Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
2 Thessalonians 2:1-8, 13-17
Praise Yah! Praise Yahweh from the heavens! Praise him in the heights!
Have you ever looked up the meaning of your name? The study of names is called onomastics, which covers all aspects of names including linguistics, history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philology. Etymology is the study of the meaning of names. If you look up Margaret, my given name, you will find it means “pearl.” Peggy means “little pearl” because it is a diminutive of Margaret. Many people will ask me how Peggy is a nickname for Margaret, but I don’t think anyone can really answer that question. Some nicknames make sense, like Maggie or even Meggie, but it is possible that Peggy evolved from those other nicknames. The best part of my name is that if you study its history far enough, you find that it comes from the Old Persian word for pearl, which is margarita.
Do names matter? I don’t know if my life would be different if I had any other name. As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I hope that I would be a pearl even if I had a different name. However, there is some evidence that names to matter, and that research has been ignored by many parents, especially in modern times. Instead of giving children traditional names, many parents have decided to be creative. I did some data processing and discovered that a popular name these days is Abcde, pronounced Absidee.
I watched a video of a teaching talking about strange names of children he’s had in his class. Two were not just strange, they were impossible to believe: Sssst and Jkmn. How do you pronounce names like this? The first is Forest (4-s-t) and the second is Noel (there is no l). These are very creative names, but what will they do for the children not only in school but in life? They will always have to explain their name to everyone they meet. They will come to hate their name because someone will make fun of it. There are some studies that suggest that names can affect success at work and in life. Will those names cause employers to ignore their applications because it looks like they can’t even fill out the paperwork properly?
When I was a teenager, I had an acquaintance named Marvin. Despite the wonderful, handsome, talented men named Marvin in the world, the name itself carries a bit of a stigma. If you closed your eyes and tried to imagine Marvin, you would probably be right. He was a little geeky, thick black glasses and the confidence of a man twice his size. He was short. I was definitely not an Amazon woman, shorter by inches or even more than all my peers. He was at least as old as I and I towered over him. As a matter of fact, we once danced together and he rested his head squarely on my... “pillows.” He was very content. and a little creepy. I had an idea in my head of what a “Marvin” would be like, and this Marvin verified my bias.
Did Marvin become a creepy geek because of his name? Am I who I am because my parents gave me my name? I doubt it. I have one example of a Marvin that fits the stereotype but I could probably find hundreds of examples of men who are exactly the opposite. However, names do mean something, particularly in the Bible. God often changed the names of one His people to mean something different. Abram became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Simon became Peter. Saul became Paul. Jacob became Israel. These name changes defined a change in their relationship with God. The name changes defined their character in light of God’s mercy and grace.
While the meaning of names may not matter today, names do matter. Think about the people you encounter on a daily basis. Those for whom you have a name mean more to you, don’t they? You might have a pleasant moment with a stranger in the grocery store, but you won’t remember them for long. Run into someone whose name you know, and you’ll likely have a conversation that builds on your relationship. It is no surprise, then, that we have stories of people in the scriptures who want to know the name of God.
Moses asked. He wanted to be able to identify to the Hebrews the source of their promised deliverance. But God does not have a name like you and I. He does not have a name we can know or speak. In ancient times knowing a person’s name gave a person power and control over that person. Since there is no human that can have power or control over God, it was understood that no human could ever know His name. There are even some who refuse to write the word “God” out of respect for His name.
However, it is alright for us to ask. God is given many names throughout the scriptures. His names define His character. His names help us to understand God and His grace. His names indicate the things that He does for His people, with His people and through His people. Each name identifies just one aspect of God. Each name gives us just one piece to the puzzle, one glimpse into His nature and purpose. To know these names does not give us control over God, but it helps us to know Him more fully, to understand our relationship with Him and to understand our purpose in this world.
Moses was given a name by his adoptive mother, the princess of Egypt. It means “to pull or draw out” and he was given that name because he was pulled out of the Nile River. Some try to establish that his name meant “deliverer” because there are similar Hebrew words, we have to remember that he was given the name by an Egyptian woman, so the simpler explanation is probably the best. Besides, God was able to use this man with an Egyptian name to pull or draw His people out of Egypt.
Moses grew in the house of Pharaoh with all the benefits of a blessed life. When he was grown, however, he went into the fields of his own people and saw how they labored. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and he killed him. When the act was made known, Moses feared for his life and ran into the desert wilderness to live. He made his home in Midian, married to the daughter of Jethro. The people of Israel cried out to God for deliverance, and God heard their pleas.
