Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from Jesus Christ, whose name is Holy. Amen.
We like to play games with names. We do. It can be a way of expressing affection, or the closeness of a relationship. Throughout my life, my friends and family have given me nicknames include things like Buegs, Buegmeister, Toddly, Toddster, and my personal favorite, Toddles.
Names can also be used as a weapon, to express disrespect. To bend someone’s name in a way that is negative can express insult and be intended to hurt people. You know that old expression “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Yeah, that’s not true. My guess is that most people in this room can recall some time or way that names caused you pain or discomfort.
Identity is important; and it begins with names. We all know that. And we all have experienced the good and the bad sides of that.
When I was in college, we used to play a game. I think I’ve talked about it before. We called it “yanking.” When we’d see one of our friends in a crowded room like the cafeteria or the sports center, without making eye-contact, or even facing them, we’d call out their name and then watch their heads spin as they worked to identify who had called out to them. “Jim!” And just as they’d give up we’d do it again…just to see how long it would take for them to figure out they’d been yanked. And they would do the same to us.
Yeah, we were mature.
But the goal became the best and most unusual yanks. “How far could we make them spin? How long could we make them look?” We yanked our friends, the faculty, the college chaplain; my personal victory was yanking the college president…but the all time best yank award went to my friend John, who, at Gustavus’ “Parents Weekend” went to the 3rd floor of Old Main during a reception on the mall below, opened a window and shouted “Hey, Mom!” 300 heads spin. It. Was. Awesome.
Identity is important; and it all begins with names; and people love to hear their name called. Psychologists have said that one of the primary tasks of adolescence, between the ages of 12 and 18, is the formation of identity. During these ages, young people are exploring their independence and developing a sense of self. And their identity, it begins with their name.
But I would argue that this isn’t just an adolescent process. We spend our entire lives sorting out our identity. As we move through stages of life, we are trying to figure out who we are relative to God and to each other.
This is also why faith formation across the age spans is so critical. Whatever age we are, it sets the stage for the rest of our lives. It places the foundation, on which we continue to grow into who God envisions us to be. And understanding our identity is the first stage in faith formation.
So, I think it’s fascinating that when God gave the Ten Commandments, God began with God’s own identity. He begins with “I am God.” Second, “this is my name. Respect it.”
Today we are focusing on this 2nd Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
In this Commandment, God is establishing the importance of who God is for the sake of the Israelite people. We have to pay attention to the context of the commandments for this to really make sense to us:
Remember that the Israelites had been slaves to the Egyptians for generations. It was a terrible existence. As slaves, their lives were worth nothing. The days were long and back-breaking; there was hunger; there was mistreatment; there was violence and there was death. The Pharaoh’s philosophy was “we work the slaves until they die, and then we get another slave.”
The Israelite’s had long felt abandoned by God. They felt alone. They forgot their identity as God’s chosen people. They lived in a culture of despair. Finally, after some serious intervention by God, working through Moses, who looked surprisingly like Charlton Heston, the Israelites were set free, and sent on their journey to the Promised Land.
But here’s the thing: after generations of feeling alone, this Israelites, I’m convinced, had forgotten who God was. God had become a stranger to them. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God began the commandments with identity. “I am your God. Have no other Gods before me.” And, “Honor my name.”
Keep in mind that the Commandments, written by God, were not intended simply as a list of rules to whip into shape a particularly stubborn group of people. God was up to much more here. God intended these Commandments to form and nurture a new community, bound together by a loyalty to God, who had chosen to redeem them from a life of slavery and bondage. God literally intended these Commandments as a promise of a new future for the Israelites; as in, “if you live this way, your life will be full of joy and hope.” These commandments were about living a life of radical commitment to God and of compassion for the neighbor. These commandments were about living not in a culture of despair, but in a culture of honor; honoring God and honoring each other. Embedded in the DNA of the commandments is God’s grace.
Fast-forward thousands of years, and ultimately, I believe these Ten Commandments are still all about identity…God’s identity and ours.
Each of the commandments is an obvious “Do not.” “Do not kill…do not steal…do not be greedy…” But each commandment also has a somewhat less obvious “do.” As in “while you shouldn’t do this…you should do this.”
So the 2nd Commandment says: “don’t misuse God’s name.”
Well, the “Do not” part of this seems pretty clear: Don’t do it. Just don’t. Don’t use God’s name when you don’t mean it…and when it’s not in some way that brings honor to God or to others.
God’s name isn’t a curse, nor is it a punch line. The scriptures teach us that God’s name itself is Holy. Indeed the Israelites wouldn’t even speak the name of God, for fear of the power of that name. And to use God’s name as a curse word was completely unthinkable.
To call on God when we don’t mean it is to disrespect our relationship with God, and it is to place our own will above of the will of God. The interesting word in the commandment is the word “Vain.” What does “Vain” mean? It’s used here in the same way we use the word “vanity.” A vain person is someone who looks in the mirror in a self absorbed way…one of the dictionary definitions is “worthless or futile.” So to use God’s name in vain is to use it in an empty, worthless and way…without meaning.
To use God’s name in vain is akin to “yanking” God. Because God promised that when we call, God will answer. When we use God’s name in vain, God looks for us. And we aren’t looking back. We are using God’s name in a meaningless way. We are yanking God.
To do this is to disrespect and fracture our relationship with God; and you know what we call it when our relationship with God is fractured: We call that sin.
Again you remember how much it can hurt when names are used in an empty way, or to cause pain. So don’t. Don’t do it. Don’t use God’s name in vain. It’s simple.
But hidden within this commandment there is also a “Do.” So what does this commandment tell us we should do?
This commandment tells us that our relationship with God should be one of honor. We should Honor God.
Martin Luther explains in his Small Catechism that “we should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” We are to call on God.
Luther would argue that the Israelites went too far in choosing to not even speak God’s name. Luther would say that we are to respect God’s name by using it…by calling on God in trouble, prayer, praise and thanksgiving. God wants us to use God’s name. God wants a relationship with you.
I remember shortly after I graduated from college, I had my first apartment…I had my first real job, I had insurance…a pension…you know, real grown up stuff.
I remember sitting in the kitchen in my small apartment, trying to get my retirement stuff sorted out. I was 23 and didn’t have a clue. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. So I called my Dad and asked his opinion. I remember that it was a helpful conversation.
Later, my Mom told me that after that conversation, Dad came up from his study. “Todd just called me.” “That’s nice” she said. “For advice.” “Todd called, for advice?” “Yeah,” Dad said. “Advice…from me.” And he had a very surprised look on his face.
Apparently, I had had a bit of an independent streak. So for me to call on my Dad; for me to connect and ask for advice, meant a lot to him, and now I realize, to me. It brought him happiness, perhaps even joy, that I called on him for help. Now, 27 years later, I would give almost anything to be able to call on my Dad’s name again and to hear him answer.
Likewise, God seeks relationship with us. God asks us to call His name. Not as a punch line or a curse; but as ones deep in relationship. To call on God,
- When we need advice
- When we need help
- When we feel like we’re in over our head
- When we’re not sure what to do
This is to call on God in a way that brings honor. It brings happiness, even joy to God when we call on Him for help. And God promises you that he will always be there. He will always hear you.
The 2nd Commandment tells us not to take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
To do so is disrespectful. It breaks relationship. We all forget from time to time, who God is for us, as surely as the Israelites did. And for that, we can count on God’s forgiveness through Jesus.
But even more, to follow this commandment is to honor the God who redeems us. It is to deepen our relationship. It brings God joy. It brings God honor.
Speak God’s name. God is listening.