Catechism Series: Second Commandment
October 1, 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is Exodus 20:7, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”
The author Sarah Maas wrote, “Names are not important. It’s what lies inside of you that matters.” I suppose that’s true in a way. Your driver’s license and Social Security card identify you by name. Your name though doesn’t disclose who you are deep down. It doesn’t reveal if you’re kind or mean, generous or stingy. It simply says who you are. On the other hand, most people choose a name for a particular reason: to carry on a family tradition, because of the meaning of the name, or maybe because it’s something really unique, like Moxie Crime Fighter or Fifi Trixibelle (both real names by the way). While Maas may be right when it comes to the names we give to people or pets, she’s very wrong about the name of God. The Lord’s name is unlike any other, and as such it deserves our respect. It’s so important that we honor God’s name He gave us the Second Commandment.
God’s name is different because it tells us who God is and what He is. His holy name, Yahweh, is used 6,800 times in the Old Testament, and many of those usages reveal God’s character. Yahweh means “I am who I am” or “I am”. Bibles translate Yahweh as Lord, but that comes up short in identifying what God’s like. The use of Yahweh reveals God as eternal and almighty, loving and full of grace, just and holy, and the rescuer of His people. Respect for God’s name is respect for God. Moses says that it’s a “glorious and awesome name” (Deut. 28:58). In Proverbs, Solomon describes God’s name as a “strong tower” that “the righteous man runs into it and is safe” (Prov. 18:10).
God has given you His name so you can have a relationship with Him. It’s an invitation into His presence to receive His love, mercy, and grace. This relationship with the almighty “I am who I am” begins in your baptism, where His holy name is bestowed upon you. The sign of the cross upon your forehead and heart marked you as His redeemed child, baptized in the name of Yahweh. This relationship means you can call on God anytime! You can plead with Him for forgiveness as Paul writes: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). You can call on Him whenever you feel frightened, overwhelmed, and threatened. In Psalm 91 the Lord says: “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name” (Ps 91:14).
You may have heard the name Jesus means “the Lord saves”. A more accurate translation is “Yahweh is salvation.” Jesus, the Son of God, is the great “I am” who gives salvation to you! Your Savior had to keep the commandments perfectly or He couldn’t be your salvation. He faced the temptation to curse and swear, to break any the commandments, just like you, but since He never succumbed, He is your salvation!
Although, there was one time when Jesus did swear, and it wasn’t a sin because the oath was for the good of all people. Throughout His ministry, Jesus frequently identified Himself as God by using “I am”: I am the Good Sheperd, I am the light of the world. This was one of the things that angered the religious authorities so much. On Good Friday, Jesus stood in front of the High Priest Caiphas who said: “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 26:63). Caiphas commanded Jesus to swear to His identity as the Christ, the Son of God. To which He answered, “I am”. It was this oath that condemned Jesus to death for blasphemy, for making Himself equal to God. It’s the truth of this oath that names Him as your Rescuer and Redeemer, as your God.
In his explanation to this commandment, Martin Luther wrote, “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks.” God gives you His name that you would praise Him unceasingly. We pray for help knowing that He hears us. We praise Him for all the good He does for us every day. In Psalm 100, we’re encouraged to “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him; bless His name! (Psalm 100:4). Luther said that keeping God’s holy name on our lips thwarts the devil because he can’t stand the sound of God’s name. He can’t help but flee in terror.
Because God’s name is who He is, reveals what He does for us, and has been given to us, we’re not to use it in vain. Luther writes, “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie or deceive by His name.” To use God’s name in vain means treating it as meaningless or using it for no good purpose. We do so when we carelessly blurt out Oh God! OMG! Or Jesus Christ. Is this a habit or a reflex for you? If it is, now’s a good time to stop. There are plenty of other words to use.
There are a lot of horrible hurtful and hateful things people say to one another. There’s nothing worse though than cursing someone. To tell a person “Go to Hell” or “God damn you” is asking God to send them to hell for all eternity. That phrase should never cross the lips of a Christian!
There are times when it’s permissible to make an oath: confirmation and wedding vows and taking an oath in court for the benefit of your neighbor are two good examples. However, carelessly swearing by saying things like “I swear to God” or taking an oath when we know we’re lying, that’s dishonoring God’s name. Jesus makes clear: “Whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:22).
In his explanation Luther says this commandment forbids “satanic arts”. I hope, I really hope, that none of you are dabbling in witchcraft or the occult. On the other hand, do you consult your horoscope, as opposed to laughing at what it says? Do you rely on crystals to handle personal issues? Have you bought tickets to see a famous psychic or bought their books? If so, you’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain, and broken some other Biblical mandates as well.
You might be a little confused when Luther says we should not “lie or deceive by His name.” Luther just means that twisting God’s Word or teaching people it says something different than what it really says breaks the Second Commandment. The Bible is God’s holy Word and to corrupt it is to corrupt Him. So if someone tells you: “God told me [this or that] …” you better not listen to a word they say because God only speaks through the Scriptures, not dreams or voices or any such thing.
As Christians who bear God’s name, we also take God’s name in vain when we sin. Very often, our sinful behavior or unchristian attitudes drag God’s name through the mud because we’re not living up to the one whose name we bear. It’s a great honor and blessing to carry God’s name, and there’s no better way to honor it than to let our lives reflect God’s impact on our life. Through us, others may cease carelessly using God’s name, and instead receive it to their eternal glory.
God says, “the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” The First and Second Commandments are the only two that are accompanied by threats. That’s a powerful reminder of God’s desire to defend His name from shame or dishonor. Does this mean then that if you says “God damn it” or “I swear to God” or “Oh my God”, that you’re damned? After all, you’ve dishonored the name you’ve carried since your baptism. Ah, but isn’t forgiveness through Christ’s name the whole point of your baptism? It is! We praise God for His goodness and mercy in sending His Son to live the perfect life, to die a sinners death, and rise the victorious Savior, all so that He is your salvation. It’s this salvation that gives us the willingness to not just avoid taking God’s name in vain but defend it and honor it with our lives. Why wouldn’t we want to? His is the greatest name in Heaven and Earth.
I don’t know if you’ve thought about it or realized that our Sunday services begin and end in the name of the Lord – in the name of the great “I am”. The invocation “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” reminds us that we stand in the presence of God as those who bear His name and that we’re here to receive His gifts of Word and Sacrament. The Benediction “The Lord bless you and keep you…” dismisses you with Yahweh’s blessing as you leave the church and enter the world as forgiven people. In between is the Absolution where you hear again the great words of forgiveness that comes all because Jesus, “Yahweh is salvation”, honored His Father’s name in all He said and did. And because He has honored His Father’s name, you’re forgiven for all the times that you use it meaninglessly or without a good purpose. The name we so often take in vain is the same name which forgives us. How’s that for a miracle? So leave here my brothers and sisters who bear the name of God, because you are after all, called Christ-ians.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen