The genesis of this morning’s sermon is a conversation with a member of the congregation. For those accustomed to the order of the revised common lectionary, you will notice that our scripture passage is a departure. Normally, on this fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear a Gospel passage about Jesus as Shepherd. But God intervened. A recent conversation with a seven decade member of our congregation went something like this: “Roberto, I keep noticing in the Call to Worship, we say the word YHWH. What is that? No one has ever explained it to me in all of these years. I responded that, “YHWH is an Old Testament name for God?” This perplexed him, and he uttered, “no way.” To which I of course responded, “YHWH.” What we call God is important. God’s name, or names reveal something about God and about us. So this morning, we will take time to consider what YHWH and other names of God mean and what that means for our faith. But first, let us pray:
Jesus, name above all names, silence any voice within us but your own. Breathe life from your Spirit into ancient encrypted words of scripture. In answer to the curiosity and holy longing of our hearts, reveal more of the mystery of your awesome name, so that our lives be grounded in you. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen.
What is in a name? A name is used to identify in some cases, and may tell us something about a deeper identity. And yet, one’s name does not tell us everything about a person. According to the great W.C Fields, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” Lest we forget Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in which Juliet rhetorically asks Romeo, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Juliet and Romeo’s storied love bridged the divide of warring families whose names were meant to denote dividing lines. But with raw, unfiltered emotion, Juliet dares to postulate that a name matters less than the person behind it. And yet, as New York Time’s best-selling author Rick Riordan writes, “Names have power.” A last name may reveal family heritage. A name may have been given with deeper meaning in mind. And calling someone by name or being called by your name establishes a connection.
YHWH is one of the many names we have for God. It comes from the Old Testament. There is also: Adonai, Elohim, El Shadai, HaShem, Jehovah and dozens of other variations. And looking at the Old Testament with New Testament eyes, we would add from Isaiah, “Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace.” In the New Testament, we identify God through Jesus Christ with many names. For example: Lord, messiah, master, teacher, and Immanuel. In texts that Jesus identifies with God as Father (or we might say divine parent with a little built in feminist critique in our hearts), Jesus the Son, prays to his Father in heaven, and even calls God abba, similar to daddy in English or Papi in Spanish.
Our Exodus passage is the most commonly cited passage from scripture when it comes to God’s name. However, commentator Terence Fretheim calls it, “one of the most puzzled over verses in the Hebrew Bible,” (Interpretation: Exodus, Pg. 63). But before discerning meaning from it about God’s name, let’s review what lead up to the passage Sam and I read.
Immediately preceding our text, Moses is far removed from the sights and sounds of civilization at a mountain called Horeb (wasteland). Though he not a priest or prophet and is on an ordinary journey without any particular religious intentions, an angel appears to him in a burning bush that is not being consumed by the flame. The sight grabs his attention and leaves him astonished. As Fretheim writes, “curiosity leads to call,” as it eventually would for Moses. As he moves in closer, a voice comes from the shrubbery: “‘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.’” Moses precedes to hide his face because the common held belief was that if you looked directly at God, you would die.
God continues, “‘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, and 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.’” God then calls upon Moses to go rescue the Hebrew people from Pharaoh. Moses questions citing his inadequacy for the task. To which God says, “I will be with you.” Which brings us to today’s passage.
Moses, perhaps still skeptical, then asks the voice from the bush, “If I go do as you ask, if the Israelites ask who sent me, what should I tell them your name is?” God says to Moses, “‘I am who I am.’” And further, “‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God 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.’”
