Sermon May 29, 2022

John 17:1-9

“Tetragrammaton” Is a Four Letter Word”

(Why in the World Would Pastor Think We Should Know This.”

by Rev. James Rausch

I’ve been torn this week, not knowing just what direction to go for our worship service today.  My original plan was to follow the lectionary passage and pursue the theme of names and their importance.  All of our songs and liturgies are centered around that theme.  However, with the occurrence of another horrendous school shooting, it has also been on my heart to come together around our heartache, anger and fear.

Wise or not, I’m not sure, but I’m going to stick with the original theme and ask you to read our newsletter and look in on our Bible Study class recordings to process your thoughts on this tragic phenomenon of mass shootings.  Our Wednesday Bible Study class has begun an in-depth exploration of the reality of evil and misfortune in God’s good creation.  We admit we can’t know all the answers completely, but we also believe there is much we can know about evil and its origins.  Learning all that we can know helps us to cope, endure, trust God more deeply, and comfort ourselves and others.

So, I encourage you to join our study in whatever way you can.  The recording of last week’s class is one our church YouTube channel, as are all of our Bible classes.   This week, our noon Bible Study gathering will be held at the Peoria Public Library’s Community Room.  The evening class will be here in Fellowship Hall at 6:45 p.m.

Now, on to our message.  This passage in the Gospel of John, gives us an intimate hearing of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and all his followers as he prepared for his arrest and crucifixion.  It comes after the Last Supper and just before the betrayal by Judas.

If I were to ask you to define eternal life, how would you do it?  As a kid, when I heard John:3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” I thought of eternal mostly in terms of infinite time.  Heaven, which I wasn’t sure how to envision, would be where we went forever.  I remember being kind of afraid of “forever,” and a childhood friend of mine had the same thoughts.  We talked about how long that would be with no ending in sight.  If heaven is floating around on clouds, playing harps, then I would think that could get old in a hurry.   Heck, if heaven resembles life as we know it now, it’s hard to imagine it lasting forever without becoming tedious.

But thankfully, God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and God’s ways higher than our ways.  So instead of asking you or me to give our understanding of what eternal life is, let’s ask Jesus.  His answer might surprise you a bit.  If you’re like me, you’ll have to think about it for quite some time to begin to appreciate it and take comfort from it.  Here’s what Jesus says eternal life is in his prayer for us: “…you have given Your Son authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.  And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.  For Jesus, to know God and to know God’s Son, Jesus, is eternal life.

It’s why I emphasize knowing God as much as possible as our main goal in Bible Study, worship, church life, mission, and all that we do.  So, what does that have to do with the importance of names?  In tribal cultures, to know someone’s name was to know something about their character.  Native Americans teach us this well.  I think of the movie “Dances With Wolves,” which is entitled after the new name given to the main character by the Natives.  He came to find that this name was more authentic to who he was than his given name, John Dunbar.   There was “Stands With Fists,” his eventual wife, “Smiles a lot,” “Ten Bears,“ and many others.  I wondered what my tribal name might be.  Probably “Sleeps-Late – Preaches-Long.”

Remember how significant names were in Old Testament times.  Jacob wrestled with God, throughout his life, and poetically in Genesis 32.  When Jacob was defeated by God in that story, God told him to give up and let loose.  But Jacob said, “I will not let go until you bless me.”   So, God said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then God said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” His tribal name became “Strives With God.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But God said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  

There is often power in names, though my dad taught me that the value of a good name had to be earned and kept intact by earning trust and respect.   Just this week I called the library to ask for use of their community room for our Bible Study, since air conditioning repairs will temporarily relocate the preschool into fellowship hall.  Well, I’m new in Peoria, and my name and six dollars might get you a cup of coffee somewhere, but when I threw around the weight of the name “Ethel McCarty,” things happened.  We are in like Flynn, with no fees owed!

To speak someone’s name was thought in Bible times to exercise power in relationship to them.  People using each other’s names put them on a level or equal status.  That’s largely why most kids still refer to parents as mom or dad, and not Ted and Doris.   Some, like me, still like this old tradition and appreciate it when children address their elders as Mister or Mrs. so-and-so.

When Jesus encountered the man with many demons, he called out its name, “Legion.”  You see, it was thought in those days that to know the name of your adversary was to gain a great deal of power in opposing him.  Even today we find that we often must name a problem before we can begin to come against it in any meaningful way.  Suffice it to says that names and their uses have a great deal of significance our faith heritage.  We will understand the Bible better if we learn about these things.

In tribal times in the ancient Near East, people understood their Gods to be transcendent beings or entities.  Beyond human understanding, control, and contact.  They were separate from creation, separate from all matter.   The same was true of the Hebrew people.  They thought of God as completely other, Holy, totally removed from direct human experience.    As it turns out, this understanding of nature was only partially true.  And it took centuries for the Hebrews to learn that our transcendent God is also immanent, involved, and connected with creation.

