Mind your language - Deuteronomy 5:11

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 27th May 2001.

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Do you remember how at school many a cruel taunt was dismissed with the retort ‘Sticks and Stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’? Of course the bluff is as transparent as the rhyme is weak because name calling does have a tendency to cause damage, at least in the short term. And children especially do have this innate ability to bring about maximum discomfort by taking someone’s name and twisting it so that it sounds silly and demeaning, and with a name like mine that is no great achievement.

Names are important to us. The fact is we go to great lengths to protect our names don’t we? - that is why we have laws of libel and slander. You see, our names are not mere labels which we can treat like disposable commodities, they are precious because they actually stand for something. Just to mention a name conjures up all sorts of images and associations. Let me mention two by way of example. Take the name ‘Adolf’, what set of images does that name bring to mind? Torchlight mass rallies with cries of Zeig Heil, dark oppression, human skeletons piled in concentration camps. But take another name, ‘Teresa’, prefixed by the term ‘Mother’. There we think of self-sacrifice, care, compassion. The name is associated with the character. As a result some personal names have been transformed into representative terms -like being a ‘Judas’ or a ‘Quisling’ both of which denote betrayal. In other words, names can be used or misused and both have powerful effects.

And so in many ways we should not be that surprised that God is very protective about his name-hence the third commandment -Dt 5:11 ‘You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.’ You see, God is not a something, he is a someone-and who that someone is, his character and his purposes, indeed his nature, has been revealed to us in a name-the LORD.

We saw a few weeks ago that it was by this name that God had made himself known to Moses in the episode of the burning bush. As the LORD, Yahweh, or Jehovah- ‘I AM,’ he is the self-existent one, the one who does not change. And of course with that comes the idea that God is absolutely dependable and trustworthy; when he makes up his mind to do a thing he will do it. He has the wisdom to design a perfect loving purpose for his people and the power to achieve it. The very name LORD is infused with power-not in any quasi-magical way, but because of the character of the one who stands behind that name. Just think for a moment of the most common name ‘Mum’. The children are in the bedroom playing and all of a sudden there is screaming and crying. What happens? One of them will come running out shouting, ‘Mum, he just keeps hitting me!’ And Mum says ‘You go and tell your brother that I said stop fighting or else.’ So the child runs back ,and what’s the first thing you hear? ‘Mum said...’Now that child has miraculously gained power. How? By using Mum’s name. How much more so with God’s name. Behind that name is the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, all-loving God who has divine say so over everything-nature, life and even death itself. And so this is not a name to be trifled with or used lightly, or thoughtlessly.

Now with the coming of Jesus of course, God-in-the- flesh, we can see all the more clearly what God’s name means, because we see his character embodied and lived out in the rough and tumble of our world. The name Jesus means- ‘The Lord Saves’. According to the apostle Paul, it is at ‘the name of Jesus that every knee shall bow in heaven, on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.’ (Phil 2:10-11). So all the goodness, faithfulness, purity and saving power of God is now captured for Christians in that one name-Jesus. And that is why his name is not to be used in some cavalier and unthinking way - it is a precious name.

So what does the third commandment mean when it says: You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.’? Well, it largely depends upon what we make of the word ‘misuse’ or as the older Bible translations have it ‘take in vain.’ It comes from a root meaning ‘to be waste’ and carries the idea of something that is empty of meaning and wasteful.

In most people’s mind the commandment ‘Do not take the Lord your God’s name in vain’ is understood in terms of blasphemy, swearing. And that is certainly true. And just to give you some idea of how far we as a society have moved in this direction, the ninth edition of the Oxford Concise English Dictionary published in 1995 has a significant entry at the word ‘Jesus’: ‘An exclamation of surprise, dismay, etc’, and then in a square in brackets this explanation is added : ‘Name of the founder of the Christian faith d.c. AD 30.’ In other words, ‘Jesus’ is to be understood first and foremost as a common expletive - a swear word - and only secondarily as the founder of Christianity! And not only is such abusive language an expression of our rebellion against our Maker, it reinforces that rebellion because by using his name in such a contemptuous way, God is associated in our minds only with those things which surprise, frustrate or annoy us, and not with those things which are good, wholesome and true which should draw us to him in humble adoration. And God is rightly angered by this , ‘He will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.’ Such disregard of God, which involves the reinforcing of negative associations with him, condemn us all the more, for while we remain in that state we shall never turn to him for forgiveness, for why should we turn to that which is a figure of abuse? Do you see how common swearing can jeopardize our salvation?

