Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gods and Demons

Demons and Spirits take on form and power when we give ourselves over to them --- but so does God. The choice is ours... a sermon for Epiphany 4b

SJF • 4 Epiphany • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father... and one Lord, Jesus Christ.+

Anyone who watches the TV trailers for the movies — whether you end up going to see the movies or not — knows that demons are and always have been a hot topic for film-makers. I’m sure many of you here remember “The Exorcist” — with its sequels and prequels and even the satires and fun-poking parodies about spinning heads and split-pea soup. That film was not the first by any means to take up the theme of demons and possession and exorcism — and nor was it the last, as the current fare offered by Hollywood continues to show. We are offered ample portions of demon possession and exorcism — and split-pea soup. This is like one of those restaurants where the food isn’t very good, but the portions are generous!

Why is it that people never seem to tire of such supernatural tales of terror — of demons and devils, of those possessed by them, and those foolish enough to worship them? Why is it that tales of supernatural evil — resident or just visiting — continue in the form of such a large part of our popular entertainment? Is it that there aren’t enough real horrors to frighten us, or enough real human evil in the world that we have to look for evil from beyond?

Perhaps after all it is just the fear of the unexplained or the unknown. When something strange happens, when we do not understand the natural cause of some phenomenon, we are likely to attribute it to something supernatural — and people have been doing that since the dawn of human consciousness.

That goes for evil nasty things as well as ordinary things, of course, and in ancient times all such things were divided up into the care and cause of numerous spirits, gods, and demons. Prehistoric people didn’t know what the seasons were or why or how plants grew and animals reproduced, so they put all this down to the action of various gods. Early historic people — the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians — began to record their stories of gods and monsters, whom they believed to be the supernatural source of the natural things for which they had no other explanation. The sun-god rises at dawn and rides his chariot across the sky, then sinks into the west and travels by boat under the earth to re-emerge the next day. Lightning and thunder are the work of the Storm-God, waves and floods the work of the Sea-God and his lesser cousins the lake and the river gods; and the evil fortune is the result of nasty wandering spirits who do their mischief in spreading sickness and disease.

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By the time we get to the first century, we find Saint Paul somewhat on the fence when it comes to the question of whether these gods and demons have any reality or not. The Corinthian Christians to whom he wrote were a sophisticated lot, who felt that since only the true God exists, it doesn’t do any harm to pay tribute to idols representing other gods. It was their rejection of these other gods that ironically had earned them the accusation of being atheists who would bring bad fortune on the cities of the Gentiles by offending their patron gods. So to accommodate, the wise-in-their-own-eyes Corinthians were ready to spill a drop of wine in sacrifice to the pagan gods, with a wink and a nod. “It’s just a formality...”

Saint Paul warns them they are treading on dangerous ground, warning them of the danger a horror movie fan will recognize when a person invites a vampire into their home! “Not so fast,” Paul says: Yes, we know there is but one God and one Lord, but not everyone is so secure in their belief. If you make offerings to idols, even though you know these offerings are meaningless and that you are just doing it so as not to cause offense in your pagan society — what if new Christians who still believe that these false gods are real are scandalized, and you cause them to fall away on that account? In the long run, you have done the demon’s work — you have made the demon real by your actions, and lost your brother or sister to their power.

The point, for Paul as for us, is that these gods and demons derive their power not from themselves — after all they don’t exist! — but from how people relate to them, and are possessed by them. Evil may not have a personal supernatural existence as a being of some kind, but when evil is at work in people, either as individuals or as a group, it might as well — and the damage is done whatever the case. Theologian Walter Wink has written about how it is that these “principalities and powers” can arise out of the human systems that give them flesh and blood — or ectoplasm. These human systems give the spirits bodies to work with and hands to do their evil.

Think for a moment about mob violence. I think in particular of the horrors of group assaults — lynchings, gang-rapes or bashings — that happen from time to time, when a mob seem to become possessed by some evil spirit that eggs them on to do something as a group that few or none of them would have done alone. There is an evil spirit in a mob — and whether natural or supernatural, it is real.

