A Sermon on the Second Commandment

by Peter Brunner, delivered on July 22, 1945, the 8th Sunday after Trinity, translated by Jason Lane

You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain;
for the Lord will not let those who misuse His name go unpunished.




The second commandment is like a barricade around the holy majesty of God's Name. When we together consider what we have in the name of our God, then we are confronted with a great, deep mystery, before which we stand awestruck.


Just how mysterious is evident in the fact that we people call the things in our surroundings, the creatures in our environment, but especially those people around us by name. "When the Lord God had made from the earth all kinds of beasts of the field and all sorts of birds under the heavens, he brought them to the man to see what he would name them. Whatever the man should call every type of animal, so they shall be called. And the man gave to every kind of livestock and every bird under heaven and to each kind of beast of the field its name." Perhaps man's language is essentially nothing other than such naming. With such naming man takes, so to speak, ownership of his environment. He spiritually makes it his own, subdues it and exercises authority over it.


Let's say we're wandering through a totally foreign land. We see mountains and valleys, forests and streams, villages and cities, but we don't know their names, we don't know where we are. How gloomy the land, how weird the foreigners seem. Then we meet a local. He tells us the mountain over there is called so and so and the name of that valley is this and the houses there belong to this and that village, and sure enough the whole place becomes more familiar. And let's say we even had a map with us, then we could find our way around based on the names we already know on the map. Through our knowledge of the names we suddenly become, so to say, lords of the land, whereas before we seemed like a helpless, lost and wandering little dot.


Let's say a scientist is working on his research and runs into an incomprehensible phenomenon. He tries everything conceivable to figure out the puzzling event. Finally he made a discovery, he's got the formula, he found the physical or chemical formula to explain the event that until that point was unexplainable, to classify it among that which is already known and to make the event usable for this or that end of humanity. The formula with which he discovered the previously unknown gives him now the lordship over that event. Are not all names of things and creatures such formulas by which the unknown is made known, the unconquerable conquered, the unruly ruled?


You go through the streets of the big city. Tons of people flood passed you. To you they're foreign - you stand as a foreigner among foreigners. Then, all of a sudden, a familiar face appears. You call him by name. He turns. You greet each other and a piece of solidarity, real human solidarity in the middle of the comfortless solitude of the big city masses. A young man moves to a foreign country. He comes in a city where he's completely unknown. But he has letter of commendation or maybe just a greeting from his father, grandfather or teacher with him. With this name he knocks on strange doors, and behold, his father's or grandfather's or his teacher's name opens the strange door in a strange land, smoothes his paths, removes obstruction out of the way, and makes a home for him in this strange land. What a peculiar and marvelous thing a name is! A name is a mysterious, powerful thing. With a name there's no smoke and mirrors. He who can call the unknown by its name unlocks the unknown, the foreign. He who calls the name, the formula that he has at his command, exercises an authority, which may seem to us at times to be downright eerie.


These examples are to help us understand what the story is with the holy name of the Lord our God. What a miracle that we have the name of our God among us! However, man did not invent God's name, nor did he determine it out of his own imagination as he invented and determined the names of things and animals. On our own we can't even figure out or determine the names of the people around us.  With all your might, you can't in and of yourself determine what to call your neighbor. Somebody's got to tell you that. We tell each other our names when we want to introduce ourselves or have fellowship with one another. Man rules over things and animals, and that's why he determines their names by his own authority and of himself. But when it comes to his fellow man, this lordship of man reaches its boundary. We have no right to lord over our neighbor. Instead, we're allowed to enter into personal fellowship with him in that we call each other by name. If I'm allowed to call another person by his or her name, that is, when it comes right down to it, always a permission that the other person had previously given me. That God has let us know His name - which is to be distinguished from what happens with us - is a completely one-sided act of God alone. We don't need to tell God our name. He who calls all creatures by name, He who with His almighty Word called into existence everything that is and constantly calls into existence things new, He who Himself calls the endless worlds of the starry skies by name, "that not one of them is missing."[1] Truly, He's known us little people from our mother's womb on and sees right through us every second, into our heart and guts. Before Him everything is unveiled as though it were the brightest day ever. But He lives in the dark, where nobody can approach. But out of this darkness flashes forth the light's ray of the holy name of God.          


First God only makes known mysterious suggestions of His name, like when Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok. There he was called by a new name: "Israel". But as for Jacob's question to the man he wrestled: "What's your name?" - that remains unanswered. When Moses was called and he asked about the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the mysterious name of God of the old covenant was revealed to him. This name is called Jehovah, or we say it more precisely: Yahweh. But for Moses God's Old Testament name is more like a disguise than a revelation of God's name. For what God Himself means by the name Yahweh is stated in these words: "I am (ehye), who I am (ehye), that is My name." That means: "From now on, of every name that could be named in this and the world to come, I am who I am."  


