“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.” — Exodus 20:7
omedian Louis CK complains that we, his fellow citizens, are so careless with words these days that they’ve stopped meaning anything. He says, “I was at a Subway Shop the other day and the guy next to me said to his friend, ‘This sandwich is amazing.’” And Louie asks “Is that true? Can a sandwich be ‘amazing’? If you call your sandwich ‘amazing’, what are you going to say when your first child is born?”
Louie was talking about ‘word inflation.’ Words are like dollars, right? The more words or dollars you put into circulation, the less valuable each one is. If you use a $100 word like ‘amazing’ or ‘stunning’ or ‘extraordinary’ on a $5 experience like Subway, you will have no currency available to you when something huge happens to you—a solar eclipse, or your first sight of the Grand Canyon. Word inflation.
The travel site Expedia sends me about five emails a week. I don’t know how this happens, because I’m not exactly a world traveler, but I got one the other day from Expedia with the subject heading “OMG: You won’t believe these low fares.” OMG: Oh, my God. It might be the commonest acronym in texting, either OMG or LOL. Word inflation: the more you use the word ‘God,’ the less it means.
I got addicted to the HBO show Veep, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Vice President, because I have never seen better acting in a sitcom. Every time Joe Biden pretends he’s the Vice-President, I want to say, ‘No, Selena is the Veep!’ But the language will make a Marine Drill Sergeant blush.
This sermon will now take a brief excursus. This really doesn’t have much to do with the Bible, but I’m curious: how did a certain English vulgarity beginning with ‘F’ and describing sexual union become the worst thing you can say to anybody or about anything? How did it happen that a beautiful experience came to mean the most horrible things? And if you use the ‘F’ word six times in a single sentence for some common, daily irritation, like they do in Veep, what are you going to say when you get mugged or have your identity stolen on the internet? Word inflation.
And you thought Veep was a hyperbole. Intentionally outlandish. It strained your credulity. Politicians couldn’t possibly be that crooked and that revolting. Lo and behold, discourse in our Republic plummets to a nadir so venal that the most jaundiced among us could never have predicted it. My daughter is 24 years old. She lives in Washington, DC, a couple of miles from the White House. What kind of America will she raise her daughters in? Louis CK is right. We are so careless with words.
According to the New Revised Standard Version, the Third Commandment, the Third of The Ten Best Ways, is this: “Do not make wrongful use of God’s name.” But probably most of us are more familiar with the King James: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who taketh God’s name in vain.”
That ancient language is both more vivid and more accurate. Don’t use God’s name vainly. That is to say, casually, frivolously, thoughtlessly. The English word ‘vain’ is a translation of a Hebrew word which means ‘empty,’ or ‘nothing,’ or ‘trivial,’ or ‘whispy.’
The English word ‘vain’ comes the Hebrew root for ‘mist’ or ‘fog’ or ‘vapor.’ Fog is not a gas, it is not a liquid, but somewhere between; it is elusive; try to grab a handful. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” cries the disconsolate preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes. Don’t use God’s name as if it were vaporous or gaseous. That name has heft and density; that name is fecund and heavy. Don’t squander it.
You can discern the beloved story that is the background narrative behind the Third Commandment, right? Moses, this Prince of Egypt, makes a horrible mistake and has to flee far from home and ends up tending sheep in the wretched wilderness for his father-in-law and he’s out there in the desert minding his own sheep business when he sees a burning bush that spontaneously combusts and refuses to stop burning, and Moses turns aside and hears his name: Moses, Moses, march into Pharaoh’s palace and tell him to let my people go!”
Moses, of course, is not eager to tackle a task that will surely get him killed, so he asks the bush, “What is your name?” And from that burning bush God gives Moses a grand if dangerous gift: God tells Moses God’s name. “My name is ‘I Will Be What I Will Be.’”
That was 3,000 years ago, and we’ve been discussing God’s name ever since and still nobody has any idea what God’s name means.