It began to change when Abram was encountered by God, who spoke to him and made a Covenant promise.  It took a big leap when Moses was encountered by God at the burning bush, and Moses asked God’s name.  Moses said, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” You see, it would not be believed that Moses had such a conversation unless he had a name.  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”

The three-word phrase is not translatable into English with complete accuracy. There is no verb for I Am in Hebrew.  It suggests something like, “I Become… or I Come into Your Existence.”  The transcendent God was giving a message:  I am also immanent, close to my people, and involved.  From that mysterious encounter came a Hebrew word of four letters which represented God’s name – the tetragrammaton.  And though it was written, it was considered too holy to be spoken.  People thought it best not to speak God’s name, as if they were equals, but to use other titles. The four Hebrew letters are shown in the graphic of the person kneeling in your bulletin.

And so, the tradition took shape.  No one pronounced those four letters that we now know as Yahweh, or Jehovah.  Instead, the scribes added the vowels from another word, “Adonai,” to remind people to say “Adonai” whenever those four letters appeared.  Adonai translates as “the Lord.” You can see this when your read the Old Testament.  Whenever the tetragrammaton appears, the words “THE LORD” are written in capital letters, with the H-E-L-O-R-D in Lord in a bit smaller typeface.

And our ancestors in the faith came up with many names for God, all of which, in true tribal tradition, revealed something about God’s character – things they observed about God that witnessed to revealed glimpses of God’s nature.  Look at the various names:  “adonai:-the-Lord” “sabaoth:-the-lord-of-hosts” “abba:-father” “alpha-and-omega” “attiyq-youm:-the-ancient-of-days” “el-shaddai:-god-almighty” “elohim:-the-creator” “el-gibhor:-mighty-god” “jehovah-rohi:-the-lord-our-shepherd” “jehovah-shalom:-the-lord-is-peace” “christos:-the-anointed-one” “el-chuwl:-the-god-who-gave-you-birth” “el-deah:-the-god-of-knowledge” “el-elyon:-the-god-most-high” “el-olam:-the-everlasting-god” “el-roi:-the-god-who-sees” “jehovah-(yahweh):-the-self-existent-one” “jehovah-bore:-the-lord-creator” “jehovah-jireh:-the-lord-our-provider” “jehovah-nissi:-the-lord-our-banner” “jehovah-rapha:-the-lord-our-healer” “jehovah-sabbaoth:-the-lord-of-hosts” “jehovah-shammah:-the-lord-is-there” “jehovah-tsidkenu:-the-lord-our-righteousness” and “yahweh-m’kaddesh:-the-Lord-Who-Makes-Holy.”

But our gospel passage shows that Jesus came to reveal even more.  God is indeed holy, but God is intimately connected as well.  We don’t have to shy away from calling God by name or speaking to God directly.  Jesus said in his prayer, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.”

The prayer ends with Jesus saying these words: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.  I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Jesus gave us himself, and he gave us his name.  In chapter 16, just before today’s passage, he said to his disciples and to us: “Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.  Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.”  Now with what we have learned about names, we should be clear that this does not give us a simple formula for getting what we want.  To ask in Jesus’ name is not simply to tack the words “In Jesus’ name” on the end of our prayer.

To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in Jesus’ character – to want what he wants, to love as he loves.  It is to always be mindful in praying, “Yet not my will, by Thy will be done, Father.”   We have been given God’s very name as our own.  It has the earned respect of countless millions, and we must continue living in ways that maintain that respect.  I wonder how many of you know a famous and beautiful verse, 2 Chronicles 7:14. “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

We have been a people called by God’s name, and our land needs healing badly.  Are we willing to humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from our wicked ways?

Since 1965, mainline Christianity, which held an influential sway on our nation from it’s founding, began a precipitous decline.  Our Presbyterian church lost members for the first time in 1965 and has lost members every year since then.  I was born in ’65, and sometimes wonder if it’s all my fault.  I remember in the 70’s and 80’s hoping and believing that the trend would bottom-out, or at least level off.  No such luck. 

In a country where nearly everyone identified themselves as believers in God and attached to a community of faith, we are now seeing those numbers in free-fall.  I’m deeply concerned as are most of you.  The more our nation turns away from God, what have we observed? 

Our society has coarsened to the point where people hold others who disagree with them in contempt.  I’m 56, and it seems to me that the state of our nation now is far worse in many ways than what I remember growing up.  I hope there’s truth to the saying that sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.

I’m not wishing a return to the 50’s and 60’s or hoping to undo the important strides of progress that have been made in many areas through the decades.  But I do long for a return of public standards of decency that we can come to consensus on and uphold with the common good in our hearts.

You were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Claim the name that has been given to you, and use it.  Pray in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ character.  Humble yourselves and pray.  Live in ways that maintain the respect of the name by which we are called.  May God hear, and heal our land – our world.  In the most holy name of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and The Holy Spirit.  Amen.