From that we then anticipate the unimaginable magnitude that comes down on us in the incarnation of God's eternal Son in Jesus Christ and of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In Christ and in His Church the name of God is fully disclosed. Now Christ's word takes effect: "Father, I have revealed your name to men...I have made known Your name to them and I will make it known." Now, as the apostle said in today's epistle, through the Holy Spirit there is the call on the tip of our tough, "Abba, dear Father". The name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit has been given to us as a gift in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. The Triune God Himself has made His inner life available to us, to the members of the Church of Jesus Christ, by His holy name. With unimaginable kindness He has let down His lofty majesty to us men by this revelation of His name. With this name of His He's put the key in our hands, so that we might again and again unlock for ourselves His world, His heavenly treasury, even His heart. God has given us permission to call on Him, the Holy One. And even though He lives in unapproachable light and lives in the darkness of concealed majesty, He gives us permission to call on Him as dear children call on their dear Father. With this gift of His name He has given us the power to be His children, and as His sons and daughters to stand before Him in His otherwise unapproachable sanctuary.


Has not God with the revelation of His name put Himself, so to speak, in our hands? Has not God with His name in an unthinkably deep descent granted us power [Macht], the power that provides us with a passageway to Him, the power with which we can call for help from Him in every need, and the power with which we are allowed to gather with all the angels and archangels before His throne praising Him in exaltation in all the world? O, that we would rightly want to know this powerful gift, to know that with His name God has laid Himself in our laps! O, that we would actually want to use this huge gift of God's holy name, this name so full of power! Really, this name with which we call on the Triune God is not empty or powerless. Some mighty names of men, even the most powerful name on earth can dissolve in empty clatter and vanishing smoke. But the holy name of our God remains in force now and forever.


He who has this name on his lips must also know what it does! Woe to him who misuses this name! Woe to him who misuses the descent of God! Woe to him who misuses the permission granted us with His name! The power that dwells in this name will become crashing lightning and scorching fire against anyone who misuses this name.


It's no surprise that people fall into the temptation to misuse God's name. We certainly saw how the use of this name bestows power. We call a process in nature by its name and with its formula and thereby capture it for our use. We call a creature by its name and thereby rope it in, as it were, and make it serve our purpose. We've already fallen into the temptation to use, that is, to misuse, a man's name - and with the name the man himself - as a means to an end for our power and lordship. If, however, the man now goes on to use the powerful name of God and the powerful permission that is bestowed with this name for his own gain, in order to set himself over God and make God subservient to his own purposes, what sacrilege is that, what horrifying misuse!


One such horrifying sacrilege is, for example, cursing. When man curses he also uses the power of God's name to consign his enemy to temporal and eternal perdition. A curse is not an empty word. A curse is a word laden with power. A curse is like a butcher knife being thrown at an adversary. God will not let him go unpunished, who hurls His holy name like a butcher knife at his fellow man for his own personal and selfish ends. God will guide the knife back on the blasphemer who threw it, and strike him.


Another misuse of God's holy name is the flippant oath, especially perjury. The invocation of God's name with an oath has the power to bring the truth to light with a definitive clarity and pointedness, as will be achieved only in the final judgment. Woe to him who, rather than using this last resort [God's name] to bring the truth to light, uses it as a cheap means for propaganda to secure his own power or as a cheap stopgap to get what he wants. Woe to him who, with the help of such an invocation of God's name under oath, wants to make truth out of lies, light out of dark, good out of evil. He who Himself is the originator of truth, He who Himself is the originator of light, He will reap vengeance terribly upon such wicked perversion that is conjured up with the aid of His holy name.


With that we're approaching that darkest and most horrible misuse of God's name. A misuse that is generally done in secret and strikes fear in people's hearts, because it dreads the light of day. I'm talking about enchantment, magic, the so-called black arts [Aberglaube]. Here man actually uses God's holy name like a scientist uses his formula, to seize with this formula power over God Himself. The descent of God, in which God gave to man His powerful and power-effective Name [machtvollen und machtwirkenden Namen], is taken with such outrageous defiance, as if God, in His name, surrendered Himself to men in such a way that man could now with this powerful means of God's holy name give himself control of supernatural powers and direct his supernatural powers according to his selfish will. Also astrology, horoscopes, tarot cards and other forms of fortune telling belong to this dark activity of magicians and sorcerers.


Hopefully, nobody among use misuses the name of God like that: for cursing, swearing and black magic. But we have to keep in mind that the little word "you" in the commandments has all of Christendom in view, and that each person is accountable for the spiritual disposition of other Christians, and therefore also accountable for the spiritual disposition of our people, who through the holy water of Baptism have scraped by. Are not those baptized under the name of God the ones so often cursed? Someday you can ask those who were soldiers. They'll be able to tell you how in the military the worst curses are uttered often over the littlest possible things. Do you think God is going to put up with this misuse of His name? Do you think God could be with an army in which God's name is constantly being cursed? A curse out of the mouth of a German who has been baptized into the Triune God has contributed more to the defeat of our people than a hundred enemy grenades.