Good Christian people — or people who think of themselves as good Christians — can, when gathered in a crowd, do some very un-Christian things. I don’t want to get too far into politics, though it’s hard to avoid in campaign season, so I hope you pardon the illustration. I was twice struck in recent weeks by the irony of people in self-designated crowds of “Christian conservatives” — each time in response to Ron Paul — first eagerly calling out to let a sick man die if he couldn’t afford his hospital bills, and then actually booing the Golden Rule! What, you might well think, possessed these Christians so to forget the rudiments of the Christian faith? To what power or principality were they giving up themselves in that moment as instruments?

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The same goes for the spirits that Jesus encountered in his ministry, such as the one who possessed the man in our Gospel today. Although this is a case of an individual rather than a mob, the point is the same: the evil spirit has no effective existence apart from the one who is possessed by it — that’s precisely why the spirit is so desperate not to be cast out, not to be destroyed by being driven from the mind and body of the one who gives it the means to function in the physical world.

The spirits can only act in this world through and by means of those they possess. I cannot answer the question as to whether they have any existence apart from this time of possession, though the ancients well thought so. But it is doubtless that they do take on life in individuals and mobs who give themselves over to thinking that it is right to pay tribute to a demon or a false god they know — or think they know — doesn’t exist. The powers act through groups of people who do evil as a group that few would dare as individuals, as the group and its demonic driver gives each member some form of plausible deniability, or the opportunity to say, “It wasn’t me” or “I was only following orders.” Some of the greatest evil in our history is the work of people who thought it wasn’t their fault. The devil made them do it.

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The good news is that God works for good in the same way these evil spirits work for bad — through human beings. The good news is that people can do more good as a group than they can as individuals, and even as individuals — when we turn our selves, our souls and bodies, over to God as a reasonable and holy offering and sacrifice — God can and will make use of us for his good purposes. The good news is that the good that can be done is greater than the evil that is done, if only we will do it. Let us pray then that God will strengthen us to be of courage and good will to work his will. Let us not turn our hearts and minds to the dark-side of the powers, but to the light and the life of God the Father of us all, in whose name we pray, and to whom we give all glory, with God the Son and through the Holy Spirit.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A New Direction

We receive many calls in our lives, in many different directions; only one of them leads us to Jesus -- a sermon for Epiphany 3b

SJF • Epiphany 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

A few weeks ago, just prior to the Iowa caucuses, I was watching a CNN interview with some undecided Republican voters. One of them said something that amused me: “I think the country is heading in the wrong direction. We need to make a 360-degree turn!” You understand, then, that the reason I found this amusing, of course, is that a 360-degree turn puts you heading exactly the same way you were before you made the turn, maybe even a little dizzier than before — what this voter wanted was a 180-degree turn. I can certainly understand how dizzy undecided voters were in the Iowa caucus. In the weeks leading up to it and since we saw an electoral merry-go-round and roller coaster ride of a campaign — and the campaigners! One day one was in the lead, only to plummet on the next. No wonder people are feeling confused!

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But whether you are a voter or a cruise ship captain, if you really feel like you’re heading in the wrong direction, it’s the 180-degree turn you want. One thing I’ve experienced in years of traveling is that it is sometimes the sign on the other side of the street that you have to turn around and look backwards at to see that is the most helpful in getting you turned the right way round. Fortunately in these gymnastics I’m not the one driving!

I raise all this because our readings today strike the note of the second theme of Epiphany. The first theme, about which we talked last week, was belief. And in response to belief comes this second note — conversion, or tousethe classic word, repentance.

We see this perhaps most vividly in the story of Jonah — although the first part of Jonah’s story isn’t part of our reading today. You will recall that Jonah had tried to run away from God when God first gave him the task of preaching to the people of Nineveh. He headed 180 degrees in the opposite direction from Nineveh, out into the Mediterranean Sea. He learned his lesson in the belly of the great fish. Then God commanded him, as our reading begins this morning, a second time to do as he was told and to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. And when he did head the way God commanded, and preached repentance, the people believed him — that’s the note of belief that we sounded last week. They believed, but not only did they believe him but they too repented. And I mean major repentance! The whole population of that great city — a three day’s walk across — a lot bigger than the Bronx! — fasted and dressed themselves in rags as a sign of humility and repentance. And then — surprise, surprise — even God changed direction — changing his mind and withholding the calamity he had said he would bring upon that wicked city for all its past sins.

