The Holy Name of God
TEXT: Exodus 20:7
The third commandment has to do with concern for the divine name, and that got me to thinking about names in general, and my own name in particular. How many here were named, at least in part, after someone else? I was named after my great Aunt. She was a truly remarkable, talented and gracious woman; and I always felt that Anne Robertson was a special name to have because it had been hers. On the other hand, now even after 40 years, my grandfather can never remember that my first name is spelled with an "e." No matter how many times throughout my life he has been reminded or corrected, he still has trouble remembering--along with other relatives who have given me everything from mugs to hand-woven Christmas stockings with my name spelled wrong.
When I got married, I took my husband's name quite willingly--even though it was a bear to spell--and when I got divorced, I didn't want to let it go and kept it through most of seminary. Eventually, though, I decided to go back to my birth name and went through the legal paperwork to become Robertson once again. I was not prepared for the power of that change. When I left the courthouse as Anne Robertson again, it was as if a life lost returned to me. It was like I was complete again--and that knocked me over because I had never realized anything was missing. Don't let anyone tell you that names are not important. They matter, and they have power.
Think of the number of people you know named Judas. Not many. And I would guess that not many boys born these days into a family named Bundy are named Ted, and that those older Ted Bundy's make a point of going by Theodore. Think of the emotional power of seeing the name of a deceased loved one. The best illustration of this is the Vietnam Memorial in
Now, the point of all of that is this: If our human names have such importance for us, why do we disregard the name of God? The third commandment...Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain...is often thought of as the commandment that forbids profane or vulgar language. That is one little sideline of the commandment, but cursing and swearing are only the tip of a much larger iceberg, and it is the bigger iceberg underneath that sinks most of the ships.
The basic concern of the third commandment is concern for the divine reputation. It is an extension of the first commandment to have no other gods. The progression of the first three commandments goes this way...don't have any other gods before me...including things that you have made that only partially represent me. Those things cannot contain me or represent me. When you start doing that you are messing up my reputation and I don't want my name smeared through the mud. The third commandment insists on respecting God's reputation in the same way that the eighth commandment, Thou shalt not bear false witness, insists on respecting the reputations of other people. Just as we are not to slander and spread false reports about other people, so we are not to attribute to God things that are not divine.
The biggest violation of the second commandment today is not making little stone gods to worship, but of insisting that God be shaped exactly like a certain political platform, social agenda or doctrine. In the same way, the biggest violation of the third commandment today is not not people saying "g.d. this or Jesus that." The biggest misuse of God's name today is people publicly naming themselves as Christians and living like devils.
This was one of the basic problems that Jesus had with the Jewish leadership of his day. Jews were very careful about the name of God. It was considered so sacred that it could not even be spoken, and is not to this day. Wherever the name of God appeared in Scripture and someone was reading it aloud, they substituted the word "Adonai," which means "Lord." When scribes copied the Scriptures and came to write the name of God, they had to stop, wash their clothes and take a bath before they could come back to the desk and write God's name. If God's name appeared four times in a sentence, they took four baths and washed their clothes four times. A Jew could be stoned to death for saying God's name.
You would think that all of that would count as not taking God's name in vain. They certainly didn't use God's name flippantly or without thinking. But what they failed to see, as we also fail to see so often, is that as God's people, they themselves bore the name of God. When other nations wanted to know what the god of the Jews was like, they watched how the Jews behaved. They looked to see whether they practiced what they preached. The issue was not so much how the actual name of God was spoken or written, just as the issue today is not so much about cursing and swearing. We should be careful about those things, but those things aren't the heart of the matter.
The heart of the third commandment is protecting God's reputation. It is the issue of who we proclaim God to be through the way we live our lives. As Christians, we have taken the name of God, the name of Christ, upon ourselves. At our baptism, we are a new creation and we have placed ourselves under the name of Jesus. Every word we speak from then on...every muscle we move, every moment of our waking or sleeping, we are proclaiming to the world what it means to be Christian.
I remember as a child hearing my pastor say in a sermon, "You may be the only Bible that some people ever read." That stuck with me, and it scared me. What were people reading when they looked at my life? Was I bringing honor to the name I claimed to represent? This is the searing question of the third commandment. When I speak, am I bringing honor to the name of God or am I dragging God through the mud? Are people drawn to the church because of the way I live my life, or am I one of those people that gives the church a bad name?
The prophet Micah tells us that all God requires of us is to live justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Are we fair and just with all people? Is our justice tempered with mercy? Are we humbly walking with the God who is greater than us? In those times that we fail in justice, in mercy, in humility, we break the third commandment. We have taken the name of the Lord God, and associated it with sin. The commandment reminds us that this is not something God takes lightly.
The reputation of God and the church in our world today is mostly laughable. God is not taken seriously in many areas, and what is even worse, God is coming to be seen by some as the enemy of justice and mercy rather than as their source. And that reputation is not the work of the unchurched. That reputation has been built solidly, brick by brick, by God's own people, by those who call themselves Christian. We look at the violence in our nation today and realize we have to do something. Who wasn't horrified to see teens gunned down in their church as they worshipped God?
But as we speak out against the physical violence threatening ourselves and our children, I think that in a lot of corners the church has some real soul searching to do to recognize our part in a violent society. Maybe we don't take guns and mow people down, but we often commit spiritual violence against those we are called to love.