How misused the oath was among our people! How cheaply, how worthless had the oath become - in fact, it was almost completely a means of propaganda! That's one of the main reasons why our people have fallen so deep, because our people had abused the Holiest One with His own means.


Has not God's name been used to lie and deceive? Has not God's name been used to disguise the Godlessness and enmity with God? Do we remember how "the Almighty" was called on again and again in public speeches from a man whose government deliberately bred the most defiant hostility against God and His word that recent history knows? Are we going too far to say that this man ultimately has fallen so deep because of the heinous misuse of God's holy name? The danger of using the name of God as a poster boy for completely different agendas, the danger of using that which is Christian as a way to disguise yourself for your own selfish gain, the danger of cloaking with "Christian" the desire for very concrete position of political power, this danger, in fact, still exists today as well. Let's be clear about this: God will know every misuse of His Name and it will have to come up against His judgment. Truly, not everybody who says "Lord, Lord" will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. From today's Gospel we heard how the "Lord, Lord talk" can be sheep's clothes, and behind it is hiding a raging wolf. Didn't also the German Christians say "Lord, Lord" and behind the cloak they preached a doctrine that blasphemed the name of God? Didn't these German Christians with their false doctrine die out just about overnight? The false doctrine in our church, which under the circumstances finds itself disguised as utterly pious, thoroughly Christian, totally orthodox, is also a misuse of God's holy name, and because of this doctrine the judgment of God will have to come upon us our children, that is unless we do everything in our power to drive out this false doctrine under the guise of God's name.


Have you any idea, my beloved, how far the darkness of this black magic [Aberglaube] has spread among us? After taking a trip for a few days through the land, I'm shocked to have to say that even Christian congregations - in places where one would never expect it - have been infected today by the plague of these soothsayers. They've caused this oppressive uncertainty, so that people don't even know the fate of their own family members. We at least know that much of this shady enterprise!


With all this mischief we must, each in his place, oppose it wherever we come across it. Today, this very hour, we want to make a covenant with each other, that we not only keep ourselves free from this trouble, but that every time we run into this mischief around us we'll make a resolute stand against it. It is our holy duty that we warn and take to task every kid on the street, every colleague at work from whose mouth we hear a curse. It is our holy duty that we confront every flippant, useless, and sacrilegious swearing around us and when possible hinder it. It is our holy duty that we not tolerate it when we encounter magic of the dark arts [abergläubischer Zauber]. These things truly are harmful. And for the sake of such things the wrath of God burns over us. For the sake of such things God's judgment has come over us and it will come over us again in the future, if everything remains in the way of past.


Most importantly, however, let us hold fast to the right use of God's name, even more now that we see the danger of its misuse. With His name, God has truly put a massive possibility in our lap, the possibility to enter into alliance with Him, the Almighty, the Eternal, the possibility to drive from us all god-defying forces in the power of His name, in the humble invocation of His name to take on the forces of calamity and disaster, and with praise and thanks to glorify His name in all the world. Don't let a day go by without morning and evening placing yourselves in the saving and blessed power of God's holy name. Let no Sunday or Festival go by without - if it is possible - gathering with the congregation in the name of the Father of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Let us be mindful of the word of our Lord: "Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in their midst." Let us fight with such a right use of God's name against the forces of darkness that are breaking in, so that God's name would be sanctified and His power spread out over all names, that God' lordship triumphs of all Kingdoms and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

[1]    Brunner quotes a old children's song from Wilhelm Hey (1789 - 1854): "Weißt du wieviel Sternlein stehen an dem blauen Himmelszelt?" The italicized line (v.1) is what he references, which reads: "God, the Lord, has them [the stars] counted, that not one of them is missing."

        1.) Weißt du, wieviel Sternlein stehen an dem blauen Himmelszelt?
        Weißt du, wieviel Wolken gehen weit hinüber alle Welt?
Gott, der Herr, hat sie gezählet, daß ihm auch nicht eines fehlet
an der ganzen großen Zahl, an der ganzen großen Zahl.

        2.) Weißt du, wieviel Mücklein spielen in der heißen Sonnenglut,
wieviel Fischlein auch sich kühlen in der hellen Wasserflut?
Gott, der Herr, rief sie beim Namen, daß sie all ins Leben kamen,
daß sie nun so fröhlich sind, daß sie nun so fröhlich sind.

        3.) Weißt du, wieviel Kindlein frühe stehn aus ihren Betten auf,
daß sie ohne Sorg und Mühe fröhlich sind im Tageslauf?
Gott im Himmel hat an allen seine Lust, sein Wohlgefallen,
kennt auch dich und hat dich lieb, kennt auch dich und hat dich lieb.