What is the Name of God? In the Ancient World, there were oodles to choose from. Some were very short, some were very long, some sounded mysterious, some elegant and beautiful; some frightening and cruel, some humourous. Whatever they were, they were names. These named gods would be called, pleaded with, begged, cajoled and bribed. The God of Israel, on the other hand, had no name, or at least not one known to the people. To know a name, was to have power over the named or it was a sign that you were superior; (look at how many times God changes the name of a person so as to symbolize their new vocation or a change of direction in their life).
When Moses asks the Name of God, before the burning bush, the Lord’s response is not one of anger or fury but mystery. I am. That is all Moses needs to know at that time. He simply needs to realize that God is, God is being, God exists. God is the basis, the fount, the purpose, the means and the end of all things.
In our first reading today, Moses calls on God’s name a second time and this time God says a bit more. He calls himself, ‘Tenderness, compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness’. If, previously, He made clear He was the fount of all that is, here He shows how this is most perfectly lived out. That is a name to be proud of and, perhaps, not one we would be able to live up to. Yet God shows that this is His name by the way He responds to the Israelites.
This part of our reading records what happens just after the Israelites had turned away and betrayed His trust in them. They had moulded the Golden Calf and had begun its worship. They had replaced the God from whom all life comes and had decided to seek out a god they could control and worship as they wanted.
God had been declared as a jealous God, one who would punish any who disobeyed. Here, the Israelites have done so dramatically and yet the Lord does not respond with destruction, anger or rejection but love, patience and forgiveness. No wonder the Israelites find their wilderness experience such a life-changing, indeed history-changing, time. They were blended not only into a people but into a people who were intimately and everlastingly caught up in a relationship with a God who loves, hoping for love in return but not in the expectation or demand of it.
This love, given without condition, is expressed even more amazingly in the person of Jesus. Sent into the world, not to condemn or put it on trial or catch it out but so as to enable it to encounter, once again, this God who loves. Without measure, without demand, Jesus expresses the perfect love of the Father, communicated clearly on the Cross. Whilst dying, He invites, He forgives, He heals and He brings into relationship. He speaks not one word of anger, revenge, hate or rejection. In His words from the Cross, He takes the Name of God and makes it clear it is His own not by calling Himself by it, but by putting it into practice.
In Christ, God the Father is well pleased, and Christ wants nothing more than to enable the Father’s will. What is that will ? That all the world might be saved? How can this be brought about? By the simple matter of ‘believing in the Name of God’s only Son’.
For humanity to be saved it, it’s all in that Name. Tenderness, Compassion, Kindness and Faithfulness. Can you believe in a God who is called this ? If you can, what does this demand of you?
Leap forward 50 days or so from the horror of the Cross and His ragtag team of cowards and deserters, hiding in a locked room, are graced with the same Name, bestowed on them by God breathing His power and warmth and transformation. Suddenly these frightened men and women become proclaimers of the Name not by their words but their actions. Persecuted and beaten and humiliated and killed, they do not speak words of hate but of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. Stephen, the first martyr, echoes Jesus’ own words at his death ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’. He spoke this, we are told, in the power of the Holy Spirit. God drawing Stephen up into the very communication of God Himself.
This is what we are invited into, the communion with God and with each other. God is the source of everything, God is the destination for everything and God is the means of getting there. We may find it hard to believe in a God who is kind, forgiving, compassionate and patient because we struggle to live them out ourselves but the history of humanity’s relationship with God is full of our mistakes, our doubts, our betrayals and yet running alongside is His healing, His belief in us, His fidelity. Thank God for God, that’s what I say.