Church, it’s hard to stand before you and claim there is a good word to preach this morning. I have wrestled this week with the climate of our nation, as I know you have as well. I have struggled to see justice in any of the actions we have witnessed this past week – from Dallas, to Baton Rouge; from Minnesota to Georgia.
I’ve been torn this week about what a faithful message from God’s word would be in a nation that still suffers from the failure to hold true the most basic and foundational tenants of the document we celebrated just one week ago: our nation’s own declaration of independence, which states in the second sentence that one of the most self-evident truths we uphold is that all men are created equal. It appears to me that in our great nation, while we like to celebrate our independence, this truth is not so self-evident. It’s quite clear we do not yet believe that all are created equal. It appears that many in our nation believe themselves more righteous than others. It appears that some feel themselves more entitled than others. It is clear these truths are not as self-evident as our founders claimed.
I wanted to jump ship for this week. I struggled with a desire to leave our focus on the Ten Commandments and to pick up another text that would speak more directly to the issues that we see causing such dissention in our nation. I spent a great deal of time in prayer, discerning how I could address such brokenness in one simple twenty-minute sermon. I realized it was not possible – it would take 30 to 40 minutes at least. In truth, I felt that nothing I could say would be more pertinent to the issues at hand than to continue our focus on the most basic of tenants of our faith – the 10 Commandments.
What I found in reading through this morning’s text was a sufficient response for the problems we have experienced at large this past week. To address such issues, I found myself first having to admit that the events of the past week are not revealing new phenomena in our nation – they are not new problems that are surfacing. The outbursts of the past week are indicative of problems that have always been present in our communities across this nation and world. As I saw multiple times across my newsfeed, the truth of the matter is that these problems have always existed, we just see them more now with the widespread access of cameras and social media.
The 10 Commandments were offered by God to the people of Israel through the servant Moses as they were fleeing the kind of systemic injustices that we see still plaguing our society today. The reality of the Israelites is that so long as they lived in Egypt, they were never going to be treated as equals. They were believed to be, and were treated as such, a lesser ethic and racial community. God, in carrying out the work of the Redeemer, led the people away from such injustice, and in preparation for a new community – a new and promised land – God gave these 10 Commandments to be the foundational tenants of life lived in right community.
The 10 Commandments addressed two primary relationships. They addressed the direct relationship of the community towards God, and they addressed the many relationships that were the foundation of the community itself. We have covered the first two over the past couple weeks. First, have no gods before The Lord God. There is one true God who is to be worshipped as the sole source of life. And second, do not make images of God. Do not try to create any visual representation of God, for any attempt to do so will surely fail. Having other gods before The Lord God, and seeking to create images of God, are both indicative of the same problem – we want to have control. We want to show that we know what is best for us and for our world. We want to domesticate God to ensure we always end up wielding the power.
Our Third Commandment today is about the use of the name of God. The text in Exodus 20, verse 7, reads, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” Depending on what translation of the Bible you read, you may find this commandment articulated differently. For example, the most common phrasing of this commandment is, “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Our goal in taking up the 10 Commandments is to learn what the commandments meant when first offered to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, and to see how they are still applicable today. This commandment is a difficult one to understand in both the historical context and in our lives today because it has many possible layers of meaning.
It is first to be noted that the name of God, the name which is not to be used wrongfully, is offered to us as a gift. If you think about the creation story, God gives humanity the role of naming the animals as a part of our role of having dominion over the animals. Knowing one’s name is powerful – it gives you power over the other. A good example would be the use of your full name. I like to say the only people who have ever called me by my full name are my mother when yelling at me, and the president of my university upon gifting me my diploma. In both cases, I knew who was in control – and the use of my full name conveyed that it was not me.
God, in giving us a name to be called, is taking the first act of humility. Truly, telling another person your name is in and of itself a very intimate exchange. By granting us a name, in giving us the power of knowing the name of God, we are given a great responsibility.