‘I Am What I Am,’ or ‘I Will Be What I Will Be.’ It might be nothing but a divine dodge. It might be the equivalent of those non-answers the candidates give to a moderator’s question at a presidential debate. “What is my name? You just never mind what my name is. I will be whatever I want to be. You just march over to Pharaoh’s palace and tell him to let my people go.”
Still, it was a grand if dangerous gift. In the ancient Near East, you see, to know the name of something was to give a small measure of power over it. In a small way, God placed Godself in Moses’ hands when God spoke God’s name. To name it was to own it. It was a monstrous and muscular mystery that confronted Moses from that burning bush, but at least now Moses knew what to call the monstrous and muscular mystery.
It’s still true today, isn’t it? To name it is to own it, at least a little bit. A friend of mine started losing feeling in his extremities, then he started losing control of his muscles. He was very afraid. He went to the doctors. Several different doctors poked around for weeks with several different tests. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. Finally, his internist called him into her office and she said, “I’m sorry, Randy, but we’re finally pretty sure that you have multiple sclerosis.”
He told me the news. I said, “I’m so sorry, Randy” He said, “I’m a lot better, actually. At least I know what it is. I know the name of the fiend, and now I can face it.”
“I Am What I Am.” In Hebrew, Yahweh. For pious Jews, the divine name is so sacred, they refuse to speak it. That sacred label does not belong on unclean human lips. So that when pious Jews are reading the Bible and come across the divine name Yahweh, they say ‘Adonai,’ instead: ‘Lord.’ For pious Jews, Yahweh is like Valdemort at Hogwarts. Yahweh, like Valdemort, is The One Who Shall Not Be Named. Both names are frightful in their power.
Jesus was a pious Jew and knew this, so when he taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to begin like this: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” In other words, let no earthy stain defile the holiness of your name.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for God will not hold him guiltless who taketh his name in vain. So, how should we use God’s name? What’s the opposite of ‘vain’ or ‘vanity’? If the word means ‘breath’ or ‘whisp’ or ‘vapor,’ then the opposite might be—what? —Rich? Dense? Intentional? Let me give you two ways to honor God’s name and to keep it holy. It’s a holiday weekend; let’s keep it short and simple; we’ll go home early this morning. Two ways to honor God’s name, to use it more than vainly. In your prayer and in your life.
In our prayers we honor God’s name by being very circumspect in our prayers. In that dry, dusty desert 3,000 years ago, God gave God’s name to Moses. I am Yahweh; that’s my name; don’t wear it out. That is to say, our prayers will never be frivolous or shallow or self-centered.
The great preacher Fred Craddock was invited to a Bible study with a bunch of college students. “You’ll like it,” they said. “We trust in the power of prayer.” They went around the room. Kids from affluent homes. They had trouble dredging up requests.
Someone wanted a trip to Hawaii. Another wanted a set of luggage. Someone wanted a date with a boy named Mike. They drew out pieces of paper. This was their answer. “What do you think, Mr. Craddock?” Fred wasn’t so sure. Should you pray for a trip to Hawaii, or a new set of luggage, or a date with boy named Mike? Something to think about.
We take God’s name in vain when we treat it as if it were an ATM machine: just slip in your prayer card and Voila! Here comes the free cash. Here come the blessings. Here comes God’s good favor.
How about we go to God in prayer when we’re NOT in trouble. How about this as a rule of thumb: Ten Thanksgivings for every petition. And among your petitions, how about making ten of them for others for every petition you plead on your own behalf. Unless you’re facing surgery or in hospice care. That is using God’s name with intentionality. Even when we are in desperate trouble, what occurs to us first is not what God can do for us but what God has already done for us.
I have this friend who got a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He was 70 but looked and acted 55. He’d retired on his 65th birthday and looked forward to a long retirement with his wife. These days’ people like us who take care of ourselves and have access to unlimited health care and medicine can expect 90 years.
This guy was 70 and had enjoyed just five years of retirement with his wife of 45 years; they were so in love; they acted like newlyweds.
