When we set out a suggestion box at the end of May and asked for sermon ideas and suggestions, I knew that some interesting things might turn up. I did not promise to use all of the suggestions because, well, you never know. But in the end I was able to use each suggestion.
This is the last week for this series, and it has been so fun that I may just try it again. As far as interesting questions, the one for today may be at the top of the list.
Here it is: “My three year old granddaughter asked me – ‘What is God’s first name?’”
What is God’s first name? It’s not a question I was expecting. It wasn’t too hard to figure out where this question had come from. I told the grandmother, “Well, you could just tell your granddaughter” (let’s hypothetically say her name is Quinn) “you could tell her, God just has one name – like Beyonce or Cher. Or Barney. Or Elmo. Or Ariel.”
That might be good enough for a three year old. Or it might not. I initially didn’t actually plan to preach on this question, but I kept thinking about it.
You know, we are all theologians. Theology basically means thinking about God. And it may be that three years olds are some of our best theologians because they are willing to ask questions. They are not so limited in their thinking. They don’t have all of this accumulated baggage that some of us have. And the more I thought about it, I realized that this is actually a fabulous question.
What is God’s first name?
When we meet someone, what do we want to know? What do we ask them? We want to know their name. There may be other questions – if you are around campus, some of the questions are where are you from, what is your major, do you live on campus, did you go to the game, and so forth – but for pretty well anybody, we want to know their name. I’ll walk our dog around the neighborhood, and little kids come up and want to know if they can pet the puppy. And do you want to guess their other question? “What’s your dog’s name?” If they know that he is Rudy, then they have actually met him.
What is it about names? Why are they so important?
A name is just a means of identifying a person – or a dog, or something. Why is it such a big deal? In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously says, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” A name is just a tag, just a means of identification, right?
Well, that is true, but I think the desire to know another’s name means more. It has something to do with relationship. With knowing another. When we know another’s name, they are no longer a stranger. We have a better understanding of them – we have a handle on them. It’s no coincidence that a name is referred to as a handle.
Names can be filled with meaning. That was the case for so many Biblical names. When Sarah overhead messengers from God telling Abraham that in her old age, Sarah would have a child, she laughed, as any 90 year old woman would do. And when the child was born, the child was named Isaac – which means laughter.
Then you’ve got Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons – Esau, which means “hairy” – a name which definitely fit him - and Jacob, who was born second, grabbing at Esau’s heel as he entered the world. Jacob means “heel-grabber,” and it pretty well prophesied the way his life would go in connection with his brother.
This kind of thing happens again and again. Samuel means “God has heard.” Ruth means “friend.” Names were so important that significant events could lead to a change in one’s name. After wrestling with God, Jacob, the heel-grabber, becomes Israel, which means “strives with God.” And this becomes the name for the nation.
Jesus gives Simon the name Cephas, or Peter, which means “Rock.” And the name Jesus means “God will save.”
The name of God has been an issue from the very beginning. In the scriptures, it plays out most poignantly, perhaps, in the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moses had fled Egypt for his own good some years before. Now he lived in the land of Midian and was married to Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest. But his thoughts were still with his people, living in bondage in Egypt. And one day, while tending flocks for Jethro, his father-in-law, Moses sees a bush that is on fire and continues to burn without being consumed.
He approaches to check it out and hears a voice calling to him. It calls his name. “Moses! Moses!” The one speaking from the bush knows him.
Moses responds, “Here I am.” And the voice tells Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.
It is God speaking to him. And God proceeds to tell Moses that he has observed the suffering of the Israelites and will use Moses to free them from Pharaoh. Moses is to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let me people go.”
Moses seems almost more concerned about how he will be received by the Israelites than by Pharaoh. He says, “If I go to the Israelites and say, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask what is his name, what shall I say?” In other words, if I am going to have credibility, I need to know your name. I need to be able to show that I really know you, that you have indeed spoken to me.
It may be helpful here to understand the mindset during Moses’ time. While names are important for us today, they were an even more important matter in Moses’ day. A name was often thought to express the essence of a person, as we have seen from some Biblical names.
Beyond that, knowing another’s name implied having some power over the person. And so, you did not just broadcast your name to anybody. All of these factors played into the importance that one’s name had in the theology of Israel. In the name of the Lord, one experienced the very presence of God. And so God’s name had to be protected from insincere usage – or put more positively, the name of the Lord was to be revered, or hallowed, as Jesus puts it in the Lord’s Prayer.
God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and says, “I am who I am. Tell them that I Am has spoken.” I love the artwork on the bulletin cover. If you look in the flames, you will see the words “I AM.”