This wonderful story of changing directions tells us three powerful truths: you can’t run away from God; you can change your ways and turn your life around; and even God will change in response to your repentance and amendment of life.

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When we turn to the reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians we hear Paul sounding a bit like Jonah himself, announcing that the time has grown short and the end is near as the present form of this world is passing away. But while Jonah called for clear repentance — a complete 180-degree turnabout — Paul seems tobedescribing a somewhat different new direction. He does not tell people to walk away from their wives or their sorrows or their joys or their possessions or their businesses. Rather he counsels all of them to adopt what I’d call “an alongside attitude” towards all these things — more of a 90-degree relationship, or like parallel lines — continuing alongside all of them but at a little distance, perhaps arms’ length. For all these things, Paul assures them — everything about life as we know it — will be fundamentally changed by God when God comes. The change of direction is more in an attitude of detachment, than in actual movement in the opposite direction. The world, it seems, is to be taken with a grain of salt — not clutched to the breast, but held lightly. We are called to travel lightly through this world.

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Our gospel passage also involves taking a new direction. Jesus starts, again much like Jonah, preaching repentance to the people by the Sea of Galilee. But then he encounters Simon and Andrew and something changes in the nature of the call he issues. He offers a call to go in a totally new direction. Unlike the call of Jonah to the people of Nineveh, this new direction does not involve sorrow or repentance for what is past. Unlike the urging of Paul to the Corinthians it does not involve keeping a light hold on what is now. The call of Jesus is a call to let go of what is now and walk into the unknown future that is not yet. He calls Simon and Andrew and then James and John to come and follow him into a new life, in a totally new direction into a totally new world unlike anything they have ever known. He calls them, in short, into the kingdom of God. This is a call to a higher life. Not any kind of degrees — 360 or 180 — not left or right, or north, south, east or west; but up — up into the life of Christ, being, as John said,“born from above.”

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We all receive different calls in our lives — the calls can be like all of those we heard about this morning. When we have done wrong God does call us to make that 180-degree turn and repent — and has promised to forgive when we do so.

We are also called, as Paul called the Corinthians, to sit lightly with this world, this world that is passing away: our relations and our possessions are only ours for a time and we will one day have to part with all of them — and they with us — when we pass from this life — and so best to cultivate that sense of detachment, as Saint Gregory the Great once said, “To possess the things of this world without being possessed by them.”

Finally, God also calls us through Jesus Christ, in his own direction — towards him who is the shepherd and master of our souls. We have all received these different calls in our lives. But this last call — the call to the new life in Christ — that’s why we’re here this morning. Jesus calls us to follow him as surely as he called Simon and Andrew, and James and John. He calls us to walk in his way: he makes us his disciples and equips us to make disciples of others — to fish for people, as he told those fishermen.

Brothers and sisters, we share in that apostolic work as fishers of people. Even as we are drawn along in the great net cast out by those who have gone before us, we too can reach out our hands to offer help to others to bring them with us too. We may not be able to tell them with a certainty where we are heading. The only certain thing is that if we follow Jesus we will be with him where he is. And where ever that is, isn’t that the place you want to be? With all your heart and soul, with Jesus? Idon’t know about you, but as the old song says, “Where he leads me I will follow... I’ll go with him, with him, all the way...”+

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why Believe

Belief comes by experience or testimony... and as a gift of God. A sermon for Epiphany 2b

SJF • Epiphany 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I’m going to ask a question of you that might seem odd coming from a priest to a congregation gathered in church for worship on a Sunday morning. And the question is, “Why do you believe?” I’m specifically thinking of why we believe in God — after all, right after this sermon I will invite us all to affirm our faith and the faith of the church in the words of the Nicene Creed, where we will sing a whole long list of things we say we believe about God.

