Sunday, August 31, 2014

What's in a Name?

August 31, 2014
Exodus 3:1-15
1Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

Sermon:  “What’s in a Name?”

I remember it vividly, when I first learned about the divine name of God.  (You know you’re destined to be a nerdy preacher when…”)

I was on a retreat with my campus ministry group from Texas A&M University.  We were a ramshackle bunch of Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians and “others.” As part of that ministry, I spent nearly two years in college meeting before church every Sunday morning with a small group of fellow students discerning a call to the ministry.  We drank coffee, we studied scripture, we prayed, we told our stories.  And we accepted God’s call to each of us.  I wouldn’t be here without that campus ministry.

But I digress…let’s get back to when I first learned about God’s name in the Bible.  It started, like all good exploration of God, with a question.  I held up my Bible, noticing for the first time that, in the Old Testament, sometimes “Lord” was in all caps.  I asked our awesome campus minister Kyle about it: “Hey Kyle, what’s with these all caps “LORDS” all over the place? 

He responded quickly, “Oh, that’s just the tetragrammaton.”

Ah, yes, that.  At this point I think lots of people would have their eyes glaze over and just go hang out with the other college students.  But I was curious (nerdy minster-to-be, you see).

“What in the world is that?”  I asked.
“It’s the divine name of God – Yahweh.  Any time in scripture they’re referring directly to the divine name of God, it’s put in all caps.  This distinguishes it from any other use of the word “Lord” in the Bible.  This is the name of God revealed to Moses, called the “tetragrammaton” in Greek, meaning 4 letters.  Y.H.W.H.  Yahweh.”

You lost yet?  Well I was all sorts of excited about this revelation (plus I now had a pretty cool word to impress people with at parties).  I began looking through scripture for every time that divine name of God appeared.

Of course, it appears in a big way here in our Exodus passage this morning, when Moses is sent to liberate the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Like all good exploration of God, it began with a question: “Whom shall I say sent me?” Moses asks God.  He can’t very well say a smoldering shrub sent him, can he?

God then reveals God’s name.  This is a big deal, y’all.  This moment of self-revelation by God doesn’t happen often.  God says, “I am who I am.”  This is the root of the word Yahweh (all caps LORD in our Bibles, remember), but our English unfortunately fails us miserably in the translation.

We’re pretty tense about tenses, you see.  For example: you will run, then you’re running, then you ran.  Past, present, future.  Hebrew’s a bit more fluid, so when God says “I am who I am”, God is actually saying, “I was who I was, I am who I am, I will be who I will be.”  Past, present, future, all in that one little word Yahweh.

Woven within God’s very name is a promise of constant presence for all time.  Like we talked about last week, names matter --  they are our legacy in this one, fleeting life.  God’s name matters, too.  God was, is, will be.   Like Moses, we’re given a glimpse of the true character of God.  And each time this word Yahweh appears as an all-caps LORD in our Bibles, God is revealing God’s character once more.

“The Lord is my shepherd.”  We all know it, right?  Well, that LORD is all caps, the name of God.  This is no lesser lord, this is the self-revelation of God, as a shepherd who leads us beside still waters, prepares a table of friends and enemies together, restores our soul.  This is who God was, is, will be.

Another favorite Psalm, 27:  “The Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?”  Yep, all caps again.  God’s name is light, freedom from fear and giver of salvation.  This is who God was, is, will be.

On to Isaiah, those words Jesus used, “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn…”  You guessed it, the name of God once more, all caps.  God is good news, God cares for the broken hearted, the prisoner, the mourner, God sends us out as messengers.  This is who God was, is, will be.

You see, God wasn’t just content to tell Moses God’s name by writing it on a nametag with a sharpie (or a stone tablet with a chisel).  God gave a name wrapped in enigma (I was, am, will be), and then showed what that name meant:  people were freed from slavery, and provided for in the wilderness.  Promises of restoration were made when these people found themselves in an occupied land again.  Prophets were sent to bring the people back to God when they strayed away.  

God’s name is inextricable from what God does.  God’s nametag throughout scripture is story after story of restoration and salvation, challenge and faithfulness.  That is who God was, is, will be.

So why does this matter?  Why the big “tetragrammaton” word to throw around at parties, why the need to recognize that LORD in all caps means Yahweh, the divine name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush?  What does that have to do with our faith today?

In a word: everything.  God could have said, “I was who I was” and spent a lot of time detailing to Moses all the ways God had made creation with ingenuity and care, or speak of how God used people like Joseph to bring salvation in times of famine and fear.  God could have reveled in the glory days gone by, and decided that enough was achieved.  God could have ignored the cries of the people of Israel in slavery and say, “Oh that’s really too bad, good luck with that.  But have you heard about what I used to do?  Man, I was good.”

Or God could have said, “I am who I am” and decide to act impulsively in the moment, a flash-in-the-pan God who performs with instants of inspired brilliance but then fades into irrelevance, refusing to do anything else.

Or God could have said, “I will be who I will be” and flippantly told Moses to just stay the course, support the status quo and trust that somehow, all would work out in some distant future.  (Just not now, because God was a bit too busy at the moment.)

But God said all three – am, was, will be.  And that matters because it means the God who led the Moses’ people to freedom, who was spoken of as a Good Shepherd who prepares a table for us, who was then most fully revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, is our God.  God has constancy unlike anything in this universe, but at the same time, works in new and surprising ways in our own time.  And God will be.  Oh, this might just matter most.

We do not know what the church will look like as we divide ourselves and young people leave us to our disagreements.  We do not know how we can hold fast to our distinctly Christian faith in a world of plurality in a way that is respectful, faithful and reconciling.  The church of 30 years from now might well look very different from the church of the past 30 years.  But God will be.

And if God will be, then there is always hope.  The hope that guided our ancestors in faithfulness and perseverance, the hope that sustains us in present days of doubting and uncertainty, the hope that will continue to draw future generations to their Creator, and gather them together in worship and service. 

Thank God that God was.  Thank God that God is.  But especially thank God that God will be.  For if God will be, there is always good news to share.  News worth all caps, worth sharing in our every action and word.  We do not always know who we are as followers of Jesus.  We do not always know how to seek unity and healing as a denomination, or even in our own families, for that matter.  But we do know God’s name, the name that binds us together for all time, past, present and future. 
What’s in a name?  Everything.


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