The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost July 19, 2015
Amos 7:7-9, 12-15
222, 285, 487, 422
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
God grant to each of you a love and reverence for His name—every Word that he has preserved down through the ages and delivered to us intact and inerrant in his Holy Bible. Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
What feeling, what emotion or attitude is typically created in your mind when you hear the words that form today’s theme: “The Name of the Lord Your God”? Most, I would suspect, get a sense of something stern and austere, something rather cold, harsh, and unforgiving. We tend to see Mt. Sinai rather than the cross; something unapproachable rather than something warm and inviting.
That’s a shame, of course, and grossly unfair. We come by such an attitude honestly, I suppose, since those words are most often tied in our minds to the Second Commandment, which we undertake to study today. The Commandments, by their very nature, are unrelenting and accusatory, but only because we have made them so. Clearly there is not much that is warm and cuddly about “This do or thou shalt die.” But again, that is true only because we have failed the first part—the “This do.” There is nothing at all wrong with God’s law. The problem is our failure to keep it. Adam and Eve didn’t hide from God until they had acted contrary to that law.
We need to remind ourselves that God did not give His commandments with the intent that man should die. He didn’t even give them just to regulate society and thereby improve our quality of life on earth. God gave His Commandments in large part so that man might live—not by them, but in part because of them. They were and are an essential tool used to dismantle “self,” along with all hope of earning God’s favor for our passage into God’s Heaven through our actions.
God’s Law lays out for all mankind a path that obviously no sinner is capable of following—and this reality teaches sinful human beings the futility of trying to repay their sin-debt through their own works. God’s Law, if we read and apply it honestly, unquestionably reveals that we don’t need someone to show us how to keep the Commandments, we need someone to actually keep them for us because of our complete inability to do so.
This is, of course, true with every one of God’s commandments, but today keep that fact in mind as we focus in particular on the second commandment. The text that will guide our study is found recorded in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the first chapter:
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus:Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.
These are the words of our God—His very words! Confident that with His very words forming the basis of our meditation the Lord will keep his promise to richly bless us, so we pray: “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
In my experience, the Second Commandment is arguably the most misunderstood of the ten, and it starts with the misunderstanding of the word “name.” What do you understand by “the name of the Lord”? As with nearly every commandment, even Christians tend to dumb this command down to the simplest, most easily fulfilled explanation and assume it means that we aren’t supposed to use any name or title of our Triune God frivolously. While that is a part of what God is saying here, it is by no means all.
You may remember from Confirmation Class that the “name of God” refers to absolutely everything that God reveals about Himself. Think of it this way. If you hear someone’s name—George Washington, for example—no one thinks just of the words: “George” and “Washington,” nor only of the letters that make up that name. You think about the person who is identified by that name, along with everything that you know about that person. If you say something critical or derogatory about George Washington, you are not disrespecting the words but the person identified by those words—by that name.
The same is true of the Second Commandment and God’s name. We break that commandment every time we fail to give proper respect to any aspect of our God, including anything that our God has told us in His Word. Certainly, this includes using His titles carelessly or “in vain,” e.g., “Oh, my God!” etc., but it also includes using God’s Word as the basis for—or object of—jokes, swearing falsely or frivolously, or even simply ignoring or rejecting what God has told us in His Word.
We also sin against this Commandment, not only by doing the wrong thing, but by failing to do the right thing—failing to use God’s name as we should. In the words of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism explanation to the Commandment, we also sin whenever we fail to: “call upon God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”
In a sense then it is altogether fitting and right that we react as we do to any mention of “the name of the Lord your God.” We clearly don’t show proper respect to God’s name. We use it as we should not and we fail to use it as we should.
Yet this remains the harsh, cold aspect of the commandment, and we never want to leave out the other functions of God’s Law. That Law also is intended to lead us to despair of “self”—to force us to stop fooling ourselves that we have any hope whatsoever of earning our way into Heaven based on our own goodness, worthiness, or obedience to God’s commands.
To put it another way, if a human being could learn to control his tongue—that is, if he could learn to never utter a word that in any way disrespects God or God’s Word—he would still remain a lost and condemned sinner apart from Jesus Christ.
