Isaiah 40:21-31 – The 5th Sunday after Epiphany – for February 8, 2015
“Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The Lord is the everlasting God . . .” (Isaiah 40:28)
It seems such a puny, one-syllable word in English . . . God.
The Italians (Dio) also have three letters, whereas the Germans (Gott), French (Dieu), and Spanish (Dios) boast a grand total of four. Hmong (Vajtswv) and Filipino (Maykapal) increase the count average, but how much of that is based on translations in the English alphabet?
For Scrabble, G2-O1-D2 amounts to 5 ho-hum points (unless linked to other words or when the tiles are placed on a double or triple square).
As I, and countless others, have joked (or have been very, furry serious), god spelled backwards is dog. Which, given what I’ve learned from dogs, is never an insult. My puppy Hannah died at 14 years of age last year. If I were to distill all the lessons learned from her into one, I’d claim how humbling it was to be around unconditional love. And, thanks be to YHWH, that’s a darn fine way to understand God.
God, of course, was rarely known as “God” in the original Hebrew or Greek of the Bible. Even confined to the English translations I’m familiar with, God was often known by the aforementioned and unmentionable YHWH, along with Lord, Creator, Almighty and other more-than-three-letter words. If the tetragrammaton YHWH was used in Hebrew scriptures to skirt saying and writing the holy name, then Jesus’ use of Abba—Papa, Daddy—served as an intimate Christian testament counterpoint.
Isaiah declared (from the Common English Bible),
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
The creator of the ends of the earth.
He doesn’t grow tired or weary.
How can we adequately say or describe God? David James Duncan, in his reverently irreverent “God Laughs & Plays,” wrote:
God is the fathomless but beautiful Mystery Who creates the universe and you and me, and sustains it and us every instant, and always shall. The instant we define this fathomless Mystery It is not longer fathomless. To define is to limit. The greater a person’s confidence in their definition of God, the more sure I feel that their worship of “Him” has become the worship of their own definition.*
Duncan’s views made me squirm when I first read them. I still squirm, and still agree with him: efforts to understand, define, or name the Mystery, will fail. If confident I’ve placed the right words together to describe or name the Mystery, I’m more likely enthralled by my circumlocution than humbly honoring that Mystery. Additionally, I like that Duncan’s warning kept God, kept the Mystery, in the unsettling present tense.
So, is it better to remain silent about God’s “name?”
As I read the passage from Isaiah, I stop where the lectionary stopped. Verse 31 has the familiar and metaphoric promise for those who “hope in the Lord.”
They will fly on wings like eagles;
They will run and not be tired;
They will walk and not be weary.
However I speak of, or about, God will be inadequate. My language will be puny. I may win Scrabble games, but not with any divine titles that have merit. I will be more accurate when describing a four-legged furry friend. And I believe I’m more likely to fly like an eagle when I cautiously claim God as a present tense Mystery rather than depend on names that are a past tense history lesson.
And yet I can’t not try, try, try to claim God by name. Not because I want to impress you. Not because it will make me more faithful. Not because seeking a Holy name (from Abba to YHWH) is a vibrant part of my tradition. Not because I delight in language—though I do—and it’s fun to brainstorm labels for the Lord.
I name God because I want to communicate with you.
I suspect God—Mystery—doesn’t care much what Name is used. But will naming the Name create an opportunity for communication between lovers, between friends, between strangers, between enemies, and between those of different faith traditions? To echo Paul in his letter to Corinth, “I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means . . .” (I Cor. 9:22b). In my view, it’s not about saving people to become only Christians, only followers of Jesus, but saving people to help them live in the unsettling present tense as neighbors.
Will my name for God welcome you? Will your name for God welcome me?
*I have posted this quote from Mr. Duncan before. (And this probably won’t be the last time!) I’m indebted to Duncan’s use of Mystery in referring to God and agree with his cautionary words about “naming” the Holy.
(Image of names from here.)