But there is a larger question here: why do you believe anything? I think most of us would say, starting at the simplest and most personal level, that we believe the things that are evident to our senses — as the old saying goes, seeing is believing! There is an old story about an Anglican bishop who was confronted by someone who was from a church that believed only adults should be baptized. This Anabaptist challenged the bishop, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” To which the bishop responded, “Believe in it? Why, man, I’ve seen it!”

So for most of us the first stage of belief is based on our personal experience; we believe what we see. I know that London is real because I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt! But the fact of the matter is, I believed there was a London long before I got there and saw it with my own two eyes and walked its streets with my own two feet, and breathed its foggy air. And that brings me to the second reason for belief: testimony.

Much of what we know and believe, probably most of what we know and believe, is not based on our own personal experience — our senses — but on the experience of others reported to us. I spoke a few weeks ago about secondary sources in writing history, and this is precisely where they come in. We believe on the basis of the testimony of others. Unlike personal experience, which is by definition unique to each and every person, belief by testimony can be shared and multiplied. I can tell dozens of people that I have been to London, and talk to them about what I saw there, what the food and weather and the architecture are like, and if they accept my testimony they too will believe that there is a large and populous city on the River Thames, the seat of English government, full of incredible buildings and well supplied with fish and chips — and curry. And not only can I share my own testimony, but those who come to believe through me can share their new belief with others, and they with others still. In this way, many who have had no personal experience of London may come to feel well informed about it.

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So far, so good. It all seems free and clear. But what about people who believe things that are not true? Experience shows that experience can be fooled — the doors of human perception are not always open, and the windows are not always clean and clear. As we are only a few weeks from Christmas, I recall Ebenezer Scrooge’s argument with Jacob Marley’s ghost, right at the beginning of the story when the ghost challenged him to his face as to why he doubted his own senses:

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” To which the Ghost responds, “Man of the worldly mind! Do you believe or not!?”

Our passage from the Old Testament this morning reveals some of the problems with the senses — and with our ability to make sense of them. The old priest Eli has grown blind — not just literally, but figuratively as well, as he has turned a blind eye to the blasphemous corruption and crime of his own two sons, who have corrupted the worship of the temple, stealing the people’s offerings for themselves. The whole nation seems to have lost its senses of hearing and sight, too, for the word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread. The corruption in the leaders has infected the people.

It takes a child — a child with fresh and open ears, young Samuel — properly to hear the voice of God gently calling him by name. And even though he does not at first — or even second — recognize who it is that is speaking to him, he eventually comes to know the Lord, and becomes a witness to the presence and power of God, so that the whole land, from Dan to Beer-sheba, comes to know and respect him as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

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Which brings me to the second problem with belief — it is one thing to trust your own senses, or not to trust them; but it is quite another thing to trust someone else’s senses, someone else’s testimony. The extent to which you believe someone else’s testimony is based on how much you trust them. Whether you believe will be based to a greater or lesser extent on the degree to which you trust their testimony, or their general trustworthiness.

When Philip tells Nathanael that he has found the Lord, Nathanael’s first response is one of doubt, not trust. Perhaps he’d had some bad experience with Philip; or perhaps he found it too hard to believe that the Messiah had actually come — especially from the unexpected direction of Nazareth; or maybe he was just a skeptical person by nature and didn’t trust anybody. Whatever the reason, doubting other people or their testimony can be a block to our believing what they say.

So, as Philip suggests, perhaps with a shrug or a smile, Come and see; if you don’t believe me, let it be your own senses that convert you, convince you, and bring you to belief. So it often comes back to personal experience. Just as Thomas said he would not believe in the risen Christ until he saw him with his own eyes, and even put his finger in the place where the nails had made the wounds, so too Philip offers Nathanael the only thing ultimately that you can offer to a doubtful skeptic: Come and see! And Nathanael goes, and he sees, and he believes. Big time.