Herein lies part of the confusion about the application of this commandment. When we look at the historical use of the name of God by the Israelites, we find a very strict practice around speaking the name of God. This third commandment has been used at times to defend the practice of the Jewish faithful to not speak the name of God at all. To understand more fully, we must clarify what is meant in this commandment by the name of God. We so often use terms like Lord, and God to define God, but these are not the name given for God.
In Exodus 3, when Moses is told by God to go back to Egypt to rescue the Israelites, Moses asks the question, “Whom should I say it is that sent me?” Moses wanted to know the name of God, because Moses knew that the people would not listen if he said, “Hear me, Moses, tell you to follow me.” Moses needed a name more powerful than his own to convince the people to leave. So Moses asks, and God responds, “tell them [insert God’s name here, God speaks the name then goes on], the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me unto you.” God gives them a name, which when translated from Hebrew to English, is spelled Y H W H. An almost unpronounceable name, this name is found in multiple places in the ancient text, indicated in many Bibles today by the word “LORD” is small caps. When reading the text, the Jewish faithful have always substituted other words for the proper name of God, such as Jehovah, Adonai, or the Lord God. It is understood in the Jewish faith that the name should never be spoken, so as to avoid the possibility that the use of the name might be spoken in a way that mistreats or misspeaks the name of God.
In its historical context, the commandment was followed quite literally – people sought to avoid speaking the proper name of God at all costs just in case they accidentally used it in an improper way. That’s not to say there aren’t many examples of its abuse throughout the Scriptural text, but the use of the name has been protected throughout the history of Israel. Part of the aversion to saying the name of God in a wrongful way is the addendum to the third commandment. If we read the full text of verse 7, we find that the third commandment includes a named punishment for breaking the commandment. It is the only commandment that includes such a named punishment – not, “Do not kill” or “Do not commit adultery.” The third commandment says, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
To misuse the name of the Lord was directly punishable by what seems to be eternal punishment by God – the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses the name.
Now – I could be wrong in my line of thinking – but such punishment seems like a pretty harsh outcome for saying someone’s name out loud in an inappropriate way. And so I wonder if perhaps this commandment is less about simply speaking the proper name of God in a wrongful way and more about misrepresenting the truth of God when invoking God’s name.
Looking back at last week’s focus on the second commandment, which calls for no images to be made in the likeness of God, one must acknowledge the proximity of these two commandments. The second commandment calls on the prohibition of images of God, because truly no image could faithfully represent the true nature of God. Any image we seek to create for God falls quite short and fails to fully identify the wholeness of God.
Just as creating false images is wrong because it seeks to identify God, who can’t be fully identified, trying to use names for God that indeed misrepresent God is, quite appropriately, also wrong.[i] Thus, to faithfully understand the prohibition of using God’s name today – or the use of God’s name in wrongful ways – we must consider the breadth of ways in which we invoke the name of God. Beyond simply speaking the name of God in ill ways, how else do we represent the name of God in ways that are truly degrading and failing to faithfully represent the very person of God?
In other words, to say that the third commandment is simply a call to clean up our language, is a failure to fully understand the importance of the third commandment in our relationship with God. This commandment has a much more significant call than to cease our cursing, or using God’s name when we are upset and screaming about how miserable life may be at the given moment. This commandment in our lives today should be a call to rule out any use of God’s name that brings harm to anyone, for such use is in direct contradiction to the very nature of God.[ii]
So let’s see how we fail at times today to uphold this commandment in our lives and in our nation:
For starters, when we are called upon to speak on behalf of God, and do not speak the full truth of God, we are breaking the third commandment. For me to stand before you and deliver a sermon in which I watered down or substituted God’s truths for more convenient truths, that would be a direct contradiction to the third commandment. For anyone to stand before you and speak about God in ways that are contradictory to the full nature of God, that is misusing the name of God.
