January 16, 2011

Matthew 6:9–13 & Exodus 3:1-15

“Hallowed Be Thy Name”

The third of ten sermons exploring the rich and multifaceted Lord’s Prayer

To hear this sermon: 110116SermonPodcast

Rev. Allen V. Harris

Franklin Circle Christian Church, Cleveland, Ohio

“Hallowed be thy name…”  “Hallowed” is not a word we use much anymore, but it means holy, consecrated, sacred, or revered.  We often use hallowed to refer to someone whom we should treat with awe and respect because they deserve it, they have earned it, or because of their role or position.

Jesus, in his model prayer, references God in such a way as to lift up to his disciples and to us that the divine name is not just any name, it is a holy name, the name of one who is amongst us, yes, but who is set apart and different from us.  I can imagine Jesus had in the back of his mind Exodus 20:7 “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”  This is serious stuff!

The story that quintessentially defines this hallowing of God’s name comes from the book of Exodus, in the third chapter.  It tells of Moses, the great patriarch of the Hebrew people, in the period of his life after he has fled Egypt having killed a man for abusing a Hebrew slave, and yet before he would summon up the courage and fortitude to confront Pharoah and lead his people from bondage.  At this point he has retreated to the serene and perhaps even dull life of a shepherd, working for his father-in-law, Jethro.  While out herding sheep one day, he is confronted by a strange apparition: a bush that burns but is not consumed.

From the midst of the flames of the burning bush, a voice calls out to Moses to take off his sandals from his fee, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” says the voice.  Though it appears Moses is standing on dirt and sand and rock, he is actually standing on hallowed ground.

The voice, who is identified as the God of his forbearers, tells Moses that he has been called to a mighty task: to lead the Israelites out of bondage from Egypt and to freedom.  After some natural resistance, Moses asks the million-dollar question: “What is your name?”  God responded, “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” most often translated, “I Am Who I Am,” but better translated “I Will Be Who I Will Be.”  (1)

This divine name is built on the Hebrew verb “to be” and is related to the divine name used frequently throughout the Old Testament, “Yahweh,” or YHWH (the transliterated Hebrew consonants without the vowels). In the Jewish tradition, this special name of God is considered so holy that it is not to be pronounced in prayer or worship (hence, the absence of vowels). The NRSV translation represents this special divine name with the circumlocution “the LORD.” This is the convention used by the ancient Greek and the Septuagint translation of the original Hebrew. (2)

At this point, I would like to take a moment to have us turn in our Chalice Hymnals to page 12 and sing the beautiful hymn, by one of my favorite contemporary hymn authors, Thomas Troeger, “Source And Sovereign, Rock And Cloud.”

Now, in my experience, I find just the opposite is true.  I think names are so very important, they must be spoken clearly and correctly.  I may have told you this story, but it serves to remind us that many – if not all – of us take our own name quite seriously and want it spoken correctly.

Some years ago I was in Columbus for a national church meeting.  The entire body was being led through a gentle but intense look at the presence of racism in our society.  The gentleman leading us through this process was of Japanese descent and he asked if anyone had spent most of their life with people mispronouncing their name, which tends to happen a lot to persons of an ethnicity or national origin other than that of the majority of the population.  A number of people raised their hands and he invited a young African American woman up to the stage.

She introduced herself as Tolonda and explained that most of her life people had found it difficult to remember her name, even members of her family.  Early on in life, someone at school had created a nickname for her, and the other kids began calling her that, even though she never liked it.  Eventually, teachers and family members began calling her by this nickname.  She began crying in front of this convention center with thousands of people.  Clearly, her real name, her given name, was important to her.  The facilitator, who was a beautiful gentle spirit, asked her permission to teach us her name.  She nodded, and he confirmed that he was pronouncing it correctly.  He then turned to those gathered, and asked us to repeat her name.  He did it several times until the convention center roared with a clear and confident “Tolonda!”  She was weeping uncontrollably, and clearly grateful for the chance to reclaim a name that was sacred to her.

I take seriously, as part of my faith commitment AND part of my commitment to fight racism in our society, to say the names of people correctly and clearly as they want to be called.  Now, my poor memory works ferociously against me, but I much rather embarrass myself by having to ask someone several times over how to correctly pronounce their name than to mispronounce their name.  And I would never even think of giving someone a nickname that they had not already chosen.  It is a sacred act to say a person’s name and I want to do that with dignity and honor.

So, I imagine Jesus had both of these understandings of the hallowed nature of God’s name in his mind.  God’s name is both so holy, so sacred, so transcendent as to almost be unutterable… AND it is so holy, and so sacred, and so immanent as to be said clearly and correctly.  Thus Jesus held together the paradox: “hallowed be thy name” and “our father”

Now, this is how we approach God in prayer, and I do think this was Jesus’ primary focus in the Lord’s Prayer.  However, an additional aspect of “hallowing” the divine name comes with how we use that name outside of prayer.  Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the worldwide Anglican/Episcopalian tradition, reflected on this most exquisitely.  He said,

“…to ask that God’s name be hallowed, that God’s name be looked upon as holy, is to ask that in the world people will understand the presence of God among them with awe and reverence, and will not use the name or the idea of God as a kind of weapon to put other people down, or as a sort of magic to make themselves feel safe. But rather approach the idea of God, the name of God, the word of God, with the veneration and humility that’s demanded.

In the Jewish texts of Jesus’ own day, the commandment about not taking God’s name in the vain, from the Ten Commandments, is often understood as uniting the name of God with a curse – using the name of God as a kind of magic word – and that’s to trivialise the name of God, it’s to bring it down to our level, to try and make God a tool for our purposes.

So “Hallowed be thy name” means: understand what you’re talking about when you’re talking about God, this is serious, this is the most wonderful and frightening reality that we could imagine, more wonderful and frightening that we can imagine. (3)

So, to “hallow” God’s name is to neither use it as a weapon, a curse, nor to use it flippantly, trivially, as a throw-away word.  To truly hallow God’s name is to understand its importance and power in a world that needs God to be both transcendent and awesome – as a burning bush in the desert – as well as immanent and close – as close as your own breath.


(1)  For an incredible explanation of this complex and beautiful Hebrew phrase, go online to: http://www.bluethread.com/ehyeh.htm

(2)  “Exodus 3:1-15: Commentary on Alternate First Reading by Dennis Olson; Exodus 3:1-6: Coming Home—A Mountain, a Bush and the Call of Moses.”  Dennis Olson, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ

Found online at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=8/31/2008&tab=2

(3) “Hallowed be thy name:  Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer.  A conversation with The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams.”