Sermon: “Using God’s Name” July 9, 2017
Texts: Matthew 5:33-38 and Deuteronomy 5: 6 – 11
Theme: “You shall not take the name of the Lord Your God in vain”
Today we’re talking about the third commandment or third “word” in our series on the Ten Commandments this summer. The well known translation of this commandment is: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
When I was a kid I thought this commandment was primarily about curse words and using bad language. In our house growing up, there were words we were not allowed to say. “Shut up” was bad and was not allowed in our house. I can still hear my younger sister Erika when she was really mad and trying to avoid saying shut up, “you shuuuuush”. We could say poop, but not crap. And shit was certainly off limits. The f-word never and was considered awful. Absolutely forbidden was taking God’s name and then put “damn” after it, or to say “Jesus” or “Christ” as an expression of anger, or in any way that was not reverent or as part of a prayer. I didn’t know it at the time, but these prohibitions were teaching me in subtle ways that there is power in the words we use – we can create good things with words, or we can do great harm with words. I was also being taught that using God’s name was a serious matter. To take and use God’s name in a way that was empty or false – this was dangerous and could cause harm.
We could spend some time talking about curse words and profanity – when words might be appropriate or not…but I don’t want to go down that road because though this is related to the third commandment, cursing and bad language is not primarily what this commandment is about.
If the third commandment were about bad language, we could all make that shift and be successful in our obedience! But like all the commandments, I am learning, they demand more of us, more thought and challenge – they reach into the depths of our lives and ask more of us. The commandments are intended to keep us on the path of Life that Yahweh intends for us. Each commandment is given to pull us toward the heart of the matter: what it means to love God and love our neighbor and ourselves.
So what is the third commandment primarily about?
A close literal translation to the third commandment in Hebrew is: “You shall not lift up on your lips to utter the divine name for emptiness or for lying”. There is a lot of flexibility in the Hebrew which is why we get so many different translations:
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God
You shall not use the name of God for evil purposes
You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.
Now understand “name of God” is synonymous with the “presence of God” for the Hebrew people. Using the name of God there is great power there – it’s like using God. “Don’t take and use God in order to do harmful things.” You can see now that the command is getting at something deeper…
Jesus took the translation “you shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord” and made it more radical – got to the root of it – by saying, actually don’t swear at all. Because if you have to swear on top of your YES, then that means that your YES doesn’t really mean anything. Ordinary language doesn’t bear any weight if you have to swear. Mean what you say, and say what you mean! If you’re committed to speaking truth – to letting your yes be yes and your no be no…swearing is not necessary. Jesus was concerned here about how reverencing God’s name has much to do with the integrity of the human being and being concerned for truthfulness in your speech. And how speaking truthfully effects life in community and relates to loving your neighbor. This is one way we could talk about this commandment – and it’s how Jesus addressed it.
- There are so many ways we could talk about this commandment but we can begin to see how there is an underlying concern with this commandment that we take care not to use God’s name without a concern for truth and without concern for God and God’s way in the world.
Let me give a few examples of how I see us struggle. What feels close to me is related to my vocation as a preacher. I might even say that Preachers are in the greatest danger zone in regard to this commandment. Many preachers get paid to talk about God! You can see where this is going.. Hopefully we’re doing more than just talking about God, we’re also doing God-work. But God-talk is a part of it.
And when you talk about God a lot, it doesn’t take much to slip into that place of beginning to use God. “Using” God to support an argument, or your own agenda, your own thing you want to accomplish or that sermon you really want to preach and so now I just need to go find some quotes and Bible passages where God says what I want God to say so that I can say what I really want to say…but WITH AUTHORITY! Because I’ve got God’s name attached to my words!. You see this danger zone?
Side note: This is actually in part why the lectionary was designed so that there would be assigned readings every week – to prevent preachers from doing too cherry picking of Scripture. Instead the Scriptures are to lead us, so that we take the position of following and listening first! It’s actually easy to slip into the God-usage business, it’s more difficult to be in a following and seeking position with God because our tendency is to want to control. Preachers especially – need to carry this commandment in their pocket – be careful not to use God’s name for your own agenda, and without a concern for speaking the truth. This is harder than it sounds, and I’ll be one to admit it.
But preachers are not the only ones who struggle with this: We treat God sometimes as if God is only worthy of our attention when God is useful to us. We do this in prayer. We pray when we think God will be useful, and only then.
Now I’m not belittling our prayers of petition. We ought to bang on the doors of heaven ask for what we need. This is good and important.