In this scene, God reveals to Moses a name to call the Almighty. In English, it means I am. The word in Hebrew is YHWH. It appears in the Torah and every Hebrew scripture besides Esther and Song of Solomon. The Greek scholarly name for YHWH is the Tetragrammaton which I will not forget because we used that name for a seminary classmate. Some may remember him. He preached from this pulpit many years ago and played the bagpipes. His name is Graham, so we called him Tetragrammaton which led to the nickname Tetra. But back to God. YHWH means "to be", "to exist", "to cause to become", or "to come to pass.” YHWH is transliterated Y, H, W, H. It is just consonants without vowels. This is because the Hebrew people believed that God’s name was so sacred, you could not write the whole word, let alone say it. It would be disrespectful. But interestingly, when you take the four consonants of YHWH and fill in the consonants, it spells Jehovah, another name for God.
So what might we learn about God from Moses’ call story? What do we learn about God’s name. Perhaps the most intriguing is that God’s name, YHWH, is that it is a verb. God’s name is similar the the Spanish verbs ser and estar and the English verb to be. Which tells us that God is not static. God cannot be boxed by definition or doctrine. Those who think they have God figured out forget that God is a verb—always unfolding through time and space.
I am reminded of the wonderful song by Latin Pop artitst Recardo Arjona. If you have never heard of him, he might be considered the Bono from U2 of Latin America—he is a living legend and many of his lyrics contain social commentary. (And Karla would be quick to tell you he was born in Guatemala.) His song Jesús es verbo no sustantivo,” “Jesus is a verb, not a noun,” raised eyebrows upon its release in 1988. It made critiques of the church with lines like, “there are more religions in the world than happy children.” Here is one verse:
Jesus es mas que un templo de lujo con tendencia barroca
El sabe que total a la larga esto no es mas que roca
La iglesia se lleva en el alma y en los actos no se te olvide
Que Jesus hermanos mios es verbo, no sustantivo
Jesus is more than a lavish baroque temple,
He knows that ultimately that is nothing but stone.
The church is carried in the soul and in one's deeds, don't forget that
my brothers, Jesus is a verb not a noun.
God is a verb. Or we might correctly say, “God is.” The God of the universe, of the Hebrew people or the Reformers and of twenty-first century Presbyterians is a verb—a living God. The God of Abraham: Promise of posterity, the God of Isaac, the God who provides, and the God of Jacob, the God who gives lasting progeny, is active, not passive.
And we encounter that God when we recognize we are on sacred ground, meaning when we look faithfully beyond the noise of the world for a deeper connection with the source of life that brings us wholeness. And then, when we have a moment, or moments in which we experience the presence of the God, in light or dark moments (remember God meets Moses at Horeb wasteland), we realize that we did not find God, be that we were found. It has been said that curiosity leads to call. And if we allow our curiosity to keep carrying us into relationship with the great I am, with YHWH, we, like Moses, just may realize that this is a God who is sacred, who cares for the oppressed, wishes for justice, calls us by name, and will be with us when we seek to be the verb God calls us to be. God wants the hearts of women and men delivered from death to life. We may also recognize that we are called to participate as a verb—by doing.
Queridos hermanos y hermanas, there are few things more precious to people then their identity. Sure, our name tells us something about our identity, but whether or not we experience abundance in this life, often has to do with whether or not we are at peace with our identity. Much of our daily life shapes that identity and sometimes we work hard to live into the identity that we desire.
This morning in her adult education class about care-giving, Rev Jamie Martinex, who is a full-time hospice care chaplain invoked the Velveteen Rabbit. In the story, the stuffed rabbit became more real as it began losing its whiskers, and buttons, and falling apart. That is because it became more real the more it was loved.
I close with one more name for God. It comes from 1 John 8: “God is love.” There is another verb—love. As Paul said, between faith, hope and love, “the greatest of these is love.” That is the most important name of God that we may know. And that name tells us so much about God. But it also tells us about God. From 1 John 7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” We are loved by God. That is our most important identity in this world. Throw out profession, appearance, even family roles, and it does not matter if we grow old and our whiskers fall off. Our deepest identity in the Universe is beloved—loved, by God who is love—and whose name is above all names.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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You will find sermons preached by Rev. Robert Woodruff and guests preachers.