This name of God was considered to be so holy that the people would not speak it out loud. In Hebrew this is the consonants YHWH, or yud-hey-vav-hey, which is spoken as Yahweh, or Jehovah. When YHWH shows up in Hebrew, Jews are taught to just say adonai, which means Lord – and in most English versions of the Bible, this is translated as THE LORD, generally in all caps.
As Christians, Jesus puts both a face and a name on God. We sing about the name of Jesus – as we did this morning – but we don’t talk so much about the name of God. There are names, plural, for God – really more descriptions of God: rock, deliverer, savior, judge, helper, mighty fortress, father, mother, counselor, advocate, prince of peace, and so on. But we don’t often used God’s name of Yahweh.
I was struck by an article I read recently by Julie Zauzmer. She was reflecting on reading a book by Michael Coogan titled God’s Favorites. The book is about the idea of chosenness – being a chosen people, as both Jews and Christians have understood it from ancient times up to the present.
Coogan’s description of this yud-hey-vav-hey god (Yahweh or Yehovah, if you want a common pronunciation) as a character with certain unique personal attributes… felt somewhat jarring to me… Partway through, I realized one reason why: in Coogan's writing, God had a name. We’re not used to that.That God would reveal that name is a reminder that God is a personal God, a God who desires relationship.
Knowing another’s name is important. It changes the relationship; it changes the way we think about things. It is one thing to be acquainted with the guy at the hardware store. It is another thing to know Howard in the paint department.
Some of you remember the sitcom “Cheers.” It was set in a bar in Boston and filled with characters like Sam and Diane and Woody and Norm and Cliff. The attraction of Cheers, as captured in the theme song, was that it was a place where “everybody knows your name.” It was a show about community. About belonging. About acceptance. And that was captured in the idea that everybody knows your name.
Besides our given name, there is the phenomena of nicknames. This too is seen in the scriptures – remember Jesus’ disciples, the brothers James and John? Jesus calls them Sons of Thunder, a reflection of their volatile personality.
We may use nicknames that are terms of endearment or adulation. I still remember, for some reason, shooting baskets with a friend at an outdoor basketball court at church. This was treated as more or less a public court. We were maybe sixth or seventh graders, and a group of older guys came along. They wanted to play full court – in other words, the whole court. So they asked us to play. They just bestowed names on us. They called Brian the Brown Bomber. He had brown hair and he liked to shoot from outside. They called me Dependable Red. Red hair, and I could play. Those were pretty charitable nicknames. But names have power. It felt good for these older guys to include us. I mean, they could have just run us off the court. But they included us, and the names were a part of that.
The way we name things, the way we name others, is immensely important, more than we probably realize. Names can be used to bless and build up, but they can also be used to hurt, to divide, to manipulate, to put down. I could go through a list of hurtful names, but there is no point in it. Most of us have been on the receiving end of such names. There is far too much name-calling that goes on, and we don’t need to relive it.
So many of our public disputes are about what we name things. Is it discrimination or religious freedom? Is it security or bigotry? Is it investment in the common good or wasteful government spending? What something is named makes a big difference.
And names can become tainted by misuse. Perfectly good names can become loaded terms. Words like liberal. Evangelical. Even Christian.
One of the 10 commandments has to do with the way we treat God’s name. Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name – that is one of those cases where in Hebrew it is Yahweh - in vain. We are not to misuse the name of God. This is not only, or not even primarily, talking about cursing that incorporates God’s name into it – although that would definitely be using God’s name in vain. The commandment really is about using God’s name for our own purposes.
Well, back to that original question asked by our three year old theologian. She knew that names matter, and at the heart of it, I think her question had to do with wanting to know God better. What is God’s first name?
Well here’s the thing: while we may want to know God, God definitely wants to know us. God wants to know and be known. The Bible might be described as the story of God’s self-revelation to us. God reveals God’s own self to us in many ways. Through creation: “the heavens are telling the glory of God; the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” Through the Law. Through the prophets. Through all the scriptures. Through the Spirit. And finally through Jesus, who came to show us who God is and what God is like and how God wants us to live with one another. This is a God who wants to be known.
And to that end, the relationship with God is a two-way relationship. It is not just that we know God’s name; God knows our name. God is interested in us. God is invested in us. God has compassion for us. God wants the best for us. Isaiah 43:1 reads, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
God desires a relationship with us, and from our side, the way to deepen that relationship begins with wanting to know God. Which maybe starts with asking great questions like, “What Is God’s First Name?” Amen.