On Using the Name of God

Sermon for September 3, 2023

World Communion Sunday’s coming up in a month, so I’ve recently been planning that service. The elders and I have some big plans for that day, so I hope you’re looking forward to it. The theme is going to be Peace. You all don’t know a whole lot of songs about peace, and one that we probably won’t be singing is number 711. It’s called O Day of Peace That Dimly Shines, and it’s one of the prettiest songs in our hymnal… or it would be if we used the correct tune. It should be sung to the English tune, Jerusalem, but in our hymnal it’s to a tune called Candler.

Candler is okay, but I associate only it only with a specific hymn. Methodists are just about the only ones who sing it—it’s Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown. Here’s the first verse:

Come, O thou Traveler unknown, whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee.
With thee all night I mean to stay, and wrestle till the break of day.

Nobody here knows that song, I’ll bet, but it’s considered one of the greatest hymns ever written in English. Charles Wesley actually called it Wrestling Jacob, and he based it on Genesis 32. It’s a mysterious story about when the Patriarch Jacob was traveling back home after years living in a far country. He’d left his twin brother on very bad terms, having cheated him out of his birthright and his father’s blessing. Jacob has no idea how he’s going to be received, so he sends his entire company ahead without him so that he’s left alone to spend the night, wrestling with his fears at the ford of the River Jabbok.

At this point, the Bible tells us that a mysterious being appeared and wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. Jacob tries to get him to bless him, but first the being finds out Jacob’s name and changes it to Israel. But he won’t tell him his own name before suddenly disappearing. Jacob limps away from the encounter, permanently disabled.

The author of Genesis first tells us that the being Jacob encountered was a man. But by the end of the story, we’re told that Jacob had struggled with God. So tradition tells us that Jacob wrestled an angel. According to Charles Wesley’s interpretation, the lone traveler was struggling with the Son of God. And without being told, he discovers the Name he asked for:

My prayer hath power with God; the grace unspeakable I now receive;
through faith I see thee face to face, I see thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove‚—thy nature, and thy Name is Love.
—Charles Wesley (1742)

Now we skip ahead three centuries to find one of Jacob’s descendants on a mountaintop. He is called Moses, and he sees a very curious thing: A bush that is burning, but is not consumed by the flames. He, too, encounters God. And he, too, asks name God’s Name. But this time he’s given the answer: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה, which has been traditionally translated into English as I AM THAT I AM. The idea that God’s Name means simply that God is is a strong one. But the actual Hebrew is really in the future tense: I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE—or even I AM BECOMING WHAT I WILL BECOME.

When we think about the bush that is forever burning but is never consumed by the flames, this last translation makes sense: God is the ETERNAL BECOMING or ETERNAL TRANSFORMATION. We who are made in God’s Image are a pilgrim people—forever on the move, becoming what we haven’t been, being sent to places we do not know.

Later in Exodus, after Moses had done what God sent him to do, that is to lead Israel out of Egypt, he encountered God once again on the mountaintop. And this time God spoke a law into being, beginning with Ten Commandments. And the Third Commandment was this: Do not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain. And so Israel took this commandment so seriously that they refrained from speaking God’s Name unless it was absolutely necessary. And after a temple was built in Jerusalem, the custom developed that the only time God’s Name could be spoken was by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement.

The Name of God came to be written as a form of that Name spoken to Moses—a form of the verb to be. It’s called the tetragrammaton, which means four letters. But because Hebrew doesn’t write the vowels down, we only have the four consonants—thousands of years after the destruction of the temple, the pronunciation of the vowels in God’s Name has been lost to the depths of time.

You might think we should just be able to look it up in the Bible. But you won’t find God’s Name printed anywhere in your Bibles. If you open the Bible to just about any page of the Old Testament, you’ll find the word Lord. If you see that word written with a capital L followed by a lower-case o-r-d, then you’ll know that the Hebrew word there is אֲדֹנָי, or Lord. But if you see it written in all caps, then you’ll know that in the original Hebrew Bible, that word was the actual Name of God, a word that would not be pronounced out loud, a word whose pronunciation was eventually lost.

Christians came to take the vowels of the Hebrew word for Lord and apply them to the four consonants in God’s Name, and that’s where we get the word Jehovah—a name that doesn’t generally exist in Judaism. If we had to guess, then there’s a high probability that the Name was pronounced Yahweh. But I only know of one Bible translation that uses that word wherever the four letters of God’s Name occurs in the Bible, and that’s the Jerusalem Bible.

We Christians have developed our own beliefs about the Name of God, and the most important one is that it is the Name of the Holy Trinity which best represents God. It’s for this reason that when we are baptized, we are baptized into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. As the water covers us, we are immersed in this Name: We become part of God and God becomes part of us. Just as the bush burned but was not consumed, we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, can go nowhere or do nothing outside the love of God. Wherever life takes us or whatever we become, we can never be consumed, for we belong to God.

As Christians who honor both Jesus, and Moses his forerunner, we, too are called to honor the Name of God—both in our speaking and in our doing. Though we have many names for God, we should use none of them lightly—not even the Name God—for it is not just a syllable to waste when we are surprised or angry, nor a name to use to make a point or manipulate whoever’s listening to us.

And we should not confuse God and country, the flag and the cross. Many of us get chill bumps when we sing God Bless America. But if those chill bumps are for the object of that blessing, and not the one giving it—for America and not God—then we should pray before we open our mouths to sing.

To honor God’s Name is really a call to appreciate the power of language. Let’s remember that the same lips we can use to talk about the weather, the same tongue that can so casually curse another human being, belong to the same mouth that can call on the holiest Name in the universe. Let’s better appreciate the words we speak—not so that we’ll use God’s Name less often, but that our hearts can commune with God more frequently.
—©2023 Sam Greening