When our first words to someone are an accusation that they will suffer the fires of hell, that is spiritual violence. When we tell a mother that she killed her child because she didn't have enough faith when she prayed, that is spiritual violence. When we imply that Christian lives are more important than Hindu lives, when we insist that some people are not fit to worship in our pews because of their lifestyle, when we consider others outside of the mercy of God because of their beliefs and agendas do not coincide with ours, we are committing spiritual violence. Our nation needs to repent of its violence, and the church needs to be the first on its knees, fasting and repenting in sackcloth and ashes for the violence it does daily to children of God.
I want to walk a careful line in what I say here. Every one of us has broken this commandment at one time or another. I have, many times. And that's not a good thing. It is sin, and the proper response to it is confession and repentance. But the good news of the Gospel is that where there is repentance, there is always forgiveness...completely undeserved, total forgiveness. That's what we call "grace." This is not meant to be a sermon of condemnation that threatens the fires of hell. That would be more spiritual violence.
The point is not to make anybody feel guilty, except maybe for the instant that it takes to recognize a specific sin, repent of it, and receive forgiveness. What I do want is to help everyone here remember that we represent our God every minute of every day. I want to make the point that people are won to Christ--not so much by what we say, but by watching the difference our faith makes in our lives. Probably the most common complaint I hear about the church is that it is full of hypocrites. That is both a fair and an unfair assessment. It is fair because...well, we are. We all are. To the extent that I believe I should live my life according to the teachings of Jesus and then don't...I am a hypocrite, and I will always be until I am perfect. It is also fair because in our eagerness to focus on the wonderful grace of God that accepts us as we are, we have not mentioned much that once we have committed ourselves to joining the church, we should at least be trying to be better. Coming to church should not be viewed simply as a "get out of jail free" card, but that is often the case.
To say that the church is full of hypocrites is in that sense true. But it has an unfair aspect to it as well. To make that accusation neglects to take certain things into account. For one thing, it ignores intention. I fail to live up to the mandate of a holy life quite often. But that isn't because I'm not trying. It's because living up to it is hard. I am doing the best I can. I've gotten better at it as time has gone on, but perfection is still a good ways off.
The accusation also fails to realize that...as one person once put it... "The church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints." The whole doctrine of grace says that God is willing for us to start our spiritual journey from wherever we are. We don't have to reach a certain level of goodness before we can become a follower of Christ and part of the church. The people who walk through the doors of a church are at all places along the road. Some have just walked in to see what it's all about. Others have been on the journey for a lifetime and already have a lot of the kinks worked out. Those who are just beginning have only the faintest idea of what being a Christian might mean.
To look from the outside at a church that opens its doors to anyone and everyone with even the slightest interest in what is going on and expect perfect Christian discipleship from all of them is unfair. It's like saying that every student from Kindergarten on through grad school should understand and be able to do everything that a University Professor should know...they're in school, they're students...they should know. They are all learning, they are all (most of them) trying, but it's a process, it takes time. Faith is no different.
What I am trying to say this morning, though, is that we have got to remember that our faith and our actions are linked...and people are watching. We can't be perfect overnight...it will take a lifetime if it is even possible at all. But we should at least be trying to be better than we are. Remember that the calling of the Jews at the first Pentecost on
That's what Jesus did...why we talk about Jesus as the revelation of God. Jesus revealed to us the nature of God by the way that he lived. Jesus was God in human form. As the Body of Christ, that is what we are also. We are the continuing incarnation of Christ in the world, and every single thing we do on every single day is proclaiming to the world the nature of the God we say we serve. What do our lives say about our God? Now, before somebody really panics, let me also say that when we fall short, we can even use our sin to proclaim the grace and mercy of God. It often does people outside the faith a lot of good when they can see a model of someone admitting mistakes, taking responsibility for their sin, and receiving the forgiveness that can only come from real love.
The real damage from breaking this commandment comes from those professing Christians who somehow have convinced themselves that the way they live their lives has nothing to do with their faith. They are the ones who call themselves Christian but think that examining our actions to see if they bring honor to God is a silly or pointless exercise.
What I want to be clear is that our job as Christians is to make sure that Jesus Christ continues to be present and active in ministry to the world. That is the job of the Church--the Body of Christ. Whatever job we have to make our money, whatever roles we have as parents or spouses or teachers or citizens are only incidental. If they are not used to bring honor and glory to God Almighty by enabling us to be Christ for others, they are nothing more than dust and ashes.
I hope this sounds radical. If it doesn't, you haven't understood what I'm saying. I'm saying that other people either are drawn to or repelled by faith in Jesus Christ by what they see us doing. Not what they see us doing in church. What they see us doing at home, at work, in your car, at the store. What you yell at a football game has more impact on the faith of others than the prayers you recite here. Will God send us to hell if we mess up? No. There is always forgiveness. Will there be real and serious damage done to the others in this world that we are called to love? Yes. Is all of that really scary? It should be.
I want you to understand that being up here scares the living daylights out of me. Not because it's frightening to speak in public, I have no fears of that. Being up here scares me because God will one day require an accounting from me for every word I have spoken. Scripture tells me that. I'm sure that when I meet God face to face he will be banging his head against the wall saying, "You told them WHAT?!!" I'll probably have to spend my first few months in heaven repairing the walls. It is a scary calling.
As Christians we have taken the name of God upon ourselves...are we taking that name in vain?
© 1999, Anne Robertson