However, this commandment is far more extensive than that in its application. There are more subtle ways by which careless talk of God shows itself.

 

1 First of all it can show itself in careless worship. There is the story of a group of American tourists who were being shown round the Houses of Parliament. As they were being taken along one of the corridors, Lord Hailsham, who was then the Lord Chancellor, appeared on his way to some civic occasion; he was dressed in his Chancellor’s robes and regalia with heavy gold chains and the rest, and he made a very impressive figure. As he approached, he saw beyond the party of tourists, the then Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock. Wanting to speak to him he raised his hand and called out ‘Neil!’ Whereupon all the tourists dropped to one knee.

Now the reason we smile at a story like that is because it is somehow odd and incongruous in our modern democratic society to imagine anyone kneeling like that to someone of higher rank. We live in a society light on the notion of respect. Parliamentary candidates can be openly abused with impunity - egg throwing and all. Police officers will tell you that attitudes towards police today are very different from the respectful feelings they used to command. Many schoolteachers will now tell you that one of the most vital skills to be had is not simply the ability to teach, but to manage classroom behaviour. No one seems to be worthy of respect - least of all God.

And perhaps we need to pause and ask to what extent such attitudes have crept into our acts of public worship. Just how careless are we? We sing of his character extolling his worth in the words of some magnificent hymns, but our minds may well be a thousand miles away from our hymn book. We sing deep and serious songs which speak of pledging our commitment, our all in the service of Christ our King, but if the truth be known we have no real intention of leaving the church building any differently from the way we came in. Thoughtless repetition of the name ‘Jesus’ in some of our choruses can also fall foul of this commandment, using it as some sort of mantra to work us up into the right mood, without giving due weight to what that name really means. In some cases I am quite sure that one could substitute the name Krisha and achieve the same effect-as George Harrison did so cleverly all those years ago with his classic, ‘My Sweet Lord.’ Christians can do it just as well. It has been said that Christians don’t tell lies, they just sing hymns, and sadly there is just enough truth in that accusation to hit home on target.

You see, when we meet together like this, it is not an ‘event’ for our amusement, it is an encounter for our edification. It was the Swedish film maker Ingmar Bergman who once remarked that when God dies in a culture the church chatters.That is, when belief in God is robbed of real content, while we may still use ‘God-words’, they are pretty well meaningless and trivial-chatter. It is ironic that we now live in a society where we have more means at our disposable to communicate with each other than ever before - mobile phones and internet - and yet we have so little that is worth talking about - we fill the ether with chatter. And we can so easily fill our worship services with mindless chatter too- verbal froth. That should never be for a Christian. As we read and hear God’s Word, as we sing hymns and songs which convey great and wonderful truths, as we pledge ourselves in heartfelt promises- ‘Take my life and let it be’ - we should say what we mean and mean what we say. People should be able to say of us - These Christians are like their God, full of integrity, just look at their character-they really do believe and act on what they say. We are to honour the name of our Lord, treating it with the seriousness it deserves in our public worship.

 

But secondly we break this commandment by careless teaching. In Leviticus 19:12 this commandment is expanded by God: ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of the LORD your God. I am the LORD.’ What is that all about? Well, it refers not simply the act of perjury in a court of law but also applies to false prophecy in the church of Christ. One of the most serious activities which receives God’s condemnation outright is false prophecy: people claiming that God has said a thing when in fact he hasn’t. They do not necessarily come out with blatant error, or are insincere - more often than not their message is upbeat, affirming, speaking of great things that God is going to do. The problem is God’s name is being used, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ but without God’s backing. This happened at the time of Jeremiah for example, Je 14:14 ‘Then the Lord said to me, " The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them... They are prophesying to you false visions.. delusions of their own mind.’ In fact they were prophesying a mighty revival, a reversal of Israel’s fortunes, crying ‘Peace, Peace,’ when there was no peace. It is not a light thing to proclaim something in God’s name without clear divine sanction. And yet today folk are doing this with increased frequency and without impunity. Since 1990 I have heard of at least half a dozen alleged ‘prophesies’ that God was going to bring about a revival in the UK. Nothing has happened. But what of the men, some of whom are national figures, who made such pronouncements? They are still continuing their ministry. I know a couple who were childless and having difficulty in conceiving, when some well meaning Christian approached them at a church service one day and said ‘The Lord has told me you will conceive.’ It never happened. How do you think that made that couple feel? It is misusing the Lord’s name.

 

Those of us who have a public Bible teaching ministry have to work extra hard in weighing our words, treading the delicate path between being so cautious on the one hand that one dare not say anything for fear of getting it wrong, so it is a matter of the bland leading the bland, or on the other hand, being so dogmatic in everything, mixing personal preference with Bible teaching that preference become prejudice and God’s name is used in vain-backing something he has not said. And maybe that is why James in his letter says ‘Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.’ (James 3:1). Could I ask: how careful are you in what you claim in God’s name? Is there a tendency to go beyond what the Bible says and so being extravagant in what we tell others of God’s work and promises? Is there the temptation to cut back on what God says for fear of ridicule and rejection, leaving out some of the more difficult bits about the exclusivity of Jesus, the certainty of judgment for example- heaven and hell -and so using the Lord’s name in vain, making it worthless? As the writer of Ecclesiastes says : ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.’ (5:2)

 

Finally we can easily trangress this commandment by careless living. It is in fact possible to break this commandment with even saying a word. When Jesus ascended to heaven and empowered by his Spirit, his followers got on with the work of living and proclaiming the Gospel, they soon became known as Christians. Interestingly enough it is not a name they gave themselves, but it was a name applied to them by outsiders. They saw how central Jesus Christ was to all that they said and did-so what better name with which to tag this new race than Christian. His followers bore his name then and they still do. But when a sufficient credibility gap opens up between our beliefs and our behaviour, our creeds and our deeds, we bring into disrepute the name of Christ. If I have a fish sign on my car and yet drive like a maniac, and cause other road users to curse me, I misuse the name of Christ. A Christian student friend of mine used to drive a mini and on the rear window he had a sticker which read ‘You need Christ’. Now he would admit that he was not the best person in the world for parking his car. Well, one day he parked his car outside the student union-covering a couple of parking spaces. When he returned he found a note tucked under this windscreen wiper which read: ‘We may need Christ but you need parking lessons.’ He was embarrassed - but he learnt from that - the third commandment you see. All very down to earth and practical isn’t it?

But you say, ‘Does it really matter? After all, what’s in a name?’ Well, it matters because your eternal destiny is at stake, that’s why. You see, the name of the Lord Jesus is the name of salvation. This is the God who redeemed Israel, the great I AM. He is a saving God, and so to treat his name lightly, which in effect is to reject him personally, is to throw away the only hope you have of eternal life. That is why this commandment carries spiritual health warning : ‘I will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses this name.’ The one sin Jesus spoke about as unforgivable was the ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 12:31). The religious leaders of the day were attributing the work of Jesus to the devil and claiming that the character of Christ was, in fact devilish. Why is that unforgivable? Well, if you think the name of Jesus and all that that name stands for - his person and work- is either false or evil, mad or bad, then you will never come to him for salvation will you? And if he is the only way you can get back in touch with God, then you are effectively putting yourself outside the scope of God’s loving rescue. You are making yourself -unforgivable. And it may well be that you are here tonight and you would admit that your language is sometimes unsavory, that you are not too interested in the Bible and you want to live your own life thank you very much. Well, let me say that all of that pales into insignificance if you reject the one thing above all else in this life you need to accept - a name - Christ- the one who died to rescue people like you-and me- who is your rightful ruler and whom one day you will stand before. Now what will you say to him? What will you say? ‘My name is Melvin Tinker’ or whatever it is-so what? Our names however notable will not impress God on bit. ‘I am Melvin Tinker, BSc, MA.’- that is bound to do it! Well, qualifications however grand, can’t get rid of my moral failure. But the name which can is ‘Christ’ ‘I am a Christian’- it is not my name which counts before God, it is his Son’s name, a name so dear and powerful that it can cleanse the darkest conscience and soften the hardest heart. It can lift a person from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven. The question is: what are you going to do with that name?

 

 


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