Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of running into someone so unbelievably rude that they had the guts, the nerve, the audacity to mispronounce your name? I’m sure we all have. And, while we can probably shrug that off pretty easily, it’s a different story when someone misuses your name. When someone slanders your name or says you did something you didn’t or calls you a liar or a cheat or unfriendly or boring or lazy – that can quickly make your blood boil. But consider this: sometimes, those descriptions are accurate. I have lied, been lazy, unfriendly, boring (you may think so right now), and foolish – and you have been too. We may get angry when people slander our reputations, but if we’re honest, we must admit that at least sometimes, they’re right. Contrast that with God – whose very essence is holiness, wisdom and love; who never has done and never can do anything wrong or evil. How should God feel when people slander and abuse and misuse his name? That’s what the 2nd commandment is all about. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; God’s name is sacred, because God’s name saves.
First, we have to define what God’s name is. Sometimes we think of God’s name as no more than labels or titles. In fact, I bet many of us as children believed that Christ was Jesus’ last name. But God’s names are more than simply labels, they are the way God reveals himself to us, shows us his will and love – who, on our own would never be able to fathom or imagine the one, true God. For example, when God calls himself almighty (Genesis 17:1) he’s telling us that he can do anything. I AM (Exodus 3:14) reveals that God is timeless and changeless. Christ (Luke 4:18) is not Jesus’ last name, it describes his office, it tells us what he came to do, that he was anointed as our substitute to live and die for us. If we were to list all of the names God uses to reveal himself to us, I would need more than two pages for this sermon. And if we were to take the time to explain what each of them means, we would need a book as big as…well, the Bible. In fact, the Bible is the best definition of God’s name. The Bible is God’s name because the Bible is where God reveals himself, his heart, his reputation, and his work to us. If this were confirmation class, I would say that reading the Bible is like browsing God’s Facebook page. But’s there’s one big difference. Unlike most Facebook pages, which are designed to bring popularity and praise to the user, God has revealed his name and reputation and work to us in the Bible, not for his good, but for ours. God told Moses shortly after giving him the Ten Commandments: wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. (Exodus 20:24b) God gives us his name to bless and save us – which is why he’s so serious about protecting it and making sure that we don’t misuse it.
So how is God’s name misused? Luther explains: we should fear and love God that we do not use his name to curse, swear, lie or deceive or use witchcraft. (SC 1)
1) Cursing. Cursing means to ask God to damn someone or something to hell. Immediately, we might think, yes, we should never do this. But there are times when cursing is proper. Jesus himself says that whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) Every time the law is preached faithfully, it will declare that those who disobey will be damned. But God alone sets the standard for damnation, we don’t ever have that right. So when we smash our thumb with a hammer and shout “God damn it”, or worse, shout the same at a driver who cuts us off – asking God to send that hammer and that driver to hell – that is a reckless misuse of God’s name. A sin against the 2nd Commandment.
2) Swearing. Swearing means calling upon God as our witness. Once again, swearing is fitting when we call upon God to witness our confirmation or marriage vows or that we are telling the truth in court. But to swear to God that the pizza we had last night is the best pizza in the world is a sin that earns us God’s wrath. James writes: above all, my brothers, do not swear…let your “yes” be yes, and your “no,” no, or you will be condemned. (James 5:12)
3) To lie. (General lying is covered under the 8th commandment.) But to use God’s name to lie means to use God’s name to cover up false doctrine – to say “God said!” when God hasn’t said it. This could be a sermon by itself. You’ve heard people say that God hates the sin not the sinner? That’s a lie, see Psalm 5. You’ve heard people say that God promises wealth, health, prosperity and happiness to true believers? More lies, look at the life of Job, or even Jesus. Maybe you’ve heard pastors or churches create rules and traditions that God has not given? You heard Jesus’ response in Matthew 15: Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. (Matthew 15:6, 9) We’re not simply being petty when we insist on pure doctrine. Every false doctrine is an assault on God’s name – the only name that can save sinners.
4) To deceive. Jesus exposed this sin when he said to the Pharisees in our Gospel lesson: you hypocrites! Isaiah was write when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:7) Do we show up on Sunday because we think it sanctifies six days of godless living? Do we confess our sins fully planning on going right back to the same old sins? That’s deceiving by God’s name – and even though we may be able to fool the people around us, the warning stands: God cannot be mocked. (Galatians 6:7)
5) Witchcraft. This word may seem to us like a throwback to the dark ages or third world countries; a word we link to ignorance or incivility. But the Bible teaches that dark powers are real. Much of today’s entertainment – movies, books, video and board games – have superstitious and Satanic undercurrents. Even seemingly harmless superhero movies can lead the immature, and especially children, to trust in powers other than God for help and guidance. One thing is certain, Satan will stop at nothing to gain control of our hearts and minds. And if our eyes and ears and hearts and minds are not filled with God’s truth, Satan will find a way to fill that vacuum with his empty lies and deceits.