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So why do we believe? Is it simply because you accept the testimony of those who walked with Christ, in those ancient days, and passed along their testimony in the form that eventually came to be published abroad in the Gospels we now have, those precious pages in that book? Do you believe because people whom you respect have told you of their experience of God at work in their own lives? Or do you believe because you have, in some way perhaps you cannot fully describe or even understand, heard the voice of God calling you gently by name, have felt the hand of God at work in your life, guiding you along right pathways for his Name’s sake? Very truly, I tell you, those who believe will see greater things than these. You will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.+

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Not Watered Down

water on its own can do little other than removing stains -- to have power it must be raised to new heights by the sun, or moved by the wind of the Spirit -- a sermon for 1 Epiphany 2012

SJF • Baptism of Jesus • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGJohn said, I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

Today is the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, always observed on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. We observe the baptism of Jesus in this way, at the beginning of the year, to start things off — for although Jesus Christ began his life on earth at Christmas, his ministry begins with his baptism as he emerges into our gospel history from that period of obscurity — that time from his childhood through young adulthood — about which we have no record apart from Saint Luke’s short account of the Holy Family’s trip to the Temple when Jesus was about 12 years of age.

But it is with the baptism of Jesus that his public ministry begins, and the first Sunday in the season after the Epiphany — which means, “showing forth” — appropriately commemorates this first public “showing forth” of Jesus.

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Baptism is clearly a time of beginning — a time of starting things off. And you might well say, what better way to start things off than with that short Scripture reading from the Old Testament: the opening words of the book Genesis, the very beginning of absolutely everything.

However, the reason the liturgists who assembled these readings chose the passage from Genesis is not that it is about beginnings. Rather it is the mention of the Holy Spirit — which I’m sorry to say the translation we use unfortunately chooses to designate as “a wind from God.” But this is the spirit of God. What the translators obscured, however, the liturgists sought to clarify and highlight, by coupling this reading from Genesis with the passages from Acts and the Gospel of Mark, which are explicit in highlighting the importance of the Holy Spirit.

And what those two readings demonstrate is that water alone is not enough. John’s baptism was a baptism with water. John was continuing and expanding on the Jewish custom of ritual bathing by which one would figuratively wash away impurity with water. Every Jewish town had a bathing pool — a mikvah — for precisely this purpose. I saw a TV program about the Dead Sea Scrolls community at Qumran a few weeks ago, and the archaeologists excavating that site pointed out that the people in that community — who lived out in the Judean desert — were very careful and concerned and spent to have well-constructed aqueducts, conduits and cisterns to bring water to those ritual bathing pools and an ample supply of water — water used solely for this ritual bathing, even in the middle of a hot, dry desert. They expended a considerable amount of their resources in constructing and maintaining this impractical but ritually vital construction. So we can tell that this ritual bathing was an important feature of their religious life.

John the baptizer — also a voice in the desert — called on people to come to the River Jordan to wash themselves. This was not just a washing from the ritual impurities that would occasion the more-or-less routine trip and dip in the municipal or village bathing pool — but a washing from the deeper and more troublesome faults and wrongs that cling to the human heart: John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.

But as John himself confessed, his baptism was still only a baptism with water — even if it was the cold and chilly water of that historic Jordan, rather than a domesticated bathing pool. Water is water, but the one who would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit was yet to come.

The point in all this, and the reason for including that passage from Genesis along with the one from the Acts of the Apostles, is to show that water by itself is not enough. Water, as we know from that other account in Genesis — the story of the flood — water can destroy a world. But water by itself cannot make a world. Water by itself will just, as we know from our grade-school science class, or from a leaking roof, water on its own will seek its lowest level. It’s true that ingenious human beings have found ways to harness the power of falling or downward-flowing water, with mills and dams and dynamos. But the water itself, once it has reached its lowest point, cannot do anything of itself. It will just lay there in a pool or a puddle.

