Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, October 26, 2014.
This morning, as I was eating breakfast and preparing leave for my drive here, I noticed an item in this morning’s news about a man who destroyed a controversial “Ten Commandments” memorial that was on public land in Oklahoma City. He smashed the memorial with his car, left the car there, walked into the nearby Federal Courthouse and surrendered himself, saying “The Devil made me do it.” The irony is wonderful, and dovetails so well with this morning’s message that I had to tell you about it and show you the photo of the destroyed monument. Notice that the break near the top of the stone runs right through the second commandment itself.
And so, let us begin…
I’ve been percolating on the Ten Commandments for a while now, including my previous Sermon entitled “The First Commandment” and also this week’s message on the Second Commandment.
As you can see, there are actually roughly 15 “commands” in the list of ten commandments. Therefore, in order to create 10 Commandments, you need to group them together in some way, and every religious tradition – Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, and our own Reformed tradition, does this differently. The differences say a lot about each tradition’s theology.
Last week, I used the Catholic scheme to identify what I said was the First Commandment, as did the designers of the destroyed “Ten Commandment” monument I showed earlier (which is the featured image in the online version of this sermon). I’ll continue in that vein by referring to this morning’s topic as “the Second Commandment.”
Another important perspective that lies at the heart of today’s message is how we translate the ancient Hebrew and Greek or Aramaic texts into English; so, let’s take a quick look at three different translations of the Second Commandment.
The best known English translation of the Bible is the King James Version, which presents the second commandment as follows…
“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain…”
In the four centuries since it’s publication, our language has evolved to the point where King James is now hard to understand and sounds archaic. So, let’s look at a more modern paraphrase of the same verse from The Message Bible, which is as follows:
“No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter…”
I’m sure we all agree that The Message is easier to understand, and there is certainly nothing wrong with the way it translates this verse; but its’ presentation simply points us to the same rather straightforward understanding we get from King James, which is that we shouldn’t curse using the Lord’s name.
Now, this is certainly true and worthwhile, but it seems a bit trivial, not worthy of its placement so early in this list of the Ten Laws God gave to Moses and all of Israel. So, it is important that we not stop here, because we’d be missing some deeper implications. (And besides, if we did stop here, this wouldn’t be much of a sermon!)
Now let’s look at the New Revised Standard Version, which is a bit more scholarly than the other two…
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God…”
The NRSV still presents this commandment as a prohibition against swearing with the name of God. But the term “wrongful use” implies that there is more to this commandment than the common interpretation. The Jews demonstrate a similar understanding of the breadth of this commandment through never saying aloud the name of God.
The NRSV helps us see some of the reason behind this: it’s not just about swearing, but also that we are not to make wrongful use of the Lord’s name in any form or context.
Some examples that come to mind include…
Claiming the Lord’s favor or support for any reason, but especially in support of some cause or goal or position or possession that is already ours.
The most important implication, I think, is declaring that the Lord rejects or condemns another person (or group) for who or what they are, or what they believe. This example is central to the whole idea of becoming an “Open and Affirming” congregation, as we will be talking about in the series of forums that begin following our worship service this morning.
And finally, blaming God for our own faults; or, blaming God for the disasters and troubles that befall us.
The Apostle James, in his Epistle, gets at this same idea (of blaming God) when he writes…
“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man…” (James 1:13 KJV)
But I also wonder, and this may really throw a few folks, but if blaming God for the bad stuff is wrong, then can giving God credit for the good stuff also be a problem? In both cases, we’re putting responsibility for what happens here on earth entirely in God’s hands, and believing that our own actions and decisions have nothing to do with it. So yes, I believe that if we really are called to take responsibility for own actions, then we can’t take responsibility for one part while leaving the other – whether Good or Bad – in God’s hands. Besides, how can we be sure that what we see as “Good” or “Bad” really is what we think it is? We are not omniscient: God is.
Now, discussions like ours here, today, can quickly degenerate into something that I see as overly legalistic and rigid: The god I love and worship is a god of grace and love, not a god of judgment and condemnation. So, I am certain that the rantings of any sentient being in this remote corner of God’s Creation, no matter who they are, is unlikely to wound God’s pride. The Almighty is a bit bigger than that.
But, how do we reconcile the idea of this absolute statement (““You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God…”) with our conception a Loving God whom we love and worship in return?
Paul says in Romans 7 & 8 that the commandments were created out of God’s love for us, but are themselves are an inadequate tool for bringing us closer to God. Therefore, as with so many of the commandments and “laws” in the Bible, I believe this prohibition is made out of concern for us. The Second Commandment is not a promise of divine punishment if we offend our Creator in some way.