But my point is that there’s a way we can come to treat God as if God was a can of tuna in the grocery store. Wow, how I just really need some tuna today! It’s cheap – easy to use, and meets my needs. God is my tuna: cheap, easy to use, meets my needs. Or if you don’t like tuna – insert other favorite protein snack.
How easy it is to talk about God and to God, when God seems useful to us.
But God does not exist for our usage of God. God is our end, not our means to an end.
Another example of the ease of transgressing this commandment, is looking around us at examples in our culture. Think about how church folk talk about success in ministry! How it seems that when your church is growing and the dollars are pouring in, THEN God is really blessing us! Good Money equals God’s Blessing. Do you see how easily God’s name can become entangled with capitalistic values. Our ideas of success are about getting more and bigger and richer, and we don’t allow God to be God and challenge this notion in our culture, so God simply becomes the rubber stamp to affirm our capitalistic values. This is an example taking using God’s name, without a concern for truth.
This past weekend I was listening to Bishop Yvette Flunder speak about entrepreneurial church work, and she made the statement, “Y’know fear can grow your church.” (in numbers that is). You could grow your church based on fear: preaching fear of the afterlife, fear of going to hell and people will be motivated to tithe, you can preach fear of LGBTQIA folks coming and destroying your families – they’re coming to get ya! And so we have to protect our families! You can grow your church based on fear. We can use God’s name to justify our fears. Think about how powerful that is in our country today. Using God’s name to justify and approve of our fears.
I have to say this because this is such a strong current in our culture – preying on people’s fears. The President has honed the skill of preaching to fear. At the same time I was listening to Bishop Yvette Flunder, the President was giving a speech at the Kennedy Center at the “Celebrate Freedom” event in NY. He was speaking to an audience of mostly Evangelical Christians, it was an event sponsored by a mega church in Dallas Texas. Playing to their fears, the President said, y’know they’re gonna take away our ability to say Merry Christmas. Who’s “they” anyway? The Muslims? “You can take everything away, but I will stand on my right to say Merry Christmas in public.” I mean really? This is sad. There’s something really wrong here. But people were cheering at his words. He speaks effectively to people’s fears. Using God’s name or in this instance Christ’s name – as a rubber stamp to bolster the authority of our fears. It’s effective. And what does this do? This is not only a violation of truth, but it’s also a violation of God and God’s way and a violation of Christ and who Jesus Christ is, and way of Christ. It is a violation of the third commandment and it’s doing harm to us. It’s harming us as Christians and it’s doing harm to our Muslim siblings.
I actually think that the first amendment which the president was supposedly speaking about, to ensure the free exercise of religion this is really something to think critically about how the free exercise of religion is under threat in our country today but the people under threat are not Christians! Our Muslim siblings on the other hand are under great attack. We could spend some time talking about the #muslimban – what that’s done to escalate fear and violence or the fact that hate crimes against Muslims have been on the rise, we could talk about the importance of the vigil that was held and organized by Raquel for Nabra, the young Muslim woman who was murdered. To be concerned for the truth in this matter – the truth of our speech, and the harm we can do when we take and use God’s name to stir up our fears and legitimize them – the harm we can do to each other. God is concerned about this. The third commandment is serious and demands our attention because if we violate it – repeatedly – we end up destroying one another and community. The commandments are given so that we might find Life and Liberation. We’ve got to speak out against these lies, and we’ve got to be the people who are concerned for truth.
A few weeks ago when we started this series we talked about how the first commandment is not actually a commandment in Jewish Rabbinic tradition. In Rabbinic Judaism, the first commandment is actually just a first “Word”: And that first word, upon which all the commandments flow is God self-identifying as the
“One who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”
All commands that come from YHWH flow from God’s self-identification as a God who gives Life and Liberation. God is the movement out of bondage into freedom. And God pursues the liberation of humanity and creation every which way so that when we are in that liberation struggle with God, we are close to God’s heart. Close to God.
The narrow path we are called into is the path of Liberation and Life. It takes guts, and risk, it takes thoughtfulness, and humility, it takes strength, and faith, and community to stay on this narrow path. The third commandment is given to protect us from running off the course of this path.
May we hold this commandment close in our hearts this week. May you remember that God is your beginning and your end, not your means to an end. May you be in awe of God’s name and who God is, and not take God’s name lightly. May you be concerned for truth, for telling the truth and for allowing others to speak truth. May you be filled with courage and boldness to speak out against the lies that are hurting and…killing… our siblings.
May the name of God be glorified in our lives. May the name of the Black Jesus be glorified in us and in our lives as we strive to witness to the way of truth and life.