Throughout the history of our world, and certainly still prevalent in society today, we have seen this abuse used in very public ways. We have seen people try to evoke the name of God – to use altered truths of God – for their own personal and political gain. For example, during World War II, the German soldiers had on their helmets the phrase, “Gott Mit Uns,” which means “God with us.” For the Germans, it was a rallying cry, “an Imperial motto, the expression of German religious, political and ethnic single mindedness.”[iii] Used for personal and political gain, it was nothing shy of a wrongful use of God’s name, used to rally a nation around a abusive use of power that simply did not align with the whole truth and nature of God.
In the realm of politics, such abuse of the third commandment is seen quite rampantly. It’s not so much that our politicians are necessarily evil people, but perhaps more so because we – as the people to whom they are speaking – desire the kind of speech they are providing. But it can be argued, that politicians, even with the most heart-felt intent, are indeed misrepresenting the name of God with the simplest of phrases, like “God bless the United States of America.” It’s not that we don’t want God to bless the USA, or that God isn’t present in our midst, but our invoking of God’s name in such a way moves what is being said from a statement or declaration to an intention of promise and commitment on God’s behalf. “Invocation of the Lord’s name makes a claim that there is a third party involved whose reliability is implicitly at stake in the oath.”[iv]
In other words, to swear by the name of God, to claim God’s support of your work, and then to lie or have your integrity called in to question, it brings the integrity of God into question.
Our Matthew passage makes this claim quite boldly. Jesus speaks and says you should not swear by God’s name, or by anything that is created by God. To swear in any case is to call into question your own truthfulness. If you must clarify your response with an oath, using God as a witness, then your honesty is likely in question, and thus, so is the God by whom you swear. As people who are faithful – as people who are known as Christ followers – when your personal character is called into question, the whole of your faith community is called into question – the whole of the church is called into question. Your misrepresentation of right character is indeed an assault to the God who has claimed you as a child, and to the Lord you claim as Savior. Anything you say and or do that does not align with the love of God as witnessed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a breach of the third commandment.
Anything you say on Facebook, on Twitter, on the Metro, in the office, in your house, or while walking on the street – anything uttered from your mouth that goes against the teachings of Jesus is in and of itself using the name of the Lord wrongfully, because you are a living representation of the name of God.
I have truly struggled with the actions of the past week – both of the killing of black men, and the killing of police officers. But as much as I have struggled with the acts themselves, and the deep systemic hatred that is clearly still present in our world, I think I have struggled more with the way people have used their voice in the days that have followed.
I have been offended by the way many have spoken in the past few days. I’ve wanted to reject the God of those whom I’ve heard speaking. These are people who I have long known to be righteous and faithful people; people who I have seen as leaders in the church; even people who would be identified as leaders in the church today. I’ve heard people say who are saying #BlackLivesMatter and #StandtheLine assaulted, and be told that such statements are unfaithful representations of God’s humanity. Since when did claiming that one of God’s children is of importance become an unthinkable act? Since when did we stop thinking that God cared about both BlackLives and about BlueLives? They both matter, and to claim their individual importance should not be seen as an unfaithful act. We should claim #BlackLivesMatter until as world that is no longer in question. We should claim that the lives of our police matter, until that is no longer in question.
We have a great task in the world – we have a lot of work that needs to be done. “It’s a marvelous gift to be a part of a people who, because we have learned faithfully to use God’s name, are thus enabled to call what we do and do not do by their proper names.”[v] That means when we’re killing innocent black men, we call it racism, and we admit we still have work to do in our nation to fully show that all people are created equal. And we have a lot of work to do to ensure law enforcement officers aren’t seen as the only ones to blame for the putrid hatred that still exists in our society between people of varying faiths, cultures, gender, sexual-orientation, or other distinguishable characteristics.
The third commandment calls us to have integrity with God, and to not trivialize God’s power. So may we lift up the name of Jesus, the incarnate God who exhibits the true love and nature of God, and may we speak and live in ways that never call into question the true nature and identity of the one who calls us, equips us, and sends us to be the presence of a loving God in the world. Amen.