And you can see why this is might be the case. In claiming God’s favor over some thing, or some cause, we are putting our own will, our own desires, first. When we claim God’s favor for what we say or do, we are saying there is no reason to discern whether it is really God’s will or not, nor any justification for revisiting the issue. We are saying that God has already made the decision in our favor, irrevocably, and that it cannot be challenged since it is – after all – God’s will. When we say “God says…” in a way that supports what we already believe, or who we already are, we are claiming that our position is sacred and above reproach.
Such claims distance us from God. We are shutting ourselves off from that “still small voice” that constantly seeks to bring us into a deeper, more meaningful, more beneficial relationship with God. They indicate that we have closed ourselves off from the possibility of learning, and of new revelations, and that we think we’ve completed our journey with our Creator; that we no longer need to move, or change. But, as far as I can tell, our journey with God does not end – ever. Life doesn’t stop just because we like where we are, at the moment.
We are also diminishing God in the eyes of others by making God into a reflection of our own image, in effect saying that God rejects those who are unlike us. In doing so, we treat the Almighty’s love as if it can be claimed at any time, to support who and what we currently are, and what we believe. If so, then God’s love is of little value, it becomes an excuse for self justification; turning God into a caricature of ourselves.
Such claims put our own position above reproach, and demonize those who oppose us, portraying them as servants of evil. We claim to represent God and that their feelings, or opinions, or position will not matter to us, and therefore not to God, until they submit themselves to our overinflated egos.
By making wrongful use of the name of the LORD our God, we are setting ourselves up AS God, worshipping the idol of ourselves; as I talked about the last time I was here. Not even Jesus made such claims! How can we dare to do so?
Now, let’s examine what it means to blame God, in light of this commandment. Like all of the others, by blaming God, we are once again putting the issue beyond the reach of human agency: it is God’s fault, not ours. Yes, certainly there are “acts of God” for which no one is at fault, such as hurricanes (oops, strike that – global warming!!), or meteors.
I would suggest, though, that we remember we have the freedom to love God, or not. The freedom to choose how to live, where to live, and even why to live. One implication of this is that if we are truly free, then there must be consequences to our choices. Such consequences may not make any sense to us and may seem to have nothing to do with us, such as that meteor, or global warming, or the Ebola virus, but they do happen.
A second implication derives from the idea that God takes a huge risk in giving us the freedom to chose relationship with God – or not. It is the risk that we shall be forever lost, despite God’s love and concern for us. Likewise, all of life is imbued with risk: every choice, every minute carries risk of some sort. Freedom requires it, and freedom requires that we constantly deal with risks, both known and unknown, and deal with the consequences of our responses to those risks.
And yet, we all blame God from time to time. We all experience disasters where we can see no reason for what has happened – and miraculous blessings for which we have no explanation. And, ultimately, since God is the Creator of All, then God must have some sort of blame for what has happened (or is happening) to us. That’s a scary thought!
When Job, who is an undeniably good and godly man, challenges God to explain why he is experiencing such tremendous afflictions and losses, God never denies responsibility. Instead, God asks Job to look at the bigger picture, how all of Creation relies on God’s grace. God cannot set aside what is good for so much else just to satisfy our own sense of what is good for us.
And yes, in Job’s story, we see that God loves us deeply; otherwise, God would not have come down and responded to Job at all. God would not have come to us in the form of Jesus Christ either, for that matter: As I often have said, and you’ll hear me say it again in the future: In Christ, God demonstrates an intimate first person knowledge of the costs and consequences of living in a world where risk and loss are an inescapable part of existence. God shows, through Jesus of Nazareth, that our pain is not taken lightly, and has acknowledged and embraced the depth of that pain, walking through the same dark valleys we all face.
Being human, being aware of our own flaws and mortality, is no picnic, and God shares the pain and grief and sorrow and guilt and joy and love and pleasure AND risk that we all experience. God values us, values our journey through life, values all that we are, and values all that we have yet to become; I know of no deeper love than this.
So, in conclusion, we have seen that “taking the Lord’s name in vain” does not hurt or diminish God; but hurts and diminishes us; hurts and diminishes others; and also damage our relationships with others, and with God, and – even worse – can damage the relationship those same others have with God themselves.
Learning to embrace the Other regardless of who and what they are, and then going further, to rejoice in who God has made them to be, without judgment, enacts the unconditional love that God has shown us, through our sharing of that love with The Other. It is the exact opposite of taking the Lord’s name in vain: acknowledging that they are no less human, nor any more human, than we. It is an affirmation of our conviction that God loves and cherishes them just as much as God loves and cherishes us.
And so, this is why we should not take the name of the Lord in vain, because in doing so, we become vain ourselves.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)