What is needed is that wind from God — that Holy Spirit of God — to move over the face of the waters and stir them up with waves of energy. And, as we also know from our science class, what is also needed is the heat and light of the sun, shining on the waters and changing the water — evaporating it — into vapor that rises and rises and rises up on high until it condenses into clouds, and falls again as rain to water the mountains and fill the streams that can pour down once more, once again full of power and energy it was given by being raised up, to go through those cascades down to the sea, in the meantime driving the mills and dynamos. But the water itself doesn’t have the power, it only gains the power by being raised up by the heat and light of the sun shining on it, to the point where it can flow down once again. It is the spirit of God, not the water, that is the creative force in Genesis, bringing light and life to the world. And it is the Son — that’s S-O-N — who is the active principle in creation, the one through whom all things were made.

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And it is that same spirit and that same Son of God who makes the baptism in his name — the name of Jesus — different from the baptism of John. John’s baptism was about removing old stains of sin — and water can be a pretty good stain remover! But there is more to Christian baptism than simply washing away one’s sins — even Original Sin — more, not less, since it includes that washing-away as well.

But Christian baptism also imparts light and heat: Sonship in Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit to the one who is baptized. The Spirit of this re-creation is the same Spirit that moved over the waters at the beginning of the first creation, and the Son of God is he through whom all things were made. Christian baptism does not merely wash away the old; it imparts the new — the new life in Christ. It renders those who are baptized new citizens of a different land than the one of their birth; and it admits those baptized into a new family — the family of God’s household, the church. This is what the Son and the Spirit do as only they can do: giving life, a new life that is not simply watered down, but built up, renewed, restored, revived.

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We will very shortly welcome three new members into this household through this wonderful sacrament of baptism into the Son by water and the Holy Spirit. I do not expect them to speak in tongues or prophesy as happened in that account from Acts. They may make a little noise - and that’s alright: it is a joyful sound. But I do know that they will have been well and truly baptized and anointed and marked as Christ’s own forever. And I hope that you in the congregation will speak out loud and strong when at the end of the baptism we come to that part of the liturgy where we welcome the newly baptized. Welcome them as if they were your own long-lost children who had wandered far from home but have found their way back by seeking the light of Christ. Welcome them with the open arms and hearty greeting you would give to a hero returning home from a foreign war. For in this baptism these young children become our brothers and sisters, in this baptism they have returned to the home that God has prepared for them from before the beginning of the world — from before the time the Spirit first hovered over those waters and the light was separated from the darkness. This is the power of God working through the church and its sacraments, committed to the care of the church by its Lord, Jesus Christ. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and it is by that Spirit that we are — all of us — children of the Most High.+

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Unspeakable Name

God has done us the singular honor of asking us to call him by Name... a sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus

SJF • Holy Name 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: speak to Aaron and his sons saying, Thus shall you bless the Israelites... So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

One of the most striking features of the Jewish faith is that although the name of God is written throughout the Hebrew Scriptures — what we Christians call the Old Testament — no one is supposed to say that name aloud. In fact no one is supposed to say that name at all — except the high priest on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and even then only secretly and softly and quietly when he goes into the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple. And since the Temple was destroyed in the first century by the Romans, the name goes unspoken.

So holy is this name, spelled in four letters, Yod, He, Vav, He — or as we would say, Y H W H — that instead of pronouncing it aloud, every time it appears in the text of the Scripture, the pious Jewish person follows the instructions printed out in the margin of the page, where it says, “Read Adonai” — and instead of saying the unspeakable Name as written will say “Adonai,” which means “the Lord.”

You have no doubt noticed and perhaps wondered about the fact that in English Bibles and prayerbooks you will often find the word “LORD” printed in all capital letters, or sometimes “GOD” printed the same way — and this indicates that the Hebrew original at that point in the Hebrew text has the four letters of the unspeakable name.

So holy is this name, that even the paper it is written or printed on becomes holy — which is why the hand-written Torah scrolls, and even mass-produced printed Hebrew Bibles, are never just thrown away. When they become too damaged or worn for further use they are reverently placed into a kind of cemetery for Bibles. And if there is need to write down a Hebrew text, say of a Psalm for a summer camp worship service, something temporary: if there is a chance that the paper might simply be thrown away rather than being preserved, instead of writing the full four letters of the unspeakable name they will sometimes write instead two Yods, what we would call two Y’s, which doesn’t mean anything in Hebrew and which to us looks like a large quotation mark. The Name is so holy that whenever that double-Y appears, instead of saying it the person will say — not the Name itself, but that substitute, “Adonai.”

