posted Mar 4, 2013, 8:10 AM by David Hawkins   [ updated Mar 4, 2013, 8:10 AM ]

02/17/13 Sermon (February 17, 2013)

“Lord of All?”

Scripture Reading: Romans 10:8b-13

"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Sermon: Lord of All?

I have to tell you one of my favorite jokes.

A man goes to a baseball game. As he’s walking up the steps of the bleachers, he hears someone call out, “Hey, Dave!” He looks out at the crowd, but he can’t see who’s yelling. He goes another step or two, and again, he hears, “Hey Dave!” but he can’t see who it is. He finds his row, and goes to his seat, and sits down, and again, he hears behind him, “Hey Dave!”

He’s finally had it. He stands up, turns around, and shouts out over the crowd, he shouts, “Hey! My name’s not Dave!”

Names are important. They help us identify things, they help us find things, describe things, locate things, categorize things. But it’s important to realize that they are not those things. The name of a thing is not the thing itself. At least, not in our way of thinking about things. For us, names point to things, they symbolize things.

But for Hebrew speakers, names are a different thing, at least some of them are. There are some names that are true names, that is, there are names that don’t simply point to something else, they are that thing. The name itself is of the same essence as the thing that is being named.

One of my favorite songs when I was growing up was a song by Amy Grant, called El-Shaddai. You probably know it, it goes something like this: El;Shaddai, El-shaddai, El elyon na Adonai. I didn’t realize at the time that these were all different names for God. And, I guess that that’s not really my fault. The Bible that I read, in fact, the Bibles that we all read, have a much smaller vocabulary to name the Divine, and that is to say either God, or the Lord. That’s pretty much it.

But that’s not how it works in Hebrew. In the original Hebrew Scriptures, there’s El, which means mighty one, or simply, God, and with El, there’s there’s El-echod, which means the one God, there’s El Tsadik, the righteous God, and of course, there’s El Shaddai, which means all sufficient, and El-elyon, which means God most high.

There’s also variations on El, like Elah, or Eliyah, or Eloah.

Another common name for God is Adonai, which means, “Lord” When you’re reading your Bible, you will often see that God is referred to ‘God’, which is usually a translation of one of the el-variations, or ‘Lord’, which is from the Hebrew word, ‘Adonai’. It’s this small difference that is the only indication for us English speakers that there are different names for God.

And I think that is an important distinction for us. Because we think differently about the name of God than those who wrote the Bible. For the Jewish authors of the Bible (and let’s not forget that nearly all the authors of the Bible were Jewish!), the actual name of God was so sacred that it could not be uttered, or even written down.

This sacred strange name is the name that God gives himself, when Moses is talking to God. God calls himself, “I am who I am,” or, perhaps even more literally, “I will be, who I will be.” This name is the true name of God, the name that is of the same essence as God himself. It doesn’t point to God. It is God.

In fact, when the scribes wrote this actual name of God, the name that God gave himself in Genesis, they would write it in code. And when the scrolls were read in the synagogue, if the reader came to the holy name of God, the word Adonai was said out loud in its place.

I’m telling y’all this to bring up what I think is an important point, a point that we can’t help but miss when we read our English Bible. In the Jewish tradition, most of the names of God were not names in the way we might think of them. Rather, they were descriptors. In the same way that we might say, “Faithful God”, they might say, “Elohei Chasdi”. In the same way that we might say, “Eternal God,” they might say, “Elohei kedim.”

El is also the root word for God in many other languages. You may remember that as Jesus dies on the cross, he cries out to God, in Aramaic, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” asking God why he has been forsaken. Jesus names God in his own Aramaic language while quoting Psalm 22.

El is also the root word for God in Arabic languages. In Islam, there are 99 names for God, and most of them begin with the word Al, which is a variation on the word El. The most famous, of course, is the name, Al-lah, which means, simply, the God, as in the One God.

I have heard it said, as I’m sure that you have, that Allah and God are not the same Divine Being. Linguistically, I’m sure this comes as a shock to Arab Christians, who have grown up worshipping Allah. I’m pretty certain that they think that the names ‘Allah’ and ‘God’ are synonymous. I wonder sometimes: Do people think that God doesn’t speak Arabic?

My point in this short lesson on the names of God in Bible Languages, is that while there are many names, or rather ways of describing God in Hebrew and in other languages, there is only one true name. And this true name of God is a sacred, holy thing, it’s a name that we don’t really understand, and one that deliberately has been kept obscured by tradition and by practice for over 5000 years before the Apostle Paul came on the scene and wrote today’s scripture in his letter to the Romans.

It is so sacred and holy that we really don’t know how exactly to translate it, and we don’t really know how to even spell it. This name was only spoken in the First Holy Temple, and it only spoken once a year, on the Day of Atonement, and then only by the High Priest. Anyone who heard the sacred name would immediately lie down face first on the floor with their arms outstretched.

And in today’s scripture, here is Paul, placing his whole theology, his entire understanding of salvation, of forgiveness, on the act of calling on God’s name.

The true Holy Name of God is a very, very big deal.

Now, we as American Christians have, I think, lost something in our understanding of a Holy Name. When we think of God’s name, we generally  think of either the word ‘God’, or the Word ‘Lord’. We don’t think of an un-utterable phrase that is so sacred, so revealing of God’s true essence that we don’t say it, we can’t spell it we don’t write it down. We don’t have this idea in our traditions.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know who God is. Because even though we may have lost the tradition of God’s Holy Name, we are given another way to name God. We are given the name of God, a name that we can rely on, and on which we can base our whole understanding of God. And that name is Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is also the true name of God. And that’s what Paul is trying to tell his church in Rome. Jesus is the true name of God. In him, we discover the true nature of God. In Jesus Christ, the essence of God is visible to the world. Jesus is the Word of God, the sacred, holy true name that we can call on.

