wren writes in What Language Shall I Borrow?: “However hallowed by tradition, however enriching and suggestive however profoundly they move us, our metaphors and names for God are not themselves God … The fact that many Christians … seem to regard their God-language as directly describing God suggests that much educational and (preaching) work needs to be done.”
Brothers and sisters, we need to ponder our understanding and our naming of God. God can only be approached cautiously, using metaphors as a way to bridge the enigmatic chasm between God and us. As Wren comments: “What the best God-metaphors do (though they may do more) is express the impact God has on us and to point to important qualities of (that God-human) relationship.”
Sisters and brothers, our God-language serves little purpose unless it helps us experience God. Our God-language serves little purpose unless it places us in the way of God, so to speak. We would do well to develop our imaginations – our religious creativity – when it comes to speaking of the Almighty.
What names shall we use to speak of the Creator of All There Is? What names shall we use to speak of the One Who Brings Us Freedom and Rest? What names shall we use to speak of the One Who Heals Our Souls? What names shall we use to speak of the Alpha and the Omega? What names shall we use to speak of the One in Whom We Live, Move, and Have Our Being (as our brother Paul names God in the Book of Acts)?
Sisters and brothers, God is much, much, much larger than the universe. God is a personal being in whom everything exists. As Paul asserts - We are in God. We live within God. We move within God. God is a Mystery who is beyond all names. God cannot be named. This is what the third commandment signifies.
We would well remember what Proverbs 18:10 tells us: “The name of the Lord Yahweh is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.” And let us not forget Psalm 20, verse 7: “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we trust in the name of YHWH, our God.”
Brothers and sisters, how we speak of God is vitally important. I believe we do a disservice to the Almighty when we casually call the Creator and Sustainer of All – “God.” Let us use our imagination to fashion better ways of speaking of the Almighty – better metaphors for describing who the Almighty is and what the Almighty does. I personally prefer to speak of God as “The Source of All Life and All Love.” I used to go around the country leading week-long retreats for religious sisters under the title “Loving the Source of Love.”
I believe some no longer believe in God because of the poverty of our God-language. Our God-language needs poets and preachers to come forward and help us fashion suitable understandings and language for the One who is beyond words, the One who is greater than anything we can possibly imagine or dream. Let us together strive not to take the name of the Almighty in vain. But let us strive to deepen our understanding of this ultimate, indescribable being in whom everything living lives and moves.
Let’s end with Moses. When Moses at the burning bush experiences the call to lead the people from slavery, he asks God for his name. The name which God gives, in Exodus chapter 3, is “Yahweh” – sometimes translated as “I AM WHO I AM.”
In other words, when Moses asks God for God’s name, God answers by saying God is nameless – or better – that God is beyond all names. Moses wishes to pin God down by naming God. God doesn’t allow this to happen. With words, sisters and brothers, we can only come to a partial picture of God.
But, I believe, God has placed God’s sacred name deep within every heart. Our task as believers is to go deep into our hearts so we can find the name written there. And when we find it – we should hold it as precious and not share that sacred name with anyone else. God’s name is written on every heart. This is why God is best experienced not in the head, but in the heart. Amen!