The Unspeakable Name
Exodus 20:7; Romans 8:15-16
September 27, 2015
While I was at Duke, I took a course in Hebrew. As most all of you know, the two original languages in which our Holy scripture was written were the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Thus, a vast majority of those preparing in seminary for ministry take courses in these two languages in order to understand the nuances of each language and to gain a primer in the deep texture of many of the words, phrases and ideas. After all, it is so easy for the ideas and spirit behind words and phrases in their original languages to be lost as they are translated into modern speech.
To say that these courses make one fluent in the two languages is a gross overstatement. On many days, my working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is roughly on par with what many of you remember from your days in High School Latin or the course you took in Spanish or French as a college freshman. I know – sad isn’t it!?!
One thing I do remember clearly, however, from Hebrew class had to do with the way that the Israelites treated the name of God and the way that many Jewish people today still reverence God’s name. The original word for God in Hebrew is Yahweh which comes from the Hebrew verb hayah which means to be. If you remember Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush then you recall that Moses asked the name of God and the reply was “I am who I am” tell them that the “I am” sent you. Thus hayah, again the verb “to be”, became Yahweh the God who is.
When the Israelites would see this name, the name of God, while reading the scripture, they would not pronounce it. They would either skip over it after a pause of silence or they would substitute the name Adoni which means the Lord. Either way, God, the god who simply existed was so powerful, holy and mysterious, that they were not worthy to pronounce his name.
In Hebrew class, in order to appreciate how the Israelites read the text, and to understand how carefully they treated God’s name, we too would skip the name or substitute Adoni as we read scripture in class together.
For me, as a young man having grown up in a Christian home where the name of God was uttered daily, it lead me to a reverence and respect for God’s name that had never been fostered in my life in quite such a way up until that point. To a degree, God and naming God was simply a part of our everyday vocabulary and we rarely thought twice about uttering God’s name.
And yet, that original Israelite reverence, I think, is at the heart of our command for today. Its the third command among the ten in which the Israelites are instructed “not make any wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord, will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
When we hear this, we immediately go toward those who use God’s name in connection with profanity or in a derogatory way. And, without question, this is a proper reading of this command. We should never use the name of God in such a flippant and inappropriate way. I know that many of you are like me in that there is nothing that makes you cringe more than to hear God’s name used in connection with words that at least some in our culture still deem to be inappropriate language. There really is nothing excusable about this type of careless and thoughtless speech no matter how bad life might be in the moment. To use God’s name in connection with such language shows our immaturity and our shallowness. It certainly doesn’t display that we are mature, sophisticated or macho.
But, to stop there and to interpret this command in only this way is to miss the deeper water associated with this law of God. For, while we may not be tempted to use God’s name in a profane way, do we, as people who speak God’s name on a daily basis, approach God’s name with the reverence, holiness and care that uttering the name of God demands? Is there truly anything about the way that we handle God’s name in our speech that comes close to the Jewish attitude that so revered God’s name that they felt unworthy to even utter it?
I remember going with Ann Marie years ago to Pearl Harbor outside of Honolulu. Everyone there spoke in hushed tones or said nothing at all. In fact, as I recall, anyone who spoke at a normal tone or who displayed anything but a somber attitude was quickly given an evil look are asked to be more respectful. After all, Pearl Harbor is one of the most significant spots in our nation from a historical perspective. It is also understood to be a National Cemetery since so many lives were lost there and were unable to be recovered. Pearl Harbor as a place demands our respect, our reverence and that we act with a more careful and measured behavior.
Yet, at times, we seem well able to embrace this concept with Pearl Harbor but we never seemed to give it much thought with God.
At the same time, the New Testament seems to offer the exact opposite side of the coin. Such is the case with the passage that we read a few moments ago from Romans where Paul says that we should refer to God as Daddy for after all, he is our heavenly father and we are his earthly children. Paul implies here a more casual, relaxed, relational approach to God. Rather than the Holy Other who demands our reverence and our awe, God in this passage from Romans invites us to sit on his knee that we might receive a pat on the head or simply enjoy the day together in one another’s company.
Do you remember Scout from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? Scout didn’t call her parent by a title of respect like father, dad or even daddy. She called him by his first name – Atticus. It was a way in which Scout insinuated that she was a liberated child and that she and Atticus had reached a different point in her relationship with him.
In essence, Paul is suggesting the same thing. Through Jesus, things have changed, we are at a different point. The word not is “Abba Father” not holy other. So, which is right? Exodus or Romans? How doe we keep the third command and honor the Lord’s name. Does it mean not even saying the words and holding God’s name at all times in Holy Reverence or is living a liberated viewpoint through Christ’s work on our behalf? Is the appropriate word now indeed daddy?
I think the answer is both not either/or. I also think the growing person of faith embraces both sides of this coin and finds a way to maintain and respect the call to live with a quite dignity and reverence while at the same time affirming Romans by finding a way to completely buy into the relational side of God that breaks down barriers between us and the one who is Holy.
So, how do we do that? Let me mention three possibilities very quickly. First, I do think we need to recover a reverence for God’s name and for Holy places. Our modern world is a much more casual world in the way that we dress, in the way that approach each other and in the way that we think about Holy things. Now, don’t hear me wrong. There is something in all of this that is good. I don’t think faith was ever meant to be all starched shirts and “thees and thous”. But to run in the opposite direction is to throw out the baby with the bath water. When we pray, we need to recognize that we are entering the very presence of God. When we speak of God, we need to appreciate who it is that we are speaking of. And, when we enter this place, our church or any other house of worship for that matter, we should come into these spaces as if they are any other building because they are not. This is where we come to meet with God each week and we must reverence it as such as well as teach our children to do the same.
Second, I think we need to recover dedicated time each day for God that is quite, reverent and special. The chance to pray, to read God’s word or to pause and reflect isn’t something else to check off our daily list. This is an appointed time to meet with the God of all creation, the very one who created us. So, find a time and a quiet place to do this. Be committed to it and in the process, see it as the sacred time and space that it is.
But third, I would invite us at the same time to know that God wants to love us and to be in relationship with us. The call to know the God of the Bible made known isn’t a call to an uncomfortable, judgmental relationship with a God that is hard for us to talk to or who exists totally separated from us. God really does want us to be in a relationship with him and be loved by him just as we are. If you are here and you don’t know Christ or you are here and you don’t have a church home, this is why we so want you to have these things – because quite frankly there are no relationships that come anywhere close to the one that God offers to us. No one will ever love you in the way that God will. And, in spite of its flaws, and there are many, no place will ever exhibit that love to you in a way that the church does.
This dual reverence for God – the Holy one who yet wants to be in an authentic relationship with us really does have its natural conclusion in the parental term that Paul speaks of. Think about – when we say the words Mom or Dad we are speaking on two levels – a parent for who we have respect and reverence but also a parent who we know loves us.
I remember a friend that I grew up with named Eric. I have thought about him a lot this week. Eric was a rough and tumble kid who was abandoned by his parents. He was taken in by a widow in our church who lived in a big house whose name was Joyce. She came to love him and Eric came to love her. Without question, he was rough around the edges and struggled to get beyond his tough, hard nosed persona. But, he began to call her Mama J. Mama J – because of how much he revered and honored what she had done for him. He respected her like now other. But, Mama J too – because she was the only mother he had. She loved him and he was so thankful for it.
This is how I think we put the third command and the New Testament together. Recovering our respect and reverence but never abandoning the relationship side either. When we do both, we love God fully and completely. Amen.