It all began one day when Moses saw a bush that burned without being burnt. He climbed the mountain to see the great sight up close. The presence of God was in that bush, and He spoke to Moses. Moses was warned to stay back and to remove his shoes, for even the ground around the busy was holy. Moses was given a most incredible task; he was to save the entire nation of Israel. But he did not think he could handle such an important job. He was just one man, one man who could not speak very well. God listened to Moses’ concerns and answered them.
During Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, he asked the name of God; he needed an answer for the people when they asked the name of the God for whom he spoke. The gods of the nations all had names; they would want to know who they were following. God responded “I AM WHO I AM” and then told Moses to tell the people, “You shall tell the children of Israel this, ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations.” The God whom Moses met on that mountain was the God who called Abram out of Ur, who saved Isaac from sacrifice, who named Jacob Israel. He is the LORD.
Moses stood on holy ground and spoke to God. Even still, his own insecurities caused him to question his ability to do what God was calling him to do. “Who am I?” he asked. How often do we say the same thing? We say it often, brought on by those who have put us down for our imperfections.
Moses argued with God but God sent him anyway and promised to be with him every step of the way. Moses still argued with God and asked Him to send someone else. God became angry with Moses, but He agreed to allow Aaron, his brother, to speak. So, Moses took his wife and sons and went back to Egypt. God sent Aaron into the wilderness to meet Moses along the way and they brought together the elders of Israel. Aaron told them that God had heard their cries and they fell down to worship the Lord in thanksgiving. It would not be an easy escape out of Egypt, but the people knew that God was with them.
Even to this day the Jewish people look back to Moses the deliverer and worship this God of their ancestors. Human beings like roots. Our identity is often caught up in our history. Matthew begins his gospel with a list of the genealogy of Jesus. This was vital to the Jewish community to which Matthew was writing. The genealogy established the rights of Jesus to claim the throne of Israel through the line of David. Matthew even takes the genealogy back to Abraham, typical of a Jewish family tree. Luke’s genealogy is slightly different, defining Jesus as the Priest King whose line goes all the way back to Adam. These genealogies establish for the people Jesus’ role and define his position and authority.
Most of us are not so dependent on our heritage when it comes to our lives. I doubt that very many of us have the job we have because we were born into it. In our world, people are less likely to even stay near family. We are a mobile and transient society, choosing to live according to our interests and abilities. Yet, we still like roots. We may not be able to define generations of ancestors, but we do look to the future. We look at our children and our hope is that we will live on through them. For some families, there is a desperate need for a male heir so that the family name will live on.
I have done a little internet searching for my own family heritage but it can be difficult because names change over time. We have papers that prove Bruce’s many-times-great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary war, but they show two different names. Which is right? Are the connections I have found of my own heritage true, or am I confused by a different letter or suffix? Families immigrating to America often changed their surname because the one from their homeland was too difficult to pronounce or spell. Others changed it to avoid persecution. Sometimes the name changed because the scribe made a mistake when recording the information. Language changes, so ancient names evolve with the changes in language. This is why Margarita can become Margaret and then Peggy. Other names are translated from one language to another. When looking for information about my family heritage, I have to consider the possibility of a dozen different names being possible relations.
The Sadducees were concerned about the eternal life that is founded in procreation. A person lived forever because they begat offspring to carry the family name and estate into the future. They did not believe in an eternal life that came after death. When a person died they were dead unless they had children. To them, the idea of resurrection was just foolishness and easily ridiculed. They thought their logic was solid enough to make a fool out of Jesus with their questions. After all, resurrection of the dead made no sense because it caused all sorts of problems in the afterlife, such as this situation presented to Jesus.
They painted a picture that was beyond ridiculous, and they did it on purpose. They presented Jesus with a case of one bride for seven brothers, none of whom were able to provide an heir. After she was given in marriage to all of them, she died, and the hope for eternal life died with her. The Sadducees wondered, “Whose wife will she be?” They assumed that the resurrected life would look exactly like life on this earth. Jesus answered their foolishness with the truth: eternal life is not like the here and now. There will be no marriage. There will be no children. The life that we will live after death is different. It is eternal, not because we have procreated a legacy, but because we will live forever in the presence of God.
