The Ten Words from God (series)
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 10/19/2014
Based on Exodus 20: 1-2, 7
There’s an old childhood saying that all of us are taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This verse is taught to us as a way to shield us from the pain that can come after someone has thrown verbal stones at us. Yet what parent hasn’t had to deal with the aftermath of a verbal attack on their child. Wiping away the tears from their little one’s face and trying to find words of comfort that will help heal the pain and hurt that comes with those words spoken with the intension of demeaning it’s victim. The truth is, words are harmful. Words are in reality much more devastating and longer lasting in their impact of injury than physical attacks could ever be. So why do we tell your children this untruth?
This morning we are going to look at the third Word from the Decalogue, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses God’s name.” So the obvious question is: What is meant by misusing the name of God? When I was growing up, I was taught not to use God’s name as part of profanity. This was using God’s name in vain.
John C Holbert, in his book The Ten Commandments interprets verse 7 this way: You must not raise up the name of YHWH your God for nothing, because YHWH will not acquit anyone who raises up his name for nothing. Professor Holbert writes: This third commandment has been so trivialized in our own time that it may prove difficult to recapture something of its profound significance. How many jokes about people playing golf on Sunday, and uttering vile language, suggesting that God’s last name is really “damn,” have you heard or said? To take the name of God “in vain” as the older translations had it was simply to utter swear words. This view only places the focus on the human behavior demanded by the commandment. There is a deeper focus: that of speaking to the matters of the heart. To employ the name of God “for nothing” is to assume that God is in reality nothing, and possesses no power or authority in life. The Ten Commandments, by John C Holbert Chapter 3. What this means is that by invoking God’s name “for nothing” says that God is in reality “nothing” and we in effect are denying the first statement of the Ten Commandments where God is telling us who God is: The God who brings us up out of our slavery
So what is “the nothing” that professor Holbert is speaking about? Martin Luther said, “It is a misuse of God’s name if we call upon the name of the Lord God in any way whatsoever to support falsehood or wrong of any kind.” Retired Professor of Old Testament at Yale University, Brevard Childs says, “The heart of the commandment lies in preventing the dishonoring of God…God, as the source of truth, cannot be linked to falsehood and deception.” The Ten Commandments, by John C Holbert Chapter 3
This is where we leave the focus on human behaviors, the do’s and don’ts that keep us from looking at the deeper issue of matters of the heart, where we weigh our behavior by the true source of truth. Sister Joan Chittister suggests that the second commandment: … may be more the sin of the pious than the sin of the sinner; it also tells us not to play God with God’s name, with God’s being, with God’s power.” She concludes by saying, “It is useless, as well, to use God’s name to do what God would never do.” The Ten Commandments: laws of the Heart by Sister Joan Chittister, chapter 2 pg 29
Religion (organized or personal) is a structure that is supposed to help a person move beyond themselves. Religion is to be used to challenge the narrow focus that each of us by nature has. Yet growing up in the church I often observed religion being used as a shield to hide behind. Instead of allowing the vulnerability that is needed to self-examine, it too often is used as a wall to protect our fears, our wounds, and our prejudices. The problem with using religion in this fashion is we too often start to speak for God and in God’s name instead of listen to God and asking in God’s name. This is when the pious start using God’s name in vain.
I have heard prayer after prayer invoking God’s name that is truly taking God’s name in vain. Dear God, as we play against the opposing team, we claim this game in your name. Or, remembering the Pharisee that Jesus pointed out who prayed: Thank you God that I a righteous man am not like those sinners. I have read on my facebook , prayers like this: God we thank you today for the death of the Doctor who has been performing abortions, for he has received his due punishment. All of these are examples of using God’s name in vain because it presume that we know the mind of God and that these requests have placed restrictions upon God as what God is suppose to do.
When we make statements like: love the sinner, hate the sin, again we are using the intensions of God profanely. Sister Joan says it best: We use God’s name to prove our piety. We quote scripture at people and expect that the discussion is over, that when we have spoken, God has spoken. We use God’s name to manipulate God. We ask God to be on our side, to do our will, to harm the people we ourselves would like to harm. “Dear God, punish these people for their sins so the world will know how great you are.” I remember when Oral Roberts pleaded on T.V. for $8 million, because God told him if he didn’t raise it, he was going to take Orals life. I remember thinking to myself – who cool it would be if God did zap him on national T.V. – that this would be a message that would bring millions of people back to believing in God! That was taking God’s name in vain. We pray over and over for the conversion of some Muslim country but never pray for our own countries conversion. We use God’s name to exert power over others. We threaten them with hell. We name them bad and incorrigible. We use God as a kind of club over groups, over people, and over ideas of which we disapprove. We use God’s name to satisfy ourselves of our own piety and righteousness, all the while avoiding the hard questions of life around us. We pray our prayers requiring God to “hear the cries of the poor: and tell ourselves that we have done enough. Indeed, we have learned to “take God’s name in vain” with great facility.
Sister Joan continues: It’s not so much using God’s name that is wrong as it is that we invoke the name of God to justify ungodly things. There are simply some things we say about God that are useless, fruitless, futile, ineffectual, and worthless. To attribute things to God that God has nothing to do with is to make a mockery of God. Those who invoke God to justify prejudice – to tell us who God accepts and who God doesn’t; to explain oppression – to say that God wills servitude for some kinds of people but not for others; to enthrone absolutism – to say that this country, these rules, this institution is the only one beloved by God. When you hear things like these, you are hearing God’s name being taken in vain.
I want to close these thoughts this morning with a Sufi story about a teacher and his disciples. The teacher sent his disciples to a tailor to have a new shirt made for the upcoming feast day. “This is a very busy time and so the shirt is still in process. But come back in a week.” The tailor said, “And God willing, your shirt will be ready.” But it was not. “Come back next week,” the tailor said the second time, “and if God shines on us, your new shirt will be finished.” But it was not. “Come back again tomorrow, “ the tailor said, “and if God blesses us, your new shirt will be waiting for you.” When the disciples explained to their master the tale of the unfinished shirt, the master said, “God back to the tailor and ask him how long it will take to finish the shirt if he leaves God out of it.”
The second commandment tells us to leave God out of it when God has nothing to do with it. The Ten Commandments: laws of the Heart by Sister Joan Chittister, chapter 2 pg 30-31 When we invoke God’s name either for or against something or someone, when in reality we are actually just voicing our own feelings and opinions, we are taking God’s name in vain. When we invoke God’s name toward social justice but do not follow through with action, we again are using God’s name in vain.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. I don’t know if you came this morning thinking you rarely use God’s name in vain. But I do hope you leave here today thinking about the words you do say and of how you say them. Our hymn of the day, “The Summons” was sung just a few weeks ago at the ordination of John Fiscus. I have chosen it today as it is a song that calls into action the using of God’s name not in vain but examples of using God’s name as blessing. Amen