And that makes sense to me. Because when we call on God’s name, we are calling on the true essence of God. We are calling on the character of God, that which God is, what God has been, what God will always be.

And that which God is, is faithful, and powerful, and eternal, and loving, and redeeming. When we call upon the name of Jesus we are naming our faith in a God who is near, who gives himself to us, who forgives and saves all who call on him.

You see, Paul is trying to help the Romans see that they don’t have to decide between worshipping God and Christ. They do not have to give up their understanding of one God, of El, of El-Shaddai, of Eli, of Allah. Because God is still God. What Paul is trying to help the Romans understand is that when we name Jesus Christ, we are also naming God. And when we call out to Jesus Christ, we are also calling out to God.

Jesus Christ is God’s gift to those of us who don’t know how to name God. He is a gift to those who find it difficult to approach, or understand, or comprehend the true essence of a God whose very name is so sacred that it cannot be written down.

Because Jesus is not abstract. Jesus was a flesh and blood person. Jesus talked and laughed and cried with us. Jesus felt our joys and our sorrows and our pain. Jesus was hungry with us, he was exposed to the worst treatment that any of of us can imagine, stripped, whipped, beaten, and executed. Jesus was a human being, like us.

And yet he is also God. And because he is both human and God, his death and his resurrection have reconciled forever the chasm that exists between humans and God. Whatever price needed to be paid, whatever bargain had to be struck, Jesus has fulfilled that and more in redeeming humanity. In Jesus Christ, we truly are forgiven.

In Jesus Christ, the name of God is hope, acceptance, atonement, redemption, love. These are the characteristics of God that are being described when we name Jesus.

But there were those in Paul’s time, and in our own, that find it hard to trust that promise. For them, the names of God can only describe a harsh God, unforgiving, vengeful, judgmental, hard, unapproachable, ruling from above, the giver and enforcer of the law. For many folks, regardless of their religion, whether it be Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, the name of God that they cling to is a name that strikes fear, induces guilt, causes them to fear God and neighbor.

But for the Apostle Paul, this name has no power to redeem, or to save. We cannot be saved by appealing to the name of a God who does not know us, does not love us, does not search us out, does not free us from our debt, does not give of himself.

Last week I spoke briefly about the Westboro Church in Topeka, and I mentioned how I believe that this is the God  that they name in their hateful signs and their website and their protests. The God of anger and punishment is the God that they trust, the God that they identify with.

And so it is ironic that this Sunday, today, a friend of mine that I went to seminary with wrote to me and told me that his church is being picketed today by Westboro.

Now, I’m not willing to say that the folks at Westboro worship a different God than I do, any more than I’m willing to say that Muslims or Jews worship a different God than I do.

But, I do believe that Westboro has a different name for God than I do, and they trust in that name. And, I don’t. I don’t trust in their name for God. Their name for God doesn’t identify for me those characteristics of God that I am able to trust.

Certainly, I fear those characteristics of God that they so joyfully shout when they picket funerals. I recoil from them. I don’t understand them. But I don’t trust them. I can’t, or rather, I won’t give my life to the name of God that is on their lips and in their hearts.

Because that’s what it all comes down to, doesn’t it? It’s not about what we say about God that matters. It’s not the words we use to describe God. It’s about the words that are in are hearts that console us, that give us hope, that comfort the pain, that remove the shame of our lives. Those are the words we trust. Those are the words we are called to speak.

During this season of Lent, Paul encourages all of us to think about the words on our lips. Are they they same words that are on our hearts? What are the names of God for us? Are they names that we can trust?

In C.S. Lewis’ wonderful Chronicles of Narnia, I remember reading as child the last book of the series, the Last Battle. In it, a young soldier of the enemy army, a Calormen, finds himself in the company of Aslan and all the talking beasts and the children that have been part of the story from the beginning. He is surprised to find himself in what can only be described as heaven, especially as he has all his life worshipped his God Tash. There were many other people who were surprised to find the enemy soldier there as well.

Aslan explains that whatever good that was done in Tash’s name, it was counted toward Aslan, and whatever harm was done in Aslan’s name was counted toward Tash. That what mattered was the true name of God in the young soldier’s heart. That true name, that can’t be uttered, that can’t be know that can only be trusted and believed.

And that is what I hope in. My hope is in a God that comes to us, that comes before we know we need him, that forgives our sin before we know that we are sinners, that opens the door for us before we even know that we are in prison, that turns on the light for us, before we even knew that we were blind.

My hope is in a God that is God of all, no matter how we name him. That God doesn’t care what language we speak, or what clothes we wear, or the specifics of our culture. My hope is in a God that hears the prayers of all who name him, regardless of the names that are used, or the tongues that speak the names.

And for us, Jesus Christ gives us that hope. In the name of the Jesus, we can trust that God is near to us, and cares for us, and desires us to live with him. In Jesus Christ, we find the true name of God. In Jesus Christ, we are promised that no matter our background, our class, our religion, whether Jew or Gentile, or Muslim or Christian, Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, whether slave or free, whether black or white, immigrant or native, whether male or Female, whether East or West, The Lord God is Lord of all, and his name is given to each of us to claim and to trust in our the most secret part of each of our hearts.

Thanks be to God. Amen.