This claim occurred to me in the course of preparing a sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent and was preached at St. James Fremont, Fremont, Nebraska. I append it to this challenge if you are interest to see how the thought was developed.
What would you say if someone asked you, “What is the name of your God?”
Not so easy. I suppose that we might say “Lord” or “God,” but these are not names so much as job descriptions. They translate the Biblical Hebrew words: adonai, el, and elohim which were the generic terms for god in the time of Moses, and they beg the question. In an attempt at a personal name, we might try Jesus, but it is no small problem to claim “Jesus” names god. This Jesus we are told prayed to god and called god his father. Like Jesus, we may well speak of god as our father, but that identifies a relationship and does not name him. If we don’t have a name, can we say that really know him.
Fortunate for us, we have in our text a means to get at the answer. The beginning verse of the third chapter of the Book of Exodus is recognized as one of the great theophanies of the Scriptures. Theophany is a moment in which God shows himself to humankind, and while there are many, few are as powerful or as significant as this particular one that occurred on a hillside in the wilderness of Sinai roughly 35 hundred years ago. Recall that Moses has escaped Egypt, and has put himself in the service of a powerful nomad of the Sinai wilderness by the name of Jethro. He was shepherding Jethro’s sheep when he was attracted to a bush that burned without being consumed. Upon approaching the bush, he directly encounters the presence of God and he removes his sandals, knowing that he is standing on holy ground. In the theophony, he is charged to go back to Egypt and deliver the Israelites from their bondage under Pharaoh. Moses talks back to God, “Who am I that should go . . . and bring the Israelites out of Egypt.
In his wariness at his ability to fulfill this charge, he points out to the god that is calling him, that he wouldn’t be able answer the Israelite if they asked him, the obvious question: “What is the name of this god for which you claim to speak?
It is then that the god pronounces his name. He say that his name is “I am who I am.” In Hebrew of Moses’s hearing: ayeh asher ayeh.
This is certainly one of the most startling sentences in human hearing. And it was not heard in the grandeur of a Temple or in halls of the learned, but on a hill side in the wilderness of Sinai. It breaks with the naming of gods who are identified with a certain place, with a past miracle or with some kind of psychic power. All of which are bound by a particular condition, but the “I am” is now and is every where. The “I am” answers Moses’s doubt by saying I will be with you.”
The “I am” is essentially the personal god, who works by means of his personal presence. Moses is not to go back to Egypt with a talisman, but is to go back and to introduce the Israelites to a personal relationship with the “I am” which is their liberation. So God tells Moses: “Go tell them Yahweh,” the God of your past, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you.”
Yahweh is a form of the Hebrew world for “being:” ayeh is the first person singular and yahweh is the third person singular. So that when God speaks his name: “Being,” he will say “I am” and when we speak about the God-being, we will say: “He who is,” Yahweh in Hebrew; Ho on, in Greek, which, as an aside, you will find written in the hallow of the icons of Holy Face, and all the other images of the Savior.
From the Sinai event on, the name Yahweh becomes the holy name, the shem qodesh. It is central to Israel’s prayer life as can be seem from its ubiquitous presences in the Book of Psalm as it is, in fact, dispersed throughout the whole Hebrew scriptures. The generic names of God, to which I have referred, are also present, but it is clear that Yahweh is the personal name of God. It is, then, no way miss leading, when this section of Exodus ends with the declaration of God: “This is my name forever and this is “my title,” zcry, better translated, “my memorial for all generations.” Memorial meaning a word by which one may evoke the person; one may evoke the personal God of Israel.
A funny thing happened, however, some time after the tragic destruction of the City of Jerusalem and of the Temple itself, by which time the substantial portion of the Old Testament has been written, the exiled Jews begin to feel that the name, “Yahweh,” was too holy to be spoken out loud, and/or conversely that they had become so sinful by their failure as a nation, that they were unworthy to say the word out loud. It became the universal custom down to our own time, that when a Jew reads the four letter word, the tetragrammaton, yod he va he, Yahweh, as it is pronounced, they substitute the word adonai. Adonai is roughly equivalent to the English word “lord,” as in a master of the manor or a lord of the realm. Once a year this rule was set aside, when High Priest, inside of the Temple Building, by himself, would say the word out loud in his prayer.
One cannot help but be impressed by this piety. But the result of this intense piety has the unintended consequence that a religion whose God is a personal savior, becomes a religion of an absent God, to whom one relates through practices and observances; by keeping the law, and the “I am” is left in the past. This would not be the first or the last time that piety resulted in such an outcome. Piety as it turns out is easily subverted into mere feels, sentiments, that are detached from the presence from which they originate. And so easily seized upon by the powers of this world, the high priests, kings, emperors, caliphs and presidents, who with the promise do it, convert it to a means of control their flock or herd.
So it is by no means down playing the importance of Jesus to suggest that the essence of Jesus’s life and work is to restore the sense of a personal God and to restore the convict that it is through that personal presence that an individual can find their liberation.
Isn’t that what St Paul means when he teaches, not by the law, but by faith you will be saved? The faith that Paul is referring to is not belief about but belief in as “I believe in one God.”
Now we have been given back the right to say it, the being- God-name. Perhaps last Sunday you sang the Hymn “The God of Abraham’s praise as we did in the congregation that I attended. If you did, you sang those very words, “the Lord, the great I am, by earth and heaven confessed, we bow and bless the sacred name forever blest.”
Listen for the moment at the end of this present Lent, when the Passion Narrative will be read and it comes to that point were the High Priest ask Jesus “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Living God? The you will hear Jesus answer: “I am.” It is said that the High Priest upon hearing this tore his clothes and said: “You have heard his blaspheme!” He had spoken in the public forum of the assembly, the “I am,” the Sacred Name, the shem qodesh.
The veil is torn in two and the presence of the personal God is immediately ours, all of ours.
So if you are asked, “what is the name of your God?” You can answer with confidence, “I am” and it is “he who is” who has sent me.