Some Orthodox Jews will not even write down the English word “God” for the same reason, but instead will write G-hyphen-d, or G_underscore_d, so scrupulous are they to avoid even coming close to taking God’s name in vain. And in conversation or even in a classroom teaching about God many observant Orthodox Jews will not even use “Adonai,” — the Lord — as a substitute, as it has taken on some of the holiness that belongs to the unspeakable Name itself; rather they will refer to “Ha Shem” — which simply means “the Name.” So, for instance, if you ask such an Orthodox couple if they are traveling to Jerusalem next year, they might say, “If Ha Shem wills it.” “If ‘The Name’ wills it.”

Of course the people of Israel had other ways to communicate the unspeakable Name, in addition to using such written or spoken substitutes. We see one of them in the reading from the Book of Numbers this morning, where the priests of the family of Aaron are given the authority to bless the people with the unspeakable Name by ritual means. They would hold up their hands like this — which looks a like two copies of the Hebrew letter Shin, the first letter of Shaddai (meaning Almighty) and Shekinah (meaning presence of God). The priests, while holding their hands like this, would pronounce a four part blessing of protection, light, grace and peace, as the people reverently bowed their heads — not even looking at the priests’ hands as they were raised above them.

This blessing is still given in synagogues to this day, and you may know that actor Leonard Nimoy borrowed this sacred hand-gesture when he played Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, recalling it from a childhood peek at the blessing as it was bestowed in his parent’s congregation in the synagogue. Thus the high and holy blessing to live long and prosper has become prosaic — or even Vulcan.

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Which ironically brings us back to earth. It is probably a bit hard for us to relate to all of this awe and holiness surrounding God’s name since we use God’s name all the time, either taken in vain, or even in causal conversation, is so common we scarcely notice it. We will casually say, “God bless you” to a sneezing stranger, who for all we know could be a Buddhist or an atheist. Perhaps we may not even know that the word “Goodbye” is just a short form of “God be with ye.” So we modern Christians speak this Name of ‘God’ all the time.

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And perhaps after all it is right that we should. One of the primary differences between Judaism and Christianity is precisely the belief that God has come to us to be with us as one of us — that God who created the universe became a human child — born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children, to become heirs in Christ. He grew to manhood and then suffered and died for our sake and for our salvation. God moved from being our Creator to being our Brother. And because Jesus is our brother we can join him in calling out to God as our Abba, our Father in heaven, as the Spirit inspires us and as Jesus taught us to do. Who would not call their own loving Father by name? And who has more right to do so than a child of that same Father — even if adopted?

In coming to us as one of us, the Son of God took on a new name, Jesus — the name which is above all other names, at which every knee should bend upon the earth and under the earth, and by which every tongue should confess that he is Lord — Adonai.

It is a holy name, a sacred name, and we should not profane it or speak it vainly. Jesus our brother is also our Lord and our God, as Doubting Thomas would eventually confess. It is through Jesus we earn the high and holy right to call God ‘Father,’ a privilege not to be taken lightly.

Even our earthly customs of the names we call each other often show more respect than some people do for God. But when a justly famed or important person, one you are accustomed to calling Mister this or Doctor that, or even by a formal “Sir” or “Ma’am” instead of speaking their name aloud — when a person like that invites you to call them by their name, we may be at first a little shy to do so. When an archbishop says to you, “Call me Rowan,” or a president says, “Please call me Barak,” you are invited to do something few would presume to do on their own initiative.

In the Incarnation, God has done just this. He has said to us, “Call me Father,” “Call me Brother.” The one whose name remained unspoken and too sacred to pronounce, only flashed in hand-signals or whispered in the Temple’s Most Holy Place, at the last and in the fullness of time, has come to us and said, “Call me Jesus.” And it is in that name we pray.+