Jesus would not allow them to make a fool of Him. To make His point, Jesus pointed back at our passage from Exodus. He used scripture to prove that eternal life is something that comes after death, that death is not the end of one’s life but just the beginning. He said, “Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him.” It is Moses himself that defined God as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Since Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were dead in flesh when Moses stood before the burning bush, then they must have still had life. How could He be the God of men who had died if there was no life beyond death?
The Sadducees were left speechless. They couldn’t argue with Jesus over His statement because Jesus pointed to Moses. The Sadducees did not hold most of the Hebrew Bible as canon; they only referred to the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. Jesus could have used other texts, but He understood their narrow focus of faith. Jesus was able to prove that they were wrong about the resurrection. In the process, He showed them that they were missing out on something of great value, faith in a God who does not stop being God when you die, but who embraces you into a new life. This is the life that Jesus came to guarantee for all of us, and which we embrace by faith. Jesus came in the flesh to free us from our sin and give us everything we need to serve Him. In Christ we stand in the presence of holiness, we are embraced by God himself, just like Moses did on that mountaintop.
The church year follows a constant pattern. We begin with Advent, a time for waiting on the coming of the King, both as a baby born in the manger and as the eternal King of Glory. Advent is followed by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and finally Pentecost. We are still in the days of Pentecost, a time when we learn what it means to be a Christian in this world, but in this last month we also look forward to the day when we will no longer be in this world. It is a period when we will see text about the end of the ages, ending with Christ the King Sunday. The focus during this month is a little different from that in Advent, in that we do face the frightening uncertainty of the end of days.
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians addresses that time. Most of us would rather not discuss the end times; the language of eschatology is difficult even for theologians. Which images are literal, which are figurative? When should we be concerned about the prophecies? Were the warnings written for our generation or has it all come to pass in a way we did not recognize? Who is the man of lawlessness? Was he a character in the days of Paul or is he someone yet to come? Will the coming of Christ be a physical return or spiritual? While there are those who will insist they have the answer, there are perfectly acceptable arguments from many different points of view. We argue about what is true. We even argue about the definition of the terms. I suppose that is why it is so confusing to the average Christian, and why it is something that most Christians would rather not discuss.
Paul wrote in this letter the message that really matters: God loves you and He chose you to be fruit, sanctified by the Holy Spirit and called by the Gospel to obtain the glory of Christ. Paul also reminds us that though it is God who chooses, sanctifies and calls, we are called to faith. It is up to us to believe. The scriptures make it clear: our eternal life is not dependent on anything we do in this world, but on the grace and mercy of God. We can’t imagine that our life now will just continue on in some way forever; eternal life is completely different.
The psalmist writes, “Praise Yah! Praise Yahweh from the heavens! Praise him in the heights.” We are called and gathered by the Holy Spirit to join with the entire creation to sing praises to God our Father. He hears our praise wherever we are, because everything He has made sings along with us. Yet, there is something very special when Christians raise their voices together to glorify God in the here and now. When you consider the entire creation – the heavens that reach far beyond our imagination, the microscopic organisms that could destroy a population of humans, the redwood trees that reach so high we can’t see the top, the depths of the sea that are too deep for our technology – it is easy to see the greatness of God. It is also easy to see that we are not much in the entire scheme of things. It is humbling to realize our place in this world. Yet, He has created us to be the crown of His creation. Should we not want to glorify Him together with one voice of praise? He has given us the heavens and the earth. He has given us the sun and the wind and the rain. He has made the animals, birds, plants and trees for us. And He has given the care and love of one another.
The point that Jesus made in today’s Gospel lesson is that eternal life will be different. Imagine if it had been you on the mountain instead of Moses. How would you have reacted? How would you have answered His call? Moses was in the presence of God Himself, hearing His voice and witnessing a form of His glory. “Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.” Despite Moses’ fear, he was even more afraid of what God was calling him to do. He had many excuses. He was not eloquent enough. He was not important enough. He was not informed enough. “How can I do this? What should I say?” God answered with a promise, “Certainly I will be with you.”
We make the same excuses. Through it all, we have God’s promise to His children which is the same promise He made to Moses. He said, “I will be with you.” He is with us each step of the way, encouraging our growth, and giving us the tools necessary to do His work. God told Moses that the sign he sought would come after obedience. “Certainly I will be with you. This will be the token to you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” We have to trust that God is with us, and do according to His Will now. Complete the task He has laid before you with faith. Then He will be glorified and you will know His hand.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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