God did not send His Son into the world to enact behavior modification. He sent Jesus to pay the penalty for all those times when human beings fail to live up to God’s holy standard. Whenever man begins to feel as though he has kept or is keeping God’s law, Jesus Christ tends to become that much less important to him. That’s when we begin to imagine that Heaven’s door is like a nuclear launch facility in that it must be opened by two keys simultaneously—one that Jesus provided and one that we ourselves must provide. Satan would love for us to imagine that our keeping of God’s Law is that which man adds to God’s plan for our salvation. Christians need to learn to dispel every such notion with the simple mantra of the cherished hymn: “Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to Thy cross I cling.” [TLH 376:3]
And there is more…much more. Picture yourself as part of the 7th Cavalry that rode out from Fort Abraham Lincoln back in the days of the Indian Wars. You were trained to react to the sound of the bugle. You knew by heart, and instantly obeyed, the different calls: charge, retreat, reveille, assembly, etc. Now imagine that in the heat of battle the company bugler mixed up “charge” and “retreat” and played both at the same time. How would you react? How would you possibly know what your commander wanted you to do?
How much more then when God’s own trumpeters—His spokesmen and spokeswomen—give mixed and contradictory messages about the one path to eternal life through faith alone in Jesus Christ? How does that happen? It happens whenever God’s ambassadors break the Second Commandment. The Apostle James put it this way in our second Scripture reading: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10 ESV).
Do you see how the landscape shifts dramatically when we view this Commandment from that perspective? Can you get a sense of how or why the Psalmist could look at God’s holy, unyielding law and still say: “I will speak of Your testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed. And I will delight myself in Your commandments, which I love” (Psalm 119:46-47).
Our text also helps us here. Obviously, there are many truths to be learned from any section of God’s Word, including this one. Today, we focus on just one. In verses 13-14 we read: “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.”
God gave us words to communicate. If you’ve ever tried to communicate with someone who speaks a different language you will quickly come to appreciate what a blessing understood speech really is. Yet, it also remains true that God does not just want us to communicate, He wants us to communicate what is good, right, and necessary. Nothing is more important in this regard than sin and grace, Law and Gospel. That’s the communication that alone can lead to eternal life.
Do you see then the problem with “mixed messages” whenever we break the Second Commandment and disrespect God’s name? That’s exactly what James was getting at when he said: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10 ESV). Whenever a Christian sins against God’s name, it is roughly the equivalent of a bugler playing both “charge” and “retreat” at the same time.
Compare also what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, who were speaking unintelligible words in their church services: “And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me” (1 Corinthians 14:8-11 ESV).
If what Paul wrote is true of unintelligible speech, how much more does it apply to contradictory words. How confused, at best, would the people of Ephesus have been had they heard Paul both keep and break the Second Commandment? How could they have learned the path to eternal life if Paul through his words had both respected and disrespected God’s holy name? How could the people of Ephesus, or any city that heard Paul’s words, have been brought to revere and believe in a God that Paul now honored and now insulted?
It’s really no different with you and me today. Whenever we break the Second Commandment, we not only break trust with our God, we break trust with the very souls we are called to reach with the Gospel. When our God says to us, “Don’t use My name in vain,” He is giving us a command that has infinitely broader ramifications than just cleaning up the speech of an individual.
Consider what Paul said in Romans 10: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:13-14 ESV). Now, carry this truth one step further: “How will they believe if the one preaching to them gives an unclear, confusing message by breaking the Second Commandment?” Whenever that happens, those who hear are in danger of being robbed of all the great things Paul described in our text. Words that only confuse, rather than save, will not leave “holy and blameless before Him.” They will no longer offer “redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” Those who hear will no longer be assured that in Christ they have “obtained an inheritance” and that they, therefore, “enjoy the riches of His grace.” All of this is unacceptable to the God who “desires all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). It ought then to be unacceptable to you and me as well.
Our words matter—profoundly so. Souls hang in the balance. Thank God then for His commandments, and today, especially the second. Honor your God and show true love to your neighbor by keeping it. Amen.
In what you speak bring Me no shame;
Do not misuse My holy name,
But call on Me in troubled days;
Give Me your thanks, prayers, and praise.
Have mercy Lord! (CW 285:3)
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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