I went to go see him a couple of times a month for the six months it took between diagnosis and death. He always asked me to pray before I left him. I said, “What do you want me to pray for, Bruce?” He said, “I don’t need anything. Just say thanks for the gift of this day; it’s such a beautiful October day. Say thanks for 45 years with the love of my life. Say thanks for my three perfect grandchildren. Say thanks I got to climb Kilimanjaro before it was too late.” Nothing but thanks.
He was a Yale guy; his hero was William Sloane Coffin, Yale chaplain, whose motto, at the end, was: “For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, ‘I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.’” That’s all Bruce wanted: thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks, till he could speak no more words.
So we can honor God’s name with our speech. And we can honor God’s name with our lives. Here’s what I mean? How many of you are baptized? I’ll bet 98% of us are baptized, some as infants, others as adults, but always the same way, always with the common staple of water and always with the same words. What did we say when we baptized you? What did we say? “Nancy, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” You wear that name as a badge of honor. You represent the sacred name of the Trinity. That is the name that is dearer to you than your own.
That mark never goes away. That water branded you forever with an invisible but indelible mark. Probably the best thing and the worst thing about baptism is that it doesn’t leave a mark; water on skin is invisible. That way we can do stupid or small or shabby things and nobody will know whose name we wear; we won’t dishonor God’s name because nobody knows we represent it.
I wear a clergy collar to worship and to sacred rites like weddings and funerals. This is very good for me, because a clergy collar is not invisible, so I can’t drive as aggressively as I do when I’m not wearing my collar. I have to behave myself, because I visibly represent the Holy Name.
I was driving up to New Canaan one day on the Merritt Parkway and I was not wearing my clergy collar, and I eased into the left lane to pass a slower car, and a car behind me zooms up and gets on my bumper. I didn’t think I was driving so badly, but the car behind me disagreed and when I got back in the right lane and she passed me on the left, she gave me the single-finger salute as she sailed past, and before she disappeared into the distance, I noticed the bumper sticker on her car: Honk if you love Jesus. She was taking God’s name in vain, and I knew it.
So if you wear a cross around your neck, do not treat the waitress or the sales clerk as if she were a house slave. OK? The whole world will know that you’ve been baptized into the Holy Name of the Trinity, and that you have no intention whatsoever of honoring that holy name.
If you have a Kenilworth Union Church parking sticker on your windshield, for God’s sake, don’t be rude.
Because, you see, here’s the thing: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Adolf Hitler were both baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Martin Luther King and George Wallace were both baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Eugene McCarthy and Joe McCarthy were both baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Francis of Assisi and the Grand Inquisitor were both baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Half of those people hallowed God’s name, and the other half made a mockery of God’s name by the lives they lived. Be very careful with what you say and what you do. Never, never, never, take God’s name in vain, as if it were nothing, as if it were meaningless, because the Lord will not hold him guiltless who taketh God’s name in vain.
Eliezer Wiesel died this summer; he would have turned 88 the other day. The name Eliezer means “My God is my help.” Little Elie Wiesel was named for his grandfather. Grandfather Eliezer was killed in a savage World War I battle. He’d been a stretcher bearer. He died carrying a wounded soldier. He died for the Fatherland. He died for His Majesty the Emperor Franz Joseph.
When the younger Eliezer was just a little boy, his grandmother said, “When they told me he was gone, I learned what ‘catastrophe’ meant. I knew then that my sadness would never end.” When she tells him this, she weeps, and tears flow unhindered down her cheeks. The little boy does not know what to say. He stands there clumsy and silent. She says, “Remember, little one. Remember the name you bear. Honor that name every day of your life.” Eliezer.
What do you think? Do you think Eliezer honored his grandfather’s lofty name? Mr. Wiesel was not baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But he had a bar mitzvah, and he would have known the third commandment by heart. In Hebrew.
Can you hear Bono singing his exquisite song?
Take these hands
Teach them what to carry
Take these hands
Don’t make a fist, no
Take this mouth
So quick to criticize
Take this mouth
Give it a kiss
Take this heart
Take this heart
Take this heart
And make it break.
Fred Craddock, audio course Preaching as Storytelling.
William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 173.
Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), p. 8.