Luther was especially masterful though, in how he saw not only a negative side to the 2nd commandment, but also a positive side - how we should use it, how we can keep it sacred. He writes that we should call upon God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise, and gives thanks. (Pop quiz: law or gospel? Do = law.) And so, even though this is the positive side of the 2nd commandment, it may just be the way we, as Christians, break it most often. That statement demands proof, doesn’t it? Well, the last time your car broke down or the doctor’s test was positive or you found yourself struggling to pay the bills, what did you do? If you didn’t call upon God first, you broke this commandment. Or, take the Lord’s Prayer. How many times has your mind been on the weather or lunch or the person sitting in front of you as you thoughtlessly mumble “Our Father, who art in heaven…”? How often have we given the credit for the good things that happen in our lives to a lucky break or our own hard work rather than God? How many shopping trips have ended without a prayer of thanks to our One who gave us the means to provide for ourselves?
In dealing with sins against both the positive and negative aspects of the 2nd commandment, there’s a great danger for us to think that breaking this commandment isn’t as bad as committing murder or adultery. Satan and our world tempt us to think: “What’s the big deal? It’s just a name. Doctrine? That’s just words. Deeds are more important than creeds anyway.” Does God care if our mind wanders a little as we are speaking to him in prayer? Does God care if we use his name as an exclamation point or as a way to express our outrage? Does God really care if preachers and teachers take a religious liberty with his Word – after all it seems like more people would come to our church if pastor would talk a little less about sin and hell and the cross and a little more about wealth and health and prosperity? Does God take his name seriously or is it just a polite request – like one of us correcting someone’s pronunciation of our name? Think about how quickly your blood boils when someone slanders your reputation – see how firmly Jesus rebukes the false teaching of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-9) or see how the Holy Spirit struck Ananias and Sapphira dead on the spot when they used God’s name to cover up their deceptive hearts (Acts 5:1-11) – and you get some idea of how God feels about the misuse of his name. God doesn’t just threaten to punish those who misuse his name; he promises it: the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. All of which proves that under the unyielding demands of the 2nd commandment we are worse than just lazy, unfriendly, fools – we are lawless sinners who deserve to be damned for our misuse of God’s name and failure to use it properly.
But – here’s the good news – the same God who gave us this commandment also sent his Son to keep it. When we think of what Jesus did to save us from our sins, we usually think of his suffering and death on the cross; his passive obedience. Just as important, however, is Jesus’ active obedience, his active keeping of God’s law. Whenever the guilt of misusing or not using or abusing God’s Name and God’s Word creeps into your heart, take some time to read through the Gospels to see how Jesus used God’s name – and do it remembering that he is the Christ, the one anointed to be your substitute. When Jesus was tired or stressed or oppressed, he didn’t vent his anger or call down curses – he poured out his heart to his Father in prayer (no fewer than 25 times). Whether Jesus sat down for a meal with 5000 people or to eat his last supper with his disciples, he never failed to thank God for his food. And, when Jesus was bowed and bleeding on the cross he cried out my God, my God have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34) not as a curse, but as a plea for help and relief. Only, for him, no help came because God decided to punish Jesus for all of our sins against the 2nd Commandment. And then, at the very end, he entrusted his soul to his heavenly Father – with unwavering trust that God’s will was best – even though God’s will was for him to die. God gave us his 2nd commandment not just to condemn us and lead us to repentance, but to point us to Jesus, who not only paid the penalty for our sins, but also prayed and worshiped and spoke in perfect obedience to this commandment. Jesus took the ugly name we had earned with our lips: damned sinners – and made it his own; so that the blessed name he had earned from his Father’s lips: beloved children of God – could be ours. And the only way you or I or anyone could ever know this good news is because God has chosen to reveal it to us in the pages of Scripture – can there be any better reason for us to want to keep his name, his reputation, and his Word sacred?
You astute students of Scripture know that we haven’t exhausted the explanation of the 2nd Commandment. But I pray you do see what a great blessing it is that God has given us his name – and uses this commandment to protect it. Don’t misuse God’s name – but don’t fail to use it either. Call upon him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. Keep God’s name sacred, because by it you are saved. Amen.